‘Equals’ Director Drake Doremus on Kristen Stewart, Going Sci-Fi, VOD, and More
I first interviewed Like Crazy filmmaker Drake Doremus nearly three years ago, at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival. At that time we were speaking about his latest film, the bracingly intimate family drama Breathe In, but towards the end of the interview Doremus mentioned that he had an idea for a futuristic love story that he hoped to tackle next. Cut to earlier this week, when I attended the North American premiere of Doremus’ excellent sci-fi romance Equals, starring Kristen Stewart and Nicholas Hoult as star-crossed lovers living in a society in which emotions have been removed from the population. When Hoult’s character begins to experience the beginning stages of SOS—“switched on syndrome”, which means the person’s emotions are starting to surface—he discovers that Stewart’s character also suffers from SOS, albeit in secret. The two begin an intense, magnetic, and dangerous love affair that reminds us what it is to love, and how vital intimate relationships are to our humanity.
With Equals, Doremus takes on his largest canvas yet, but he manages to maintain what makes him a unique filmmaker—his ability to tap into our base human emotions on a universal level, evoking a strong and relatable response to the relationship onscreen. It’s a pretty incredible achievement, really, and it’s made possible onscreen by a pair of absolutely terrific and committed performances by Stewart and Hoult. They’re fantastic together, and Doremus’ gorgeous framing and impeccably crafted environments compliment the trajectory of their relationship beautifully while also impacting the viewer in a very strong way.
But enough of my rambling (or, if you want more rambling, read my full review of Equals here). After I saw the film, I was able to sit down with Doremus at TIFF for an extended conversation about the movie’s many departures for the filmmaker, working mostly from a script for the first time, the casting of Stewart and Hoult and their experience improvising on set, input from executive producer Ridley Scott, his thoughts on how VOD impacts the indie film industry, his desire to work in television, filmic influences, and much more. It’s a fascinating conversation from one of the most interesting young directors working today, so it’s definitely worth diving into.
Question: It’s been a few years since I last talked to you at Sundance and you mentioned you had an idea for a futuristic romance.
DRAKE DOREMUS: That’s right!
I actually just looked the article up recently. I was curious, how close is the finished film to what your idea was?
DOREMUS: That’s a good question, man. It’s hard to remember. I mean, I think at that time it was just a kernel of an idea.
Yeah you told me it was in the idea stage.
DOREMUS: Yeah, that would’ve been January 2013 then, right? I was just, “Ok, what about a world in which love doesn’t exist anymore because it doesn’t need to. Because we have a different prerogative as a human race. We’ve evolved from that. It doesn’t need to exist. Will it find a way?” All those questions, these ideas for that kernel, you know, slapping that on to just wanting to zone out and feel an ethereal, romantic love story like I’ve always wanted to do anyway. But yeah, it started from that and then [screenwriter] Nathan [Parker], I saw Moon and thought it was amazing, thought it was interesting and totally brought completely different things to the process. He’s so here (points to head) and I’m so here (points to heart), so that collaboration brought a really interesting balance. And then we started formulating the idea and emotions and love/hate being the same thing so they gotta go out together and things like that and eventually we had a script.
I was kind of struck by the scale of it because it’s so big, Like Crazy and Breathe In are very small and intimate. This thing, the scale blows up but the intimacy stays there, so what was that experience like for you going out and making this sci-fi movie?
DOREMUS: Well that’s exactly it, I wanted to keep that intact but just go bigger and go scarier, to be honest, I wanted to try something that scared me. You know, the idea of having 600 visual effect shots in the movie scared me. I didn’t know anything about that, I had to learn about that, I had to surround myself with people who could help me with that. I wanted to make a bigger film, but I also wanted to make a film that was out of my comfort zone, I wanted to venture into a genre that I wasn’t necessarily familiar with yet admired. So I wasn’t very well versed in the genre per se, to be honest, I’m more of an admirer from afar. But to me it was just an opportunity to do something that was scary and out of my comfort zone really, to be honest.
So how did you start to kind of formulate because the visuals? Did you storyboard for this one, are you used to storyboarding?
DOREMUS: No, we never storyboard. We did for some of the more visual effects-heavy sequences we did. But no, it’s still about [cinematographer] John [Guleseran] and I just running around with a camera and finding the movie, really, it’s that same philosophy. But as far as the world goes, we scouted all over the world to find a very concrete, clean, sterile, beautifully designed world that was sort of embedded in this very untouched sort of dream, loose sort of foresty kind of feel. Japan ended up being that so we ended up going to Japan and shooting all over Japan and then we ended up building a lot of sets in Singapore. But it was just so cool to be there because the sort of order and feel of the way Japanese culture is I think actually seeped into the world of the collectives in the movie.
