'Love is Like Chasing a Fire-Breathing Dragon': Drake Doremus on 'Equals'
Kristen Stewart and Nicholas Hoult star in Drake Doremus' first sci-fi—which is also, of course, a love story.
In a sterile world reminiscent of The Giver, emotions are "switched off" in all human beings in order to achieve maximal efficiency. Adults live alone in futuristic compounds, go to work, have bland conversations with coworkers, and return home to play mind-stimulating math games on a screen. Repeat.
But these efforts of mass control have an Achilles Heel. Every once in a while, a person will "switch on," experiencing flickers of genuine emotion that ultimately lead to a depressive breakdown. Though society tries to restrain those who suffer from S.O.S. (switched-on syndrome), our protagonists, Silas (Nicholas Hoult) and Nia (Kristen Stewart) are all the wiser. They are determined to experience that elusive human emotion called love—even if it means sacrificing everything.
Doremus is known for his improvisational directing method; on previous films such as Breathe and Like Crazy (which won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance 2011), he's worked sans script, armed with only a general outline and open-minded actors to mold the story. Equals marks his first time working with a screenplay, which was written by Nathan Parker, who also wrote Moon.
No Film School sat down with Doremus to discuss breaking new ground with Equals and the many challenges he faced, including venturing into VFX territory, bringing actors to a place of honesty, and his life's work: struggling to define that beast we call love.
"It was a pretty simple idea: a love story in a world where love doesn't exist and is not necessary."
NFS: Your first two films were intimate, modern-day romances. This seems to be a bit of a departure for you. Did it feel that way?
Doremus: It's still an intimate love story that just so happens to be set in a futuristic world. It's still very much current in examining technology and relationships today. So it is a departure, and it was a big stretch to try to do something bigger and different like this, but at the same time, I feel like it's just a continuation of what I'd been doing.
NFS: In what ways was this film bigger?
Doremus: I had to learn a lot about VFX, and the technology aspects, which was difficult and stressful every minute of the day. But I learned a lot. VFX was a difficult process, because we went through a few different vendors, and worked with a few different artists. But my production designers were really awesome. Thankfully I was surrounded by enough tech-heads and people that were smart, for someone like me who essentially didn't know anything about it. It was nice to have that infrastructure.
NFS: Did you decide in advance which shots would have VFX?
Doremus: Yeah. We planned it out very specifically. We tried to do as few as possible, but there were a lot. There are so many screens and interfaces. We used this company MK12 in Kansas City; they're incredible. They did an amazing job.
When we did a rear projection, that's all in-camera. We shot the sky in Australia and clouds in Hawaii, and put together different elements and then projected it.
NFS: Did your experience with VFX impact your ability to direct at all?
Doremus: I still try to focus on the actors and the performances and the things I care about the most. But there were a lot of technical things going on that made it distracting for sure. So I tried to balance it out and have a level mind about it.
NFS: You are known for your improvisational writing-directing style. With this project, you worked with a writer. Was everything on set scripted?
Doremus: Mostly, yeah. We started from the script, and we improvised a good amount, especially when Silas and Nia "switched on." But it was definitely from a script, which was the first time I'd done that.
It was awesome. Because of the stress of trying to invent a scene, we used to take hours of rehearsing on set. But on this movie, we could just jump in and start rolling right off the bat. Working from a blueprint like that was really cool to have.
"Love is like chasing this beautiful, big, fire-breathing dragon that you just can't quite pin down."
NFS: Was there much collaboration with Nathan [the screenwriter]?
Doremus: Well, I had the idea for the film. It was a pretty simple idea: a love story in a world where love doesn't exist and is not necessary.
I met with a few different writers. I had seen Moon, which Nathan wrote. We really hit it off. We were kind of jiving, throwing ideas back and forth. So he ended up writing the script for me, and we developed it together, along with my team at Scott Free. Nathan is such an intellectual guy, and I'm stupid and emotional. The Nathan side is more cerebral, and the emotional side is the more me side.
NFS: Did this new process of working with a script change your relationship to the actors at all?
Doremus: Not really. We still did a lot of exercises in the rehearsal process. We still didn't rehearse the scenes, essentially. We saved that for on set, to just jump in. We mostly did exercises getting them into character. Understanding Silas' and Nia's dynamic.
NFS: How do you cultivate chemistry between two characters?
Doremus: I think it's just about trying to capitalize on something that actually exists between them, and just trying to find the truth. Try to find an inner dynamic and an energy that's there intrinsically that you just try to manifest or manipulate. So it's just about trying to do something that's honest.
"Sci-fi is just kind of there, and the love story is the forefront."
NFS: What is so captivating to you about love?
Doremus: I think the most captivating part about love is that it's unquantifiable. It's something that I just can't quite put my finger on, and it doesn't make sense—having it, losing it, holding on to it, maintaining it, understanding it. Any time I have questions, it's just more questions, and more questions, and I never really get answers.
It's like chasing this beautiful, big, fire-breathing dragon that you just can't quite pin down. It's confusing but also beautiful and exciting.
NFS: How did that understanding of love impact this film?
Doremus: This film to me is a metaphor for a long-term relationship: feeling something, and understanding that you feel it, and then over the course of time, as things change in relationships, or you develop and become someone else, you have to remember why you're in it, and what it means to you.
