In the weeks leading up to the Film Independent Spirit Awards, we are posting Q&A’s with the writers who are up for Best First Screenplay. That way you can learn who they are, what they do and yes, how they managed to get from point A (dream of being a screenwriter) to point B (reality of sitting in the tent in Santa Monica alongside some of the most lauded writers and filmmakers of their generation.)
Justin Lader is up for his work on The One I Love. The film tells the story of a couple (Mark Duplass, Elisabeth Moss) whose marriage is on the skids. Their therapist (Ted Danson) sends them on a weekend getaway to help them re-stitch the tie that binds. Here, Justin talks about the challenges—and unexpected advantages—of working with a micro budget, and the part G.I. Joe played in his storytelling skills.
How did you come up with your premise and what was the most difficult aspect of achieving it?
We (Charlie McDowell and I) came up with the premise based on an idea Mark (Duplass) sent us. It was a very interesting challenge actually: to take an idea kernel and then reverse-engineer a story around it within the confines and limitations of a micro-budget movie. We actually found these creative restrictions freeing. It allowed us to really sharpen our focus and in many ways, it opened the story up wider than if we had limitless free range. I’m not sure why it worked out that way, because you’d think it would be the opposite, but it did.
The most difficult aspect, in terms of just the storytelling, was how much to reveal to the audience when it came time to explain what everything meant. There’s an element of sci-fi ingrained in our movie, and with that comes a heavy dose of mystery. When you’re dealing with mystery, there’s always a balancing act with how much you reveal to the audience and when you reveal it. That took a lot of trial and error.
Did you have any cut scenes that were really hard to let go of?
Due to the tightly woven structure, as well as it being a piece with essentially only two actors, there wasn’t a lot of wiggle room for superfluous scenes. If any scenes were cut, it was because they weren’t needed. I can’t think of anything that we lost that was a “killing your baby” type of scene.
Did you have a specific actor in mind for your lead when you wrote this script?
We did. And that helped tremendously. We knew from the jump that Mark was interested in playing Ethan. Next, based on conversations with Mark, he mentioned the idea of Lizzie’s potential involvement. [Elizabeth Moss] Lizzie was by no means a done deal, but we still wrote the part with her in mind in the hope that she’d end up doing it. Lucky for us, she did. She’s so wonderful in the movie. And the reliability and nuance that Mark brought to Ethan was terrific too. It’s just the two of them carrying the film. No matter how many times I see the movie, I’m still in awe of what they were able to do. They’re both so impressive.
During the draft process, what was your most valuable note?
I think we quickly learned that with a premise like this, it’s easy to fall into a place where you take things to a very broad level. That doesn’t necessarily mean broadly comedic. What I mean is having things overly heightened and unrealistic. Any time we’d ask, “Wouldn’t it be cool if this happened?” We’d immediately follow it up with, “Okay, but how would they react if it really happened?” In other words, the characters couldn’t react to what was happening to them from a distance, in an ironic one-step removed posture. They had to take it seriously. Because if they don’t take it seriously, how could we ask an audience to? So everything having to do with character had to come from a grounded place and it had to feel emotionally real. And once we stuck to that, we found that we were able to take the genre sci-fi stuff even further than we thought. That was a really good lesson that I’ll take with me to other projects I write.
Did you have any go-to music while writing this script?
It varies from script to script. I remember for this, I listened to a lot of score. I remember playing the score for Fargo and A Serious Man. I also played a lot from the soundtrack to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. That, and a ton of NWA.
What was the first story you ever wrote?
I’d spend hours in my bedroom playing with G.I. Joe and wrestling action figures, making pretend movies with them. They wouldn’t be wrestlers or soldiers; they were basically actors playing a role in whatever story I was making up on the fly. At the time I didn’t think of it as writing, I was just playing with toys. But I’d be locked in my room for hours making up stories and acting them out with my action figures. My parents probably thought I had some kind of problem. When you’re a kid, the idea of actual writing is basically just homework, so you don’t think of movies or TV or plays as things that are written.
I acted in high school. Memorization was always a problem for me and I remember not being prepared for a class project that was a scene study. So the morning of the scene I rewrote it and it played well. That was probably the first moment the idea of writing clicked.
Do you have an easier time writing character or plot?
For me, my brain tends to naturally go to plot first. I’m not sure why that is. I was never particularly great at math or puzzles. But for some odd reason, story plotting and structure was always something that came natural to me. Charlie (McDowell) is so wonderful when it comes to character. We really balance each other out in that way.
What writer has had the most influence on your work, and what about his or her work do you aspire to?
There are too many to list. I’d say in film, Charlie Kaufman and Woody Allen are certainly on Mount Rushmore. But I’d have to say my biggest influence is David Chase. I’ve seen every episode of The Sopranos an embarrassing number of times. What he accomplished with story and character and ambiguity… It’s what I aspire to reach in my work—that feeling of unpredictability, that anything can happen, much like real life. If I’m able to accomplish a fraction of what he was able to do creatively, I’ll be satisfied.
What is the greatest line of dialogue in the history of cinema?
“I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse.” is pretty amazing. But I’d be lying if I said that I don’t tell people “Now go home and get your fuckin’ shinebox.” at least once a month.
JB Bogulski / Film Independent Blogger