Well, it was kind of reminiscent visually at times of Her, I mean, there’s a reason you go over to somewhere that feels somewhat alien for North American audiences, and so it felt futuristic but no overbearingly sci-fi.
DOREMUS: I love hearing that, man. Because I definitely didn’t wanna make like a techy movie, and I also knew I wanted to make a movie about the world. I wanted to make a movie that felt very current about relationships and about who you can and cannot love which is a very topical current issue but sort of framed and inside this other structure that is of the world.
What were your initial conversations like with Kristen [Stewart] and Nick [Nicholas Hoult]? Because I know in earlier interviews before you guys started shooting they were really excited about it but candid about how terrified they were.
DOREMUS: Nick and I kind of knew each other over the years through mutual friends and we got together and just over a general meeting, you know, you have generals with actors and it’s always “Yeah, man. We want maybe this, maybe that” But as soon as we came up with the idea it was just kind of like, “No, Nick’s the guy. He’s gotta be the guy” so I always had him in mind and he had always wanted to try what I did and was into it and I think a fan of the movie so for him it was just like, “Oh let’s go do this” And I think Kristen was nervous, I think she definitely trusted me though and just sort of wasn’t really about –For her I think it was more about the collaboration than it was about, “Oh I want to go do this sci-fi movie” and the character for her I think was really close to home, really made sense as far as a lot of the sort of awakenings she’s gone through in her life, she’s still so young, they’re both so young, but grown up so much because they’ve been working for so long. Long story short, it was just, “Ok let’s create a format that works.” For the Equals in the film, we weren’t improvising at all, and then when they’re alone we had the opportunity to [improvise] so we would allow that. So we had very strict rules on when and where we would not improvise.
What was that like for you? Because I know you’re used to improvising a lot and this time you’re working from a full script.
DOREMUS: It was weird! It was weird but it was perfect for the movie because having to be bound by the script was kind of like having to be bound by not having emotions. The form and the process kind of worked perfectly for me because I was dying to get out and so were the characters, so it made sense that that actually worked, so it actually felt right. In the moment in the apartment when they’re alone together was just incredible, “Thank God! We can just let go now!” We’d just let the camera roll and they would have conversations and ten minutes into the conversation they’d be like, “Wait a minute, are you rolling right now?” I mean there’s stuff like asking about has he always had his freckles and he doesn’t know. Just this basic, simple getting to know each other moments, just really them talking to each other and it’s really beautiful because it’s not fake it’s totally real.
Well I think it comes off on the screen and so many love stories you see, you believe these two characters fall in love, so this movie I think you believe these two characters fall in love but then it also kind of hits you personally, you feel it like, “That’s me. I’ve been there.” It’s a universal experience wrapped around this big sci-fi movie, which I think is a tough line to balance. Were you kind of cognizant of that as you were shooting, knowing you’re in the sci-fi world and how did you try to maintain that balance?
DOREMUS: Yeah. I mean, I knew that if the chemistry is not there and there’s not something going on between them then there’s no movie, it doesn’t exist. So for me it was always about trying to carefully calibrate those moments and try to shoot as much in order as we could so that we could slowly burn to the climatic moments and just different things like that; trying to do exercises or keep them away from each other or let moments happen. It was just trying to focus on an actual dynamic that they had as collaborators and eventually friends and then eventually as Nia and Silas in the movie, just try to capitalize on whatever that dynamic was. I was just trying to follow it rather than lead it almost in a way, I think that’s the key rather than, “Ok, you’re gonna stand here and fall in love” it doesn’t happen that way, you have to sort of document it and explore it and then sort of by virtue of that in the editing room you can execute it.
When you’re shooting those long improvised scenes does Kristen want to come up and see playback afterwards, are they kind of curious at all?
