Sundance Preview: Mark Duplass is Both Mentor and Star on Set of 'The One I Love'
A Twitter sensation turns filmmaker with the help of a mumblecore vet, as Charlie McDowell debuts his first feature in Park City.
The Sundance Film Festival is a mecca for independent cinema and a pool of fresh filmmaking talent. But with nearly 200 films selected for exhibition, it can be a dizzying game of catch up. So this year, The Hollywood Reporter decided to do a bit of prep work for you: Here's the who/what/where/when/why on a film worth putting on your radar.
Placing sixth on Time's “Top 140 Twitter Accounts of 2012” may not sound like a necessary accolade for a budding filmmaker, but in Charlie McDowell's case, it was an essential step of becoming a professional storyteller. At this year's Sundance, the just-published author (his memoir Dear Girls Above Me arrived in June 2013) will make his directorial debut with The One I Love, a wry examination of a couple (played by Mark Duplass and Elisabeth Moss) trying to save their marriage. Before it's unveiled to festival-goers at The MARC Theatre on Jan. 21, we talked to McDowell about his Premiere category entry, carving out a niche on social media, and the importance of having a Duplass on a filmmaking team:
Background: McDowell -- son of Malcolm McDowell and Mary Steenburgen -- is an alum of the American Film Institute's directing program. In 2006, he shot his thesis short Bye Bye Benjamin, a kid-centric comedy that made the festival rounds and took home a handful of awards. But like most millennials, McDowell found real success when he turned his attention to the art of tweeting. In 2009, the director spun 140-character comedy gold out of the overheard musings of his two upstairs neighbors. “Dear Girls Above Me” was a viral hit, one McDowell was able to leverage into his first published book of essays, released by Crown Publishing earlier this year.
"In high school, I hated to write,” he says. “It was my least favorite thing. And my mom, not to throw her under the bus, she saw a psychic when I was a little kid, and she said I was going to be an author when I grew up. So in high school I would complain about how much I hated writing and she was like, 'You're going to grow up to be an author one day.' And I was like, 'I'm not going to be an author mom!' And then I published a book.”
The Big Break: While McDowell was grateful for the experience of penning, he couldn't help but see the exercise as a distraction from making movies. For McDowell, Twitter was an outlet for venting that evolved into public entertainment. That meant his audience had demands. “If I didn't post something one day, I would get people tweeting at me asking where the post was for the day. It was something I had to continue. I felt bad if I didn't post anything. That was my life for a good two years.”
Almost immediately after graduating from AFI, McDowell and his writing partner Justin Lader began work on a script called Fighting Jacob. There were close-call moments where the movie was almost made. And then it wasn't; producers bailed, financiers pulled the plug, and just when the duo thought they were moving into preproduction, plans were cancelled. “That was a big blow. It was six years out of film school and I had been trying to make a movie for so long.”
Getting the Film Off the Ground: Life eventually threw McDowell a bone in the form of writer/director/actor/producer/indie film renaissance man, Mark Duplass. With encouragement from their shared agent, Joanne Wiles, McDowell and Duplass took a meeting and talked through Fighting Jacob. They clicked. “We have a connection in a brotherly type way,” McDowell says. “I had seen my parents, who are in the business, always have a mentor figure. They were such huge figures for them. So my dream was to have a mentor. I wanted to learn from someone. I had never found that until Mark.”
After reading the script, Duplass continued to develop ideas with McDowell. Eventually, Duplass planted the seed for different movie: The One I Love. “Mark came to me with a one-line idea,” he says. “I sent it to my writing partner and we both thought that the e-mail had been cut off by accident. We thought we were going to send us the characters and we'd go off and write it. But it was one line. Then I responded to Mark. 'Where does it go? What happens?' And he said, 'I don't know. I just came up with the line.'”
What The One I Love became was a movie McDowell describes as a relationship-based dramedy with a Charlie Kaufman-esque element to it. The director admits he would normally have been intimidated to tackle the material with the likes of Duplass and leading lady Moss, but after years of toiling away the script, he just wanted to dive into the material. “I was so thankful for Mark and Elisabeth. They are incredible actors but different in their approach. I think Mark, being a filmmaker, is so in tune with what's going on around him and has a producer hat on as well. He gives what someone might want in the editing room. And Lizzy doesn't even pay attention to the cameras. She's just there.”
When It All Seemed to Click: “There was actually a moment with Mark where we weren't sure about a direction to go with his character. I remember calling him because he had gone home to see his family that night. I had crafted an e-mail trying to learn more about the character. And I sent him the e-mail and he called me the next morning at 5 A.M. and said, 'You did it.' He was basically welcoming me into the club a little bit. 'You really figured it out. We didn't figure it out. You took the time to figure it out.' That for me was the great moment where I felt like I could do this and that it was the right thing.