Drake Doremus has always been a bit of a prodigy, a filmmaker who combines the energy and enthusiasm of the 27-year-old he is with an old soul sensibility wise enough to value emotional honesty and capture it on film.
Those gifts are showcased in Doremus' impeccable "Like Crazy," his third feature in three years to play either Sundance or Slamdance. While his previous films displayed more of a comic sensibility, "Like Crazy," which debuts Saturday in Sundance's dramatic competition, is definitely for those who want to be touched by the poet. "I'm not cynical," Doremus says. "I still feel excited about the possibilities of romance and love."
The story of a relationship between two young people (beautifully played by Anton Yelchin and Felicity Jones) that spans two continents and a number of years, "Like Crazy" brings a compelling intimacy and heart-stopping delicacy to showing the push and pull of love, longing and regret. "Pure-hearted, emotionally involving films are what's capturing my heart right now," Doremus says about his switch in tone. "It's all about capturing that emotional truth."
The fact that "Like Crazy" allows us to feel we're not watching characters but real people is due not only to the skill of those involved but to the fact that the film (co-written by the director's oldest friend, Ben York Jones) is grounded in experiences Doremus has had. The film was made with an unusual, improvisational technique that also comes out of his past.
With the kind of face that a beard doesn't really age, Doremus may seem a bit young to be telling this kind of affecting story, but that kind of precocity is par for the course for him. His mother, Cherie Kerr, was one of the founding members of the Groundlings, and Drake was onstage learning improv starting at 6 years old. It was, he says, "a really cool childhood."
At age 17, after writing and directing five plays in high school, Doremus and best friend Jones bought a digital camera and his passion for film began. The lure, he says, was that, unlike improv, "you could perfect a moment, you could keep improving and get it right. I thought, 'What an exciting new development.' "
Doremus was so excited he dropped out of high school and never went back (though he does have a GED). "I just wanted to be writing and directing," he says. "There was no time for chemistry and math." He didn't go to college but at age 19 was the then-youngest person ever accepted by the AFI's Center for Advanced Film and Television Studies. "The first day, everyone went out to Ye Rustic Inn in Los Feliz for drinks, but I was too young, I couldn't go," he remembers. "So I went home and started writing."
Doremus' excellent first two films didn't live up to their commercial potential. "Spooner," starring Matthew Lillard, was a hit at Slamdance but is only now getting distribution. Last year's "Douchebag," also in Sundance competition, was fatally sabotaged by its unendurable title; the film, according to the website Box Office Mojo, grossed just $20,615 in limited release last year.
Making it possible for Doremus to work so regularly are the efforts of longtime collaborator Jonathan Schwartz, who produced all three of Doremus' films and saw to it that "Like Crazy" had the biggest budget of the group.
" 'Like Crazy,' " the director says, "feels like a more mature film in a lot of ways." And it benefits from the confidence he gained making these first two. After casting Yelchin, who played Chekov in 2009's "Star Trek," and "Winter's Bone's" Jennifer Lawrence in a supporting role, Doremus still had to select a British actress for his female lead.
"I saw 10 young British actresses over here, and they didn't feel quite right," he says. "Felicity Jones was interested, but she was in London. So she sent me a tape she made of one of the first moments in the film and the last scene. I saw that scene and I told her, 'How soon can you get to L.A.?' It was dangerous to cast a movie like this without seeing her in person, without seeing her with Anton. It was such a gut call."
Casting was critical for "Like Crazy" because Doremus made the film in an unusual, quasi-improvisational manner. "I start with a 50-page outline," he explains. "Typically each scene has two pages about things like objectives and subtext. Then it's all about the rehearsal process. We go for two weeks and get a rough idea of what the scene is, but not quite figure it out. If we click too well in rehearsal, we've gotten to the truth too fast."
It's on the set "that they have the opportunity to just fly," the director says. "If the actors are willing to react truthfully in the moment, amazing things happen."
To encourage that process, Doremus encouraged his actors to stay in character on set. "There are no off-camera moments. Sometimes the takes would last an hour without cutting," he explains. "It wasn't 'hit this beat, hit this beat, and we'll cut,' I wanted to feel these were real conversations, truthful conversations."
His goal, Doremus says, is "to create and guide moments when the actors so lose themselves in the movie they're completely unaware of what they're doing." For a director, this process is "not about showing up and seeing what happens," he says. "It needs a lot of preparation, and you have to know when you've gotten it and can move on. At the end of the day, that's what you have. Your instincts of what that moment is is what makes a filmmaker."