“Well I wrote most of Mad Men. I take most of the credit for AMC’s shows. I take credit for Breaking Bad as well,” Elisabeth Moss jokes when asked about the collaborative process behind the making of her new film The One I Love. Fresh off her penultimate half season playing Peggy Olson on the heavily-scripted Mad Men, Moss dove into the improvisational world of first time director Charlie McDowell. And as her co-star, Mark Duplass—who brought the idea for film to McDowell— indulges in his affinity for naturalistic relationship dramas, helping to deliver a story that examines “the couple you are when you meet and the couple you become”—with a twist into the surreal.
The One I Love follows married couple Ethan (played by Mark Duplass, who also produced the film) and Sophie (played by Moss) after their couples therapist suggests they mend their fractured relationship with a placid weekend getaway. But as the two begin to embrace and enjoy their vacation, a strange and otherworldly occurrence forces the couple to drop it all and really look at whom they’ve become versus whom they want to be.
So a few weeks back, I sat down with Duplass and Moss to chat about The One I Love’s frighteningly collaborative on set environment of the film, the acting challenges of the film, and the pleasure of working with emotionally-evolved sweeties.
Mark, you brought the idea for the film to Charlie McDowell and Justin Lader. So was this a story an idea that had bee brewing for a while and did it have a particular importance for you?
Mark Duplass: I wish I could say it was an idea that was important to me, but it was an idea that was not that well developed yet. It was barely the seed and kernel of what the plot machine of this movie is. And I thought, oh this will be an interesting reflection of studying couples, in particular the couple you are when you meet and the couple you become, How do you reconcile those two things and is it okay that we migrate in this way? Should we try to hang onto the shine that we have or should we try to let it go? It’s a big discussion, and that is all I gave them, and then they developed a lot for the characters and got it to like a ten page outline form, at which point I flipped it to Elisabeth because we were friends and wanted to work together. She got back to me very quickly and was like, “I’ll do it!” But I was like, “You know, you shouldn’t sign on this quickly, it’s not even close to done yet!” And then she started meeting with me and Charlie and we started building this story together. So it was a very intensely collaborative and we grew it out of all of our own interests and what we wanted to explore in the relationships.
Elisabeth, how did you feel about working in this kind of collaborative environment, which is much different from the scripted and structured world of television.
MD: Well you rewrite all of Matt Weiner’s stuff, right?
Elisabeth Moss: I do. I wrote most of Mad Men. I take most of the credit for AMC’s shows. I take credit for Breaking Bed as well. [laughs]
MD: The whole oeuvre!
EM: No, I got involved in this knowing that it would be improv, and I remember talking to Mark about it and him saying, it’s going to be great, it’s going to be fun! But I had no idea how collaborative it was going to be, in the sense of the actual just talking about the characters and the plot and scenes and having a say in literally like, I don’t think we should do that scene, I think we should cut that plot point. Having that kind of say in something is really foreign to me, not being a producer on anything, not being a filmmaker of anything yet. It was just really fun to have such a say in all the elements of it and be the female voice of it, along with Mel our producer. So for me I wanted to be involved because of the collaborative experience and then got far more than I bargained for.
The director, writer, and co-star are all male, so did you like the element of being the female voice of the film and getting to have that responsibility?
EM: Yeah! And luckily we had a lot of very sensitive men—
MD: There was a lot of estrogen in the males in this movie.
EM: Yeah, Mark’s a very good husband, we’ve got some good men around so it wasn’t like dealing with a bunch of neanderthals. But they think like men, so it was nice to be able to be like, this is actually how the other side thinks sometimes.
Having been friends prior to making the movie, did that help in developing a chemistry and dropping into your characters?
MD: It was great and super helpful and we had a very nice buddy chemistry. We share a similar outlook on the dark things in life, where we can laugh at them to, and that’s a very unique thing and very important to this film, which is very funny but kind of weird and dark at times. So I knew when we sat down to do a scene it wasn’t going to be like, okay that’s should have been funny to you so you should laugh at that. We already jived in that way, so it helped.
EM: And just a professional sense of respect for each other as well. I loved his films and his work and I know that he’s loved what I’ve done, so we started at that place where it was like, if you have an idea I’m going to listen to you because I actually think what you have to say is probably good or vice versa. So there wasn’t any hierarchy or sort of you have to prove yourself to me. We were already like, okay I trust you, we’re good.
And I’m sure that trust is rare and doesn’t always come easy.
MD: Particularly in an environment like this, which again, can be a great thing but can also be a terrible thing where you’re very unsure where the movie is going in a lot of ways. You’re kind of letting it live and breathe organically, and you’re shucking and jiving things as you go, and it makes it a very execution-dependent film. So that can make people panicky and a little defensive. That’s a big part of making these movies, that everybody on set was a sweetie. It was 25 sweeties, 25 emotionally-evolved nice people who aren’t going to throw shit fits and be fussy, and that is a huge element of keeping the ship afloat.