DOREMUS: They’re awesome about it. They don’t care, they lose themselves. I think they really were inspired by the process and having done it this way, because they would come up to me sometimes and they’d be like, “I don’t even remember what we did there. I don’t even remember what I said. I don’t know what’s happening” and I’d be like, “Good. That means we’re doing it right because you were lost in the moment, you weren’t thinking about you were saying, you weren’t thinking about what you needed to feel. You were just allowing yourselves to focus on each other and letting that drive everything that’s going on”
I did want to ask, you’re collaborating with your cinematographer again and he’s done stunning work. On this one it’s fantastic, it’s so crisp and intimate but also alienated, how did you guys approach the visuals on this especially from a sci-fi standpoint? Did you have specific sci-fi influences that you looked at before this?
DOREMUS: Yes, yes. I’ve been working with John since film school and he’s done all my movies. I really wanted to push him to do something totally different, foreign, something crazy and out of his comfort zone too, and he wanted to too, he wanted to do something scary. We just looked at a lot of images as we always do, listened to a lot of music as we always do, music really inspires the look of a movie and the feel of it. But we watched Fahrenheit 451, [Francois] Truffaut’s film, definitely an influence. Actually, Yorgos Lanthimos’ Alps, of all films, I think is really beautiful and interesting, how you can just sort of hold on things and let them play out but also have a very organic feel, I mean, that’s so interesting to me. And then Ridley [Scott]’s movies, Blade Runner was definitely for me –The idea that I can watch Blade Runner and just feel it and it just washes over me. Essentially to me it’s like a tone poem almost in a way, that inspired me to wanna sort of mediate on a lot of aspects of this film, especially in the first half where it’s just kind of a meditation and then it takes you and then runs with you. But for the first half I wanted to just kind of absorb you and just kind of be an ethereal, mesmerizing place to be.
Did Ridley give you any input on the script at the beginning? I know he’s an executive producer, how involved was he?
DOREMUS: He was awesome. He was super busy and he wasn’t that involved per se but did have input at times and was super supportive and super supportive of the vision and of me and I’m proud of everything in the movie and never once was asked by anybody to change anything or move anything, so that I think is the greatest gift of all. But his two guys, [Michael] Schaefer and [Michael A.] Pruss who were the main guys that I worked with, it’s about free work. It was just amazing getting the movie made and being supportive of me, it was just like a dream scenario, to be honest, especially for a guy making movies under $5 million my entire career and then all of a sudden just to blow that out of the stratosphere and make a movie so much bigger, it was a gift.
You mentioned that you played some of the music on set, and again, working with someone you’ve worked with before but you guys did someone completely different with Dustin [O’Halloran]. How was the score process? He completed some of the score before you guys started shooting?
DOREMUS: Yeah well, I brought in another guy on this, this guy Sascha Ring, there was a band called Apparat and Moderat who I’ve been listening to the entire time, I gave a bunch of his music to—it actually started with him—Nathan [Parker] while we were working and we were collaborating and that was the sort of genesis of it. And then Dustin always has been in all of my movies so had to be in there too, obviously. Pushing Dustin to leave the piano at home and to go into this soundscape-y analog world. He wasn’t using any computers or any programs, he was using all analog keyboards and things like that which was really cool because it was still organic, just very Dustin, human and organic, but also out of his comfort zone; and pushing John and me, just push each other out of our comfort zones so we’d try something differently. But we had a lot of the music because some of the music that Sascha had written and Apparat had was there and Dustin was writing, so it was fortunate, I mean the music is being written through the entire process. I mean in all my films it’s never, “Ok here’s the finished film now compose the scene” it’s sometimes we’re cutting scenes to music, sometimes we’re composing to a scene. It’s a very sort of organic free form way and on this one I worked with a great music supervisor named Katherine Miller who is incredible, who essentially took Dustin and Sascha a lot of the times and melded them together and made that work too, so it was just an amazing collaboration and they ended up winning the score award in Venice which was really cool and I’m proud of them for that.
Well it’s fantastic and I love how the score kind of starts to build especially in this first encounter when they first touch, the score just builds until it explodes but you’re feeling that explosion inside. So was it an easy decision for you to just kind of keep pushing the volume and pushing and pushing?
DOREMUS: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, everything from color saturation to music volume to what’s going on between the two of them, the goal was just to calibrate it and then by then by the end it just explodes. Absolutely, it’s like a roller coaster where you’re just like slowly going up to the top and suddenly you just drop down so yeah, absolutely.
Well, I’m colorblind but I did get some of the color.
DOREMUS: You are?
DOREMUS: Oh, no!
Not completely—I start to see color seep in but I can’t tell if it’s yellow or green.
DOREMUS: Well then you saw it?
Yeah, I saw it.
