“There really hasn’t been a film that deals with a platonic male-female relationship in this way”: Natalie Morales and Mark Duplass discuss Language Lessons
The relatively new technique of desktop films has previously been almost exclusively used in the horror genre to highlight the dangers of technology. Berlinale Special Language Lessons is here to prove that something good can come out of strangers connecting via video chat.
Stars Mark Duplass (Adam) and Natalie Morales (Cariño) co-wrote the script about two lonely people striking up an unlikely friendship within the framework of online Spanish classes. Comprised exclusively of images captured by their respective webcams, the platonic-rom-com is living proof that necessity is the mother of invention; the production emerged within the confines of quarantine.
The virtual interview for director Natalie Morales’ feature film debut is held via Zoom, the very program the film’s main characters use for their communication, and as such begins with a playful, “empezamos la clase de español”.
To what extent was Language Lessons made because you were under lockdown? Is this a Covid film?
Natalie Morales: Yes, and no. It’s not about Covid at all. But I don’t know that it would have been made, had it not been for Covid. Which is wild to think about. We did make it under the constraints that we had and we made it from an emotional place, because of what was going on.
Mark Duplass: I was starting to take Spanish lessons online, with a teacher in Guatemala, about a month into the pandemic. And I noticed how the connection was just unexpected and interesting. We both hated small talk. So we started talking about other things and it went a little deeper, more quickly than I anticipated. I thought that was interesting: a Zoom connection may actually be facilitating something deeper. That was the seed of it. There was really nothing more than that when I called Natalie, which is a testament, I think, to our creative trust in each other and our friendship. I mean, you all would laugh if you heard the first conversation of my movie pitch to Natalie, because it was basically just like, “there could be a movie with the two of us, and you’d be my Spanish teacher, and it’d be like a video chat thing.” That’s it.
I always love the idea that if you make a movie with someone, particularly an improvised movie – even though we wrote some of the scenes – you can see friendship start to form on screen as it’s happening. That is palpable, you know, in the way that movies like Before Sunrise do so well. So, for us the format was really great, to just be confined to the two of us, and we took a bet, we hoped it would be interesting to watch. We didn’t tell anybody we were making the movie because if it sucked, we could just bury it.
You keep the pandemic itself out of the story. Was this decision made so the film could feel more timeless? Was it because you didn’t want to talk about it?
NM: It was both those things. We wanted the movie to exist in any time period to feel more evergreen. And we didn’t want to tie it to this time that everyone was already sick of.
MD: Yeah. Also I think that the metaphors all of these storylines draw are so directly related to the lockdown that we felt like directly tying it could also be a hat on a hat, as they say. It felt like it might have been overkill.
In terms of language lessons, Adam is pretty proficient out of the gate. How did you decide where to baseline Adams Spanish fluency to make the story effective?
MD: Well, we were worried that it would be very boring if we were to watch Adam learn rudimentary Spanish. People would walk out after five minutes. We wanted to have them be able to communicate on some decent level. The truth of the matter is that was roughly where my Spanish was at – it was a little bit better. And we knew we were going to be improvising, so we thought we would base it on our actual levels where we were.
NM: I was very impressed with how good Mark’s Spanish was.
How much of the film was improvised?
NM: We did write a lot of the movie, especially all the Spanish parts. It is my first language, but I mostly speak English. And it’s difficult for me to improvise in Spanish, without sort of doing a little bit of Spanglish or “ummms” and “ahs”. For Mark, it was also necessary to write a lot of that. We wanted to work the points of each scene, for sure. But there was quite a bit of improvisation in the movie. We wanted it to feel as natural as it could. So once we knew the points we had to get across and the beats of it–
MD: The drunk scene was not written out. There was very little written for that. And that was one of my favourite things to do. I mean, that was maybe two takes – Natalie just came in rip-roaring on that. I had to come up with the names of my fish.
NM: I meant to ask you if those were the names of your fish?
MD: Not the names of my fish. “Yeah I gotta name my fish right now. Here we go…”
How did you come up with the fact that Cariño would be living in Costa Rica?
NM: Because we didn’t necessarily want to make the movie about Covid or Covid times, we didn’t want to put them in the same city or in the same place. I grew up going to Costa Rica a lot and I have basically family there – they’re very close family friends. So I’m really familiar with Costa Rica. It’s a place I love very much and it’s a place I would absolutely live in. So, that’s what inspired that particular place.
MD: It was a really fun thing. When I initially came up with just the basic bare-bones concept, I called Natalie immediately and wanted her to be my partner in this. We talked for a few hours and jammed out some story stuff. And then we went away and decided to fill out our characters separately. And that’s when Natalie came up with the name, Cariño, and the backstory with Costa Rica and Cuba and all that. And I just loved it all. It was such an interesting journey that I hadn’t seen before.
