In 2014, Charlie McDowell announced his presence as a daring new indie filmmaker to watch with The One I Love, a surreal portrait of a relationship in disrepair. When a couple (Elisabeth Moss and Mark Duplass) embarks on a would-be therapeutic weekend getaway, they find themselves inducted into a strange universe where fact and fiction are subjective, forcing them to reckon with their perceptions of one another and their own identities at large. It's the kind of original premise that eludes many first-time filmmakers, and Moss and Duplass' performances anchor the film in a deeply philosophical—and often quite terrifying—reality.
McDowell's new Netflix film, which the streaming giant picked up out of Sundance 2017, is another high-concept film, albeit with an exceedingly darker focus. Two strangers, Isla (Rooney Mara) and Will (Jason Segel), meet on the one-year anniversary of the discovery of the afterlife. It's a day of mass suicide—thousands of people are killing themselves in order to pass through to the "other side." As Isla and Wills' tragic pasts come to the fore, The Discovery wades into the murky waters of human fallibility, asking potent questions about acceptance, forgiveness, and regret.
No Film School caught up with McDowell prior to his film's Netflix premiere on March 31 to discuss why he forewent a theatrical release in favor of streaming, how to ground genre films in human characters, his best advice for first-time filmmakers, and more.
"If I were demanding that this movie was only to be seen in theaters, I don’t know the point of making the film."
No Film School: What kind of questions were you asking yourself when you started to write the script?
Charlie McDowell: The universal question: Where do we go when we die? It’s something that everyone really can connect to, regardless of your background or your religious or scientific beliefs. It's an unanswered question that people have been thinking about for so long. What if it was proven that we do go somewhere? How would humans react?
Then, I thought about how to make a character piece within that world that ultimately is a love story, but also a father/son story and a brother story. Hopefully, the result is that people bring themselves into the film. I hope they analyze it and critique it in a way that shows them the makeup of who they are as people.
NFS: How do you anchor the sci-fi elements with the human elements?
McDowell: For me, sci-fi always has to come through the character. We aren't telling a story that seems too futuristic; we were playing in the space of grounded sci-fi. [I wanted audiences] to ask, "What if that happened to me? What if this happened in our world? So any of the sci-fi elements always have to come from the character space and we write to that. We’re never trying to force that specific type of genre into the way that we’re telling the story. We're exploring sci-fi through character and discussion.
NFS: You made The One I Love for very little money [approximately $100K]. The Discovery was also low-budget. Do you have any tips for filmmakers interested in creating rich and comprehensive worlds within small budgets?
McDowell: It's really cool, because I feel like we’re at a place where you can make these movies on a shoestring budget, and they feel big. They feel like you’re saying something. With The One I Love, we were making a bigger commentary on relationships—how people react and connect or disconnect in relationships. We were doing it in a visual way for very little money. Then, there's someone like Sean Baker, who shot Tangerine on an iPhone. It’s such a riveting story with such rich characters. We’re in a place where these movies can break out to a more mainstream audience. It’s the perfect time to be an up-and-coming filmmaker and just go out and make something. There’s no excuse anymore.
"I’m not going to pretend like I know everything. The more authentic you are as a person, the more everyone feels safe on set."
The advice that I always give is this: if you’re putting together a story, try to contain it to just a few locations. For The One I Love, we all shot in and lived at the house. If you live in South Dakota on a massive farm, shoot there. I think it’s really about finding stories that are told in not so many locations with not so many actors. That’s a great way to break into the industry. Because it’s really hard for someone to hand over millions of dollars to you. They don’t want to do it. I had spent many years trying to get a different project off the ground, and ultimately, with The One I Love, it was like, "Let’s just go take control and do it ourselves."
Any time that you can control your own material, that’s the best way to do it. And luckily I’ve been in a position now with both my films where I can truly say that I got to make the films I wanted to make.
Credit: NetflixNFS: What did you learn about directing from The One I Love to The Discovery?
McDowell: You just grow as a human. Or at least that’s the way I look at it. The One I Love was my first experience, so I felt like was gaining confidence about being on a set and working with actors and collaborating with a bunch of different people.
