Olivia Thirlby and Ben Feldman in "Between Us"

Interview: Rafael Palacio Illingworth on Modern Love in “Between Us”

There’s a memorable moment in “Between Us” that you suspect will last with you longer than it will for the characters it happens to, which is odd given that it’s a marriage proposal. Then again Henry (Ben Feldman) and Dianne (Olivia Thirlby) like things weird and in fact, it’s because they can be weird together that they are so strong as a couple. So when Henry, out of frustration with the idea of formalizing their relationship status by getting an apartment together, floats the idea that he’d rather just get married to Dianne, the two begin a chant of “Husband and Wife” that turns into an impromptu dance around their current abode that shows how committed they can be – to a moment, not necessarily each other.

Rafael Palacio Illingworth’s second feature digs deep into these moments, observing how the same things that attract Henry and Dianne ultimately have the potential to tear them apart. With each prizing individuality, their own and in each other, the second that any type of structure is set to be imposed on what the ineffable thing that they have, it threatens to collapse, a fragility that is conveyed with great care by Illingworth and his two leads as the film shows snapshots of the couple leading up to their shotgun wedding and then chronicles what could be the most unromantic honeymoon ever as both relate misgivings they have, an evening that leads them into the arms of others – in Dianne’s case, a brusque, abstract performance artist (Adam Goldberg) and in Henry’s, an aspiring filmmaker with a shock of electric blonde hair (Analeigh Tipton) – that increasingly seem to resemble the idealized versions of what they’d like in a mate.

Of course, reality must intrude at some point and when it does, “Between Us” becomes a dizzying and seductive meditation on modern love, with a bond between the central couple that becomes easy to accept when you’ve got such winning actors as Feldman and Thirlby as the wily lovers. Shortly after the film’s premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, Illingworth spoke about taking a page from his own life as inspiration, the film’s cagey use of closeups and distance in its shooting style and how he got Peter Bogdanovich, playing Henry’s father, to take off his trademark glasses and ascot for the part.

How did this come about?

I’ve been attracted to these very intimate relationship movies. After I finished this movie called “Macho,” for a couple of years, I was thinking about what to do and I had this whole analysis of my own relationship, which I’m always doing. One day I had this fight with my girlfriend and I left the apartment. We were actually living in Los Feliz, and we had this cute little house, [full of] little stupid things we bought like cups and cheap art we bought together. Then I was so angry and I said, “I don’t give a shit about any of those things that we have. Right now, I’m going to just walk, and what if I go into a cafe and I meet the true girl that is going to be everything I want in a woman? If she was down for it, would I just come back and drop everything that I had?” I had been already three years with this girlfriend.

I cooled down and I came back to her and everything was okay. I’m married to her now, but it made me realize, “This is something that I have in me,” this whole constant fantasy of what could I be? Now that I’m older, what can I not be anymore? You grow up thinking that you’re going to be this young, hip guy that goes to a bar and goes to bed with a girl all your life. I was never that and I don’t think I ever will be, so this was a character trying to find that out.

I like the idea that these two people are so comfortable in each other’s company, but it’s likely the same things that make them great as a couple – the fact there isn’t some structure – that is what can push them apart. Is that a hard thing to figure out how to show on screen?

Yes. I don’t consider myself a writer, but by necessity you start writing your own things because by nature, you have to be self-reliant, so you start writing things and developing what comes easy for you. For me, that’s always been a look inside. Analyzing this fight with my girlfriend, it was funny how I felt, how I reacted, how I thought and then looking at that from a outside perspective – that is something I gravitate towards for that look, then once I turn that on [in my mind], then I’m always realizing, “Oh, it’s funny that I do these things with my wife.”

I’m always making mental notes of these things that I wouldn’t dare to do in front of anybody [else] but we know that it’s a part of our relationship. Just like the other persona that you put outside when you exit your house and close the door – that’s what attracts me, those little things. I always feel that’s what’s done successfully in the films that I admire the most – when you see little things like that are unexplainable, but you see a character that has that little thing that made you realize that that person is unique, but in that uniqueness, he’s the same as anybody that you’ve met.

How did Olivia and Ben become your couple?

That was a great and magical process, for which I’m grateful. Ben was the first one that said, “I’ll do it.” The funny thing is it was after he said that he would do it that we had a meeting and he was very eloquent and nice. We connected immediately as friends, because that was my interest more. It was a long time when we didn’t find the girl, like six or eight months or and I was always checking with [Ben], so it was kind of a collaboration and he always had an opinion. Then I met with Olivia – we actually thought that she was not getting the script, then, unexpectedly a month after, [we heard] “Hey, she read it and now she’s ready to Skype.” We had this meeting and she was another person that I clicked with as a human being and as a friend. I was confident that because I connected with these two people on an authentic level, connecting both of them would be the same. I was lucky that that was the case. When they got together, they hit it off immediately.

Olivia alluded to some improv in rehearsals beforehand. Did seeing them together cause you to go back and tweak some things based on how they interacted?

I didn’t do a proper rewrite, but from the beginning [I told them], “I’m Mexican. I’m not a native speaker, so when I write, I know that it has to be changed or adapted to sound more like an American,” and they know that they have [the right] to say like, “Hey, this is not how we would speak.” Then we discuss it and if it makes sense to me, or it excites me, then we change it. For the most part, the script didn’t change much, but the improv that you were asking about [was because] I wanted to include improvisation in this film as a tool of liberty. Sometimes I wanted to run the scenes longer and trust them that they could continue.