DOREMUS: What did the bathroom look like to you? What color was in the bathroom?
Like a blue kind of.
DOREMUS: There you go. It’s Aquamarine, which is like a blueish green I guess so you got it.
Did you kind of chart that beforehand of when you wanted to see the color come in?
DOREMUS: Yeah, yeah, yeah. As he starts to switch on we went into oranges, reds, greens just sort of this sense of alive colors just start to—he starts to see the world differently therefore we start to see the world differently. So it was just really about trying to calibrate that correctly throughout the film because in the beginning it’s pretty monochromatic and very specific. But the idea was, yeah, that bathroom was—from there it’s a completely different world.
Was that one of those improvised scenes, how did that scene come together? Because that’s kind of the key moment on the film.
DOREMUS: When he touches her for the first time?
DOREMUS: Yeah. I mean, we had the music playing on set and that was just two hours of the camera not stopping and it was just Nick continuing to explore and feeling something for the first time and just calibrating Kristen slowly not being able to fight it anymore and flood gates opening. It was just navigating those waters and it was just like two hours of that. I mean, I have like two hours of that, I have two hours of him just touching her face essentially. I had to cut it down to three minutes.
Hoult’s character is essentially the audience surrogate as you’re introduced to this world, but in some ways I think Kristen’s character is the most devastating as you realize she’s been living with this for a year and it’s just like a yearning for some kind of connection, finally, when they come together. Kind of the arc of her character I think in some ways is more powerful and at the end you see kind of the weaving of the missed moments and everything.
DOREMUS: Well yeah it’s, I think, very perceptive. Because I think it’s his story in the beginning and then it becomes hers in the end, it’s most certainly hers in the end. So it was just sort of about switching the POVs just having them cross over so they meet in the middle and then by the end they’re like this, which is interesting because I think all my movies kind of do that at times, you know, it’s about two people and at times it’s both their stories and then maybe it’s Felicity [Jones’] story, then maybe it’s Guy [Pearce’s] or maybe it’s Anton [Yelchin’s] whatever. It’s just sort of really being conscious of that so that the audience is with them at all times, but yeah it’s definitely Nick’s journey until it’s Kristen’s journey almost in a way.
What was it like to bring Guy [Pearce] back into the fold, what was it like working with him and also Jacki Weaver?
DOREMUS: It was cool because I feel like the last—My films I’ve always had one actor carry over, Felicity [Jones] carried over and then now Guy’s carried over and then hopefully maybe Kristen or even both will carry over. But it’s just so nice to have that shorthand, we’re good friends and like to make each other laugh, we’re pretty goofy together so just to get to hang out for a couple of weeks again and just to know what to expect. I mean, he just shows up and he’s such a professional and so talented and understated, it’s like for him to come in and play essentially a very thankless role in the construct of the movie and in the construct of just, “Hey, he’s in it” it’s like, “Oh yeah, Guy’s in that” He’s very selfless, he’s just a selfless actor so in that sense it’s awesome. I was such a huge fan of Jackie so to get to work with her was just kind of a dream for me.
Did the experience of shooting abroad in Japan and Singapore kind of help the alienating feeling of the world of the film? What was that like just to go off and be alone?
DOREMUS: Definitely, definitely. Well, we had to bond together, we had to be family because we only had each other. I mean, nobody spoke English, we were on our own, we were out there on a limb. So it was alienating and we couldn’t have made the movie in the States, it wouldn’t have had the same feel, I wouldn’t have directed it the same way, and the performances wouldn’t have been the same. So it had to be that way.
As someone who’s very well versed in the world of indies and everything, I’m curious about your thoughts on the VOD market and how it’s changing the landscape. Whereas maybe ten years ago an indie would go to Sundance and just hope to get a theatrical release but nowadays a lot of films are getting that VOD push and a lot of people are seeing it.
DOREMUS: I think it’s great. I’d like to say, “Film has got to be in the theater” I’d like to be that guy but unfortunately I’m the guy that wants to watch stuff at home, I’m actually that person too. As a consumer and a filmmaker I kind of understand it all and, I don’t know, I think ten years from now it’s all gonna be that way, I think almost everything is gonna be day and date. I think it’s exciting to reach all your viewers at once, I think it’s kind of magical. And from a marketing perspective I think it’s really cool to put all your thrust behind a release and let everybody see it, whether this is that or not, I don’t know. But the whole idea of, “Ok, you get a bunch of buzz at the festival, and then months later you gotta revamp the buzz for the movie, and then months later you gotta revamp the buzz for a DVD and then a VOD” It’s like, God, it’s just too much content out there, it’s like those days are gone. So I feel like if people want to see your movie, let them see it, to be honest.
