Riley Stearns writes a particular style of dialogue that, once you’ve seen one of his movies, is hard to mistake for anyone else. There’s an emotional remove to it, but it’s not quite minimalist, like the pioneer of flatness, Robert Bresson. It’s arch, somehow, but not quite openly zany or sardonic, like Wes Anderson or Jared Hess.
Stearns’ characters speak matter-of-factly, articulating their often mundane fears and desires out loud like running pros-and-cons lists. Which can be funny, spooky, or both, depending on the situation. His characters are cogs in a confusing machine, chatbots attempting to talk through the essence of the human condition. Familiar, yet foreign.
In The Art Of Self-Defense, about a depressed loner (played by Jesse Eisenberg) who discovers martial arts (very loosely inspired by Stearns’ jiu-jitsu practice), it felt like Stearns was groping towards a take on the modern condition. In his latest movie, Dual, starring Karen Gillan as a millennial who has to fight her own clone, it feels like that take has crystallized.
Disconnection and loneliness are the dominant features of our age, and Stearns’ characters evoke that feeling of reaching out into the ether and finding only the voice of some company representative somewhere, addressing you in a faux-cheery corporate patois that’s meant to sound friendly but accomplishes the opposite. It’s not a lockdown movie, per se, but it does feel perfect for the Zoom age.
The beauty of movies is that they’re always a mix of artist intention and spontaneous forced improvisations, combinations of the planned and the unplanned. Dual, which opened in a few markets last week and expands to a few more this week, especially feels like one of those movies in which creativity thrived through a set of unique limitations.
Stearns was forced to move Dual‘ production to Finland during COVID, which was itself locked down. Meaning Dual‘s secondary characters are almost all Finnish, which in a different movie might be a drawback, but in Dual seems to perfectly evoke that sense of disconnected geography, where everyone seems to exist in every place and no place at the same time, struggling to connect through screens and to relate through an ineffable language barrier. The sixties famously had the Spaghetti Westerns, American westerns shot in Italy using Italian crews and casts, and the 2020s has given us Dual, a sort of salmiakki sci-fi (that’s mine now, if you steal it you have to pay me), whose Scandinavian actors and vaguely wintry locales only seem to accent Stearns’ natural oddness.
Even the realities of the current indie movie landscape into which Dual has been birthed seem to highlight the theme. With a theater system still recovering from lockdowns, the old benchmarks for “success” in the indie movie world now seem up in the air. Is it still box office numbers? Is it streaming access? Is it online buzz, positive word-of-mouth?
Stearns sparked an extremely insular controversy earlier this year when he tweeted then deleted a tweet at an outlet he was upset at for letting a writer who’d made light of his divorce (to the actress Mary Elizabeth Winstead) review Dual (which was playing Sundance at the time). Which sparked a typically polarized social media fight, between the “never snitch tag” and “don’t critique the art by attacking the artist’s personal life” factions (a possible extremely niche harbinger for the Chris Rock vs. Will Smith proxy war).
I’m anti-trying to get critics fired for reviewing movies (for obvious reasons), and I’m damn sure not going to recuse myself just because I made fun of someone one time, but I also liked Dual, and I understand the natural human need for some kind of feedback. And the inevitability of getting angry when some of that feedback comes from people you think are dipshits. The old Mad Men gif, “that’s what the money is for!” doesn’t seem to apply in the world of indie movies, where huge box office returns are no longer a realistic expectation. Where else to look for validation than in general esteem?
And I think I like Riley Stearns too. I try not to make the classic journalist mistake of thinking interview subjects are my friends, but Stearns has an unmistakably familiar vibe — thoughtful but self-effacing, and intelligent, without the neediness of constantly trying to convince you of it (which is frankly epidemic among movie folks; mostly the stupider ones).
Anyway, Dual is a good movie and my conversation with Stearns was, hopefully, a good talk.
So when a movie opens now, do you feel like you have the same kind of benchmarks of what it means to be successful as in the past?
I have no fucking clue anymore. With Self Defense, I think I was spoiled. I mean, indies definitely do better than that movie did, but it did fairly well for itself, and I think when I was writing Dual, and then when XYZ came on board, there was a certain sense of well, I guess this one will probably be bigger than that one, because everything just gets bigger every time, right? I think that your brain just tells you that. Once COVID hit, I knew that we were in a different world, obviously. I think this release has been very fast. And it kind of had to be, because of a window that we were trying to hit. I’m not entirely sure what the benchmark for success is anymore.
I think all I can know is that everybody who has been involved in the film or is releasing it, RLJE, XYZ, is happy, and I know that this is more of a long road. Hopefully, people continue to find it.
On that note, I vaguely remember you getting into a mini-feud with a critic over this one.
