ABOVE: FELICITY JONES IN BREATHE IN. PHOTO COURTESY OF COHEN MEDIA GROUP.
The premise of Breathe In, writer-director Drake Doremus’ follow-up to Like Crazy (2011), is familiar: Keith, a life-weary, suburban, married man played by Guy Pearce, falls in love with an old-soul, 18-year-old foreign exchange student and budding pianist Anna (Felicity Jones). His teenage daughter (Mackenzie Davis) discovers them, and his family life rapidly unravels.
There is an envy to Keith’s feelings for Anna; a cello player and teacher who aspires to join the New York philharmonic, Keith sees a reflection of himself—or what he could have been—in Anna. “He falls in lust with that version of himself,” notes Doremus. “That’s what the film really goes through. He’s lost his sense of drive and passion in his life; seeing someone who has the potential to do that but doesn’t really understand it or fully want to do it anymore, I think that he would give anything to switch with her.”
Doremus and his co-writer Ben York Jones created the part of Anna for Felicity Jones. As with Like Crazy, which also starred Jones, Doremus and York Jones relied heavily on improvisation. Each scene would be outlined, but the dialogue itself would come naturally from the actors. “There’s a guide, an idea—mostly emotionally—of where the characters are at the beginning, middle, and end [of a scene],” explains Doremus. “There are three parts to the scene, and everything in between we weave in and out. The specific beats are always there, otherwise the scene just doesn’t really have a point,” he continues. “My mother was an improv, sketch-comedy person, so I grew up in that world, understanding that, learning that, performing that.”
EMMA BROWN: Is there a victim in this story?DRAKE DOREMUS: Yes, I think everybody is a victim in a way. I certainly don’t feel like anybody is intentionally trying to hurt anybody. The circumstances and the idea of a moment—something so fleeting—people act on it and go with it. Love makes everybody a victim because it’s something you can’t control. You can’t control how you feel or what you’re going through when you’re doing it.
BROWN: Do you think that’s true every time? Or do you think you get better at controlling it as you get older and more experienced?
DOREMUS: I don’t know. I certainly don’t. [laughs]
BROWN: Do you think about your characters when a film is over, or do they die for you?
DOREMUS: I don’t. To me they’re dead. You let it go when you let go of the movie. It’s sad to think about it.
BROWN: The part of Anna was written for Felicity Jones. I know you cast her in Like Crazy before meeting her in person—when did you actually meet?
DOREMUS: I met her the first day of rehearsal for Like Crazy. She sent me a tape, and I fell in love with her after that tape, thought she was amazing. I just wanted her to come to L.A. and meet Anton [Yelchin] and I, and start rehearsing. That was an intuition kind of moment. You watch someone on tape but you don’t fully know what you’re going to get; it’s a little bit scary and dangerous. But she was everything and more that I thought she was.
BROWN: Did you have someone in mind for the male lead when you and Ben were writing the film?
DOREMUS: A little bit. I’ve been a big fan of Guy [Pearce] for many, many years. In meeting with different actors, and talking to Felicity about who she’d be good with, we had an intuition they’d be good together. He’d never improvised before, let alone in a foreign dialect. So this was totally different and crazy and scary for him. To his credit, he really embraced it and immersed himself in it. I think for Guy, to see Like Crazy was helpful—to see the end product and how it works.
BROWN: Do you have a favorite theater improvisational game that you like to do?
DOREMUS: I have a bunch of different ones; real-world situations where I’ll send the actors out to the supermarket in character, and they have to hang out together for hours in character. Anton and Felicity did it a lot. Guy and Amy [Ryan, who plays Keith’s wife] did it a lot. It’s about creating this full-fledged world that they’re in so that they’re forgetting about the camera, and they’re forgetting about performing, and just being in the moment.
BROWN: Do you follow them around while they’re doing this?
DOREMUS: [laughs] A little bit. I lurk in the background and observe so that I can learn things about how the characters are developing.
BROWN: I enjoyed Kyle MacLachlan’s very brief appearance in the film.
DOREMUS: [laughs] Yeah, he’s sort of the elephant in the room—he clarifies what’s really going on, on the surface, whereas what’s going on beneath is really totally different.
BROWN: What made you cast MacLachlan?
DOREMUS: When Ben and I were thinking about those characters and who those people were, I’ve been a big fan of Kyle’s for many years, and I thought of him. We asked him if he wanted to come out and play with us for a couple of days, and he did, and it was awesome.
BROWN: You mentioned you starting writing plays while you were in school. How old were you when your first play was performed?
DOREMUS: Thirteen. I was a freshman in high school. It was awful. It was so bad—just garbage. It was about these teenagers who hung out in a basement. [laughs]
BROWN: It’s normal to look back on that kind of stuff—things you did as a teenager—and cringe, but do you feel that as you grow as a director, you look back on your earlier films through the same sort of critical lens?
DOREMUS: Very much. I look back on everything, and I can’t look at it. It’s hard when you get a little separation; you realize, “Oh, I want to do this better,” or, “I want to do this differently.” You know why you did certain things, but you’ve just got to let it go, ’cause you can just mindfuck it and continue to go in circles about how it could’ve been better.
BROWN: This film was shot a few years ago now. Does that make it more difficult to promote? It’s been a couple of years ago now, right?
DOREMUS: Yeah, definitely. It took us so long to make it because we were making it like a documentary; we were going back and shooting more and more and more, which is an exciting way to work. It is a little strange to talk about a version of yourself, or ideas that you were thinking or feeling so long ago.
BROWN: What made you go back and film more? Were you editing and decided you needed something extra?
DOREMUS: [It was] more story clarification. We had a lot of really organic moments and scenes, [but] we just really wanted to go back and flesh out the story a little bit. When you’re improvising in a bubble, you’ve got all these pieces, but you don’t really know how they fit together yet. Then you get in the edit room and you realize you actually need a few more connecting pieces to make the whole thing work.
BROWN: Obviously the benefit of improvisation is that the performance stays fresh. What is the downside?
DOREMUS: The downside is that you can sort of miss the point of what the scene is about if it veers off. And it’s difficult to edit, because a lot of times you’ve got people talking over each other. But I think what it does yield far outweighs the cons.
BROWN: Is there something specific you want to try with your next film?
DOREMUS: I definitely want to do something totally foreign to me. I’m going to be working with a script, as opposed to an outline, which I’m really excited about. There will still be spontaneity and improvisation involved, but it’ll be more of a hybrid. It’s exciting to try to do something in a totally different way—to bring out something totally different in me as a filmmaker. It’s time to try something totally different.
BROWN: Do you cry in movies?
DOREMUS: If I can. It’s the greatest feeling in the world.
BROWN: What’s the first movie that made you cry?
DOREMUS: Gosh, I was a really young kid when I watched The English Patient and I think I got emotional about that. I was 13 or 12 years old. I was more interested in stuff like that.
BROWN: What’s the last film that made you cry?
DOREMUS: Blue is the Warmest Color. I was very emotional after watching that. I loved that movie very much.
BROWN: Can you tell me about your next film?
DOREMUS: Sure. It’s called Equals and we start shooting later this year. It’s a script, like I said, written by a really talented writer named Nathan Parker, who wrote Moon (2009). It’s an idea that I had that we’ve been collaborating on for the past year and a half. It’s a different genre, but it’s still a love story and still in the vein of what I’m interested in doing.
BREATHE IN IS OUT IN LIMITED RELEASE TODAY, MARCH 28.