When I first met filmmaker Drake Doremus, it was in late 2011 in Chicago, and he was at a party in Chicago, and he was in the company of the co-stars of his soon-to-be-released film, LIKE CRAZY, Anton Yelchin and Felicity Jones. It was actually the second time that year that I’d gotten to hang out with Yelchin (the first was at a pre-party for the world premiere screening of THE BEAVER at SXSW), so Doremus was struck that Yelchin seemed to know me.
A few months before this gathering, I’d interviewed Doremus about LIKE CRAZY on the phone, so this party was something of a reunion for us as well. I remember this gathering fondly because we just talked about movies and actors we admired for 30 minutes. And then it was done, as so many of these fleeting meetings go. Yelchin had already done his first STAR TREK movie and TERMINATOR SALVATION, and those films we never talked about. Instead I remember asking questions about CHARLIE BARTLETT and his run on the Showtime series “Huff.”
Doremus has helmed a handful of films, including MOONPIE and SPOONER (which played at Slamdance in 2009) and DOUCHEBAG (his first to play at Sundance, in 2010). In 2013, he released BRETHE IN, also with Jones, as well as Guy Pearce and Amy Ryan. His latest work, EQUALS, is a sci-fi love story, starring Kristen Stewart and Nicholas Hoult, about a society in which emotions have been taking out of the equation, but have a funny way of slipping back into the world via a “bug” that is actually just emotions rearing their way back into the world. Stewart and Hoult play co-workers who discover that they have feelings for each other and this causes as much pure anxiety as it does excitement. I had a chance recently to chat with Doremus about the film, as well as share his feelings about the recent loss of Anton Yelchin. Please enjoy my talk with Drake Doremus…
Capone: Hi, Drake. How are you?
Drake Doremus: I’m good. How are you doing?
Capone: I’m good. It’s been awhile.
DD: Yeah, man. I’ve got to make movies more frequently.
Capone: Although it seems like every time we talk, you’ve already got the next one either done or ready to go, so it’s not like you’re not working fast.
DD: That’s true. I can take some comfort in that.
Capone: The last time I saw you was in Chicago, and we were in the company of Anton Yelchin, and I’m still completely reeling from that news. In many ways, LIKE CRAZY was like game changing for him in terms of starting to do more adult roles. In your estimation, what are we going to miss now that he’s not here anymore?
DD: Well, that’s exactly it. He was growing up and becoming a man, and we’ll miss all the adult roles to come and all the complexities he had to offer. He was so interesting and so deep. To answer your questions specifically, that’s what we’re going to miss, all those really exciting, interesting nuanced performances to come as he grew up into being a man.
Capone: Agreed. I’ve been thinking about the work yet to come since he passed, and what a legitimately nice guy he was.
DD: Yeah, me too, man.
Capone: So on to this film, what does it mean, both personally and on the actual day-to-day production, to have Ridley Scott as your executive producer?
DD: It’s the coolest thing ever. He’s the king of the genre. I’m a novice at the genre. I’m just curious and dipping my toes in essentially, so having him involved and having him be a mentor on this means the world.
Capone: Specifically, what did he do to guide and mentor you on this?
DD: Just a lot of giving notes and helping out, making sure things are happening and the movie is getting made and definitely give notes on the script and the edit. It was just super helpful and insightful, and I think he really dug the film and would back me. Just having that support system means everything.
Capone: Considering he has directed literally some of the greatest sci-fi works ever, in the back of your head are you thinking “I’ve got to up my game a little just because his name is on it”?
DD: Yeah, of course. I feel like a visitor in a strange land, so I want to make sure I make the bed and don’t ruin the house or anything. That’s how I feel.
Capone: Correct me if I’m wrong, this is your first experience at this level of world building. You have to come up with all the rules of day-to-day living, basically. How did that feel to be a god?
DD: Nathan Parker, who wrote the script, who’s the fabulous writer who wrote MOON—and when I saw MOON, I thought it was great, and really interesting and fresh. He came up with so much of that stuff, the world building and the disease and switching on of emotions. It’s just like so clever and interesting, turning the world on its head. It’s totally cool to have a bigger palette to paint with and try to create a canvas that’s wider but at the same time still intimate. So it was really cool and interesting and unique to try to do that.
Capone: In theory, this could have been your least intimate work, but you find ways to make it intimate. Compared to the scale of your other films, this feels epic. How do you maintain the intimacy in a film about a society?
DD: Well, that’s it exactly. You just maintain it. You still make it the same way that I would make a movie that I was making for $250,000, which is about using the same crew and team so you have the short hand that keeps things really intimate and tiny. When we’re doing dialogue scenes or smaller scenes when there’s no one around, we keep things as intimate as possible and still maintain that backyard, pure filmmaking experience. So even though it’s a $20 million movie, it’s still made like a $250,000 movie in that sense, as far as the principles and how we approach the performances and how we shoot the movie. We just happen to have hundreds of extras and all these different toys to play with, so that’s incidental to me, that’s the secondary element. That’s not the thing I’m focusing on, per se.