It was less about the critic. It was more about the website being aware of the conflict of interest. I blocked that critic a long time ago. It wasn’t about that. It was more about just obviously, poking at somebody. And then it blew up in a way that I wasn’t expecting, but also, a lot of people had my back on that, too. It’s so silly now in retrospect. To say, “Huh, maybe that wasn’t a cool thing to do,” and then me being seen as the bad guy for it. But it is what it is.
The way the indie movies work now, does it sort of put you in a situation where to know what a successful one is, you maybe end up reading more reviews than you might have in years past? That feel likes a form of the feedback that you used to get maybe in different ways.
Maybe. Yeah. I mean, I’m one of those people who actually does get something out of reviews. I like seeing what people say. I don’t mind getting a bad review. It’s not a big deal for me. It’s the overall image of how people have perceived your work. It’s not necessarily going to go into how I write the next thing, but it does tell you that this is sort of the path you’re going down. And I think it almost just reinforces that path, it doesn’t change who I am as a filmmaker. I mean, Letterboxd has been around since I made Faults, I want to say, and I’ve always looked at it from time to time. Especially once the movie has been around for a while, you go back after months of not looking at it and you go, “Huh, I wonder what people have been saying?”
There’s some really great ones. I got one last night, where they just put “Bore-gos Lame-thimos.” And I thought that was pretty good, so I saved that. But I mean, if you read the good stuff, I think you have to read the bad, and if you don’t want to read the bad, then don’t read at all.
So I know you shot this in Finland during COVID. What was that experience like? Did the setting make you rethink any story elements? Were there things that you were worried that you were missing by shooting there?
I loved that we shot there. I feel like it was a happy sort of accident and ended up lending itself to the look and the feel like of the movie. I think the one thing that we had to change was — and it’s not even change, we had to be aware of and it’s why I ended up in the movie, unfortunately — we had all of these Finnish people around us and the country was locked down, so they’re not bringing people in, other than our leads. So if we needed somebody to come in and do a day player sort of thing, trying to find somebody who didn’t always have a Finnish accent was very hard. I had to actively say, “Can we get somebody who’s not white? Can we get somebody who doesn’t speak with a Finnish accent?”
It was just making sure that the film didn’t look like Finland in terms of the people that we cast at all times. So there was a day where an American actor who lived in Finland was supposed to do the gas station attendant role. But he had a sore throat. And obviously, during COVID especially, we’re like, “Don’t come in.” Then I immediately rolled my eyes and was like, “Well I guess I’m in the movie now.”
So even though we have some Finnish accents in the movie, it made it challenging to not have it feel like it was shot in Finland at all times. It was more about it looking like it was shot in this unnamed sort of space in the United States that also feels like it could be in Europe. But overall, I loved shooting there, I would shoot there again in a heartbeat.
I think Scandinavia in general and Finland specifically has an odd kind of a matter-of-factness and detachedness to it that really seems to fit your style of dialogue.
It’s funny, it’s almost like the people who are working on the film could just be characters in the movie. Here, we all are pretty good at, I don’t know, bending the truth to shield people’s feelings a little bit, whether it’s you’re at work, and I know that this is a pointed statement, but it’s like your coworker, you tell them something that wasn’t working in a certain way, because you’re worried about how they’re going to take that criticism. In Finland, they just tell you. They just are super direct. And I really appreciated that. Even down to us showing the film there at a film festival, they did a special presentation of Dual that I went out for, and the audience was fairly subdued. There were little laughs here and there, but pretty stoic. And then afterwards, the Finnish people were like, “That was a very funny movie.”
And they didn’t laugh at all! One of my crew members, who is Finnish, she said, “That was a really good reaction. That crowd went crazy for it.” I was like, “Nobody did anything. Everyone was quiet.”
You have a very particular style of dialogue writing. I know it as your style, but I always struggle a little bit to try and describe it for people who haven’t seen your movies. How do you describe it, or do you have references for it?
I mean, as an overall of what I’m trying to achieve, emotionality is kind of removed from the character. I know that they’re humans, and you don’t want them to feel fully robotic, they still have thoughts and fears just like any of us do in the real world. But in this context, in a world where people have made the law that you have to dual your double to the death if they don’t want to be decommissioned, I feel like the people who would make that law are also people who would talk like this. I feel like their way of speaking informs the world and the world informs the way that they speak. I like that there’s that cohesiveness there.
And yeah, influences, I mean, you can look at a lot of filmmakers and say that they’ve got quirks or whatever. People always reference Napoleon Dynamite and Jared Hess and then Yorgos Lanthimos and Wes Anderson. And I mean, to a certain extent, you can look at some Paul Thomas Anderson stuff that’s got this drollness to it. I feel like at this point, it is just me. Again, going back to “Bore-gos Lamethimos,” it’s going to stick with me probably forever.