With The Discovery, everything was just bigger. I had more money, more time, more actors, more locations. But in terms of collaborating with comrades, that’s all the same. I try not to think about it like, 'Okay, I’m the director—what am I supposed to say?' If I don’t know the answer to something, I’ll go up to the actor or the DP and I’ll just say, "I’m not sure, but let's try this, or maybe go in this direction." And you try to find it. I’m not going to pretend like I know everything. The more authentic you are as a person, the more everyone feels safe on set. I think that’s an important part of my job—people ultimately have to follow me to a place where they’re giving their best work.
"I truly believe that the movie is made in pre-production."
NFS: Right. You hire crew and actors to bring something to the table. So that they can collaborate.
McDowell: I have zero interest in controlling actors. But I don’t like to be over controlling in terms of my work with actors. I let them explore and go to a place that they’re excited about, and if it doesn’t feel right or authentic, then I’m there to guide them and help them. But when you’re working with these incredible actors, putting a lid on them is the worst thing you could do. I like to experiment and play with them; that atmosphere is much more fulfilling for everyone.
I truly believe that the movie is made in pre-production. The casting, the look of how I’m going to shoot it and put it together—that’s all stuff I do in pre-production. The idea is that there’s very little surprise on set. It’s really just bringing it all to life.
NFS: Why did you decide to go with Netflix versus more traditional theatrical release following your Sundance premiere?
McDowell: What’s really cool about Netflix is that on March 31st, the world has access to my film. A hundred million users in 150 countries, or whatever it is. They are able to watch my film. I made this film for people to see. I made it for different types of people of different backgrounds, different cultures. So, the idea it opening in 60 screens in just film-going U.S. cities...it felt like a disservice to the story. I made it 'cause I want eyeballs to see it. For this particular story, I felt it would be stronger to team up and collaborate with Netflix.
The other reason is I think it’s definitely a movie that people could watch more than once. I think that you’d get something different from it the second time you watch it. And that’s the Netflix model. You could watch it, and then you could watch it a week later with friends.
NFS: Filmmakers can be very bullish about theatrical releases. Do you think we should be more open to embracing a Netflix premiere rather than theatrical?
McDowell: Well, I go see movies at theaters. I want for my film to be on a big screen. But I think people have to check their egos a little more. If I were demanding that this movie was only to be seen in theaters, I don’t know the point of making the film.
"I don’t believe that we should only watch movies at home. But I think that in today’s world, both [Netflix and theatrical] should and can exist."
I’m sure that there will be stories that I’ll want to tell that I will want people to see in a traditional theatrical release. I’m not saying I only believe in the Netflix motto, but I love that the Netflix motto exists within a world of theatrical films, too.
NFS: So, for you, Netflix is an option among many, rather than the wave of the future.
McDowell: I mean, look—I will fight for theatrical to continue to exist in our world. I love going to the theater. It’s a huge part of my every weekend. So I hope that always continues. I don’t believe that we should only watch movies at home. But I think that in today’s world, both should and can exist.
NFS: You went to AFI Film School. How do you think that impacted your career, both professionally and creatively?
McDowell: Well, I loved my experiences at AFI. I was a 21-year-old kid. I didn’t really have a voice as a filmmaker. I learned that there. I met all different types of people from all over the globe, male and female, all different walks of life. And we were all there because we wanted to tell stories and it was inspiring. Of course, I got the education of how to visually tell a story. But that only takes you so far—then, you have to become a storyteller. You have to become a director and an inquirer and a collaborator. You have to find your voice.
I’m sort of happy that it all unfolded the way that it did. I made The One I Love eight years out of film school. I'd tried to make a movie during those eight years and went down many different paths and directions. And I feel like, at the right point in my life, I had something to say. I got to say that with The One I Love. But I still go back to my education. I still think about it. But everyone is different. I definitely think that there are people that don’t need film school and have a vision and an idea outside of film school, and they can execute it in a way that I wouldn’t have been able to. But I really needed to learn visual storytelling.