With a filmmaking process that’s as improvisational as this was, I imagine its challenging to keep recalling the past while keeping the yet to be evolved future of the narrative in mind.
EM: Yeah, I felt like I played the movie and script over in my head 100 times a day. I felt like we were all living and breathing this story for fifteen days.
MD: Which is fucking exhausting, but great though. The best way I can explain it in a microcosm is like: If you’re in scene 13 and you have an interaction, you’ll feel it and we’ll be like, they were a little more connected in this scene than we thought they might be based on the script. So then we can take that and be like, great, now we have more bedrock than we thought, now when it comes time for scene 17 we can really have them tear each other to pieces because we know how much they love each other. So you can then grow and shape and shift as you go and that makes your chances of making a movie that doesn’t suck so much better because you’re dealing honestly with what you’re getting.
Without revealing too much, was this film a different kind of acting challenge for the both of you, having to showcase so many different sides of yourself?
MD: Neither of us had done something like this before, and it required that we showed many more shades of ourselves than you normally do for playing your average character. So when were thinking about who can play this role, who can be loose, fun, sweet, and accessible in that great romantic comedy way but who can also be super dark and mysterious and hard to crack, those were two seemingly mutually exclusive personality traits. So it was cool to be like, okay Elisabeth, all this stuff that you are, we’re going to use all of it.
EM: I was really fucking terrified before starting this. I had just come off of Mad Men, literally drove to Ojai to do this the next day. I started the movie the day after that and I was pretty convinced I was going to be a massive disappointment to everybody involved. I had no idea what I was doing, and I found this role and the other things involved in it unbelievably challenging, and I was terrified to do it. The minute anyone said I had a good idea, I was like, thank you they’re not going to fire me, they don’t think I’m stupid!
Do you find it difficult to shift from one head space and character to another, or have you gotten good at that quick psychological transition?
EM: I’m actually really good at it. I don’t know what that means psychologically.
MD: You’re kind of a sociopath.
EM: I really am a little bit of a sociopath, I have the ability to drop it when they say cut. I don’t know why I’m just very good at compartmentalizing things in my life.
MD: You have been doing this for over 20 years.
EM: I have been doing this for a very long time! Maybe I’m just a professional…or a sociopath, either or. Hey it’s working, I’m not going to complain.
I thought the film was an interesting way to look at relationships and the varying shades of the person you love—the slight shifts in a person’s behavior that can make something adorable turn to an annoyance, and so on.
MD: It’s great that you bring that point up, because at the end of the day, while this movie is genre-defying and trying to do new things with plotting, it really is a relationship movie about what do you do when the shine starts to wear off. Do you want the person you met back? Are you willing to keep them warts and all? How hard should you fight for a relationship, when is fighting too much fighting? These were questions we were constantly asking ourselves and we wanted to explore them here and just do it in a more fun, irreverent and crazy way.
In playing these roles and working through the drama of a relationship, do you find that you discover something about yourself or your past relationships?
MD: I do. And the reason I know it is because I surround myself in these movies with very emotionally-evolved insightful people who are people studiers. So I’ll be doing something in a scene that’s similar to something I do personally in my life and Elisabeth will comment on it. And I’ll be like, oh yeah, she sees this in a way that my brother and Katie don’t necessarily see because they’re so close to me. There was a great moment in Your Sister’s Sister where the two girls were in bed talking about the first time Rosemarie DeWitt’s character met me—I didn’t see the shooting of that scene because I was off that day—and I remember watching it and she says, “What’d you think of him?” and she says, “Well you know he’s nice, a little full of himself.” And I was like, full of himself?! And then I remembered what I was doing in that scene and was like, oh yeah, there’s a little bit of that. So it’s interesting.
Having both worked on television and in film, do you have a preference for either medium or have those lines begun to blur?
EM: I’ve been witness to the disappearance of the lines between them. When I was younger it was very different doing television and film. TV was sort of your lower class citizen, and I’ve literally seen it and luckily been a part of the disappearance of those lines, where a show like Breaking Bad is as good or better than a film.. There’s just no difference anymore, it’s just about the material. Same with theater. I love it. As actors we have so much more opportunity because we’re not put in boxes and you can move between the fields.
MD: I totally agree, and I feel like the independent space as well, in terms of independent film and how that’s been approached, I’m very excited to try to bring that approach into television, because I think it’s time you can make that stuff cheaply as well. I want to see the day when there’s a Sundance for independent TV shows too and go that way because we can do all that, there’s no reason that we can’t.
EM: Top of the Lake was at Sundance last year and that’s the first time that’s ever happened.