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The last purist? Director Drake Doremus defies the wisdom

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Director Drake Doremus had a clear career path ahead of him when his romantic drama "Like Crazy" swept several big awards at Sundance in 2011. With the most buzzed-about movie at the festival in years and an acquisition deal worth millions of dollars from the unlikely Sundance player Paramount, Doremus was suddenly the rare indie director with the overnight clout to walk on to a big studio film.

He went another way instead.

After watching one studio romantic-comedy script after another cross his desk, he chose to eschew the conventional wisdom, and the advice of some of his reps, and return to the indie world. In fact, he decided to plunge deeper into it.=

"Maybe I'm a little crazy, but when everyone was saying I should go this way” -- he held his arm out at one end of his body -- “it made me want to go the other.”

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That other way turned out to be "Breathe In," a romance about a frustrated middle-age suburban dad and musician named Keith (Guy Pearce) whose juices begin flowing again in several ways with the arrival of exchange student Sophie (Felicity Jones), an equally confused and musically talented teenager who comes to live with Keith’s family, which also includes his wife (Amy Ryan) and teenage daughter (newcomer Mackenzie Davis).

It's a potent but quiet and fragile film, in the vein of "Like Crazy," but with a darker, more taboo tone. Nearly everyone can remember long-distance relationships or first love. Not everyone can identify with falling in love with a person half their age who’s living in a home they share with their spouse and daughter.

Perhaps the movie’s most impressive aspect, though, is its unwillingness to take a moral position on its characters. As The Times' Kenneth Turan wrote in his review: "'Breathe In' takes pains to emphasize that this is not the story of a predatory male or a scheming Jezebel but rather of a fatal mutuality of interest.” If there's a single studio‎-made romance in the last 20 years that walks such a careful, human line, I can't remember it.

Suffice to say that "Breathe In" is not a hit. Released by the niche Cohen Media Group (it’s currently playing in about 16 theaters nationally, several of them in Los Angeles), “Breathe In” has garnered just $88,000 in box office receipts. (The number of viewers on cable on-demand and digital platforms remains an X-factor; the film will be released in those venues in the coming months.)

Doremus' choice is surprising in a Hollywood culture in which personal projects are generally seen as a stepping-stone‎ to the big leagues, and in a time when a studio greenlight is so rare only a select few walk away from them. He’s hardly the only person to turn down a big Hollywood film, of course. But very few have experienced such a notable gap between the opportunities they were given and the choices they wound up making. In a business built on compromise, that's not only uncommon but also, industry veterans say, not always smart; after all, in Hollywood you're only as good as your last film, and your last film might not be a Sundance winner.

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Consider, for instance, indie directors Jonathan Levine or David Gordon Green, whose well-regarded indie movies took the step to studio comedies. (Gordon Green, the director behind "Pineapple Express" has since returned to more indie fare). Ryan Coogler, in a similar position with his big Sundance winner ”Fruitvale Station” last year, has begun to follow in somewhat similar footsteps.

It is not a toiling life entirely. At 31, Doremus has a nice multi-level house in the Hollywood Hills, where on this weeknight he is slinking into a chair while TV news plays from another room and a view of Los Angeles spreads out below him. (The upper middle-class lifestyle is funded in part by commercial work, a common paycheck route for many drama directors.) 

He also says the concerns that roiled him in his 20s and prompted these moody, often unsettling stories have given way to something lighter‎. In person he remains an upbeat outgoing presence, as he has been since I met him on “Like Crazy.”

He describes with some head-shaking brio the meetings with studio executives after the frenzy over “Like Crazy” three years ago. Basically, they would show him a movie with traces of the romance -- but hardly the realism -- of “Like Crazy,” and make some fanciful arguments in urging him to consider it.

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"They would say ‘Yes, it’s really cookie-cutter, but if you make it ...’" His voice trails off suggesting they were leaving it open to whatever he wanted to do. "And I’d look at them and  say, 'Well, if I can change every line of the script....’ And that would kind of be that.”

He added that it wasn't all principle that made him turn his back on those offers: “Maybe by virtue of being scared, I said, ‘Let me go make a small movie and stay in a world I know and like and can control.”

Is it art or naivete? Readers will make up their own mind, though it’s hard not to find in the choice something noble at a time when independent film struggles to find an audience and even purist directors will often try their hand at a studio film or migrate to television, where the grass may or may not be greener. Whatever one's conclusion, Doremus remains one of the few filmmakers in town who can say, as he did in the interview, “Life is too short to do something you’re not proud of; it’s your name on the poster or the marquee, and no one else is going to know or care that a studio executive told you to make it that way," and not sound like he’s fronting.

He can also say every frame of his films are what he wanted in there, as is the process by which he created those frames. (I visited the upstate New York set of “Breathe In” and it’s true, Doremus’ method of gaining the intimacy on the film, which he also used on “Like Crazy,” is highly unusual. He gives the characters’ outlines and beats, then has them improvise for hours while the camera rolls. At some point, he might torpedo another actor into the scene to see what happens.)

Doremus is next set to direct “Equals,” a futuristic romance he aims to shoot this year. With Kristen Stewart and Nicholas Hoult starring, it certainly has a bigger feel. (Essentially it’s about an uber-rationalist society that’s been stripped of all romantic feeling, seemingly to its betterment, and what happens when a man starts developing emotions again.)

Of course, as he's Drake Doremus, he’s hardly doing it the conventional way either. The movie will be shot in Tokyo (Doremus wanted the futurism the city can offer) and financed not by a studio but with Indian Paintbrush, an independent company that bankrolled Wes Anderson’s “Moonrise Kingdom” as well as “Like Crazy.”

“It feels more commercial to me," he said of the new project. "Maybe some people would need to do something even more commercial. But it needs to feel like me." He paused, “Like I said, life’s too short.”

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