Capone: What does the science-fiction format allow you to do with a love story that your more traditional romance film does not?
DD: I think it allows you to pose a question that making a modern-day film you couldn’t really pose—this concept that technology is pushing us further and further away from each other, and what if we get to a point where that ultimately eradicates something that makes us the most human of all. So it’s a really interesting palette to do that with, because you can say “This is a tangent version of the future. It’s not THE version of the future, but it’s just a tangent version where we say this and this and this happens, and this is how we would react. This is how we would interact with each other. This is how we would be functioning, making babies relationships wouldn’t be the same.
Capone: You mentioned that this is partly about technology, but there are real obvious places where you could have inserted technology, and you don’t have it. This is not a Big-Brother environment. There aren’t cameras everywhere watching everybody. As far as we can tell, nobody has something like a cell phone. You actually have to go and talk to somebody to have a conversation. It’s not a police state. Even people who have this “disease” are self-diagnosed at first. People aren’t testing you all the time.
DD: Yeah, we wanted to stay away from that because it’s a sci-fi cliche. We wanted to do something that would self-policed and was self-ran. We wanted to have this Zen-like place, we wanted to have a harmony and create a utopia where there is an honor system, and it is about taking care of each other and looking out for yourself and being kind to others. We didn’t want it to be like a prison or have a Big Brother element at all. There are no locks on the doors, there are no cellphones at all. It is a harmony, it is a very functioning, beautiful society; it’s an artistically inclined society; it’s an intellectually curious society. So essentially that was the idea.
Capone: Of course, if you want to make a society that people are willing to give up certain things, like emotions, you’d want to make what’s left very appealing. So that’s what you’ve done.. It seems like their job is focused on history and what led to the world that they’re living in, but there’s also a focus on the future. They talk about space travel being a big part of the future. Where does that come from, because they’re not denying what came before?
DD: No, I think they’re using it as an important notion to make sure history doesn't repeat itself and they’re are aware of it and understand that where we came from is important. But the onus and the focus of the society is on space exploration and trying to understand why we’re here and what we’re here for. My favorite line in the movie, the one that encompasses the thesis of the film, is when Nick says, “In all those hundreds of thousands of millions of miles in the universe, we’re searching for answers, but the answer is right here right in front of me right now.” That moment encapsulates what the film is all about and what we’re trying to say.
Capone: You have these tremendous actors—Nick, Kristen, and Bel [Powley], and Kate [Lyn Sheil]—all actors that have very much proven themselves capable of handling very emotionally weighty stories, and then you throw them in this film and you strip away all of the tools that actors use to express themselves as actors. Did you find people who can cry real easy and can get emotional and then say ok, now you can’t do any of that, except for these two.
DD: Yeah, it’s an exercise in restraint really, and I think it’s a really fun exercise, because it’s like you’re holding back, holding back, holding back, and it’s like a boiling pot of water and then it simmers over and explodes, and that’s what the shooting of the film was. And we were able to shoot in order a little bit, so by the time they first touch in the bathroom, it really is the first time they touch, and we’ve been waiting for this moment. So it’s a really exciting, boiling-over process and an exercise in restraint.
Capone: Isn’t it great that the more you strip away emotion from your characters, the more like the slightest sign of affection just screams out to us?
DD: Oh, yeah. One little touch, one little fingertip on a cheek is everything. It’s an explosion. It’s the biggest, most important thing that ever happened. Yeah, I love all those little moments, and it is because Nick and Kristen are so fantastic in the movie; they embody that. They embody that subtly.
Capone: Nick in that first scene where they’re touching, the look on his face, it’s not sexual; it’s more just him taking stock in something that he’s never been exposed to before.
DD: Yeah, yeah, yeah. He’s a little bit confused, which he naturally would be, but also there’s this Adam and Eve, starting over thing where magnets and pheromones and chemicals are coming into his brain and into his soul and into his body, and he’s riding it. It’s a really interesting exploration into what that would be like.
Capone: The look is, “I have no idea what’s happening to me right now.”
Capone: I want to talk about Guy Pearce in this, because he’s a gift in this film. When he’s on screen, I felt less anxious about all the things I was supposed to feel anxious about. Talk about just the importance of the Jonas character and what Guy brings to him.
DD: He really is the human sacrifice of the world. There’s something really beautiful about his character in the film. His understanding being taken by the relationship and what he sacrifices and does. You really need that strength that Guy as an actor can provide to ground the film and bring it together, and also just the bravery and the stakes. He just gives the film so much gravity and stakes.
Capone: I’ve only seen the film once, and when I see it again, I’m probably going to know the answer to this question, but I feel like you play with color here. The more Silas awakens to the his emotions, the more color you insert into the frame. I assume that’s intentional?
DD: Yeah, completely. We start out in very monochromatic, very blue world, and as Silas starts to turn on, switch on, so do his senses. So subtly throughout the film, all these aquamarines and oranges and reds and different colors that have never been a part of his world or our world start to come into the film, and it becomes a really warm exploration in that sense. I definitely anted to shift the film with Silas’s arc.
