It’s tough being part of a sexy movie star couple. No, seriously. Occupational hazards include having to fall in fake-love with fictional romantic partners, possibly in various states of undress. Even worse than seeing your wife or husband make out with another sexy movie star, though, is seeing the pretend-couple establish some sort of real intimacy onscreen. Fortunately, realistic relationship dynamics are difficult to evoke, and a lot of filmmakers end up getting it wrong. Mark Duplass is not among them.
The One I Love is the latest movie Duplass developed that renders its lead couple’s relationship almost uncomfortably realistic. Duplass stars in it, as well, alongside Elizabeth Moss and Ted Danson. The premise finds Danson’s marriage counselor recommending a specific spot for feuding couple Moss and Duplass to travel for a retreat. What happens upon arrival is too deliciously Twilight Zone-d out to give away. What remains firmly tethered to this world, however, are the performances by the two lead actors, who create a believable couple with a lived-in dynamic. By now, Duplass seems as though he’s internalized the tricks of creating the recognizable balance of chemistry and tension that real couples always have—and it’s no coincidence that his partners in these movies do too.
"I have a very strict no-assholes policy," Duplass says. "When you’re trying to mine inter-personal relationships, it’s very sensitive, and if you have an asshole around they just ruin everything. So, personality is key in casting. But so is outlook. When I find people who tell me about their last breakup and they find themselves laughing in the middle of it, that combination of the darkness and the light is very important to me."
Although The One I Love is not one of several movies that Duplass wrote and directed with his brother, Jay, but as executive producer, he was involved in the casting process. Elizabeth Moss and he are real-life friends who hang out and drink beer together, so their chemistry was established before the production began. Whether they could effectively play a romantic couple together was never a concern. On other movies, though, he sets out to test the actors together, if possible, to see how they gel.
Beyond an audition, Duplass likes to have a "chemistry sit-down" where he and the couple who will star in his movie have lunch together. It’s not a dual interview; it’s a chance for the filmmaker to shut up and see how the two leads interact and behave with each other. Duplass may shift the conversation one way or another, as though conducting an orchestra, throwing challenges their way to see how they react to them. The actors who can have lunch together with the odd conversational ebbs and flows of a real couple has a much better chance of bringing it once the cameras are on. It’s not necessarily a requirement, though.
"In my experience, that whole thing of whether these people ‘have chemistry’ or ‘don’t have chemistry’ is kind of a misnomer," Duplass says. "Certain people get along better than other people, but there’s always a unique energy that exists between two people. If you’re willing to kind of (improvise) with that, you can usually find something that works."
The way that Duplass and his team usually work through chemistry bumps is with improvisation. If the scene isn’t feeling natural as written, the actors have the freedom to shift the words in a way that can make the relationship feel more true and more organic to the scene. The filmmaker was unable to test John C. Reilly and Marisa Tomei before production began on the film Cyrus (perhaps most famous for giving Jonah Hill his first semi-dramatic role.) The Duplass brothers watched the dynamic between their leads unfold, and realized it was 20% to 30% different than what they were expecting. As a result, the directors bent their script around to make Reilly and Tomei’s particular chemistry come out more naturally.
"In some cases, I think you can get bad performances when you try to pigeonhole the actors into your preconceived notion of what they should be," Duplass says. "I find it better to grow towards them and shift your story to match their natural strengths and stay away from their weaknesses."
Despite the realism of the relationships in movies like Your Sister’s Sister and The One I Love, Duplass tries not to bring his own relationship into the movies. (He’s happily married to his costar on FX’s The League, director Katie Aselton.) He doesn’t necessarily try to mine material from his own personal life, but some of it tends to squeak through anyway. When you’re that keyed in to the rhythms of real relationships, and you rely on improvisation in your work, those kinds of details will inevitably come out.
"The reality of my life is I’m not in a third-world country. I’m not facing famine or genocide. My issues are mostly that of the upper-middle class and relationship-type stuff," Duplass says. "That’s what I tend to gravitate towards, and that’s what informs my work, even if it ends up being kind of a crazy sci-fi movie too."
The One I Love is now playing in theaters and on VOD.