Mark Duplass and Elisabeth Moss on coining a new genre called "sci-feelings"

Salon spoke to the stars of "The One I Love" about their own chemistry, improv and bonding over pizza

Published August 18, 2014 4:20PM (EDT)

Mark Duplass and Elizabeth Moss in "The One I Love"
Mark Duplass and Elizabeth Moss in "The One I Love"

Mark Duplass and Elisabeth Moss are not dating, but their chemistry is palpable -- both in interviews and in "The One I Love." In the film, Duplass and Moss play Ethan and Sophie, a couple grappling with relationship stagnation who depart for a weekend retreat at their therapist’s (Ted Danson) urging. Once there, what starts as a pleasant weekend away soon turns … bizarre. The two stars aren’t spilling the big secret and neither will I, because that would spoil the film’s delirious second act. Let’s just say that Ethan and Sophie go in search of their better selves and encounter an unusual problem.

Directed by first-time helmer Charlie McDowell, the film takes a staggeringly ambitious look at modern romance, and Moss and Duplass are the perfect duo to journey into this singularly trippy headspace.

What were your impressions upon reading the script? Was it hard to wrap your minds around it?

Duplass: It happened differently for me because I met with Charlie [McDowell] and Justin [Lader] and they were expressing their frustrations about the state of the independent film industry and how hard it is to get a movie made, and for better or worse I’m known as a place where you can get a movie made really cheaply and quickly. We started talking about, “Why don’t you stop waiting for your $5 million movie and let’s go make something together” and they said great. I pitched them this kernel of an idea for the movie but it was very little. It basically ended up being the central twist of the movie that I gave them, but nothing about character or the story of Ethan and Sophie. They took it and fleshed that out and brought it to me. The first 10-page outline, I thought, while the whole movie wasn’t there yet, was inspired and amazing. I kind of jumped the gun. I said, “Guys, I'm friends with Elisabeth Moss and she might want to do something with us. I think she’d be perfect for this.” They were like, “Oh, we love her!”

So I sent her a 10-page outline and she got back to me immediately and said, “I’ll do it.” I was like, “Oh shit! Guys, we have a movie and we really need to get this in shape now.” It almost serendipitously became this very collaborative process in that we started meeting with Lizzie and she became the guardian of the female voice of the film. We started building this back story upon, “What is up with this couple?” Very quickly the big theme emerged of: What do you do when the person you promised your mate that you were starts to change? It could be because you’re changing, or that the luster is wearing off and you’re just not as cool as you said you were, or as emotionally evolved. Or you really don’t like museums even though you said you did, and how do you handle that?

Elisabeth, what spoke to you in the script? Was it the relationship dynamic?

Moss: It was twofold: It was the realism and the magic that really captured my attention. I fell in love with the treatment that I was sent and I thought it was the greatest idea. I felt like I had never seen it before and I wanted to see that movie. The fact that they wanted me in it was so cool. I had just finished "Mad Men" Season 6 and it was either we started this movie two days after we wrapped, or I couldn’t do the movie. I chose to do the movie because it was such a great idea and I didn’t want to lose it. It was equally the idea of playing a real couple and a real woman in our time, with real problems and real relationship history. That was really interesting, and seeing it through this crazy, magical lens, I personally love those kinds of movies. I love when you take a romantic comedy and turn it on its head.

Duplass: When we started shooting, I knew this, but I think I knew it more subconsciously when we first got on set and started shooting, was that one of the early things we did was a very standard, romantic comedy moment. Ethan and Sophie are really connecting, and as we were shooting the scene it was like, “Oh, this is how I know Lizzie, which is hanging out with pizza and beer.”  We knew each other socially and I was like, “I haven’t seen this from her on-screen yet. This really laid-back, modern, sweet, every-girl.” I thought, “This is so fucking cool. We’re birthing, to a certain degree, the real Lizzie.” In the way that romantic comedy people do, they play thinly veiled versions of themselves. Obviously the movie goes in totally other places and I was glad to have her for that.

Moss: Of course, I couldn’t get away with just an easy romantic comedy experience.

Duplass: Yeah, you couldn’t just do that. But by the way, you’re well-poised to go play a terrible, run-of-the-mill romantic comedy lead now. It’s your dream!

Moss: Are you kidding me? I love those movies! Sign me up! I will make "Runaway Bride 7." I would love it. [Laughs]

You guys have such an easy chemistry. Was that something that immediately clicked?

Moss: It’s completely manufactured. We just met today.

Duplass: We don’t speak. At all.

Moss: We have not spoken in years. No, we were friends. We met on a movie that we had done together where we didn’t have any scenes together, and that had incredibly, legendary, famous, amazing people in it that we were too scared to hang out with.

Duplass: It was remote. We were living in Park City away from home.

Moss: In October. It was "Darling Companion," the Larry Kasdan film. We were like, “Should we go get some pizza?”

Duplass: “Kevin Kline’s here! I feel weird! Let’s go get some pizza.”

