In the new film Like Crazy from director Drake Doremus, Anton Yelchin and Felicity Jones play a pair of recent university graduates who embark on one of the most painfully realistic long distance relationships ever captured on film. Yelchin’s American furniture designer Jacob and Jones’ British journalist Anna are deeply in love and seemingly inseparable from one another until Anna’s youthful indiscretion causes her to no longer be eligible for a travel visa to see her lover. Jacob and Anna begin a cycle through which they are constantly breaking up and reuniting as they struggle to create a future with each other in it despite lingering thoughts that it might never end up working out.
Almost entirely improvised from a simple outline, utilizing thirty minute long takes, and shot with a Canon still camera to preserve the sense of intimacy the film demands, Doremus largely based the emotions of the story on a real life relationship that he had previously gone through. Like Crazy therefore feels like an extremely personal work that could only be told by someone who had lived through similar experiences. The film focuses intently on smaller moments in a relationship that have greater bearing on memory than larger showier events. In short, the film is essentially the antithesis of every romantic drama in the past 30 years. It shows the nature of first love simply as is, warts and all, without ever once passing judgement on any of the character or the audience.
During a recent stopover in Toronto for this past September’s Toronto International Film Festival (and following the film’s winning of the Sundance Grand Jury prize earlier in the year), Doremus, Yelchin, and Jones talked to Criticize This! about the challenges of keeping romance real and free of melodramatics and how to create fully realized characters without having a script in front of them.
Andrew Parker: This is such a personal film for Drake. Was this a very personal performance that you put a lot of yourself into?
Anton Yelchin: It’s not a personal performance because I think that character is completely different from me. He couldn’t be more different from me, but what happens is when you become this person you then completely lose yourself in it and it does become very personal. It becomes this surreal kind of magical thing where you forget that you have a life outside of it.
We shot six day weeks and we shot long days and we were just there all the time. I forgot there was a world outside of this realm. I was a part of it all the time and I was that personal for so long. It’s a mind fuck to say the least, but it’s a beautiful one.
It’s very honest, just watching it, and it was a heck of an experience for me because for that one month I’m just playing this character that I am so invested in and personally detached from and then ten days after that I am off in Nevada doing Fright Night playing a totally different character with a totally different look, so again, it’s kind of a mindfuck.
AP: Did the fact that the film was based in part of Drake’s real life experiences have any bearing on your agreeing to the role or did it add any pressure while playing the role to do this character a certain amount of dramatic justice?
AY: No. I basically met with Drake, we had coffee, and I thought he was a great guy. I had seen his previous film Douchebag and I really like it and I thought that was a really cool and exciting way to make a movie because it’s so hard to get movies financed these days. When people take movies into their own hands with this primitive technology and make something that’s a great film, that’s something that excites me and that I want to embrace. It’s something that I can believe in.
So I met him and I liked him. And I hoped he liked me, obviously. He gave me the outline that day and I said I was in because I was crying by the end of the outline. Now I’m not one of those who seeks out romantic stories to be moved by, but I was so moved by it because you could tell he just knew this. It was so poignant and so moving that I just fell in love with it. I read it in half an hour and I just called it in.
AP: What was it like filming 30 minute takes instead of short ones and improvising from an outline?
AY: It’s amazing. It’s probably the most liberating thing I have ever experienced working because you… I mean, you always have to know your character better than you know yourself and I’ll always strive to do that. But when you have the lines in front of you there’s always that pressure to hit your mark and know everything inside in out, and some filmmakers more than others are less concerned with you knowing your lines, but there’s always that framework that you’re in and the beats you have to hit. With this, you just know who that person is completely and if you don’t know it you get lost.
When we got to work there was no danger of that because we had done all these rehearsals and we knew these people and the situations. You just open your mouth and whatever comes out or whatever doesn’t come out is that person. The takes can get really long because in every relationship there are moments of long silence. When we first got to rehearsals all we would do is just talk and talk and talk and talk and talk, and then by the end of the rehearsal process we found one of the most important things is to just let the silences win in the end and to be comfortable with that. I don’t know if it’s because you’re trained to get that dialog out in case someone needs to cut something together or if because there’s too much space in a scene. I mean, especially in an action film like Star Trek or Terminator (Salvation), the concern is not leaving enough space because the audience will get bored and start to see the cuts that need to be made. Here it was a case where we did takes where we didn’t talk very much at all. We would just do a couple of takes and say a couple of things, because in any great relationship there are all of those wonderful moments where you don’t need to speak or you don’t want to say anything and just enjoy being with the other person. Then sometimes when it gets really dark, you just don’t know what to say and it’s a different kind of silence that can sometimes last for a full day with a couple. Then other times you don’t want to stop talking because you’re afraid that if you stop, you’re going to lose the other person. In the film, when it reaches the first time the couple is going to be apart, there’s that fear of losing one another. They’re trying to say something to each other that keeps things optimistic and inevitably they stay stuck, and only then does the silence begin to creep in.
