Drake Doremus rushed to make his Sundance premiere 'Newness,' about millennial relationships, for the actor who passed away in June.
Perhaps no one thinks about modern love more than Drake Doremus. The director has made a career of exploring the travails of relationships, most successfully with his 2011 Sundance Grand Jury Prize-winning Like Crazy, which followed a long-distance relationship from inception to ambiguous defeat. He's at Sundance once again with Newness, a chronicle of millennial love characterized by ubiquitous cell phones and the restless desire that results from unbridled options. How can one settle down, asks Doremus, when there is always someone new—and perhaps "better"—at your fingertips?
Though Doremus has once again enlisted his Like Crazy scribe, Ben York Jones, to pen Newness, the latter suffers from overwrought dialogue; where Like Crazy was subtle, depicting unspoken words more often than not, Newness could have benefited from the artistic adage "less is more." Despite the screenplay's intermittent landmines, however, actors Nicolas Hoult and Laia Costa (of last year's Victoria) deliver moving performances that never cease to be emotionally believable at the core, even when words threaten to erode them.
When Newness is at its best, it sees its main characters, Martin and Gabi, in the trenches of their relationship—seeking answers to which there are none, struggling to balance the tides of passion and need for security, wondering whether or not their love is worth fighting for. Eventually, they settle into an open relationship, which turns out to be a band-aid (of the kind that rips off, taking the scab with it). Cinematographer Sean Stiegemeier captures their romance with mostly natural lighting, simultaneously melancholy and inviting purple-blue hues, and claustrophobic close-ups that serve to trap the audience in the relationship, too.
No Film School sat down with Doremus and cinematographer Sean Stiegemeier following the Newness premiere at Sundance to discuss the film's miraculously fast turnaround, the mechanics of modern love, the essential ingredients to shooting a party scene, and more.
"After Anton Yelchin passed, I wanted to make a movie like this again."
No Film School: How did you meet and how did you decide to collaborate?
Drake Doremus: We met through girlfriends at the time, actually. But it's actually kind of crazy that we had never met before because Sean went to AFI a couple years after I went AFI and we know a lot of mutual friends.
Sean Stiegemeier: Then the first job we did together was a commercial web series called The Beauty Inside that was kind of the best commercial experience you could ever ask for—
Doremus: It was a short series, a 40-minute film for Toshiba and Intel.
NFS: How did you start thinking about the script together?
Stiegemeier: We had drunken conversations about wanting to make a small movie together—
Doremus: It's not that small, but it's small. Smaller than my past films.
Stiegemeier: Yes, smaller than the last two. Then the script kind of came together so quickly that [Drake] just sent me a text message like, "Hey, you up to anything next month?"
Doremus: The whole thing was so fast.
NFS: How fast was it?
Doremus: Let me put it this way: we didn't have a script on Labor Day yet. Ben [York Jones, the screenwriter] was writing feverishly because he was busy with his Netflix show and then he basically fit it in. We had done a commercial in Toronto in the summer and I casually mentioned, "I think I'm going to go do something really small." Well, not really small—sorry, strike that.
Stiegemeier: Fast is what we were going for.
Doremus: Sorry, I'm trying to stop calling it small so we can sell the movie. Who gives a fuck—it is what it is.
To be honest with you, after Anton [Yelchin] passed, I wanted to make a movie like this again. I realized that's what he was so passionate about: making these under-the-radar movies that are really personal—not a production, essentially. They're just people in a room and they're intimate. I just really wanted to get back to making movies like that.
NFS: Did you do what you do with most of your films and have Ben write scriptment?
Doremus: No, this one was a script, a really tight script. Incredible text, actually. The best script I've ever had to work with. But it was a lot of improvisation and evolution to the scenes.
Stiegemeier: But it was still over a hundred pages.
Doremus: But Equals was a script too and then Breathe In wasn't, and Like Crazy wasn't, and Douchebag wasn't. But yeah, this one was. That's what I'm into doing now—these scripts that you take and then through the rehearsal process and shooting they evolve, words change, sections get cut out; sometimes you grab the camera and run and shoot this, shoot that. It's just an evolution but at least you have a blueprint that's working to start with, which is great. We started watching movies together for references.
"When something goes wrong and there are problems in a relationship, it's a lot easier to swipe right and start over and not actually deal with it head-on."
NFS: Like what?
Doremus: Biutiful. Alps. We had a really cool lookbook.
Stiegemeier: Yeah, Alps had some interesting framing. Biutiful had a lot of the handheld and grit and tonalities.
Doremus: You talked really early on about really wanting to make a dark film. A film that was barely there—it was so natural, so beautiful, but really dark. The content's kind of dark, in a sense, so we really wanted the film to be barely pushing that available light feeling. What's so great about Sean's work in the film is that it feels like you're finding everything. It doesn't feel like the camera's rehearsed. Every take would be different. I love you. Thank you, buddy.
NFS: You shot documentary-style?
Doremus: Absolutely. I think it contributes to the performances in a major way because there is no, "Okay, at this moment I'm going to be here, and at that moment I'm going to be there." Every take is different so the performances are evolving, the cinematography is evolving, the story's evolving. Everything is just a conjunction organically going.
Stiegemeier: We would set out to accomplish as much as we could within a single take. Then as we would do one take we'd be like, "Okay, this emotional beat for this person—we nailed that. Let's do it one more time—doesn't matter where they go, but let's try to get the reaction side of it or a two-shot or try to break it up." We never said, "Okay, let's just do it again because of focus or they missed a mark." That was never in our vocabulary once.
