Making it in the movie business is a challenge for anyone, even when you’re born into it. For proof, look no further than Charlie McDowell, whose parents are the actors Malcolm McDowell and Mary Steenburgen. McDowell, who was a competitive surfer in his teens, graduated from the American Film Institute in 2006 and tried for years to get a movie made. It wasn’t until filmmaker and actor Mark Duplass came to him with the seed of an idea that everything fell into place. That idea became The One I Love, an unpredictable dramedy revolving around a struggling married couple—played by Duplass and Elisabeth Moss—who make a last-ditch effort to save their relationship by retreating to a country house. McDowell premiered the film at this year’s Sundance Film Festival (an experience which he documented for us here) where audiences were aback by a surprise twist that takes place twenty minutes into the film and turns the once-familiar premise on its head. Remarkably, that twist has remained largely under wraps, and the movie’s distributor has based their marketing campaign around the movie’s secret. McDowell sat down with us last week to candidly discuss his upbringing, his path to becoming a filmmaker, and what he calls “cinema romance.”
Is your promotional campaign modeled after what Alfred Hitchcock did with Psycho? Not revealing any plot information, not answering questions about the “twist.”
What was interesting is that we kind of let the marketing dictate how it naturally unfolded. We premiered at Sundance and we all thought after the premiere that the cat is out of the bag and people are going to know what the reveal is. And then we realized that everyone was protecting it. And people who were even tweeting about it were saying, “Check out this movie, but I’m not going to tell you what it’s about. Just go see it not knowing anything.” So we used that as sort of our marketing tool and Radius, who acquired the film, they got really excited with the challenge and idea of getting people in the theater to see it without telling them what it’s necessarily about.
I think if the movie was not good the press would’ve callously and carelessly written and revealed about the conceit.
You’re probably right. It’s been a really nice reception and something I definitely didn’t think about in making the movie and definitely didn’t think about in moving forward.
Since we can’t talk the details of your movie, you’ve probably been bombarded with questions about your father.
You know, I’m proud of them. It’s not that painful to discuss. And honestly, the biggest misconception is people just feel like that because who your parents are, that’s the reason you got to make a movie. Which is so far from what actually happens. They really have nothing to do with any of it. But one thing that’s kind of incredible is I was exposed to growing up on a film set. It’s in my DNA. I kind of learned it without even realizing how it all works.
After having this sort of surreal upbringing I imagine it’s been rather difficult to distinguish yourself and create your own piece of art.
Yeah, and you really do go through different phases. For me, when I was younger, I was very anti-film industry. I wanted nothing do with it.
It’s funny that you mention that because a friend of mine from college is a Coppola, and for a while he resented where he came from. But obviously you grew out of that.
Definitely, and for me it was a little easier of a transition because my parents are known as actors. I think it would’ve been a lot harder—and I would’ve been judged a lot harder—if I wanted to be an actor. But I’m doing a completely different thing that they know nothing about. And so when I talked about lenses or the way I shot something, they know none of that and it doesn’t really interest them. It’s a blessing and a curse, for sure. But it’s mostly a blessing because I have really cool parents.
At what age did you know that this what you wanted to do?
It was sort of in my phase of anti-industry at age eleven when I started to surf. And then I got so into that and started to surf competitively and started to travel all around until I was 18. When I was 18, I started to make little surf movies because I got an underwater video camera and thought it would be interesting to shoot some of my friends in the water. And then I did a scene on the beach, and then I did a scene in the parking lot, and I slowly made my way onto land. I just got sucked into it.
Going back to that misconception you mentioned, I think your IMDb page could dissuade anyone yelling nepotism. It seems like you’ve put your time in, trying to break into the industry for quite awhile now.
Yeah man, I graduated AFI in 2006. You know, I’ve sold a script, wrote a book, etc. But in terms of making a movie, I tried to make a movie from ’06 until last year. I was actively working really hard to do it. I remember the day I graduated, one of the people in my class said to me, “Oh, well you’re so lucky because of who your parents are and you’ll just make a movie now.” And I was like, “What the hell? Why did I just complete this whole program if I could just go make a movie? We’re all in this boat together.” You get a lot of that. It took Mark Duplass to kind of see my work ethic and what I wanted to do, to give me a shot and he gave a lot of feedback.
So after all these years of trying to get your movie made, how does it feel to have your stamp on something?
I’m really happy with how the movie turned out. I felt this was my shot and I was going to seize the opportunity and I really just did the work. I did all the preproduction work that needed to be done and I worked really closely with the actors in developing the characters and making sure we were all on the same page. We shot the movie in two weeks so it was really fast. We didn’t have a lot of time to sit there and figure out what we were going to do. We had a plan and stuck to it.
What do you think your film says about modern romance?
I think ultimately what we discovered while making the movie was you have relationships and you have phases in your life and I think at a certain point you have to question the reason you stay with someone. Is it because true love is still there, and thing are working on all levels? Or is just familiarity? Is it because this person is your best friend? There are many different elements to it. What was interesting about our movie was we have this idea where we are telling the audience to root for this couple, but then ultimately proposing the question, should this couple even be together, or is their time up? I thought that was an interesting way into a movie, because people don’t typically do both of those. I like the grey area.
There’s a pretty startling disconnection between how Hollywood depicts romance and how we actually experience it. There’s no ambiguity to be found, no uncertainty. Which for anyone who has been in love before knows is the farthest thing from reality.
It’s funny because now it’s just become “cinema romance.” It’s not real. For me, I don’t connect to those movies as much because I can’t draw my own comparisons. When you have cinema romance, it just falls flat at the end of the day because ultimately you’re just watching entertainment. I think it’s really interesting to play in the grey area and make people connect to your film. I haven’t been married. I can only pull from past relationships and ideas of what I think marriage is. It was cool to get that response and it felt like people really cared about the movie — to be something more than just entertainment.