It’s so liberating because you can just do what you want. You can stand up, walk around, stay seated. It’s a bitch for the DP who has to adapt to filming it, but it’s really magical when you see it all come together.
AP: What did the outline look like to you guys when you had it in front of you?
It would basically just say something like “Interior: Classroom. Anna has just read a paper that she has written. Jacob Helms sits in the back of the class.” That was it. And if there was every any dialog, well not really dialog, but anything that he thought would be a good guide to what he thought the scene should be, he would have something in place, but that would inevitably end up changing with rehearsals throughout the process.
When we were shooting it was like this cold, grey feeling of ambiguity. You don’t necessarily want to cry, but you have no idea where your relationship is heading and it just feels like this weight. It’s much more interesting than having this definite answer.
AP: Do you think that the relationship between Jacob and Anna is true to the old adage that people in long distance relationships need the tension caused by distance to survive?
AY: No. I think that with this couple if Anna hadn’t overstayed her visa, they would have just stayed together and been happy with each other. It might have fizzled out or they might have stayed together, but for them it was traumatic that all that happened. For whatever reason she fell in love with him. She opened him up to everything when he was just this closed off person. Even in the wardrobe we try to make him look really closed off in the beginning because she is the one that ultimately liberates him. That connection isn’t fed off a negative like it’s The Night Porter. They truly love each other and then this obstacle comes and they get thrown a curveball, and then they don’t know what to do with one another.
I can get that, though. I’ve been in a relationship where one person is kind of difficult and troubled in some way, and I probably fed off of that in a lot of ways. I don’t think that is the case with this
AP: We get to see a lot of Anna’s family throughout the film, but we never get to see Jacob’s parents. Did you have to create a backstory for the character yourself or did you and Drake already have that in place?
AY: Well, Drake and I talked about this a lot. The backstory of the parents was something that Drake created and we elaborated on. While they’re not in the film, they don’t need to be there, which is very interesting. There are two scenes with the mother where she was there and completely distant and not connected to him, and then he says he doesn’t have a father, which was tremendous because just knowing that sets up this character that has no one to go to. It plays on the whole closed off aspect. He has a mother that doesn’t give a shit about him and he has no father, so he’s pretty much alone and left to himself. Everything that’s exciting about him comes from within and his desire and ability to create his furniture.
Drake and I went and met with a really fascinating guy who actually designed the chairs that my character creates for the movie naked Dakota. He works in LA. His chairs and really simple and beautiful and he spoke about being connected to them because of a lack of connection in our culture and how global capitalism is based around things like turnover time and how fast can we put out something as shitty as possible so it can break and you move onto the next thing. And his whole thing was about connecting to the furniture and feeling that something personal and permanent was there. That was kind of mindblowing for me because out entire film is about trying to attain a sense of permanence and connection. That’s what I used for Jacob with him opening up via his art, which is funny because when he opens up to her, his art flourishes as well.
AP: One of the things that’s most interesting about the film is that you never actually see the main characters get together, or break up, or even have sex. You see them having sex with other people at different points, but never with each other. How did you guys work with Drake to fill in those key points of the film without ever showing them?
AY: I think some of it was editing. Even in the outline there was one sex scene between Anna and Jacob. It was right before he had to leave London, and we actually shot it. I’m grateful that it’s not in the film, not because it sucked or something, but because I think it’s very intelligently done without it. That’s not what the relationship is supposed to focus on in the film. The viewer’s gaze is not meant to focus on their sexual energy. It’s about looking at the other things. In a weird way it makes you able to think about what their sex would be like without actually having to see it. I think he really made that choice, but I think Jonathan Alberts, the editor, really did a lot of that work because it must be a fuckin’ insanely difficult film to edit because we do all of these really long takes and every take is different. We tried our best to repeat certain things in coverage, but then coverage would go all over the place and it became almost impossible to do things the exact same way twice.
I think also, what important is when you see them having sex with other people, you see how they should be together with each other. You see that important counterpoint. I mean, we had discussions with Drake about what their sex would be like with Drake along with pretty much everything else, but I really do think it was really intelligently done. These scenes are motivated to make you think about the distance between them and their togetherness is from a different realm. Their relationship isn’t about the physical side of their attraction, it’s about the love and everything that goes with that and how it can get brutally destroyed.
AP: Was there anything that you and Felicity decided that you consciously needed to stay away from as actors that would potentially sour how your relationship came across on screen or that you were afraid would come across as melodramatic?
AY: No. Not really. Drake, Felicity, and I had only about a week of rehearsals, but they were long 12 hour rehearsals at a time. We just hung out and talked about everything, and one of the rules was that there was nowhere you couldn’t go as long as it was your character. And it’s a credit to Drake that a movie that could have ended up melodramatic through any sort of actorly touches, isn’t. You know, it’s very kind of contained, and subtle, and intelligently voyeuristic, so there wasn’t really anything we couldn’t do as long as it fit the characters. We could say or do anything or not say or do anything we wanted.