When I saw Like Crazy at Sundance 2011, I was able to meet writer/director Drake Doremus later that year for the film’s theatrical release. Breathe In played at Sundance 2013 and we spoke there, but it took nearly a year and a half for the film to hit theaters so it’s already overdue for us to catch up. Felicity Jones stars as a foreign exchange student, a pianist studying under cellist Keith Reynolds (Guy Pearce). Tensions rise between professor and student, and man and woman. Doremus has worked with improvisation for his past three out of four films, so we discussed the details of that process, themes of Breathe In and his upcoming sci-fi movie with Kristen Stewart, Equals. Breathe In opened in New York last week and opens in Los Angeles this weekend.
CraveOnline: I can’t believe it was Sundance last year that I saw Breathe In.
Drake Doremus: I know, it’s weird. Very strange.
Have you made any chances to the film since Sundance?
No, no, it’s just been kind of a long journey in working with Cohen [Media Group] to try to find the best date for the film, which I think we did find but it was a long journey. It’s crazy talking about it so far after.
Like Crazy was so much about young romance. Were the relationships and themes in Breathe In something you equally related to?
A little bit. I think I was just trying to do something a little bit different with this, not necessarily as personal for sure, but just more relating to the idea of the tone and trying to make more of a tone poem and something that would just feel like an emotion or a texture.
You had told me the original idea for Breathe In was darker, and originally called it a romantic thriller. Is the thriller still in there somewhere?
I think it is. I think there’s remnants of it but I definitely feel like it ventured its way more toward the romantic tone than it did the thriller element actually, which is interesting because I think the film just found that on its own. WIthout forcing it, it just became that.
What would the thriller aspect had been?
Maybe there had been more physical danger to the characters, but that maybe felt more contrived I guess. Just the idea that these characters were in more danger than just emotional danger.
I mean, was someone going to die?
That definitely crossed our mind at some point early on, which would have taken a romantic turn.
The relationships in Breathe In develop rather innocently but we know they’re inappropriate. Was that tricky?
Yeah, absolutely. The idea that something wrong occurs is funny, because I don’t really see it that way. I guess maybe I have a different moral compass than most people, but I feel like these people are feeling something momentarily that occurs, but it’s misinterpreted I feel like because what’s at the core of their relationship is a very simple emotional bond, by no means a physical or a sexual bond.
I suppose Keith isn’t trying to have an affair, but when you realize he’s getting to know this young student, you can’t help but think if this goes to a certain point, it’s going to be inappropriate.
You’ve used this directing style in three movies now. Has anyone else tried to apply your style? I know others do improv, but what you do is not just improv, right?
Yeah, we work from a specific outline. Then we rehearse and find the beats and dialogue and different things like that. I’m not too aware. I know Jay and Mark [Duplass] have done similar stuff in the past and I appreciate their work and dig what they do very much, but I’m not too familiar with too many other filmmakers that use the process. I know Mike Leigh does something a little bit similar, but I’m not too familiar to be honest.
Did you know Jay and Mark Duplass?
Yeah, I do. They’re friends and wonderful guys and super talented. I remember seeing The Puffy Chair when it came out and that, to me, really inspired Douchebag in many ways. It really inspired me to just go make something for very little money that was really personal. That style and what they were doing was just really exciting to me.
What made you think about the world of musicians with Breathe In?
Two things. My grandfather was a jazz bassist and I always wanted to play an instrument but never really learned one, so I was always really fascinated by the idea of using your hands to create something artistic. I also feel like Dustin [O’Halloran]’s music was really inspiring to me in many ways and wanted to use what he was doing as a central theme or a character almost in a film. So those two things colliding came together.
Given the style you work in, were there any great scenes that had to go from the final cut?
Oh yeah, absolutely. A great deal of good performance-based stuff was omitted just based on the fact that it didn’t really support the emotional narrative but there’s always a good amount of stuff that I love. Hopefully I’ll be able to include some of that on the DVD.
Could you ever, as an experiment, do a completely alternate cut or a second film like the Anchorman movies do?
That would be super fascinating. I don’t think the film would have much story in it, but I guess it doesn’t really have much story in it to begin with so it might work perfectly.
Would there be enough material on Like Crazy or Douchebag to do that too?
[Laughs] Yeah, I think definitely on Douchebag. There’s a whole other film in there for sure.
Have you kept in touch with the guys from Douchebag?