Moss: We just became friends. I’m honestly a genuine fan of his and his brother’s work. I saw "Safety Not Guaranteed" and was like, “I want to work with you.” He wanted to do the same. It was nice because one of the main hurdles that we would have had to cross in a 15-day shoot that has a huge improvisational component to it would have been establishing chemistry and getting to know the person. We did not have to waste time doing that. We hit the ground running, thank God!

Tell me about the improv. Mark, I know that’s natural to you, but Elisabeth, how was it for you?

Moss: Here’s the thing. If there had been absolutely nothing to work with I think I would have been totally terrified. With this I was just half-terrified. I felt like there was enough of a framework where I didn’t have to make up where this story goes because we had a really detailed plot. There was this whole element to it that did have to be scripted because of some of the stuff that happens in the movie. So there was stuff that we did have to hit. I think if it had been entirely improvisational I would have been really scared. I felt like I had a framework and I wasn’t alone. I didn’t have to write dialogue. I could turn to Justin and Mark and say, “Gimme a word. What would I say?” I told him at the beginning, “Please, just tell me anything that you want me to say. There’s no ego here. Give me suggestions.” I think I said that?

Duplass: Yeah, you did.

Moss: So I didn’t feel as scared as I thought I would be, once I got there and got rolling.

Mark, how do ideas come to you? Do you have to be in work mode or are you constantly jotting things down?

Duplass: It’s funny. When the initial little impulse comes it just tends to come. I wake up in the middle of the night, or I’ll be swimming in the pool with my kids and just think, “Can’t forget that one.” Then there’s the more organized side of the brain, which is when I choose to work on them. I’ve learned through a bunch of mentors how to demarcate the different times for your writing process. I keep multiple projects going at once and there’s a time when no matter what you’re doing, you have to stop and write it because it’s coming. That is not as convenient. I don’t even love that part of the process because sometimes I’ll literally be in the middle of shooting "The League" and I’m like, “I need to get off this fucking set right now because this idea is coming to me.” Then there are other parts where I’m like, “I’ve set aside 4-7 p.m. to write. I’ve got a baby sitter for my kids and I have nothing to say and I’m totally uninspired.” That’s when it’s good to have a couple of projects that are like 80 percent done so you can go down the mechanic portion of your writing process and start trimming and empirically making this thing better when it’s not time to be inspired. It’s very important to know where you’re at and what time you should be working on projects.

Tell me about your relationships with sci-fi? Has it been a part of your lives?

(In unison) Hmm …

Moss: Good question. Well, I am a girl [Laughs]. I am a girly-girl. I was a ballet dancer from 5 to 15. I saw "Star Wars" for the first time when it came back out in the theater. I do have a brother who is 30 so I wasn’t completely left out of the loop. But it wasn’t really a huge part of my life. I’m a huge fan of our version of sci-fi in this movie. I love Charlie Kaufman. I met him once and was totally geeked-out on him. I was like, “I’m your biggest fan. I love you so much!”

Was he weird?

Moss: He was exactly what I wanted him to be. He was a lovely, really nice guy. I love those kinds of movies. I love "100 Years of Solitude" and that kind of stuff. I’m attracted to that kind of magical realism.

The cerebral?

Moss: Yeah, exactly.

Duplass: I like a good schmaltzy sci-fi. I’m a "Starman"-kinda guy. I like sci-feelings.

Moss: Oh my God. That’s the most amazing genre we just coined: sci-feelings!

Duplass: That’s kind of what the movie is. Sci-feelings. It really is.

Moss: Sci-fi with a chance for sci-feelings. Genius.

Duplass: That’s what it comes down to. That being said, now that you say this, I remember being 8 years old and my uncle brought me to this weird Wolfgang Peterson movie "Enemy Mine." It’s like a two-person movie and has this weird stuff going on but the core of it is about this relationship. I’m just discovering right now that I think maybe the seed of my idea, and the feeling of our movie, is not dissimilar to that. Although our movie tends to go into much more interpersonal relationship dynamics and the relationship of a romantic couple, it’s very strange but ultimately about two people.

Moss: We’re cornering the market on sci-feelings.

What’s your favorite head-trip movie?

Moss: I’d have to go with the aforementioned "Adaptation" and "Eternal Sunshine." Anything Spike Jonze does.

Duplass: "Repulsion" for me was a really big movie where I was like, “OK, technically there’s nothing scary going on here but I’m kind of terrified.” Something so tiny was devolving this whole world. I guess I’ve always been obsessed with what I call the “epically small” in cinema, and that’s how one tiny, little weird thing can just explode everything. In some ways, "The One I Love" is just about a couple trying to figure out whether they should stay together or break up, and whether it’s worth the work. But on this crazy weekend, a little ripple is sent through that and as strange as it sounds, that’s kind of how they get their answer.

Moss: And "The Neverending Story."


Moss: I know! It’s the original sci-feelings!

Duplass: The original sci-feelings, with a giant dog.

By Drew Fortune

Drew Fortune is a Los Angeles freelance writer. He's a regular contributor to A.V. Club, Interview Magazine, and his work has appeared in Spin, Paste, and many other publications. Tweet him @drewster187.

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Elisabeth Moss Mark Duplass Movies The One I Love