Interview: Director Charlie McDowell Discusses ‘The One I Love’ | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
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Director Charlie McDowell Discusses ‘The One I Love’

Mark Duplass and Elisabeth Moss Star In The Cerebral Romantic Comedy

Aug 22, 2014 Charlie McDowell
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The One I Love is a mindbender of a romantic comedy, and to say much more about it than that would give too much away. In the film, Mark Duplass and Elisabeth Moss play a married couple whose relationship has totally fallen apart. A counselor sends them to a picturesque cottage retreat to reignite their romantic flame and, well, some genuinely crazy shit goes down. Mentioning anything that happens beyond the film’s first few minutes would spoil its many surprises; The One I Love is best experienced as a series of unexpected, blindsiding twists.

The One I Love began as a vague idea e-mailed by Mark Duplass to first-time director Charlie McDowell, whose earlier claim to fame was creating the comedic Twitter account “Dear Girls Above Me.” McDowell and screenwriter Justin Lader worked with Duplass to develop that nugget of a concept into a full feature. Duplass agreed to star, Elisabeth Moss signed on, and the project snowballed from there.

Charlie McDowell sat down to talk with us in New York to talk about his feature filmmaking debut.

Austin Trunick [Under the Radar]: When did you meet your writing partner, Justin Lader, and start working together?

Charlie McDowell: Justin and I met at [the American Film Institute.] We were there different years, but I was in the directing program and he was in the writing program. I read a script he wrote that was really interesting and inventive, and it just felt like something that I was interested in doing. So we met up, and kind of developed that script for a while and that just took forever to get off the ground. It went through the indie “you have money and then it falls through, you have a cast and then that falls through” – that whole game. That’s right when I met Mark Duplass, who was like, “so let’s go make a movie right now.” And we were like, “okay!” [Laughs] And so we wrote this contained little movie that could take place in essentially one location with two actors. We could control it, and just go make it. It took Mark, that sort of maverick in indie filmmaking, for me to wrap my head around that we could actually do that.

Can I ask what that first movie you were working on was about?

Yeah, it was this script called “Fighting Jacob.” It was a really fun, cool script about an up-and-coming boxer who suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder. When he’s in the ring, he has to get hit ten times before he even lays his first punch. It’s a really interesting, character-driven, funny but kind of sad film, but because of the boxing element we’d have to shoot in arenas and things like that. It was a budget that required money. For a first-time director who hadn’t done anything before, it was difficult to get someone to put up that money and get the right cast. So this, The One I Love, ended up being something totally contained that we could just go make, which was really freeing and great.

I understand your Twitter account was started during the development of this other film.

Yes. The Twitter and the followers that happened, for me, was what the book came out of, which is this thing called Dear Girls Above Me. These loud, kind of annoying girls moved into the apartment above me, and I started to tweet these letters to them. I would quote stuff they say, and I would respond to it in this sort of layman, male voice. It was the weirdest thing. I didn’t know Twitter or understand it; I had three followers. I started this thing and one person retweeted it, and then three people retweeted it, and then it just became a thing. All of a sudden TIME Magazine wrote a piece on it, and then it just started to grow and grow. It’s at something like 90,000 followers now. After a couple years of doing that, I basically needed to retire from eavesdropping and continuing this thing. [Laughs] I’ve laid off the girls above me tweets, and now I use Twitter as an outlet to try and say something funny, see if it hits and see what doesn’t hit.

Your meeting with Mark Duplass was obviously a very productive one. How did that come about?

I signed with this agent at ICM who also reps Mark, so it was really just meeting with her, and her saying “You have to meet Mark Duplass. You guys have the same vibe. I think you’d totally get along.” I was like, yeah, I love Mark Duplass, but why would he meet with me? [Laughs] She said, “No, he loves shepherding young directors.” So she really just put us in a room together. From there it really just clicked. He really liked what I had to say, and I loved what he was talking about, about how to make movies. It was a really interesting meeting, and we really connected as humans. And then when “Fighting Jacob” fell through like two weeks later, we talked again and he was like, “Let’s go do this.”

Were there multiple ideas you were working through early on?

No. Mark sent us a one-line idea, which was a tiny little kernel of what [The One I Love] ended up being. I called him and said, “Yeah, let’s do something together, this is so cool! But I saw what you sent me and this isn’t a movie.” [Laughs] He was like, “I know. Now you have to go figure it out.”