Yeah, absolutely. Ben York Jones has been cowriter on Like Crazy and Breathe In and Andrew Dickler is a friend. Absolutely, those guys are definitely friends.
There’s a scene in Breathe In where Sophie is trying to quite Keith’s class but he is pressuring her to stay.
Yeah, that’s probably my favorite scene.
What were the specific notes you gave them to perform that?
Gosh, it’s hard to remember because it’s a few years ago, but I believe it was something to the tune of this push and pull of who’s in charge and who’s running the show in their relationship. It’s sort of a push and pull moment where they’re both a little bit confused but Felicity’s character has certainly got the upper hand on him. He’s trying to find his footing with her and doesn’t understand, is sort of confused. I feel like his objective is to somehow assert himself as somebody who’s in charge and she is just as damaged as ever and is unable to even remotely see anybody as a figure who’d be able to impose any kind of authority on her.
Do scenes like that ever go in a completely different direction than you intended?
Sometimes, where it feels wrong. We’re doing the scene and it’s wrong and we have to change it. We’ll realize, oh, it’s actually more about this, or distill it down to something even simpler than it is on the page. Or, just scrap the scene entirely and come up with something else that goes in its place that comes up as something else that we need. Constantly that’s happening. Very seldom do we get up and do a scene and all of a sudden on the first take it’s exactly how it was on the page and it works and we just move on. That’s something that just doesn’t happen but that’s part of the challenge and what’s exciting about working this way. It’s just a fight for hours and hours and hours to find something that feels right.
Is Equals the futuristic romance project you told me about last time?
So that’s coming together?
Yes, it is.
Is Felicity Jones not in that movie?
Not in this one. She’s busy doing really great work so I’m excited for her to go do a bunch of other things.
Did Kristen Stewart get her part then?
No, definitely Felicity and I had decided that we were going to do some other things for a little while from the beginning. It’s a very different project. I’m working with a very different team of people. I’m working with a real script. I kind of wanted to do everything completely differently than I have been making movies in the past to try something different and see how I feel about it.
So you wrote out a linear script for Equals?
Yeah, Nathan Parker wrote the script, the guy who wrote Moon. It’s kind of my idea and we’ve been developing it together for a year and a half.
If it is a forbidden romance with Kristen Stewart, are you ready for the inevitable comparisons?
[Laughs] It’s really not like that, but I’m sure you hear comparisons about things. At the end of the day, the movie to me is hopefully a very unique departure from most futuristic love stories that anyone’s ever seen in the past.
Most, I don’t think there’ve been a lot of futuristic love stories.
That’s true. Good. We’re already starting there then. I like it.
Were you in Berlin selling Equals?
I was not. We were not. I think that was mistakenly reported.
Had you done a series called “The Beauty Inside” in between making Breathe In and it coming out?
Yes, I did. That was a really exciting project to work in. It’s fun to just work in different formats and do different things, so that was a really fun project, a web series that we did.
Where can we see “The Beauty Inside” and how did it come about?
Good question. I think it was online. It was on YouTube. I don’t know if they had to take it down but it came about, I got a call from the agency that was producing it and said, Intel and Toshiba wanted to create this user generated/narrative web series that’s six episodes long and was wondering if I wanted to work on it and develop it and direct it. At first I was a little hesitant to do it but then after I started hearing the idea and working with those guys, I got really excited about trying something new and working in a little bit of an advertisement but in a very subtle way and tell a really cool story.
It ended up being a project I was really proud of and ended up winning an Emmy for it and winning some awards at Cannes Lions and SXSW. People really responded to it and we have 55 million views of it. I think it did really well for Intel and Toshiba. It was great for me as well because I ended up getting involved in the commercial world and I’ve done about 10-15 spots in the last year and a half since that. It’s a fun little thing to do between movies.
So you actually took the path of doing films and then getting into commercials?
Yeah, exactly. It’s interesting. Kind of backwards I guess.
Have you done any big spots that we might have seen?
Yeah, I just did the new Facebook spot. I did a bunch of Google spots. There’s a kid who’s giving a speech and he’s looking up what glossophobia is and then he gives a speech and sees this little girl at the end. That was my spot that ran a lot last year. I did a Tylenol spot, Samsung Galaxy spot. I did some spots in Russia, a Google spot, a bunch of different things.
Are those heavily scripted?
Yeah, for the most part but I still try to work in my process a little bit, as much as possible, without stepping on anyone’s toes but it’s a great opportunity to play and experiment.