By Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times Film Critic
6:50 PM CST, January 18, 2013
PARK CITY, Utah — Drake Doremus is as engaging and open a filmmaker as you are likely to meet, but once he gets down to work, everything changes. "I close my sets as much as I can," the 29-year-old writer-director says. "I treat every scene like a sex scene — it's like the actors are getting emotionally nude. It's amazing. Different things come out when no one is watching."
What people are definitely watching in Park City are Doremus' finished films. His romantic drama "Like Crazy" won Sundance's Grand Jury Prize two years ago, and he is back at the film festival for the third time (in the noncompetitive Premieres section) with "Breathe In," starring Guy Pearce and Amy Ryan (along with Felicity Jones, who costarred in "Like Crazy").
As intimate and emotionally involving as Doremus' last film, "Breathe In" takes a familiar story — a high school foreign exchange student (Jones) has a major influence on her host family (Pearce, Ryan and newcomer Mackenzie Davis) — and makes it feel edgy and different. Which was what Doremus had in mind.
"My movies are really simple stories, but I find the complexities within that," he says. "I try to make the execution very specific and unique in nature."
Part of that uniqueness stems from Doremus' quasi-improvisational working method. Collaborating with co-writer Ben York Jones, he begins with an extensive outline; each scene getting multiple pages that include items like objectives and subtext but no actual dialogue. Then comes a two-week rehearsal period and an on-set process that lasts until the situation has been explored to everyone's satisfaction.
This kind of improvisation is in Doremus' blood. His mother, Cherie Kerr, was one of the founding members of the Groundlings, and Doremus was on stage learning improv at age 6. It was, he says, "a really cool childhood."
At age 17, Doremus and best friend Jones bought a digital camera, and his passion for film began. The lure, he says, was that, unlike improv, "you could perfect a moment, you could keep improving and get it right. I thought, 'What an exciting new development.' "
Doremus was so excited he dropped out of high school and never went back (though he does have a GED). "I just wanted to be writing and directing," he says, "there was no time for chemistry and math." He didn't go to college but at age 19 was the then-youngest person ever accepted by AFI's Center for Advanced Film and Television Studies.
"It's always hard, anything that's easy doesn't hurt, and I'm trying to push through to places that are difficult for actors, where they don't want to go," the director says of his method. "Breaking through that barrier is going to be painful or excitingly raw." In one key sequence, after spending time working on a variety of intense verbal exchanges, Doremus decided that filming the situation without dialogue was what worked best. "Always do the minimum," he says. "The goal is how much we can get away with not saying."
Doremus says "Breathe In" is once again "a love story that is intense and passionate," but it is also "a darker cousin of 'Like Crazy,' a look at consequences that can come into the picture. It retains core romantic values, but it explores how destructive love can be because it has no sense of good timing."
Aptly called "a classic director" by costar Pearce, Doremus says he was thinking of films like George Stevens' memorable "A Place in the Sun," and its stars Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift, when he wrote "Breathe In."
"It's one of my favorite movies, about a beautiful, delicate love blossoming in a really dangerous context," he explains. "My film is about two people who need each other and can't have each other."
Doremus wrote "Breathe In" specifically with Jones in mind in part because she thrived on his improvisational style while making "Like Crazy" with Anton Yelchin. Ryan had also had considerable improv experience, but it was a different story for Pearce.
"He'd never improvised before, and never in a foreign dialect, and he was scared of trying that, so much credit goes to him for taking that chance," Doremus says of the Australian star.
Complicating matters was how different actors responded to Doremus' method in different ways. "There were way more intellectual conversations with Guy than with Anton," the director remembers. "Guy wanted two or three rehearsals before we filmed anything, but Anton wanted to capture something really raw on the first take and then discuss later."
Unusual though it is, Doremus' method excels at capturing emotional honesty, which was the reason why "Like Crazy" triumphed at Sundance. "That was a wacky, surreal experience; it was a whirlwind," the filmmaker remembers, still shaking his head.
Though Doremus feels that winning the prize is something "no one can take away from me," the victory also, he sees in retrospect, "put expectations on the movie that the movie didn't need." "Like Crazy" was purchased by Paramount Pictures but earned only $3.4 million at the box office when it was released in October 2011.
"I'm not making 'The Avengers' here, a movie that resonates with everyone," the director explains. "I'm making something that resonates for me and that I hope will translate to other people.
"My films are not flashy, they can get over-hyped. They're intimate personal movies that can get too big for their own good. They're films people need to discover."
Which, in an ideal world, is what the Sundance experience is all about.