But yeah, I think that I’ve been doing this long enough now that — I mean, my short, The Cub, I made that in 2012 — that if you’re still saying I’m trying to copy other people you don’t know me as a person. I feel like it’s pretty obvious if you’re my friend, you know that this is my sense of humor, and this is the sort of path that I’ve dedicated myself to.
The closest analog that I could think of was it kind of reminded me of Don DeLillo or someone, where there’s a blurring of people’s outward and inner selves in a way, a blurring between inner monologue and outer monologue. Does that make sense?
No, totally. I mean, it’s, I don’t know. It’s definitely a choice. I could very easily say, “You don’t have to do this. Do it more naturally.” But, yeah, I just feel like it’s the way that these characters have to relate to each other in these specific worlds. It’s funny — just to show how my brain works a little differently, as we were making this, I kept telling Karen, “It’s nice, because this one’s a little bit more grounded than The Art of Self Defense.” And then everyone’s like, “Oh, my God, it’s even worse than the Art of Self Defense. God, what the fuck is he doing?”
So I have no delusions that maybe I’m out of touch with how other people relate to these characters. But I think the people who get it, really get it, which has been fun.
I basically suspected that you were a martial arts guy when I was watching The Art of Self-Defense, and then I think I read in an interview where you talked about it. Do you think that martial arts informs this one? It feels like it’s still there, but maybe in a more abstract way.
Yeah. I mean, it would be very abstract. Obviously, Self-Defense is very, very loosely inspired by my appreciation for jiu-jitsu. I haven’t done any of the other martial arts. When I was six I did karate, but that doesn’t count. As an adult doing jiu-jitsu, it’s been a thing that is a huge part of my life. I’ve been doing it for nine years. It’s like how other directors may like poker, so they make a poker movie. Or… oh God, any other bad example like that. I just happened to have this martial arts thing. But I also knew that making just a martial arts movie wasn’t interesting to me. So Self-Defense was this heightened reality sort of thing, a sports narrative taken down a different path. Whereas, Dual, there are elements of self-improvement, which I see maybe as the closest tie-in to martial arts. It’s just like when you go and you do something like this, you get better. I feel like Self-Defense and this both have that self-improvement quality, the whole learn-to-fight sort of thing. I feel like Dual, for all its darkness, has an optimistic sort of quality to it, which I think suits my personality maybe a little bit more than the darker path of Self-Defense.
I’m a jiu-jitsu guy, too. I’ve been doing it for about 15 years now.
Is it too personal to ask where you train?
Not at all. No, because I coach there and I let people know, too. I’m at Renzo Gracie Los Angeles. We’re an affiliate of the Renzo School, but I should also state that we, our school, is pretty much the exact opposite in terms of inclusivity as the actual Renzo Gracie School. I’m probably going to get in trouble for saying that, but there are some things politically that I really disagree with in terms of the way that that man talks. I feel like the family that I’ve got at this school is the antithesis of that. But yeah, I’m a brown belt. I coach every Friday. I cover classes here and there. I’m going to compete in a month and a half, a gi tournament, which I haven’t done in, God, five years, since I was a blue belt. I mainly do No-Gi. But yeah, so 15 years. Black belt, I’m assuming, then?
No. I got my brown belt in 2016, but I’ve moved twice since then, so I’ve been at like three different schools. Then the pandemic screwed everything up even worse. But I also started at a Renzo affiliate, originally.
Oh, cool. Which one was that?
Columbia Jiu-Jitsu. Our instructor was a black belt from Renzo’s, Jason Yang.
It’s always good to meet somebody who does it, because then they “get it,” a little bit more than the other person who’s like, “Oh, that’s that karate thing you do, right?”
Do you think the theme of disconnection, of just… modern capitalist society, I guess — would you call that a theme of the movie?
I would say more so the disconnect that we have with other people via technology. There’s a pretty big distance between our lead character and her boyfriend in the film and the way that they connect. I mean, even just down to a call breaking up and literally, the text popping up, “Poor connection.” That kind of thing is funny to me.
But, yeah — I mean, look, I’m not the smartest guy in the world. Sometimes you do things and you say something and you’re like, “Oh, that works for this thing,” and then other people analyze it and find more meaning in it than your brain ever thought. I think that’s part of the fun of watching movies. I know that I’ve done that probably with directors, where I watch something and I take something from it that is a specific thing that means so much and I’m so sure that that’s what they thought. And then you listen to a director’s commentary or an interview they do, and it’s the exact opposite of what they say they were intending. So, yeah, there are definitely things in the movie that I think about when I think about where I was coming at it from. But to say that there’s a bunch of intent at all times is probably going to be a bit of a falsity too, so.