Interview with Drake Doremus, writer/director of Breathe In

Drake Doremus was in Edinburgh to discuss his new film Breathe In, which opened the Edinburgh International Film Festival.

After winning awards at Sundance 2011 for his film Like Crazy, writer/director Drake Doremus is back with Breathe In, a quietly powerful drama that reunites him with his Like Crazy star Felicity Jones. The film opened the 67th Edinburgh International Film Festival and we caught up with Drake to discuss the thinking behind Breathe In and what went into making the film.

So where did the idea for Breathe In come from?

I made a movie with Felicity (Jones) a little bit before this movie and really wanted to work with her again and Dustin O’Halloran, our composer, listening to his music thinking of ideas and different things. Really the tone and texture of the world, everything kind of stemmed from Dustin’s sort of tone and what he was writing at the time.

So the score came first?

Yeah, pretty much. A lot of the pieces in the movie were written before the movie was made and a lot of the plot was kind of custom tailored to the score actually.

Is music a big thing for you? Is that why you chose this subject?

Yeah, absolutely. I kind of just wanted to make a movie that felt like an opera in a sense, like a musical piece in its tone and rhythm. In starting backwards, it was kind of an interesting excerise.

Do you come from a musical background?

Not really, actually. My grandfather was a musician but I don’t actually play anything.

And what about the actors in the film?

Guy (Pearce) is a musician, he played in his life. He’s a big fan of music but he’d never played the cello. Originally it was going to be the violin and he started taking lessons in Melbourne but he didn’t pick it up so we ended up changing to the cello and he got it down pretty darn good, we were able to do continuous wide shots where he was essentially playing. Felicity took lessons from a concert pianist. She had a double but she also was playing a lot of it too.

Both this film and Like Crazy, the dialogue is very natural and the actors give very natural performances. How much of that is in the script or did the actors bring a lot of that…

Well none of it is in the script. We just start with an outline. It’s about 60 pages, it reads like a short story. It’s got plot, objectives, subtext, backstory. Yeah, basically like a short story and through the rehearsal process we sort of put the scene up and try to organically find what works and what feels right and through the course of that, the dialogue just comes. But the goal is always to use as little dialogue as possible.

How well did the actors take to that? Obviously Felicity has done it before…

Yeah, she’s been just kind of born for this, this form and process. Guy, not so much, he’s never done it before, let alone improvising in a foreign dialect so I think he was really apprehensive to do it and it took some convincing but once he kind of got the rhythm and understood he didn’t have to speak if he didn’t have anything to say and all he had to do was listen and be in the moment. He really got into it and committed himself to it.

It worked well because he’s pretty fantastic in the film.

Yeah, he’s fantastic. It’s kind of amazing to think of the evolution of his involvement.

It’s a pretty big change of pace for him considering the things he had just been working on previously, like Lawless…

Yeah, totally. Good point, yes very much.

Did you learn a lot from Like Crazy that you then implemented on this film?

Learned a lot, then forgot it, then learned it all again, it goes in a circle. I mean, I think it’s just getting more comfortable and confident with how to calibrate certain emotions and hold back. I really wanted to make a restrained film, a film where it’s just a slow build. I think, just like little things here and there but every time out it’s like starting from scratch. Everytime I feel like oh yeah, I know what I’m doing, I start over and realise I don’t know what I’m doing so it’s this perpetual sort of like…it’s like a sports team starting a new season and you’re even in your records, you’re at zero and you’re starting from scratch, you’ve got to keep going I guess.

It seems a more complex film. Like Crazy was mainly two characters but there’s a lot more going on here.

Definitely wanted to open it up and make it a double narrative and make it more of an ensemble piece.

Obviously you’ve worked with Felicity before on Like Crazy but how did it come about that you found Guy Pearce and the rest of the cast, Amy Ryan…

I met with a bunch of different actors for the part but as soon as I met with Guy, I knew that I wanted him to do it. Like I said, it took some convincing because I think he was very apprehensive about the form, he had never done it before and didn’t know if he could do it but I really felt that he had it in him for that part and that he’d be perfect for it.