Capone: Where did you film this?
DD: We filmed all over Japan and Singapore. So we were going to and from these beautiful museums and institutes and buildings on bullet trains all over the country and islands. It was just amazing. We were like traveling troubadours. We would show up at a museum and do our little jazz, and then leave and go to the next place. It was a magical experience being there.
Capone: The buildings look very’70s futuristic in some places.
DD: Yeah, yeah, totally man. I was really inspired by Truffaut’s FAHRENHEIT 451. It’s totally timeless and not tied to any era, but at the same time it does have that kind of retro return to that kind of vibe.
Capone: Did being there, being out of the country, somewhere so far away help with the sense of isolation that the film embraces to a certain degree?
DD: Big time. We had to become a family. We had to bond together and trust each other in this environment of making this film. It meant everything, and we had to rely on each other. No one really spoke English in Japan. We were very isolated, and I think it contributed to the isolation feel of the film.
Capone: Did you and Nathan Parker come up with a sort of backstory about what lead to this version of the world?
DD: You’d have to ask him about his whole theory behind it. We kind of came up with the vague notion of “Let’s say the Cold War boiled over, and we weren’t able to stop it, or something’s to the affect, where it just became this massive world war that made us have to essentially start over.
Capone: One of the first things I remember from the film is the way his bed slides into the wall, and the closet slides out of the wall. There’s this idea of reducing clutter not just in your head, but also in your life. Everyone basically has one set of clothes. How did you come up with that aspect of the design? Did you build that, or did you find a place in Japan that was like that?
DD: Yeah, that part was built. We were obsessed with minimalism and trying to remove all of the clutter and things in life that get in the way of progress and things like that. We wanted the apartment and living space to be as functional as possible but also beautiful and Zen-like, so we’d stay right where we wanted to be with our intellectual curiosity.
Capone: If you had said that there were places in Japan like that, I would completely believed you.
DD: Oh, yeah. I mean, it was beautiful. This version of the world is not all bad. It’s not a dystopia. This is not a sad prison by any means at all.
Capone: Improv has always been a big part of your films, and you use it to capture the emotional honestly in your love stories. Were you able to do that with this script, or did you want to restrict yourself the way your characters are restricted to a certain degree?
DD: That’s exactly it. You nailed it. Anytime we were doing things where people are switched off, there’s no improv, there are marks on the ground, it’s very blocked, the cameras stay still, we’re not really with them. We’re more away. That was the concept. Then as Silas starts to switch on, the cameras start to move, we start to improvise, things are way more loose. I think the process of the performances was very much in line with the way that the characters were changing.
Capone: You can’t help but place yourself in this scenario, you make us wonder “If I suddenly started to feel things, could I hide it?” Of course, you think you can. But Kristen’s performance is so good, that you leave there sort of knowing you’d be toast. She makes it look hard to keep your emotions contained, and yet possible. It’s kind of incredible. How important was that?
DD: That’s an interesting point. We wanted it to feel very alienating, but also, Nick is so vulnerable that even when he’s switched off, you see someone dying to get out of there, and that’s what I think is so beautiful about switching on. You’re dying for him to come out of there, and you’re dying for him to be who he is. It’s tricky. You definitely want it to be like this wave, this lack of emotion that washes over you, and then also extreme emotion that washes over you.
Capone: Do you, in fact, know what you’re doing next?
DD: That’s a great question. Before this film, I’ve always done one project at a time. I’ve been so focused on that. For the first time ever in my life, I’ve got three or four things in development that I’m developing with different writers. One of which is this book that’s coming out next year by the name of “White Fur” that was written by Jardine Libaire, that’s a really beautiful book that we’re going to turn into a TV show at some point. So I’m really excited about that. And then I’ve got another project with Ridley and Scott Free that I’m working on right now. So a couple of different things. I’m just really excited about getting back to making movies that feel honest to me about where I’m at in my life and what I think about relationships and doing things like that. So yeah, I’m really excited about the next couple of years of projects that I’ve got going.
Capone: You seem like you would adapt well to the pace and depth of television—the idea of spending a little bit more time with your characters than a movie would give you.
DD: Yeah. Totally, man. I’m excited. I’ve been waiting for the right thing to jump in. I’ve been really careful of that, because I know how time consuming it is and how immersive it is, so finally with this book, which I’m very, very obsessed with I’m like “Now it’s time,” and it feels totally right. So I’m super excited about it.
Capone: So I guess the last thing is which actor from this film, from EQUALS, will you bring into the next one? Because that’s your thing.
DD: [laughs] Well, hopefully all of them at some point. I don’t know yet. But I always do two in a row with somebody. We’ll see who it is, but I love them all very much, so I’d love to do more with all of them.
Capone: Drake, thanks so much for talking and best of luck with this.
DD: Thank you for making the time to see it and for doing this, man. I really appreciate it.