What was it about these characters that worked so well together?
NM: I think that Adam’s character is always the same in the sense that he’s open from the very beginning. He’s like, “I feel incomodo. I’m not into this”. It spills out of him and he’s never been trying to hide that. I always thought that was such an interesting thing that Mark came up with and the way he wrote this character. I would like to be friends with somebody who just gave up on having walls because he was like, “I’ve lived my life in such a constrained way that I don’t want to live that way anymore”.
I think people like that are infinitely interesting. And I think that’s very helpful for Cariño. You know, she presents a certain way in the beginning and then you see that start to change. You see it in the messages she sends him and also in the unsent messages.
I think what feels so intimate about it is that you feel like you’re in these conversations with them, you get to know them as they get to know each other. And it feels like you’re actually breaking down the walls of these people as well. Which was intentional, but we were also lucky.
How did the setup work logistically? How could you build a connection if you couldn’t actually look each other in the eyes?
NM: Well, we did look at each other in the eyes through the computer. We couldn’t have done it in the same location at the time. It was not hard to build a connection with Mark through this at all. It was the nature of how we had been communicating for a while by the time we shot this in July. I think what was the most difficult part about filming this way was seeing my own face acting. I had to x out the screen because that was distracting and somewhat annoying.
The connecting with Mark was easy and also I think – not to get too deep into acting – a really great scene is about the barriers between people. And there’s this natural barrier here and it was exciting to get through that.
In making this a small, independent movie, did you feel more comfortable and free?
MD: It goes both ways for me. We liked the fact that we were making it in secret, and there wasn’t a lot of pressure on it. There wasn’t a big studio who could yell at us if it wasn’t what they wanted it to be. That was nice. But at the same time, we had to make an entirely new system for how to make the film. One of our producers is Jeremy Mackie, who I’ve worked with for years. He built this entirely new camera setup that was literally a large cutting board from our kitchens and a computer on it with a camera and a microphone attached. He would control the lighting rig from afar, but we would have to light ourselves. We were slating our own footage, and doing our own hair and makeup and ordering our own clothes. So that was in some ways more challenging than having a large budget production. But I found it invigorating and sort of returned to the way I used to make movies with my brother when I was little. And I love that.
NM: Yeah, there were all of these new aspects of troubleshooting and inventing constantly. Luckily we had a great production team – Jeremy was our DP, but he was also our sound person. He was trying to figure out all these different things when limitations and problems would come up. Like for example, if you’re recording this, what happens if the computer fan comes on and does all this stuff over your dialogue? So then we have to figure out how to remotely control a computer fan and turn it off without the computer burning down. It was all of these different little elements of this core team trying to figure out physically how to make this movie.
Did you feel this was a revitalising experience from an acting point of view? Mark, were you convinced to get behind the camera again after watching Natalie direct?
MD: I haven’t been behind the camera in a long time – I’m really enjoying my role as writer or co-writer, actor, producer. Because quite frankly, I can make a lot more stuff that way. Natalie does all the heavy lifting. But I am going to direct a movie later this year. Something I just couldn’t not do. As to the acting portion, it was so fun. Because there was only one setup. As an actor, we’re pros and we know that we’ve got to do the close-up, the wide, the overs, the tracking shot and repeat ourselves, but this was like theatre in a way. And once we got the take that was it. Really, really fun for me. But you know, it’s also scary because if you fall flat, that’s all we got.
NM: Our editor in this was incredible. I mean, if you’re not thinking about it, you don’t notice what a feat it is to edit a movie, where there are no other shots, there’s nothing else to cut to. There’s just these two people having this one scene; nothing else happens. There’s no hiding in there.
It was definitely fun from an acting perspective. Sometimes it was hard; some of these scenes we would finish and I’d be like, “Mark, I need a break”.
MD: I forgot to mention what a pleasure it is for me to be acting with my director and co-writer. At the same time, in the moment, we are sculpting the narrative as we go. And that’s wonderful, but also doubly exhausting. Because as much as you want to get lost in the natural, there’s a tiny part of your brain that’s thinking, “I got to push that story a little bit.” We shot five or six days to make this or something like that. Yeah, we were pretty brutalised by the end of it.
How did you think of the Zoom mechanism as affecting the way the characters interact?
NM: The more I talk about this movie and the more I talk about Zoom, the more I realise I should have invested in Zoom sometime in March last year. I don’t know that we ever really talked about that being an aspect because it was our only choice. It was the only way to make this movie at the time. I mean, I suppose we could have used another service, but it would have always been through a computer and video chat in some way. I guess something we were all experiencing is that weird, non-intimacy/intimacy? In many ways, this movie is about how you break that down, how you break the falseness of video chats. How do you get beyond that state and let someone actually see you and not the you that you’re presenting? Because it is so presentational: even if we’re being us, we’re enunciating more and we’re making happy faces so people know we’re not upset. We are performing a little bit even in a natural conversation. So when you can actually be yourself with someone it’s so relieving, and that was a fun thing to explore in this.