I forwarded it to Justin, and he said “You must have cut off the bottom. It’s only one line!” I said, no no, he only sent us this. So it was really up to us to go figure out and crack the story. We’d send him a ten page outline and he’d give notes on it, then we’d go off and start expanding it. But from starting with the kernel of an idea to when we shot the movie, it was only five months. It just naturally kind of happened.

Mark’s a veteran director, and this was your first feature film. Did you use him as a resource on set?

I didn’t think of it like that, because I just didn’t allow myself to. I think in his mind, because he ultimately didn’t know if I could direct a feature because I hadn’t before, he knew that he could step in and save this movie if I was totally fucking it up. I think he knew that, and it thankfully did not happen. From day one we all clicked, trusted each other, and it was really great.

I didn’t want to allow myself to see him as the writer-director of movies I like and had seen in theaters. For me, this was my lead actor, and I had to focus on rehearsal, back story, character, and discuss that with him. I did all my homework for how I was going to shoot everything, and worked very closely with my DP. I had done all the prep work, and then it was all about executing. I think he saw that and thought, “let’s go.” We shot it all in 15 days, so we really didn’t have time to do anything. It was like, let’s move forward, let’s hit all these marks so that we can get everything [shot].

It’s easy to figure out how Mark might have come to star in the film, but can you talk about casting Elisabeth Moss? She’s great.

Lizzie was interested in working with Mark and doing one of these intimate, small movies. She’d voiced that to him, and he called me up and asked, “What would you think of Elisabeth Moss as the lead?” This was right as we were developing and writing [The One I Love], and I was like, yeah, she’s great. That’s right when Top Of The Lake was about to come out, and I got an early screener of the first four episodes. I saw that and it was just like, “Are you kidding? Could we possibly get her to be in the movie?”

Mark e-mailed her the script and she read it. As she was reading it she texted him, “This is awesome! Yeah, let’s do it.” So that’s how it happened. It wasn’t a whole back-and-forth with agents and trying to figure it all out. It was more like, we all like this, creatively, so let’s all go and be creative together.

It’s a challenging movie to talk about…

[Laughs] Because there’s nothing to talk about.

You just don’t want to spoil it for anyone. Has that made the marketing phase difficult?

Yeah, it has. It was a little unclear how we were going to do it. Do you give the reveal, or do you keep that hidden? We had no idea how it was going to be received or what was going to happen when we premiered at Sundance. We quickly realized after we screened there, through the reviews and people tweeting, that people responded to the film and really liked what the film was about and enjoyed the twist or reveal. That was something they weren’t giving away. I had no idea what was going to happen; I thought the second that we premiered everyone would know what it was about. But everyone started saying, “We don’t want to spoil this. Go in knowing very little.”

When Radius acquired the film, it was clear they were really interested in doing that as well. I didn’t know how we were going to do it, but we moved forward just to see if we could. And we’ve kind of used that as the marketing for the movie, which is, “Here’s the tone and the world. It’s a romantic comedy with a twist. Something happens, but we’re not going to tell you what. Please go watch the movie.” [Laughs] That’s what we’ve used and it’s worked well. Ultimately we’ll see if it works well when it comes out.

Whoever cut your trailer deserves an award for not giving it all away.

Yeah, right? For me it was just a discussion with Radius, saying these are the things we could sort of hint at. Let’s not give away the reveal. They ended up sending me a version of this trailer and we did some tweaks, but it was like, “Oh my god. How did you show all this stuff without giving away what the plot is?” But it ultimately was exactly what we wanted.

The movie gave me a real Twilight Zone vibe. Are you a fan?

I didn’t grow up with it, and I wasn’t until we started working on the movie that I got super into it. So it was later in life. And then it became an influence.

I was inspired by directors like Spike Jonze and movies like Eternal Sunshine, these high-concept romantic comedies that take you into the world a different way. That was something that I really wanted to explore, but there is that element that is sci-fi or mystery, and we definitely pulled from Twilight Zone, for sure. We even make a reference to it in the movie, where [Mark] says “There’s some weird Twilight Zone shit going on here.”


The One I Love is now in theaters and on demand. For more information about the film, check out its website. You can read our review of the movie here.


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