All my experiences with improvisation had been bad before, because I was not dealing with amazing actors. This time, I really wanted to tackle that. You could say it was an egotistical thing. I came to the rehearsals saying, “I want to get rid of this fear of mine of always dealing with clumsy improvisation. Are you guys willing to help me make the biggest mistake?” We went in and I realized very quickly, “No, no. I’m in really good hands.” We went on and it just started getting weirder and weirder. After four hours, it was completely messed up, but it changed my approach completely because I was not afraid anymore. For most of the scenes, we would run an improv before, and then when we jump into the scene, if I didn’t call “cut,” they would continue very comfortably. They knew the characters so much already and many of those lines are in the script, but in editing, I fished here or there for [certain things] in takes. They were very helpful.

How did the visual style come about, particularly the close-ups, because rather than having the effect of feeling closer, you often feel further away.

Yeah, that’s true. We actively tried that. We called it a layer between us and them. There were a lot of discussions between the cinematographer and I about how to achieve this distance without it being physical distance necessarily. We talked about putting smoke in rooms and things like that. We developed a look especially for the film. My first things were done in film and with all the digital technology, it’s so perfect, what I miss the most is there’s nothing anymore between you and them. The wall is broken. We wanted to rescue that, so that was important in every decision we made. We also didn’t want to take sides, so we were always a watcher. We wanted to be like, “Is this guy standing wherever you would be?” If you were a kid and you would see a couple fighting, wherever that would be, that’s where we chose to shoot.

There are moments of voiceover that sound like reflection rather than part of the present. Did you write character biographies or something else separately that you then incorporated into the script or was it all in there from the beginning?

They were not written separately, but I did try to infusing them a more with a view that is more self-aware than the characters. I worked for the longest time with a temporary version that we recorded while shooting. We blocked a couple of hours out [where] we went into a room and then we recorded this, but we were not concerned with performance at that point. And when I edited it with those, I started hating them because I forgot that they were not performed and I didn’t realize this until the very end, which was just some weeks ago when we were finishing the sound.

Then, all of a sudden, we went back and when we finally did the final version in the ADR,  it all made sense that these are probably dialogues that happened after what you see in the movie. It’s like there’s the fight, then they relax and they could talk more honestly than they ever have, which is almost like going to a shrink. It was trying to reach that level of honesty, which they clearly don’t have when they’re living their life from day-to-day.

This is a silly question, but this is the first time since at least the ’70s that I’ve seen Peter Bogdanovich without his glasses or an ascot. Was that a difficult sell?

Yeah. It’s crazy. You wouldn’t expect it, but he’s so kind and nice and open and of course, there’s intimidation for a young director like me – it’s almost disrespectful to even think that I can put a guy like this in my film. But he showed up and the guy has been doing this so long that everything that you might fear isn’t even on his radar. That was another very refreshing and liberating moment when he came to test [the makeup and costumes] test, like it’s nothing. Like, “Yeah, you like this.” There was no negotiation, no discussion. He was just like, “Hey, I like this.” I liked it more paternal and [I told him], I don’t want the typical you,” and he’s like, “Okay, cool. Let’s do it.” Adam [Goldberg] is another person that people recognize as a certain character, and I didn’t want to bring that in because I think it’s messy. I tried to strip all these people of that.

That was what it was like with Peter. There was no negotiation. During the making [of the film] though, I had him going up and down the stairs too many times – because of our schedule, he was scheduled for the very first day and that’s when you’re getting your bearings on set. Everyone’s getting to know each other. I had to do an insane amount of takes, for me at least – 14 takes or something of him going up and down the stairs and at some point, he’s like, “Hey, you have to pace yourself.”

Since you bring up Adam Goldberg, the performance art piece of his character’s looked like a production in and of itself.

Yes, it was so complicated to do that. It’s one of those things that you are so afraid of and put so much effort into and many things can go wrong. Then, the day of, because you had so many fears, it ended up being the easiest. It went surprisingly well, but it was a full production and it was always our intent that it was almost like a movie inside a movie. For a couple of minutes, you going to a whole other second layer.

Was it inspired by something you had seen?

I was inspired by many things. I just wanted to show he’s a successful artist that is not necessarily a sellout. He’s doing really abstract, intelligent art and yet he’s making lots money, instead of doing the cliche of him being totally the opposite, like a successful dentist. I wanted him to be in the same world as Henry, but just at the top of the ladder and for that, I remembered a play that I saw that a friend of mine produced in LA. It was one of those things that I went to because my friend invited me, but it has stayed with me all my life. It was simple. It was this British artist that invited other famous artists from LA, and then the whole time, he’s hypnotizing them and talking on top of them. The guys don’t have a script, so he’s at the moment telling them, “Okay, now you say you love me,” the guy says, “I love you.” It was so hypnotic that I wanted to recreate that feeling.

It’s funny now because this friend of mine that produced that play is the one that did the whole color correction for the movie. He owns this post [production]house, so it’s still within the family. When he saw the movie, he’s like, “It’s funny. This is the type of play that I would produce.” Then I tell him after five years, “Actually, I was inspired by your play.”

What was the premiere like for you?

It was really nice. I was so happy to be there with my family. You grow up dreaming and thinking of moments like this. It’s the simple things that make you happy, like my parents getting to see a movie that’s finished. They have done that before, but this was different. I was still stressed because I cannot see it as a movie yet, but it was wonderful to be surrounded by all the actors and such a nice group of people. A nice graduation.

“Between Us” opens on January 6th at the Monica Film Center in Los Angeles and the IFC Center in New York. It will also be available on VOD.

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