It’s refreshing to see a movie that explores the friendship between a man and a woman, people from different backgrounds. The film acknowledges topics like privilege, class, white guilt, being gay, the experience of being a woman and being idealised but also belittled as one. Can you talk about why you chose to tackle these topics and how they informed the friendship of the protagonists?
NM: It was unavoidable. To me, when you’re putting these two characters together all these things are obvious on the screen. If you don’t talk about them or hit on them, then you’re hiding something and there may be situations where these two people wouldn’t talk about it, but you’d see them thinking about it. I remember talking to Mark about this – it was important to both of us to not have his character be the white saviour of the movie. We wanted both characters to save each other in a sense. I had never seen a character in a movie say that to the other character. I was like, “I think I want to say this”. Actually saying these words out loud because I want to put that point on it. And as women, we are sort of idealised in this beautiful way and also limited by that. Somebody looks at you and they think you’re sweet and wonderful. There are limitations to what you can be and what the different sides of you can be.
MD: I’ll just say for my part, honestly I never imagined I would be as successful as I have been able to become in this industry. That house we shot in is my old house. I sold that house because I do have guilt and I don’t understand what all this means. And I was working some of this out in the movie through this character.
Were you ever tempted to turn the story into a romance?
MD: We talked about it pretty early on, and there was this concerted decision that we like the idea that Adam’s character would be gay so that romance would specifically not be on the table. In a movie where you got two people talking through a screen, what’s fresh? What’s new, right?
Natalie pinpointed pretty early on that there really hasn’t been a film that deals with a platonic male-female relationship in this way, that truly deep dives into it. What I’m realising – and this always happens in press – is that I’ve been married, I’ve been with my wife for 20 years. So romance is off the table for me completely. The way that I am going to connect with someone is only platonically. Still, I want to go as deep as I possibly can. I don’t want it to just be a friend relationship that’s like the second or third relationship in the movie. I want that to be the new primary relationship in the movie of my life. That’s what Natalie and I did and making this movie, I wanted to go deep with it. I think that was the real attraction to me: “Let’s make that wonderful connected movie but just with friends, and it can be as much maybe more.”
NM: The more people ask us this question about the movie, the more I’m like, how is this possible that in 2021 there has not been a movie about it? Just friendship between a male and female? I mean, there are movies about female friendship, and there are movies about male friendship, but why not – I don’t understand.
MD: Those movies are different. They’re more like Barb and Star or something like that. You know, we were a lot like Barb and Star. But what I think what we’re talking about is all the twists and turns and pitfalls and deep rejections that normally come only with romantic love are dealt with platonically, which I didn’t think we realised we were doing that at the time.
Cariño initially doesn’t know how to react to what Adam is going through. If you were in that situation, where you see somebody struggling, how would you react? How would you advise others to react?
MD: That’s such a good question. I don’t have a great comp for it. But I will say this, that in my early 20s, I developed these very strange body pains from too much editing, too much playing music, and they got really debilitating. And my dad, who loves me and wanted to support me, did not know how to fix it. I could tell it was really hard for him. But what he did, which I thought was so great, is he just stayed with me. He would go with me to the doctor’s appointments and he would listen. He would validate my confusion and he would be just as confused as I was. And he would share that with me and not try to fix it, because he didn’t know what to do. He was just my co-pilot and he sat next to me. In hindsight, it was the best thing that I ever got, which is that he kept showing up and he just didn’t leave. I think that there was a part of me that was putting that into Adam and how he was going to deal with Cariño.
NM: That’s great on your dad’s part. I think I probably wouldn’t react very differently than Cariño did in this movie. I don’t know that I’d give someone a tour of anything though.
MD: Maybe you’re like one step more emotionally involved than Cariño. Probably.
NM: The way I see her character is that she is very nice. And then there’s a wall. Unless you dig a little deeper, which she’s not used to anybody doing – especially not one of her students – you will never know that there’s a wall because she’s very personable. Then when you keep going, that’s when you hit that wall and she’s like, “No. No, this was not our deal. This is not our relationship.”
But there’s a sense of humanity and a sense of understanding for what’s going on with Adam, that I think she lets that wall down for a moment because she knows that this person desperately needs something that only she can provide in that moment.
I don’t know, I mean, I always like sending people food. I really like when people send me food. So if I was on a Zoom call and I saw someone who was upset, I would try to help and then I would send them food.
Natalie, how do you see the position of female, Latinx directors in the United States and how difficult was for you to break into the industry?