So for me, it really is about examining something over the course of time, whereas in my previous films it was more about examining a moment and a feeling, and being in that moment.
"We wanted to start the film out when the characters are 'switched off' in a very composed, locked-off way. Then as they start to become unraveled, so does the camera movement."
NFS: Did you have a lot of these kinds of conversations with your actors?
Doremus: Oh, yeah. We talked. We talked constantly about our life experiences and relationships and brought a lot of that into it.
NFS: What were your sci-fi influences?
Doremus: In Fahrenheit 451, a Truffaut film, this character of Montag is very much Silas in a lot of ways. This sort of inner conflict that he's going through, and discovery, and innocence, essentially, I think was inspiring. I love that film. Blade Runner, for sure. Just the tone, the ethereal nature, and the musicality of it.
NFS: How did you conceptualize the visual elements of the world?
Doremus: God. Thankfully I had a really cool production design team. We just wanted it to be a backdrop rather than forefront. Rather than being like, "Oh, this is a sci-fi movie, and the sci-fi elements are eye candy, and that's what the movie's about," it's like, "Sci-fi is just kind of there, and the love story is the forefront." That's what's in focus; that's the set piece.
We wanted to do something that was very minimalist, but also very harmonious and nature-esque. We wanted to find these sterile, concrete, massive buildings, but ones that also had a lot of nature elements. A lot of water, a lot of plants and trees.
NFS: What about working with your cinematographer?
Doremus: John [Guleserian] shot all my films. Working with him again was awesome, and it was cool pushing him to do something that he's never done before. We went into a new realm together.
NFS: Your other films are mostly shot handheld.
Doremus: There's a good amount in this one, but not as much. We wanted to start the film out when the characters are switched off in a very composed, locked-off kind of way. Then as they start to become unraveled, so does the camera movement: we're following the actors, the camera's moving with them, and we're more handheld. Things just start to become free, unhinged.
"The characters start to see things differently, and so do we as an audience."
Same thing with the color in the film. The film starts out in a very monochromatic, pale blue world. Then color starts to come in—reds, oranges, aquamarine. [The characters] start to come to life and so does the world around them. The characters start to see things differently, and so do we as an audience.
"It's about getting the actors not to think, and be completely out of body and to not try to do anything but just be in the moment, react, and respond genuinely to what's going on."
NFS: You have a very interesting scene in a bathroom where Silas and Nia first discover human physical intimacy. It's not a sex scene, but it's very sexually-charged. How did you approach shooting that?
Doremus: That's probably my favorite scene in the movie. Kristen and Nicholas hadn't really touched at any point up to that scene. So it was an unhinged moment. We'd just do long 30-minute takes. I played music the entire time.That created a very cool tone and vibe—the music that's in the film. We talked about the scene a lot, and then I just kind of let them go.
I'm more interested in watching what the actors do, and then changing things and guiding things, rather than telling them what to do. I'm more interested in not clouding their mind with all the things they have to remember to do. It's about getting them not to think, and be completely out of body and to not try to do anything but just be in the moment, react, and respond genuinely to what's going on.
NFS: When you're working with an actor in a specific scene, and you feel like they're too much in their head— they're prescribing their own movements and thoughts— how do you get them back to a place of truthfulness?
Doremus: That's hard. It depends. I think you just try to focus on really simple things and to try to do one thing at a time, and get them in a state of mind that's very present. Just try to focus on that, rather than trying to focus on the outcome of the scene, which I think is the biggest problem. They're thinking, "Well, the outcome of the scene is to be this, so let's focus on getting there," as opposed to focusing on just being in the moment and just simple, little things that are going on.
NFS: What kind of simple things? Movements?
Doremus: For instance, for Nick: what does Kristen smell like in the scene? What's going on with her eyebrows? Just focusing on little elements essentially will change him, and change how he reacts. Just getting them to focus on other things that are not themselves, either. Trying to get them to focus on each other as much as possible, to bring something out of each other.
"Japan has such a zen-like harmony to it, which really spilled into the film."
NFS: What would you say was the biggest challenge shooting this film?
Doremus: I think just being in a foreign country. Being in Japan, nobody speaking English. Being on your own, and being out of your element and out of the comforts of being at home was really difficult. But also exhilarating, because it was just this new experience, and Japan has such a zen-like harmony to it, which really spilled into the film. It was certainly not easy to be there and to try to shoot a movie. We were completely fishes out of water but it bonded us because we had to stick together.
"I just had to focus on trying to conquer one battle at a time and just try to stay in the moment."
NFS: This is your seventh film. Did you learn anything completely new about filmmaking?
Doremus: Never, never film with VFX again. No, I'm just kidding! A lot of things. I think I learned more about the marathon aspect of filmmaking because it was such a monster shoot. Just to sort of try to be present and not worry too much. I can sometimes let myself get too stressed out, and kind of lose myself, and everything just becomes a mess. I just get out of control. So I think more than anything on this film, because there were so many moving parts, I just had to focus on trying to conquer one battle at a time and just try to stay in the moment.
NFS: Kind of like what you try to do with the actors.
Doremus: Oh, exactly. That's exactly it. Everything that can go wrong at some point will go wrong. So it's important to just try to not let that bother you, and try to focus on the task at hand. It's something that I'm trying to get better at.
Be sure to check back for more coverage of Tribeca 2016.