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Having Finland Stand in for the U.S. Gave an Offbeat Veneer to Riley Stearns’ Dystopian Sci-Fi ‘Dual’

Stearns talks about building an absurd and unsettling world in this dark comedy at the IndieWire Studio presented by Adobe.

Aaron Paul and Karen Gillan appear

Riley Stearns has proven himself a master of off-kilter world building. Both his last feature, the Jesse Eisenberg starrer “The Art of Self Defense,” and “Dual,” which recently premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, have anachronistic details that intentionally jolt the viewer out of everyday conventions. Though “Dual” is set in a world that looks much like ours, its primary difference is that humans are able to clone themselves, but only when a person is dying in order to ameliorate the sting of grief for their loved ones.

Scottish actress Karen Gillan plays opposite herself as a woman named Sarah and her counterpart, Sarah’s Double. Though identical, the women develop radically different personalities. Once Sarah’s Double gets acclimated to the joys of living, she decides she wants to stay, and the two women must duel to the death. (Hence the title’s double entendre.) Other than this major difference, however, the world of “Dual” looks very similar to the present.

“When I make things, I tend to try to world-build,” Stearns told IndieWire as part of the IndieWire Studio presented by Adobe at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. “[My films] have their own thing where you can tell that it probably exists somewhere in the United States, but why does it look the way it does and feel the way it does? It does feel domestic in some ways, it feels foreign in other ways. I like blending all of that.”

In the case of “Dual,” it is quite literally foreign, though it’s hard to put your finger on exactly how so. It turns out, the production made a pandemic pivot to shoot in Finland, which had the benefit of low case numbers and strong Covid protocols. It was a serendipitous shift that ended up working beautifully for the off kilter tone of the script.

“Shooting this in another country and having that country be Finland felt so foreign and uncertain and scary in so many ways,” said Stearns. “But it was incredibly exciting, [especially] seeing the aftermath of the movie and how it was impacted by the location.”

“It was surprising because it meant that every supporting actor had a Finnish accent, which was not on the page,” Gillan added. “That was actually so cool, ’cause it was like, just a really strange unique quirk that we don’t even reference, and I loved that. I think it gives the film a whole vibe that it wouldn’t have had otherwise.”

Presenting sponsor Adobe — with a mission to enable creativity for all — is committed to supporting, elevating and amplifying underrepresented creators, so the world can see, learn and benefit from diverse perspectives. Learn more at Adobe.com Diverse Voices. The upcoming 2022 festival marks the fifth consecutive year IndieWire and Adobe have joined forces for the IndieWire Studio at Sundance.

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