It started with a text. “Do you speak Spanish?” wrote Mark Duplass.

“Yes,” responded Natalie Morales.

“OK, we’re gonna make a movie.”

Duplass and Morales are the only two people in their SXSW premiere Language Lessons. The entire film exists entirely through video chat.  Morales is the actor-director, and Duplass the actor-producer. It's a quarantine film that we should hate by now—except that it's impossible, because it's absolutely electric filmmaking.

In a conversation at the 2021 SXSW Film Festival, Duplass and Morales explained how they made a heartwarming, charming film over MarcoPolo by jumping in to the deep end of the artistic process.

First, you actually have to feel creative during the pandemic to do this

If you aren't feeling it, you can't make yourself do it.

Duplass explained that his experience during the pandemic was feeling very creative—despite nearly everyone else he knew feeling the exact opposite.

“I was calling people and telling them about how creative I was feeling, and everyone else was spiritually crushed, and I was bumming them out about it.”

He acknowledged that this makes sense, but he was fortunate to find out that Morales was also feeling creative. The project would not have been worth embarking on if they hadn’t both been in that same place.

Language_lessonsMark Duplass in 'Language Lessons' directed by Natalie Morales.Credit: Courtesy of SXSW

Jump in without a script, and don't look back!

Sound terrifying? For good reason, because this method can fail horribly.

“Script? I don’t have one,” said Duplass. He said what they had was a sparse outline, with a few plot points.

“They were not super tight,” added Morales.

“We put credence into the hope that you and I, our chemistry, would buoy it,” said Duplass. “But that was not smart!”

“This is not how you work all the time?” asked Morales incredulously.

Bluejay_still_03Sarah Paulson and Mark Duplass in 'Blue Jay' directed by Alex Lehmann.Credit: Netflix

“I tried to convince you that's how I did Blue Jay,” said Duplass. “But this is the least amount of movie on paper that I’ve ever gone into anything with, and still deemed watchable.”

Morales said that they went in full bravado. “Let’s jump in the deep end and find out!”

The biggest takeaway for working without a script: you have to believe in your onscreen charisma to make up the deficit. It doesn’t hurt that both filmmakers are tremendous improv actors.

If you have no script, be prepared to trust each other with character (and hire a good editor)

Are you filled with fear and doubt when making all the script decisions as you go? Not if you know your characters and trust each other.

“We had a cool process come up with characters,” said Morales. “We each wrote our bio for our character. It’s cheesy to say it came from me, but it sort of did. We built it around two people more so than plot.”

As Morales concluded, you can certainly have doubts. But the difference here is that you don’t shy away from those doubts, you work through them together.

Natalie-morales-198472Credit: Natalie Morales

“There’s no room [for doubts] but there is room for ‘I don’t know, can you help me?’ We sometimes correlate acting immediately with being unprepared. That’s not the case here. We had the tools, and made it almost immediately.

"Hopefully it’s the same as good improv. There’s something golden about capturing the thing in the moment if you’re prepared.”

“And then we had a good editor to thin our talky talky-ness!” joked Duplass.

Make movies about stories that haven’t been explored nearly enough

Language Lessons is a film about platonic love.

“It’s a romantic comedy without romance,” said Duplass. “We have an excitable platonic connection. It has tones of the same thing: giddiness and jocular fun."

“I don’t know if I’ve ever seen it,” said Morales. “There are tons of stories of friendship, but not necessarily between men and women. This isn’t When Harry Met Sally and that they can’t be friends.”

As the filmmakers see it, fighting to keep a friendship is a risky, two-way street that we constantly navigate in our lives, and there just haven’t been enough authentic stories dedicated to that reality.

“Platonic friendship should be better fodder for a movie, because there are more pitfalls and you fall in shit,” said Duplass. “You can scare the shit out of someone in a friendship if you say ‘I love you’ too early!”

Mark_duplass_language_lessonsMark Duplass in 'Language Lessons' directed by Natalie Morales.Credit: Courtesy of SXSW

Figure out the beginning and end, and the rest will follow

What if spending hideous amounts of time preparing for a film is exactly what’s wrong with most filmmaking?

“I’m a big Buster Keaton fan,” said Morales. “I think he said something like, ‘You figure out the beginning and end… the middle, we’ll sort it out.’ Everybody is talented enough to figure this out. [On Language Lessons] we shot the end first!"

“It was endemic to the whole process to how we made this movie,” said Duplass. “We were falling in love with this movie while we were making it. As opposed to, you fall in love while you write it. Then you fall out of love. The second draft, you rekindle. By the time you shoot, you’re in a tough marriage that’s been through therapy. [Language Lessons] doesn’t have that feeling—we made this on our second date.

“As an artist, I’ve been thinking more about that, the diving in the deep end like Buster Keaton!”

What do you think about ditching the script? Leave us a comment!

For more, read our ongoing coverage of the 2021 SXSW Festival.