The following questions and answers are excerpted from a conversation that followed the NBR screening of Language Lessons.
You both had so many roles in making this film. How did you two connect to make this film during Covid?
Mark Duplass: Natalie and I were acquaintances; friends of friends who had met a few times and I think we had the sense that we respected each other’s work and we had hit it off and liked each other. I knew I wanted to work with her and ideally share the screen with her at some point, and we hadn’t really had that opportunity. A couple of years ago I asked Natalie if she wanted to direct a few episodes of my anthology show Room 104, that I was doing for HBO. She knocked those out of the park so that just made me want to work with her even more. Then at about two months into the pandemic, I was feeling a little creatively frustrated and doing a bunch of writing and thought I’ll just squirrel away a bunch of scripts for when the world opens back up to make them in a normal way. But I didn’t want to wait to make something. I was taking Spanish lessons online with an institute in Guatemala, and it was a weird time. We were all dealing with fragility… one of my close friends Lynn Shelton had just passed away. Neither of us were in the mood for small talk so the conversation went deep pretty quickly. And I was surprised at how a connection could form over this sort of video chat format. I thought there was something there in that relationship so I called Natalie immediately and asked her if she spoke good Spanish. And she responded “oui,” which I thought was really awesome.
Natalie Morales: I can’t remember if I did say that or if you just made that up and now I believe it.
MD: I think you did, or maybe it was in a text.
NM: I have been known to be somewhat witty at some points.
MD: And a little sarcastic.
NM: I had directed those episodes of Room 104 but Mark was busy doing one of his thousand other projects so he wasn’t actually on set when I directed. So we had never worked together in a capacity where we were together all the time. It was exciting to get to do that with him, and I always wanted to work with Mark and Jay and their company, but to do so in an ultra-intimidate way, with something coming out of both of our hearts and brains together was very exciting.
what you see in this film is the consummation of the early stages of our platonic relationship deepening
Can you describe the early writing process?
NM: Mark, correct me if I’m wrong, but I think that once Mark called me and asked if I spoke Spanish, we were both like okay, now we need to write something! And we paused, and then I suggested we both go our separate ways and write bios for our characters, just to see what happens. And that is how we started. I had never done any writing that way and I really believe it paid off in this, because we were both so sure of our characters, which came in very handy not only in writing and developing the story, but also later in the improvisations we did. So we wrote the biographies for these two characters without consulting the other person, and perhaps trying to surprise the other person! Then we figured out how to merge these two people and their lives and make it interesting.
MD: The only thing I would add is that I’ve been using this term alacrity a lot in terms of how I make my art. I’ve discovered it in these kinds of discussions as I’ve gotten feedback from people and what they respond to in it. This movie is the ultimate exercise in alacrity and speed—from the minute I called Natalie to the moment we wrapped the film was about four weeks. We knew we were going shoot off of an outline, mostly, and we knew we were going to want to script some of the more intricate Spanish stuff because my character Adam speaks a little better Spanish that I do personally. We needed to make sure we had all that right for Natalie and her character Cariño. But otherwise, we felt very confident in our ability to improvise the scenes together, us being the writers and the performers. Getting the story in place, like in regards to the platonic love story… I’d like to say that was something we pinpointed early on as something unique to the romantic comedy form and we were ready to raise the flag for and say we’re doing something new. We knew we wanted it to be a platonic relationship; in fact, that was one of the major motivations as to why we wanted Adam to be gay in the first place, to remove all sense of “will they or won’t they” from the table and so the audience could just focus on the intricacies of platonic love. We knew that was interesting, because Natalie and I both have deep, and in some cases deeply complicated platonic relationships. We shared that and thought that could be really cool, but we weren’t thinking “wow, this could be really trailblazing and new.” We didn’t realize that until people saw the film and reflected that back to us.
I thought it showed such restraint to have that big blowout argument at the end of the film because it’s simmering along the whole way. Both of your characters voice big and accusatory ideas. For the both of you, which of those big themes—or small themes even—did you find as the most fascinating as actors and writers?
NM: Off the top of my head, there were a lot of things we explored in this movie that were so interesting. Part of what was so freeing about making this is that we didn’t know what it would be and we didn’t know if it would be good, so it kind of left us room to explore anything that we were itching to explore. There are themes of class differences and what we assume of people. When I saw myself in the Cariño outfit with the school teacher background in this Costa Rica setting, I could see myself through the eyes of a gringo, as Cariño would say, and I could see what the assumptions you would make about her might be if you didn’t know anything about her. And I thought about the assumptions we make about all people, well-intentioned or not. As Americans, we have assumptions about people from other countries and what their lives are like, but also as people we make assumptions about everyone we meet. It’s so interesting and I’m sure they’ll continue to study this to learn about its effects, but I’ve noticed that when you meet someone in person, you do make a judgment about them the same way as you would via Zoom. But in Zoom, you get this square of like part of my house, or part of my office, this peek at people’s homes and lives and you also get this slightly exaggerated way of talking and expressing yourself that we’ve adjusted to really in just the last year and a half in order to be better understood. So we make our sentences a little clearer, like I’m doing right now, and I’m a little more smiley than I’d normally be… and then those things start to fall off because you have this familiarity of talking to someone every day, or weekly, and then the front comes down and you start to pick up on things about people. That idea was really fascinating to me. Things we assume about people and everything we project and hide, and intentionally or unintentionally show, these were all things I was interested in exploring. We also talked about movies or people with a White Savior Complex and I’ve never seen it been said or called out in a movie. It was important to me to do that and get it out there and talk about these things that are difficult to talk about.
MD: That wasn’t a central part of our plot but it was a fun side street. That was something that was interesting and exciting for me… it’s like a vulnerability thing that I have, where I talk a lot about how Duplass Brothers as a company tries to lift up struggling filmmakers and for me, that comes out of survivor’s guilt as a struggling filmmaker. I see someone struggling and I have so much PTSD and pain when I look at them that I can’t allow them to suffer. But there is an element of pity in there, and an element of judgment that is off and a little strange. And I’m trying to figure out what the right place is in that, so I was able to explore some of that stuff through Adam and his relationship with Cariño as a side angle to what that could be in my life. That was really exciting to me. I also got to explore something else that I know about myself, which is that I can come on a little strong with people when I like them and I can either intimidate them or make them back up a little bit. It’s a little bit of a blind spot I have; I can miss a social cue or two at times. I wanted to play that out with Adam to see when that could go wrong or when that could be perceived as just a puppy dog love. And there was a third thing that was important for me to explore. I’m kind of a private person; I’m married with two kids and I don’t have a lot of room in my life for a lot of big deep relationships because I work all the time. And work is a way for me to connect with people. Being able to make this movie with Natalie—who is someone I really like as a friend—was a way for me to experience that wonderful, platonic-falling-in-love energy that one gets. Normally people get that out of dating, but I’m married, I don’t have dating. So that was a fun thing that I was able to do, and what you see in this film in a lot of ways is the consummation of the early stages of our platonic relationship deepening.