Amidst noisier and bolder selections at this year's Toronto International Film Festival, a sweet two-character black and white romantic comedy about the reconnection of old high school sweethearts could either get lost or it could stand out. The Globe and Mail spoke with writer and co-star Mark Duplass about the simple, honest charm of TIFF's Blue Jay, the first film from the Duplass Brothers under their new deal with Netflix.
Given that in Blue Jay you and co-star Sarah Paulson play former high school lovers who are the only two characters in the film, what did you do to get the chemistry warmed up before you began shooting?
There was an existing relationship there. Sarah and I almost feel like in-laws. She's best friends with Amanda Peet, who was on my HBO series Togetherness. Amanda is like family to me, so Sarah became de facto family. I'd seen her around and I was struck by how sweet, silly and goofy she was. You don't get to see that side of her on screen.
Well, we certainly didn't see that side of her when she played prosecutor Marcia Clark in The People v. O. J. Simpson: American Crime Story.
Right. But in terms of building chemistry, I wrote a two-to-three-page outline for the film and then brought in Alex Lehmann as the director, with Sarah and our producer team. We would do these hour-long hangouts, where we'd discuss the story, discuss our characters, discuss our personal lives, discuss our first loves, discuss the things that could belong in the soup of the movie. … That helped establish an intimacy.
There's a naturalness to the film. Can you talk about the improvisation and the looseness of the script?
Certain movies are about exacting what you did in the script. But this movie was about chasing what this movie could be. The script was a jumping off point for us to try and find that feeling, that element of nostalgia, that element of "Oh my God, what has my life become, am I okay with that, and did I miss a road I should have taken?" We were all on our toes for the seven days we shot the movie, trying to chase that down.
Were you ever worried that you might not be able to catch the feeling you were looking for?
On the first two days of filming, the energy was awkward. It's supposed to be, between the two characters. But is it stilted in a good way or is it just stilted? That's hard to track. But there's a scene in the liquor store where I thought, "I think I know what this movie is now. This is what it feels like when you run into someone who knew you when."
Speaking of which, do you imagine there will be women from your past who will think the film is about them?
That I'm a serial monogamist isn't really a secret. But I think it's fair for there to be two main high school girlfriends and a college girlfriend who might think it's about them. That being said, these characters came more out of the soup of the core creative team of the six of us throwing in tons of elements of our lives, and then rewriting it so you can't tell exactly where it came from.
What kind of film fan is going to want to see this film?
There's a whimsy and goofiness to it. Just because it's melancholy and nostalgic, it doesn't mean it takes itself too seriously. If you're looking at Netflix, you'll see this black and white image of two faces looking at each other longingly. Blue Jay might be for you if you want something that resets the bar a little bit, that is utterly simple, that's not a 90-piece orchestra but is actually just a person singing over an acoustic guitar.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Blue Jay screens at TIFF Sept. 18, 3:45 p.m., Scotiabank.