Well Cary Fukunaga’s next film is on Netflix, which is kind of crazy.
DOREMUS: I think he’s groundbreaking, and I think it’s exciting that he’s doing that because I think it’s gonna be a game changer.
Well and so many people I’ve talked to –I live in Oklahoma, it’s not like I’m in New York or L.A., and so many people find these films years later on Netflix. Even though I love the experience of seeing a film in a theater, I’m very fortunate to get to go to Sundance where those films get a hard time trying to get a theatrical release, but I know my friends back home probably won’t get that opportunity for everything.
DOREMUS: Dude, as a guy who a lot of people who’ve seen my movies have seen them later. It happens to me, “I just watched Like Crazy the other day” it’s like, “Wow, Ok” To me it’s like people are still experiencing it and I think that’s great. That’s what’s so great about it, the film lasts forever. The more the merrier is how I feel about it, because people always get to watch whatever they want to watch and find whatever they want to find so I think it’s great.
Do you think that impacts how you’re telling a story? I mean obviously film is always cinematic but are you thinking about it possibly being on someone’s laptop or to stream later on?
DOREMUS: To be honest, no. We still make the movie we want to make for our eyes in a theater because ultimately that keeps us honest and that’s what we have to do, I think. But with that said…No not really actually, not at all. Just because of our education an how we always approach making a film, we just approach it visually and I want people to see this movie in a theater, I think it has a lot of impact in the theater.
The sound of it especially.
DOREMUS: Yeah, absolutely. Sound. So I hope they do, but at the same time I know that’s not feasible for everybody to view it that way so hopefully it will have impact at home too.
Speaking of Fukunaga, a lot of filmmakers are moving into the television world, [Steven] Soderbergh who’s just killing it with The Knick on Cinemax. Is that something that interests you, to move into television?
DOREMUS: It does, it does. I think maybe the next thing I do might be that. I got a couple of ideas and maybe that’s next, or maybe a movie, I don’t know. But I’m definitely interested in it.
So would that be something where you would direct all the episodes to kind of keep a focus?
DOREMUS: Yeah, yeah. Definitely.
Do you know what you’re doing next for sure?
DOREMUS: I’m reading a lot of stuff, I’m trying to find something. I also just wanna take a break this Fall and live my life and let stories come to me.
Yeah you’ve been into this for a while.
DOREMUS: Since we chatted last! It’s been my life!
And with someone like Kristen Stewart involved the interest is always kind of zeroed in on you. I hope this film finds a lot of people because Kristen’s incredibly talented and I think people just kind of unfairly write her off.
DOREMUS: Well I think not anymore, with the work she’s been doing and the filmmakers she’s working with.
She won the…
DOREMUS: The Cesar, first American!
DOREMUS: Deservedly so.
Another thing I wanna ask, you come from the Sundance world and nowadays the thing kind of seems to be you make a Sundance movie and then you make a Star Wars movie. Is that something that interests you as a filmmaker, working on something as big as that?
DOREMUS: I think this is my Star Wars movie! [Laughs]. Yeah those movies are my Sundance movies and this movie is my Star Wars movie. I don’t know, if it’s a quality story that needs to be told and it’s in my heart and I have to tell it, yeah, whether it’s $100 million or $10 million it doesn’t matter. It’s all about the quality and making something to my heart and honest to me.
Who are the filmmakers and what are the films that influenced you to get into movie making in the first place?
DOREMUS: In the first place? Oh gosh! Well I definitely feel like seeing Breaking the Waves when I was in high school and Lars von Trier’s process of performances definitely inspired me a lot. I don’t know filmmakers per se but actual films is when I saw Y tu Mama tambien when I was 19 and that definitely changed my life, I couldn’t believe that, it was inspiring. Yeah I’d say those two films and filmmakers. Just the idea of what a performance can be and how it can affect you, even more than cinema itself, to me it was more about a performance and how it can touch you and that a story in itself. That’s why I think I always approach a film as a performance based piece.
I think that makes your work unique, that the characters are the story. But I just want to say congrats on the movie, and thanks for making movies like this.
DOREMUS: Thanks for taking the time to express how you feel about movies, it means the world to me and to us, it means the world, I can’t thank you enough.