Meeting Drake Doremus to chat about his new film Like Crazy, I couldn’t help but call the director “Mr. Douchebag,” after his breakout feature. “I guess I earned that title,” he jokes. Like Douchebag, Like Crazy is an improvised drama. This new film, which should garner Doremus more attention and accolades, tells the story of two young lovers, Jacob (Anton Yelchin) and Anna (Felicity Jones, a Gotham Award nominee for Breakthrough Actor) who meet and fall in love. When she ignores the rules of her student visa, however, their romance becomes a long-distance relationship, full of jealousy, waiting, despair, affairs, and possibly heartbreak. Slant recently caught up with Doremus, who discussed the making of Like Crazy, its autobiographical nature, and his thoughts on the dynamics of relationships.
This film is much larger in scale than your previous feature, Douchebag. But it’s still very intimate. How did you conceive the film?
I think they are still part of the same family in many ways; [they feature] some of the same principles and techniques of filmmaking and performance. I just learned a lot making Douchebag, which was kind of an experiment. It was never intended to actually be a movie. The fact that we ended up with a film was very fortunate. Andrew and Ben weren’t actors. With [Like Crazy], it was intended to be something. The idea stemmed from me wanting to explore my feelings and my co-writer Ben’s feelings about long-distance relationships. That was the impetus.
You use handheld camerawork, montages jump cuts, and other visual techniques to compress time and tell the story, which takes place over five years. Can you talk about this process?
It was a difficult thing to do, actually. I really wanted to make it feel like five years. To do that in 89 minutes is difficult, so I devised this idea to make the time jumps very stylized—opposite of what this film is, which is really raw—almost like we are documenting or stealing moments of these human beings and their lives. Then these time jumps are really highly stylized signals to the audience that we’re going to be pulling your hand along, but don’t worry, we’re going to drop you somewhere that you will be able to figure out what’s going on. With the time lapses and dissolves, I wanted to do something stylized so it wouldn’t be confusing when we were jumping forward. It was difficult to figure out what parts to show in the 89 minutes, as opposed to having this rambling relationship. There’s no first kiss, no first “I love you,” no first sex…
Well, there is, but it’s ambiguous. Is this the first kiss?
Yeah, I wanted it to feel like the movie washed over you, as opposed to it being an intellectual experience of breaking down love. I wanted it to be an emotional experience.
How do you think the film conforms/challenges the typical love story?
I think inevitably, I’m influenced by films with the [boy-meet-girl/boy-loses-girl] structure because of the genre. I really tried not to…the films I was researching for this film had nothing to do with boy-meets-girl conventions or anything like that on purpose. Like Breaking the Waves. Y Tu Mamá También influenced a lot of the camerawork in the film.
What is something silly/sincere that you’ve done for love?
Well, I got married. [Laughs] That’s one similar thing, and the silliest thing I’ve ever done for love. Being infatuated with somebody.
Are you still married?
No, divorced for years. But I never really was married, because she never really got back in the country, and when she did…
So this part of the story is your autobiographical part…
That part is, but there is a lot of fictional stuff. Jacob and Anna are very different characters; she’s a journalist, and he’s a furniture designer. I purposely fictionalized an enormous amount of material in the film, but some of the circumstances that I’ve experienced in my life I wanted to explore.
How did you work with the actors on their characters, their appearances and their emotions? She cries a lot…
She does. Pushed her to cry a lot. We did a scene where I’d tell Felicity, “You’re crying, but you’re trying not to, so you’re trying to stop yourself, but you can’t, and there’s all this subtext going on,” and then she said, “What? You want me to do that again? I’m going to cry again?!” I think that was a lot for her. It was an emotional time. It was a long short shoot because we had to jam so much in.
We originally worked from a “script-ment,” I guess you call it, 50 pages long, really in-depth. More in-depth than a normal script, because it has all the backstory in it, emotional beats, tons of exposition, tons of subtext, and then a lot of character objectives—what they want in each scene, what they are thinking, what they are feeling—that informs the structure of the scene, and in that, the dialogue comes as a project of how the actors are feeling. We fine-tune that. As far as the characters, we had scaffolding in the “script-ment” for each year that was [indicated]. In year one, this is where the character is at, this is how the character dresses, this is how the character walks, and how the character thinks, and we’d go through different stages. Anna has [hair] extensions in the first few years, then she doesn’t, it gets shorter, neater, as her life becomes [neater]. The characters are fleshed out in the “script-ment,” but they really come to life when the actors start adding some of the details.
Can you give me an example of one?
As the writer, I really wanted to put the onus on her to create from the inside out so many elements of her character. I asked her to write the poem that she reads to Jacob in the bedroom. I’d never heard it and Anton had never heard it until the first take. Anton’s performance in the first take is a genuine performance, it’s a natural moment. Then the speech in the beginning of the movie, she wrote. All those books she gave Jacob, she really put pictures in and wrote them, and filled in the blanks of how much time had passed and she knew what was going on when they were not together.
What do you think bonds Anna and Jacob?
What bonds them over time is an infatuation with a very short amount of time where they either did fall in love or they felt they needed that at that time in their lives. The first three months that they are together is their honeymoon phase. Falling for somebody is what bonds them over the course of time because they are trying to get back to that moment; they are trying to feel that aphrodisiac again.
Do you think it’s possible to recapture the magic of a relationship that begins so intensely?
Yeah, something that begins so intensely, and almost so naïvely with two people who haven’t really experienced a lot in their lives and don’t really understand what it would be like to experience it, and then measure everything against it and always think about getting back to that place, so when they try to get over each other, they can’t, because there’s this idea in their head, this magical utopia land of love, that really doesn’t exist anymore, that they are trying to get back to because essentially they need that in their lives.
Why did you make Anna such a selfish and at times unsympathetic, unlikable character?
Well, I find her likable, I think she’s selfish. She makes selfish decisions because of how she feels about Jacob. She’s not making selfish decisions in spite of Jacob. She’s making them because she loves him. Whether that’s mature love, or understandable love is one thing. I really wanted to capture the madness and insanity of what love drives you to [do]. To me that’s my perspective on it. But to me, there are so many things about the character that I would love to [see] in a woman, so I feel I idealized something there.
Do you think it’s simply distance that drives Anna and Jacob apart?
No, I think it’s growth, not distance. I think distance is what prolongs what drives them apart.