Double is the third feature from writer-director Riley Stearns, whose previous features – including those from 2014 Defaults and 2019 The art of self defensestarring Jesse Eisenberg and Imogen Poots – not only struck gold on the film festival circuit, but established a distinctive approach to dark comedy.
Guardians of the Galaxy Karen Gillan stars and co-stars as protagonist Sarah and his clone in this sci-fi satire of morbid intelligence, which also stars Aaron Paul (Break Evil) and Beulah Koale (Hawaii five-0).
Faced with a terminal diagnosis, Gillan opts for a lab-grown, genetically identical replacement to carry on his legacy. When she recovers in unexpected and medically inexplicable ways, Sarah is legally bound to face her doppelganger in a deadly fight to determine who will stay.
After premiering at this year’s Sundance Film Festival to critical acclaim, Double is set to hit US theaters today. We had the immense pleasure of chatting with Riley Stearns about the production challenges he faced amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the ‘happy accidents’ of filmmaking, how his deadpan approach developed throughout her career and how multi-faceted musician and artist Emma Ruth Rundle has become involved in music Double.
Finding a filming location for Double amid the COVID-19 pandemic has been — as with many film and television productions — quite an ordeal. What was the process of this journey for you, and why was Finland ultimately the final destination?
Riley: Initially, pre-COVID, we planned to shoot in early 2020, probably in the Pacific Northwest of the United States, like Seattle or Portland. But then Vancouver was an option. We also talked about Toronto. And then COVID hit, and we kind of put the movie on the back burner, thinking, “let’s see how long this lasts.”
Obviously, it lasted longer than we initially thought. But at some point we knew we still wanted to shoot the movie and we wanted to shoot it safely. Thus, the idea of filming in various parts of the United States was always in vogue; Vancouver and Toronto were an option, but it was going to be very difficult as their numbers were still quite high and only growing.
At that time, XYZ had a film fund that our film was going to be the first to tap into for film financing. The fund came from a company outside Finland, and they presented us with the idea of filming in Finland. We looked at the options there; I immediately jumped at the chance. A few other places were maybe going to be on the table, but what was really good about Finland was that their numbers were always very low. But they weren’t going to demand the same quarantine times either as long as we tested and handled ourselves properly.
So we ended up choosing Finland to shoot, and I think what was probably the advantage for the film in terms of filming became the look of the film. The architecture is completely different from the United States, but you still have that very Pacific Northwest look, which I had always envisioned in my head as where we were going to shoot. It gave us a kind of real-world building space that I was so happy to explore.
Cinema is full of happy accidents.
Riley: People think you literally plan everything. Even some of your favorite movies that have been impeccably and meticulously planned have happy accidents that the directors embrace. I think Finland was one of those happy accidents.
Double taps into a dark, funny dead end that has become your trademark, and it’s something a lot of writers and directors struggle to hold the landing with. Is black comedy an approach that comes naturally to you as a writer and director, or is that just what you felt was the right approach for the stories you’ve told in your films so far?
Riley: Probably a bit of both. The first short I did was a horror drama that I hope people aren’t looking for, because it’s so bad, and it’s probably findable on various image sharing sites or whatever. But I felt like it was me trying to be someone I wasn’t. I made a short film called Helmetwhich was only an experiment – but once I did The littleprior to Defaults, this one really looked like me. It felt like I didn’t have to try to be someone I wasn’t.
I really like to make people laugh, and I’m not funny in person, and I’m not a comedian by any stretch of the imagination; but I love writing dialogue and I love finding ways to make people laugh through the exchange of words. I started finding myself in a space I felt more comfortable in than ever, including all the scripts I wrote before I even got there. Defaults which will never see the light of day either.
I just really like black comedy. I like life to be darkly funny; it’s never completely comic, without drama. In the same way, even in the darkest times, there are things that have a certain sense of lightness. I like living in that gray area, myself – but at the same time, I like my characters to be very black and white about the world they live in and the world they explore. So that’s comforting to me, but I also feel like the stories I’ve tended to write work better in this world too.
Karen Gillan was a logical choice to explore this world; she is not only a superb dramatic actress but also very funny. Was she your first choice as a lead?
Riley: That’s how it goes. To say that she is not the first choice is not a blow; it’s just that I didn’t know her as much as an actor because there are so many people there. You say, “Okay, who’s available? and “who is in the same agency as me”, because that helps too. You get a list of people who are bankable or unbankable. This is all so crazy to me.
When I can sit down and have a conversation with someone, I know if they’re the right person to work with or not. Karen and I had a meeting where she expressed her interest in the role, and I immediately saw someone I knew I would love to work with. We got along from that moment, and she understood it.
What was also cool is that at this point there are two more films before Double that you can watch and find out how I work and how actors have worked with me in the past. She was able to arrive with a very good perspective of where Double could go; if this had been my first feature, it might have been a little harder to sync with it.
Between her, Aaron (Paul) and Beulah (Koale), during those weeks on film, I felt very safe. I also felt like they trusted me. Karen and I were able to really explore the differences between these two characters and find out who Sarah and her double really were.
Double is your second collaboration with musician Emma Ruth Rundle. How did your collaborative relationship start?
Riley: I sometimes forget that she helped me with the short film I made during COVID (The cover). She did this as a kind of experiment working with me, leading to feature film. If COVID had never happened, I certainly would never have made it this short; we would have had our first experience working together on this feature. I was really lucky that we had that moment to feel each other’s process and practice before we got to Duel.
I was a big fan of her. I posted a few records I bought, and I forgot who one of the artists was, but that was dark old man and a pop artist. Someone in the comments section said, “This is going to sound weird, but I think the mix of these two would be an artist called Emma Ruth Rundle”. I remember shooting real big sky with this acoustic drone, a really out of tune acoustic guitar thing where it’s muddy but then she has these beautiful vocals on it. I was just like, “oh my god, she’s so good”.
I blindly contacted her via Instagram DM, and just said I haven’t written it yet, but I made a movie called Defaults and I’m about to make a movie called The art of self defenseand i think you would be really cool for this movie i want to write called Double. To my surprise, she wrote back and told me that even though she had never done a score before, she would be very interested.
We just kept in touch over the years, and I kept her involved while I was writing the script. I listened Electric Guitar I while I was writing the script, and this album was a big informative piece for me in terms of how I wanted the score to go; in that I wanted it to be mostly guitar. Emma was then able to see the film and write specifically about it.
We had the best working relationship; I loved his process. Not everyone who is good at making music is good at scoring. He’s someone who’s very, very good at seeing something on the screen and linking a tone through his music to that screen. I hope that not only will she work with me again, but I hope that she will continue to work as a composer for other people. I’m very excited too, because I think we’ll be releasing his vinyl score through Sargent House. At some point people will be able to own it – which is pretty cool. Selfishly, I’m very excited about this too.
DUAL hits US theaters April 15.