Four years after the premiere of her directorial feature debut In A World (which she also wrote and and starred in), Lake Bell is back behind and in front of the camera with her follow-up film, the weirdly charming ensemble comedy I Do… Until I Don’t. The comedy tells the story of three couples — at very different points of their long-term relationships — who find themselves as the subjects of manipulative blowhard documentarian Vivian Prudeck’s (Dolly Wells) latest project about marriage. Specifically, the concept of redefining marriage as a seven-year contract for marriage, with an option to renew.
Bell and Ed Helms play Alice and Noah, a young-ish married couple stuck in a rut, both personally (they’re having a difficult time conceiving) and professionally (the window blinds store they own is not as profitable as they hope). Amber Heard and Wyatt Cenac are Fanny (Alice’s younger sibling) and Zander, an artistic pair with an open relationship and a son. Rounding out the cast — and proving the most compelling pair of the bunch — are Mary Steenburgen and Paul Reiser as Cybil and Harvey, a caustic couple in the middle of mid-life crises and heartbreak.
We spoke with Bell about the film, her thoughts on the whole institution of marriage, her inspirations as a filmmaker, and if we’ll ever see make the jump from indie filmmaker to blockbuster director.
First things first: How are you doing?
I’m good, I’m clearly very comfortable.
How far into the press and stuff are you right now?
This is the point in the day where I’m like, “Can’t I just wear a robe?” And then my publicist says, “Yeah, it’s fine.” And I’m like, “Is it a girl or a boy?”
Understandable. I’m sure this can get very monotonous.
You know, it’s okay. When it’s for a movie that I care so much about, that is so true to my heart — and that I put so much love, energy, and sweat and blood and tears into — it’s a joy and a privilege to do.
Like you’re playing at work basically.
Yeah! It’s just like, I’m just thankful for the support, you know? You put so much hard work in something and now you just want to share it with people, so you and all these people here who are helping me get the word out, it’s important. It’s an important part of the process.
What was the inspiration for the movie? Do you actually have a manifesto for a seven-year marriage contract?
I don’t have a manifesto. But… I had read an article about this German politician who actually had presented this concept — Gabriele Pauli. And she presented the concept of a seven-year contract with an option to renew to her government. That was an actual proposal, and it always struck me as a really interesting subject. Because I would agree that the idea of staying with one person until the end of your days is a tall order, especially in this day and age where we live to 90 years. It’s one thing if you die at 40, you know? Then it’s like, go for it.
But I think it brought up a really interesting point for me, especially growing up with divorce around me, being a part of a messy divorce as a kid, and seeing divorce among my friends. It just makes me feel like — at least at one point — it felt like the institution itself is archaic and needs to be rethought. I had a very cynical, albeit realist, approach to union-ship in that way. That said, every unromantic… Because it is a deeply unromantic way to look at things. I think deep down it is romantic and desperately hoping to be proved wrong. Which I was, and that’s where my husband comes into the picture.
Is that why the movie was originally titled What’s the Point? You just wanted to get right down to the question?
You know what? Initially, yeah, I think that was just like my working title to try to use that as an overarching conversation for myself and question for myself. But, I met Scott [Campbell, Bell’s husband], and that’s a large part of why this movie is so hopeful and so kind-spirited and thematically sort of illuminating the respect that two people can have for each other, and how to see each other in a relationship. That is all inspired by him, because I think I really didn’t understand what the real point of commitment was until I met him. He’s so brave in jumping full force and full steam ahead into our relationship. I mean, he had a tattoo of me — of my name — like nine days into our relationship… I’d never met anyone like that!
I think ultimately, thematically in this movie, what I’m excited to put out there as a message is that it kind of has some good old-fashioned core values… and that there’s something brave and kind of badass about not bailing. To fight through the other side. To get muddy, to get dirty, and not let outside forces and distractions pull you from the privilege of evolving with someone. ‘Cause that is a true privilege, in the way that aging is a privilege. To grow… not everybody gets to do that. So embrace it.
One thing that surprised me about the movie was that it’s a true ensemble. Was that always what you wanted to do for your second feature, since In A World is very much a film where you’re the capital “s” “Star?”
Yeah, totally. I think with every project that I do, I like to experiment with structure, just as a writer, and I was really interested in and have always been an admirer of ensemble comedies. It was sort of a refreshing structure to experiment with. It’s also like… there were too many things I wanted to say about the subject and so I needed a way to do that. I also wanted… The idea of this sort of, looking at these couples through the lens of this pretentious documentarian who’s descending her big world politics on small town people, but ultimately being very universal and accessible. There was a couple of things I also wanted to do visually. We thought it’d be really fun to challenge myself to build a visual vocabulary that worked within the overall visual of the movie — that overall cinematic visual of the movie — but that actually had a sort of different point of view that reflected Vivian’s visuals.
Yes, the documentary aspects of the film were so different from the rest of it. Do you ever think that maybe you’ll do a documentary one day?
I don’t know. I never say never because you just never know.
It was all very real.
