Berlin: Natalie Morales on Writing and Shooting 'Language Lessons' in Just Four Weeks

Natalie Morales
Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images

Natalie Morales

The first-time filmmaker — who co-wrote the story of platonic love between two virtual strangers with co-star Mark Duplass — explains how the film was shot via webcams using a very basic "homemade" rig: "It was all built on an IKEA cutting board."

In Language Lessons, Natalie Morales — best know for supporting roles on Parks and Recreation, The Grinder and Santa Clarita Diet — has crafted almost the perfect pandemic movie.

Written together with her co-star Mark Duplass, the Berlinale-bowing film features just two characters, who are never in the same room together, barely move across only a handful of mostly interior locations and communicate entirely over technology. And yet, for all the COVID compliance, the coronavirus isn’t referenced once, ignored entirely as the sweet rom-com-ish-but-not-quite story — which The Hollywood Reporter's review said was "graced with charm and genuine heart" — instead focuses on the newly forged online relationship between Oakland resident Adam (Duplass) and his Costa Rica-based Spanish tutor Cariño (Morales).

Speaking to THR, first-time director Morales discusses Language Lesson's uniquely makeshift production, doing her own hair, makeup, special effects and even lighting and set design, working from an elaborate IKEA cutting board and how the entire movie — from the start of writing to wrapping filming — came together in just four weeks.

Where did the original idea come from?

The idea actually came from Mark. At the beginning of quarantine, he heard that this English school, I think in Ecuador or maybe Guatemala, had lost all of its revenue and was about to go out of business. And they were attempting to do online classes. So he signed up for Spanish classes. Our friend Lynn Shelton had just died, and I guess Mark and his Spanish teacher — he already knew some Spanish — just decided to talk conversationally about this a little bit. So he called me and was like, "Hey, first of all, do you speak Spanish?" I was like, "yeah." And he said: "So I just had this interesting experience…I was talking to this woman in a completely different country, and we just started talking about our lives and we knew nothing about each other, and it was just so interesting. And I think there might be a movie in that." So he came to me with that germ of the idea and then we developed it together from there.

How did it develop from there? What was the writing process like?

Well, it was a very fast, not only because of the nature of the movie and how we shot it and when we shot it, but also because I think it's part of Mark’s process, which is very different from mine. He’s so prolific. He's always writing, always doing something. Be when he had that very basic idea, we had nothing else from there, no story, nothing. So we decided, why don't we write, why don't we figure out who these two characters are that meet each other and what their backstory is and what they present to the world? So we went our separate ways and we wrote those two characters. And then we came together and decided how to, in essence, make them collide, and how their lives would affect each other. So I would say most of it, at least 75 to 70 percent of it was written and mapped out, and the rest was improvised.

I was going to ask, as it has a very relaxed, unscripted feel to it…

It wasn't like we were improvising something new in every single take. We definitely had all the beats and all the story stuff put together. But we did want it to retain that conversational quality, and if it didn’t feel right sticking to a certain line we didn’t do that. But because so much of the movie is in Spanish, we did need to script it. I do speak Spanish. My whole family is Cuban. I'm first-generation American, and Spanish is my first language. But if put on the spot, or when I have to improvise Spanish, that is much, much harder. So we did have to script all of that.

When the film started, I immediately thought it was going to be a rom-com, which is no bad thing as I love a good rom-com. But then very soon it’s clear this is going to be a platonic relationship. Was that a decision you made right from the start? Were you ever tempted to go down the rom-com route?

We did make that right from the start, which was really Mark’s decision, but I agreed with him. And we made the decision without really realizing that none of us had ever really seen a movie like that. But we just thought, why not just do something else and explore what this is like, because it feels under explored. I think there's just as much of a rom-com in platonic love as there is in romantic love, and I think it is in some sense still a rom-com.

Although it feels like the perfect pandemic movie in how it was made, the pandemic isn’t mentioned once, which I assume was a conscious decision?

Yeah, it was conscious. And we did think about it. But I was like, "I don’t want this to live in that time." We never wanted it to be about the pandemic. And because of the order in which we shot the movie, we had to make that decision right at the beginning. So we just decided to not make it a pandemic movie at all.

To the viewer it looks like it’s shot solely via computer cameras and phones, but I’m guessing it was a more complicated setup than that?

Yes. Our wonderful DP Jeremy Mackie, who actually helped us with sound and everything, figured out these rigs, basically where we were shooting on computers. Essentially we had these webcams. But it was a whole complex thing that he initially set up and then we had to set up ourselves with light and sound and all of that, alone in our houses. It was very homemade. It was all built on an IKEA cutting board.

So was there even a crew?

There was a crew, but in a very untraditional sense. We had Jeremy, who was our DP and, via his system, could remotely adjust exposure and all of that. And then we also had our producers on the Zoom call with us. Everybody was on the Zoom call with us while we were shooting and they would all black their screens out. But yes, I did my own hair and makeup. I did my special effects makeup for one scene. I did lighting. I did set design, I did all of that.

So effectively you’ve headed up all the major departments of a film production now?

Yeah! I don’t know if I would ever do it again. But it was really fun. It felt like this sort of new and interesting way to just invent something. And we shot a whole movie in a week. Basically, from when we started writing to when we wrapped shooting was four weeks.

Language Lessons is your directorial debut. What was it about this film that made you think it was time to get behind the camera, even if it was a webcam.

I had actually been slated to direct a movie called Plan B for Hulu that I was prepping in February and March of last year. And then we got shut down on March 13, which was the Friday before the Monday when we were supposed to start shooting the movie. I’d been prepping for a month and a half, and before that developing it for a year and a half, and then the plug got pulled. So I was always supposed to direct that, but I never knew if it was gonna come back, or if it would disappear altogether. So, we did this movie together. And it’s a totally different thing to say you directed this movie, because it's so different than being on a set. And I really do think, while we were shooting, Mark and I did work together on it. But then I ended up shooting Plan B in September, October, so that did become my first feature in that sense. I don’t know how it happened, but somehow I directed two movies last year.

Sounds like you’ve had a far more proactive lockdown than many

It was not intentional. But I am very thankful for that. I'm also very tired.

Would you make a film in the way you made Language Lessons again?

Never say never. But I really like working with people in front of me and helping me and that is not really tradable. But I'm sure the world is going to change and the nature of how we make movies and how we work in general is going to change. There's going to be a lot less driving to meetings. Zoom feels like it’s going to be a part of our lives forever. So I'm not sure. But I don't think I'll make a movie quite like this ever again, if only for not repeating myself. But I'm sure I will take things that I learned from this and use them again, because it was such a valuable lesson, not only in collaboration and trust, but also in innovation. Because we really did not have a road map. We figured it all out in the moment, which was cool.

Interview edited for length and clarity.