Riley Stearns is no stranger to Sundance Film Festival. His short film, The Cub, premiered at the fest in 2013. Since then he wrote and directed two feature films, Faults and The Art of Self-Defense. They’re both black comedies, and Stearns cements himself as a writer fond of the deadpan, off-beat, but introspective tone. Dual [link my review], his latest entry, is no different. With a sci-fi twist, it tells the story of a woman, played by Karen Gillan, who must fight to the death with her commissioned clone after it is no longer wanted. For Dual‘s premier at Sundance, DiscussingFilm had the opportunity to talk to Stearns about his process conceptualizing the film and bringing it to life.
So my first question is, what do you find compelling about high concept science fiction?
I can talk about what I found compelling about my take on it. We shot this movie in Finland, because of COVID protocols. We get there, and everyone heard sci fi, and they heard Hollywood, and they started showing us locations that would be what you would imagine a sci fi movie would use. Like, a very fancy, mansion-y sort of house that my main character could live in, that looks futuristic, and all this stuff, and I [was] just like, “This wasn’t right for the movie.” I don’t think that they fully got where the tone was because there’s an expectation that comes along with a sci fi and there’s an expectation that comes along with world building a movie. And I like to subvert expectations. So getting to do a science fiction, but in the space of kind of what I like to do, was more intriguing to me. I think that the movie really benefits from not feeling like a lot of things — even if there’s this clone idea, replacing yourself, “What would you do? How did your family react?” — we’ve seen those stories before. Even recently, last year with Swan Song, this is a different take on it, so that was exciting about it for me.
This film had elements of a stilted satire. When you’re directing one of those, what do you look to bring out in an actor’s performance to make it connectable?
I’ve talked about this before, and I feel like I may be boring in the way that I talk about it because it’s just kind of a simple answer. When when actors read stuff like this, that has a directness to it, and there’s a ridiculousness to the way that the the line would read on the page. If you say it like a joke, then it’s not going to be funny. It’s going to be like putting a hat on top of a hat. The dialogue is already crazy, the world is already sort of this removed, emotionless sort of place, and the best way to go about that, to sell the humor is to just say it as if it is fact. So, just say it matter of factly. That’s the biggest hurdle in the actor’s trust me as a director, and it always is present in the beginning until people get used to it. It’s just trusting that the line is funny on its own, and that they don’t have to sell it as a joke. So Jesse [Eisenberg] , for example, on [The Art of] Self Defense, would always ask, “Are you sure that’s funny? Like I could do it again?” But by the end of it, he just kind of accepted like, “Riley will tell me if it’s right or wrong.” Karen [Gillan] was no exception on this. She came at it with a little bit more of a humoristic sort of way of saying something, and then I would have to be like, “Le’ts just bring it down a little bit and trust that,” and it took a second. But once she was in it, she was fully in it, and then she watched it. She was like, “Okay, yeah, you’re right. This is where it needed to be.” So yeah, there’s a fine line. I think it’s great that I’m able to be the writer and director and trust that what I wrote is not going to be executed in this sort of way too. But I like. It’s fun.
But in terms of making a human connection with a serious or stilted character? How do you try to bring that about in the performance?
Because the situation is already relatable in a lot of ways, even though this is the sci fi concept, you’re dealing with this loss of relationship, loss of family, isolation, starting your life over again. We can all relate to that in some way, shape, or form. I think that innately is just in the character and innately in the movie. I tried to find moments where Sarah, in particular, could be alone, and have moments outbursts and moments of being overt with her emotional release. Whether it’s in the car, when she suddenly breaks down and realizes, “Oh my God, I am dying.” and she has that moment where she just lets herself break down, or the screaming, or just letting it all out. Those are areas where I tried to let the emotion seep through a little bit more overtly. At the end of the day, even if there isn’t this tangible emotion, again, just being able to relate to the situations and life experiences, I think that helps.
How did you hope that violence would act in Dual as a storytelling device?
I think that there’s enough violence in everyday life, and in other movies, that we’re so desensitized to it. So when it’s used in Dual, it’s either not shown at all, or it’s shown in a very, very, very overt way that makes you uncomfortable because I don’t think that ever should be there “just because”. I do tend to use violence as a way of getting at some humor and critique of life as well, but I don’t like to just show it for the sake of showing it. For example, there’s a scene in Dual, which I won’t be specific about, where a character is confronted with an actual death, like there’s death in front of her. That moment could have been really overt and it could have been not shown at all, and I tried to find the right balance to where you’re having a character realize that their mortality is present, like they are seeing where they could be, whether it’s in the future, or an alternate reality, or whatever it is. That’s sort of important. And, again, just not overusing it in a way that like, I used this already, but like, you’ve got a movie where 30 people get gunned down in the hallway, and then our character, walks away and says some quip. This isn’t that movie. I love an action movie, and I love a cool stunt sequence and everything. But this isn’t that. And if I’m going to use it, I want it to be deliberately used.
You’ve collaborated with major actors like Jesse Eisenberg, Karen Gillan, and Aaron Paul, what are some other actors you hope to collaborate with in the future?
That’s a tough one, because I’m still at the point where I, especially prior to Dual, I’d look at actors as being unattainable. If I write something for somebody, or if I think I want something for somebody for something, inevitably they say no, and that’s hard. And so I try not to write for people, because I just assume they’re gonna say no. I think going forward after Dual, hopefully, I’ll be in a position where I can maybe offer to some people who maybe would actually do it. But I try not to think too far ahead that way, because I think you’re setting yourself up for failure. In a weird way, I think that my brain is never going to let me fully accept that people want to work with me. So at this point in time, I’m just like, “Actors are cool!” Whoever wants to do it at some point, maybe they’ll be the right person at the right time. We’ll see.
What sorts of projects you want to do next? Have you given that much thought?
Yeah, I’m working on the next idea right now, which is something I’m excited about, but also, kind of still trying to find, if that makes sense. I’m carving that out. Having the next thing that’s for me is very important. Trying to keep an eye out for the right script, that isn’t something that I wrote, that maybe somebody else wrote, that I feel could be something that I can really connect with. I found things here and there and they haven’t worked out, they’ve gone to bigger directors, or another person who was maybe more right for the part, whatever it is. I’m just open to things. And then, the television space. There’s some things that are being talked about right now that are cool and exciting. I would love to write something at some point for TV. But yeah, in terms of movies, the main thing, I want to keep going forward with my own thing, writing and directing if I can, but keeping the door open for potential projects that I didn’t write as well.