There are a lot of jump cuts in the film. We tried to let things live as long as they could—there are some shots of the film that last for a minute and some that last for 10 seconds. The idea was to try to let things live in one shot as much as possible. Certain scenes we wanted to feel choppy or cut up, and then other scenes we wanted it to feel really organic and really long.
NFS: A lot of the cinematography felt very claustrophobic. It brings you into the claustrophobia of a relationship. There were very few wide shots. Was that all intentional?
Stiegemeier: Editing decides a lot of that as well, so it wasn't even necessarily that we were deciding that in the shooting as much as it just came to be and felt right as things progressed. We still would try to accomplish wide shots here and there with the intention that maybe you'll need it to break things up.
Stiegemeier: We would spend very little time worrying about that stuff. We never overly discussed, "Oh it should be all a close-up, or we should haunt the audience with not being able to get out of this relationship," or anything in that regard. A lot of this was instinct and you had to go with it, especially with the time constraints. We got plenty of extra stuff and then, in the end, whatever felt right we would linger on and run with it. So it naturally came to be.
NFS: What was important for you both to illuminate about modern relationships?
Doremus: Well, he's married and I'm single, so this will be interesting—When something goes wrong and there are problems in a relationship, it's a lot easier to swipe right and start over and not actually deal with it head-on. There are a lot of people in this generation that have grown up with so many options that it's very difficult to realize that sometimes you actually need to sit with something for a minute rather than continuing to start over. I certainly have my pitfalls with the issue as well. I think it's a really modern issue and something to look at.
"In today's society, you almost want to marry somebody that you can stand being divorced and raising a kid with."
Technology in dating is really fascinating—this idea that you have so many options any minute of the day. It creates this perpetual longing that never goes away; even when you find something that has depth and meaning in your life, that longing stays there and it's impossible to get rid of it because it's baked into our DNA.
NFS: At one point, a character says that love is a choice. Is that something that you both ultimately believe?
Stiegemeier: I would agree with it. It was definitely a deciding point. It's interesting, [my wife and I have] been together 10 years and you do have to work on it. You have to make it a deliberate choice to continue to be in love. You have to put that work into growing together to stay in love. I think you can choose to accept it and run with it and work on it and be happy together to be in love. If you just think it's going to be handed to you, I think it's going to end up like it did for [the couple in Newness]. You get distracted.
Doremus: Yes and no, I think. I don't think it is in the sense that you can't choose who you love, but you can choose who you marry and decide to be with. Those sometimes are opposites or go hand in hand, and that's really one of the themes of the film: you can't choose who you love, but you can choose who you decide to do the laundry with and have the boring moments with and have the resentment with. These things are inevitable; they will always occur in a relationship. You know you're going to go there.
In today's society, you almost want to marry somebody that you can stand being divorced and raising a kid with. That's a factor, as opposed to, "Oh this is the love of my life, we're going to have a kid and we're going to live happily every after." No—the idea of possible demise is there. Could I have an amicable divorce with this person and raise a kid together? That's a factor that goes into decision-making about who you marry, who you go into relationships with. It's interesting to think about the idea of inevitable demise and the idea that you have more than one soulmate in life.
NFS: From each of your perspectives, what was the most difficult scene to shoot?
Doremus: I think the first fight scene. The scene where he's withholding some information about his mother and his ex-wife and she's trying to get it out of him. He's not emotionally ready to talk about it. We shot it three times over the course of three different days and it never quite worked, never felt right. We'd always go back and watch the dailies and try to figure out how we could make it better.
Doremus: The first time, it took place in a bed; the second time, we did a similar version but changed performances a little bit. Then we just moved the scene up with them coming home after their parents' and then it spills into the apartment as opposed to later that night. It was so hard to figure out what's wrong with this—why isn't this working? It's a process where you have to keep doing it and pushing the boundaries and then suddenly it starts to click. It starts to work. There are four or five scenes in the movie that we shot two or three times.
Stiegemeier: On a creative level, that was one that was tricky for us. We had to keep re-evaluating. It never felt right, so then we moved it up and it became one of my favorite scenes. From a filmmaking and budgetary standpoint, any time we had extras were some of the more difficult [scenes]. The surprise birthday party was one of the harder simply based on money and time.
Doremus: We shot that overnight. We had extras overnight so it's tricky because right around 2 AM the extras—
Stiegemeier: Yeah, they seem to disappear somehow.
Doremus: They start to get tired.
"We had to keep reminding [actors and extras] to get on their phone and act like normal, modern humans."
Stiegemeier: And in that whole scene, there wasn't any part of the scene that we needed [fewer] people. So we were trying to call friends and get anyone we could to come. That was where the challenges came in—where things had to line up more meticulously than the rest of it, [which] was so organic.
NFS: I hear that a lot about party scenes; shooting them is difficult and nobody feels they really get it right. Do you have any tips?
Stiegemeier: Try and keep the extras happy.
Doremus: Get a first AD who knows how to wrangle them and clock them. The first AD really is the key to making it feel organic.
I'm a fan of real extras. There are a bunch of real extras in the movie. Especially in downtown LA, there's a bunch of people that are in the movie and they don't even know they're in the movie. In a lot of my films. there have always been real people in the movies, but the trick is then when they're not real people in the background, how to make them seem like they're real people. That's a tricky thing to do,
Stiegemeier: We had to keep reminding them to get on their phone and act like normal, modern humans. And then they're like, "Oh okay." They seem very natural after that. But for the first take, with extras, you're like, "There's something odd about this," and I'm like, "Oh, we need 60 percent of these people to be distracted by their phones because that's how it is now."
For more, see our complete coverage of the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. No Film School's video and editorial coverage of the 2017 Sundance Film Festival is sponsored by RODE Microphones.