Amy, I’ve always been a big fan of her work and I Skyped with her for about an hour, she was on a shoot. It took some fighting to get her on, I think it wasn’t everybody’s first choice but it was definitely mine. Mackenzie (Davies), we just found randomly. She had just graduated college and had never done anything before.

So she was an amateur at the time?

Completely. She had never done a movie, never done television, commercials…she was brand new. She just came in and was just so fresh.

She was fantastic.

Yeah, she’s was great.

You said Amy Ryan was your choice, but was there someone else the studio were trying to push on you?

No, I mean, I think sometimes, how do I say this…I guess sometimes people want to push to try to put box office names in things but what matters most is who’s best for the part and I saw her and just tried to get her.

You mentioned it was a conscious choice to make this an ensemble piece after Like Crazy but was it also a conscious choice to make sure that none of the characters were ‘the bad guy’ or ‘the good guy’? Felicity’s character could have came across as a bit of a bitch…

Yeah, definitely. I mean it’s so fascinating for me to explore the greyness of relationships and humanity. It’s not black and white that anyone’s a bad person or a good person. Things happen and you can’t plan for anything and I feel like I wanted to make a movie about characters that were grey. All these characters are the bad guy and all these characters are the good guy but so it’s a fine line but I definitely didn’t want to make a movie about villains and heroes, but I guess in a way I never do.

What were the biggest influences on this film?

There was a movie in the 50’s with Montgomery Clift called A Place in the Sun. George Stevens I believe. It’s an incredible film, something so romantic and beautiful blossomed inside this very dangerous context and the juxtaposition between the two was so fascinating to me and I guess that would be the biggest influence.

Is there any particular filmmaker or screenwriter who has influenced you massively?

Yeah, definitely. Lars Von Trier, Breaking the Waves and the idea of the performances being the way they are. Alfonso Cuaron’s Y Tu Mama Tambien…those movies for sure.

So are you going to follow his career path and do the next Children of Men?

Ha, I’d love to! Sure! Yeah, the goal is to make bigger movies each time out so the goal is to get even bigger and better.

Was there a temptation to go mainstream after Like Crazy?

Yeah, that would’ve been the easy choice but I didn’t want to wait because a) I would’ve had to wait, I wanted to go right away and b) I just didn’t wanna feel the pressure. I had a movie in me, I had an idea so I just wanted to go do it as soon as possible. Just get it out and move on rather than feel the pressure or put any pressure on myself to make what everyone wanted me to make or what anyone wanted me to make.

Did a lot of offers come in?

A few, I mean I’m still in the indie world and not quite crossed over. I feel like that movie I kind of had one foot in the door because Paramount were releasing it but also one foot out of the door because it was still a small movie so it wasn’t like in the studios eyes that I had demonstrated I could write or make big movies.

It’s not really about making big movies, it’s about making the right movie at the right time. If it needs to be a bigger film, it needs to be a bigger film, it’s just really about the right thing I guess.

Have you got anything brewing at the moment?

I’m working on a movie with Nathan Parker at the moment, the writer of Moon. It’s a sci-fi love story, a bigger film, so yeah really excited about that, pouring all my energy and time into that right now.

Is Felicity going to be in that one as well?

I don’t know yet.

Maybe even Guy Pearce…

Ha, yeah. I don’t know, they’re both amazing and I’d love to work with them again so who knows.

Now that you’ve worked with Felicity a couple of times, when you start a film together, it must be an easier relationship.

Yeah, and harder too because we know each other so well we push each and sometimes that’s a really good thing but sometimes it gets heated because you want it to be the best it can be so sometimes we really push each other. And that’s wonderful because there are no boundaries and it’s just about trying to get the best thing on screen as possible.

So yeah, absolutely, it’s like starting way ahead of the game. We don’t have to get to know what makes each other tick and that’s exciting for sure.

Breathe In opens July 19th in the UK with an Autumn release planned for the US, you can check out our review here. Like Crazy is currently available on DVD and Blu-ray.