Yes. It’s all scripted, but that’s a testament to my amazing actors too… The actors just take the words and make them so incredibly their own. I think that one of the only improvisations that we have in the movie is a couple of lines that Paul Reiser put in there, that I had to put in just ‘cause he’s just a comedic legend. But yeah, I don’t know. Part of why I love doing this job is that you just never know where it’s going to take you. People say, “Where are you going to be in five years”? I’m like, “I don’t know, and that’s part of the fun!”
How did the casting process go? You’ve got a pretty great cast.
It’s amazing. The cast is phenomenal. The casting — I have to say that every aspect of the casting is so important to me, and the game of it is sort of fun but then also sort of challenging in a way that can be really rough… mainly because of availabilities. But this movie, I was so blessed with getting the people that I really really wanted. And honestly, just working with people that I was friends with. Like Ed [Helms], is a good friend of mine. I had always envisioned him in the movie. It’s such a perfect role for him. I just, I don’t know, I think I just lucked out so vastly and I made some discoveries too.
With so many options in the ensemble, did you always envision yourself in the role of Alice?
It’s funny… I mean, I had written Alice for myself because it’s the kind of part that nobody would ever cast me as.
She’s like the bumbling wife, which you don’t usually have. She just keeps digging herself deeper and deeper.
Yeah, and that’s the kind of thing where… It made it really hard, because Alice is very low status and as a director you have to obviously be very high status. So fluctuating between those two personalities on set was really hard. So yeah, I toyed with playing with all kinds of characters and I improvise with myself when I’m writing dialogue anyway. In my head, I’ve played all of the characters. Even in the movie there’s like — fun fact — on the other side of most conversations on telephones, whether it’s a 60-year-old British man or a 70-year-old Jewish man, it’s me. I do all the voices on the other side of the phone. That’s kind of my way to play other characters.
What have you learned from all your directorial experiences so far, and what did you bring into this film, from what you’ve learned?
One of the things I’ve learned is that Chace Crawford’s really funny. In seriousness, I think what I’ve learned the most is that what I always apply to every sort of directing experience is just copious amounts of preparation. There’s no such thing — for me — to phone it in. Even if I’m just doing an episode, if it’s a Childrens Hospital episode which is 15 minutes long, to a full-length feature. I do the same amount of preparation. I do the same amount of storyboarding and obsession over shot lists and unpacking of character dynamics. I enjoy what I do very much, and I give my all to it when I can. I think the hardest thing this time around was just that I was a mom also. So I took on a bigger story, with more main characters, and then also I was a mom.
Yeah, I know. It was insane.
Do you have any particular inspirations in general when it comes to your writing and directing?
Totally. I’m pretty unabashedly a fan of Woody Allen. And I like Paul Mazursky a lot. I’ve referenced him a lot, just in thinking about the certain tone of comedy, and there’s something silly and smart about his movies. But, you know, Woody Allen just remains… There are movies that I watch of his that I’m just so enthralled with his ability to be silly and smart, and it’s all obvious but it’s inspiring still. I’m 38 years old and I just continue to watch the movies that [I watched] when I first discovered comedy, which was Woody Allen movies. They just give me so much happiness and it’s just like real and true characterizations with the unapologetic sense of — there’s a sort of wise silliness to it. I don’t know. I love, texturally, I love [Robert] Altman movies and I love Short Cuts. There’s the idea of taking written words — and even as an actor I love this challenge too — which is taking written words and making them feel like they are organically grown in that moment.
Speaking of organic growth: When are you going to sell out and create a big Hollywood blockbuster?
When I’m offered one that I think is worthy of spending that much time away from my family.
Which franchise are you thinking of? Transformers, you think? Something with The Rock, for sure.
No, it’s going to be with a lady starring in it. I don’t know, I really would love to make a huge, hugely successful studio movie, where I get to have all the toys that I want. But I would totally take something on. ‘Cause it’s not like I haven’t been offered studio pictures, I have. It’s just not been the one yet.
And I think, because in a studio environment there are more cooks in the kitchen. Which I think everybody kind of knows. But that kind of way of working is a little bit… Is a little less sexy, than maybe getting to call all the shots without answering to anyone. But, if you have the right collaborators… I have to believe that there is a project out there that makes a lot of sense for me to take on, with collaborators and studio workers will support me. But I don’t know. We’ll see.
All you have to do is get Jennifer Lawrence on board and you’re set.
Okay, that’s what I’ll do. I’ll call her up. See what she wants to do.
So, last question. I was thinking that a “fuck, marry, kill” would make sense for this type of movie, but I made sure to change it up.
Oh good! Yeah, I wouldn’t like to kill stuff.
So the choices are “open marriage, mid-life crisis, and open up a blinds store.” Which of your cast members would you have all of these situations with?
Well I cast them as such.
You can change it up though!
Oh God no, I can’t. I can’t do that, because they’re so ingrained. What would you do?
I think I would open up a blinds store with Amber Heard.
I might have mid-life crisis with you.
And open marriage…
I think it’s between Paul Reiser and Wyatt Cenac, honestly. Your turn.
I would do an open marriage with Amber Heard, she’s smoking hot. Mid-life crisis with… Yeah, I’d have to do mid-life crisis with Paul Reiser. And I’d open up a blinds shop with Chace Crawford.