A 'Crazy' little thing called love

Fittingly, it began with a date.

Last year, Anton Yelchin, 21 and coming off his performance as Chekov in the film "Star Trek," was sitting nervously in the bar of a Mexican restaurant in Los Angeles, waiting for a woman five years his senior. On a flight from London, his dinner companion, the British actress Felicity Jones, was also trying to squelch the butterflies. "I remember thinking, 'I just hope he's a good guy,'" she recalled.

The two were indeed rendezvousing to see whether they'd make a good couple — only not in real life. Yelchin and Jones had been offered the lead roles in a romantic drama called "Like Crazy," and they needed to get acquainted — fast. Barring a hitch, they'd be spending the next few months together as a love-bitten young couple. And they'd do it without a script.

So how did they get through their awkward encounter?

"Three tequilas," Jones said, giggling. Yelchin nodded slowly, a smirk on his face.

Those tentative, tipsy first steps soon turned into an exhaustive rehearsal session, an unconventional movie shoot and, now, an improbable turn in the Hollywood limelight. Made far outside the studio system for $250,000 by a scrappy production company called Crispy Films and directed by a largely unknown filmmaker, Drake Doremus, then 27, "Like Crazy" became an unexpected sensation at this year's Sundance Film Festival. Screenings brought tears to the eyes of otherwise jaded festivalgoers, the movie won Sundance's top prize, and distributors went gaga for it. Paramount Pictures and the production company Indian Paintbrush offered the winning bid, shelling out an estimated $4 million for the right to release it. Paramount is opening the film in Los Angeles and New York on Friday.

Those Utah audiences may have been on to something. Big-screen relationship stories run the gamut from the heartwrenching breakup film ("Blue Valentine") to the sappy fairy tale ("Valentine's Day"). "Like Crazy" carves out a subtle place between those heavily weighted poles. A tone poem as much as a conventional dialogue-driven piece, the film portrays romance with meaningful glances and shy smiles more than with hyper-verbal expressions of love. Even tension comes less in the form of argument as quiet chasms of disagreement.

"When we were first shooting, our first instinct was to talk as much as possible," Yelchin said. "And then by the end of the process we realized it's all about silence."

The plot for "Like Crazy" is straightforward. After meeting in an undergraduate English class, the literary-minded Brit Anna (Jones) and the gentle American furniture builder Jacob (Yelchin) embark on a tender romance that sends them over the moon. But after Anna impulsively decides to overstay her visa to spend the summer with her new love, she is plunged into a legal quagmire that keeps the couple an ocean apart for much of the next few years. As they try to resolve the visa issue, the pair tangle with more emotionally charged subjects, at first clinging to their idealism but eventually entering relationships with other people (played by Charlie Bewley and Jennifer Lawrence).

In real life, Yelchin and Jones are a lot more outgoing than the emo characters they portray. In a conversation at the Toronto International Film Festival last month and in separate interviews last week, she giggled a lot, and he peppered his answers with wisecracks. The Russian-born, L.A.-raised Yelchin is used to the spotlight: He's had meaty on-screen roles since his teenage years, coming to prominence in the 2006 Nick Cassavetes drama "Alpha Dog" and starring recently in big Hollywood productions such as "Terminator Salvation," "The Beaver" and of course aboard the U.S.S. Enterprise. The London-based Jones has mostly toiled in television and film across the pond, particularly in period pieces such as "Chéri" and "Brideshead Revisited."

After the evening with their pal Jose Cuervo, Yelchin and Jones began driving around L.A., visiting Barnes & Noble and getting to know each other. Then they started rehearsing — a grueling week in which they spent all day and often all night conversing with each other and Doremus about Anna and Jacob's relationship. They filmed the movie in and around Los Angeles, mostly in sequence, a rarity that allowed for their off-screen relationship to evolve in step with their on-screen one. (They are not, it should be said, romantically involved in real life.)

Little was put down on paper; instead, Doremus would offer only general guidance about the emotional beats he wanted. Then he might, for instance, set them loose in Santa Monica with a camera trailing behind them, and they would run on the beach or pop into a candy store or do other things people do when they're falling in love.

And when they shot indoors, particularly in the bedroom, the director would often ask the crew to leave so the pair could feel comfortable in their attempt to create intimacy. The scenes would then stretch from five to 10 to 30 minutes, the only interruption coming when the director would pop his head under the covers to whisper encouragement. "I tried only to do that if I needed to," Doremus admitted.

As they shot these scenes, Jones and Yelchin would try a mind-boggling array of lines and moods. "There are so many things I say in the movie that I have no recollection of saying," Jones said.

Doremus previously directed 2010's male-centered dating comedy "Douchebag," which garnered some though not nearly as much buzz at Sundance before flopping upon release. A filmmaker rooted in comedy — his mother was a founding member of L.A.'s legendary Groundlings group — Doremus decided to import some of that genre's improvisational techniques to a drama. "For me, it's all about getting that truth. And you get that in the moments when you just let an actor go, especially at the end of a scene, when they're more likely to let their guard down." The goal was to capture the fragile hope of youth without the sugarcoating or, for that matter, the happy ending of most movies.

"There are some funny lines, no?" Jones said.

"No, it's pretty much a downer," Yelchin demurs.

Doremus actually based the story loosely on his own experience with a long-distance relationship. The actors too said their own real-life romances shaped their characters.

Yelchin recently broke up with a girlfriend. Like Jacob, he was doing the long-distance thing, and Yelchin said he saw in his character the issues of his own globe-trotting life. "With this job, you always have long-distance relationships, and if you're not capable of dealing with the worst parts of yourself that it brings out, your relationship starts to sour very quickly," he said.

Jones came from the opposite direction. She's been dating her boyfriend, the British artist Ed Fornieles, for years. Like Anna, she said, she and her beau battle to maintain the promise of their early courtship. "I think it's a universal situation: It's the struggle of meeting someone and being completely intoxicated by them, and then how do you sustain that," she said.

As they've promoted their movie they've found others responding to those elements too. "It's about young people, but I've had people of all ages come up to me and tell me about their first love," Yelchin said. "I've had a lot of middle-aged women come up to me, actually."

Jonathan Schwartz, a principal at Crispy Films, said that the resonance has surprised him. "It's a small underdog film, but it turns out that it's also very broad because, really, who hasn't been in love?" said the producer, whose movies are primarily backed by the Wilf family, principal owners of the NFL's Minnesota Vikings.

"Like Crazy" shares similarities with "(500) Days of Summer," another relationship movie that tried to go beyond the Hollywood gloss. And while this film is primarily a serious affair without the hipster irony of "Summer," that may prove an advantage with audiences. "There's no gimmick. There's no trick," Jones said. "It's just a very simple story that's very simply told." She added: "I think people are ready for something different."

steve.zeitchik@latimes.com

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