NM: I think I have a very different experience than my Latinx brothers and sisters and anybody in between, because I have Mark Duplass, to be honest with you. He has been – I would never say he’s my mentor, because he has never mentored me in any way, but he has always been my shepherd. He has always been my supporter from the very beginning. I tried so hard. One of my first agencies, UTA, who I’m no longer with, would not take a meeting with me to direct while I was with them as an actor. I had already directed music videos, I had already done anything that I could – Funny or Die stuff. And within my own agency, they would not let me meet with an agent for directing. Different people in my life have supported me, my manager, and my new agents are very supportive, but nobody has done what Mark Duplass has done: “I believe in you. And I’m going to give you a chance and I’m going to give you an opportunity to direct a show on HBO.” No one has done that. And not everybody has that. I feel very very lucky to have met him and to have had him trust me with that. And with this.
MD: Well, I just want to say thank you for everything you said about me and I love you and you’re awesome and have given me so much back.
Do you feel pressured to be productive during the pandemic and is this film a result of that pressure? Or was it more of an attempt to bring some good into the world?
MD: For me personally, it’s a deep compulsion that I have to create. It is both a healthy thing and a somewhat unhealthy thing. I think it comes from something inside of me; my therapist would call it a little hole that I’m trying to fill. I know that about myself but at the same time, I’m able to turn it towards something productive. In this case towards a lovely collaboration with Natalie, a nice new friendship and connection and hopefully a piece of art that is a little bit of a salve for people moving forward. I didn’t feel like I had to do it to stay productive. If anything, I’m trying to convince myself to do a little less, so that I don’t destroy yourself and exhaust myself. But this one I just felt deeply compelled to do.
NM: I have felt that pull, that nagging feeling that I’m not being productive, and I think most people have. I do try and remind myself, “Hey, it’s a pandemic and everything’s horrible. It’s okay if you don’t feel productive today, or tomorrow, or this week.” I think in general I tend to be hard on myself when I don’t feel productive. And then every single person in my life is like, “Are you crazy? You did two movies last year.”
MD: You shot three movies in the pandemic, and don’t feel like you’re doing enough.
NM: Yes, yes, exactly. I mean, I think the last part of your question is exactly right. I try and do that with everything that I do. Because even the absolute dumbest things I do are to put something into the world, that that will do something for people, whether it’s make them happy for two seconds, whether it’s make them think about something. I guess every artist or filmmaker wants to leave the world in a better place than they have been left it, through their art. I know how deeply and maybe unknowingly art does affect culture. It affects the way people see the world and it moves things forward. Like I always say, in the United States, Will & Grace was on TV and made gay relationships a thing that was in your living room.
Then 10 years later, Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell got repealed. And they are correlated. When you put things on TV that you want to see in the world, the world starts to change. And that is always really important to me. It’s not the first thing I think about when I make art, but it is something that is always in my head and my heart.
Already before the pandemic, there was a discussion of cinema versus streaming platforms. Now, many studios are dependent on releasing films online. What is your take as filmmakers? Do you feel like Language Lessons is particularly suitable for a potential online release?
NM: I got the privilege, when we were about to quality check, to see it on a big screen because I edited the entire thing on my computer and on my TV. I still have never met my editor in real life. We did everything through Zoom, which is insane. I will say that it plays great on the big screen. I hope we all get to see it someday, hopefully in Berlin in June, maybe sooner than that. But I’m not an elitist when it comes to film or cinema or art. People were that way with TV in the 20s and 30s.
I think every way to express yourself is a valid way to express yourself, whether that’s streaming, or whether that’s in cinema. I do love and I do look forward to the day of that cinema experience. Because to me, it’s not about the size of the screen, it’s about getting to watch it with other people in a room and experiencing what that life is like. It adds something to the movie, and to the experience of watching it, when you hear other people breathing and sighing and crying and laughing. It makes you feel connected to the world because you’re all sharing this one experience, which is something that streaming doesn’t have – unless you’re watching it with a bunch of your friends or family. That to me is the is the biggest difference. But Mark has more experience because he’s worked in both of these worlds for a while.
MD: I actually feel very similarly. I come from such a different place, where I was making tiny movies at film festivals and the fact that anyone wants to watch my movies, anywhere, on any device… I just am honoured. I’ve had to pivot many times in this industry and find different ways to make things. And while I would love it if we lived in a world where Language Lessons was the movie that all the studios bid $100 million on and made $100 million in the theatres, I know we don’t live in that world and I’m okay with that. If it ultimately ends up on a streaming service and a lot of people get to watch this movie and share it that way, that’s great. I’m the luckiest man alive.
Language Lessons does not have a UK release date yet.
Read more reviews from our Berlin Film Festival 2021 coverage here.
For further information about the event visit the Berlin Film Festival website here.
Watch the trailer for Language Lessons here: