Of course, it was well after Jenée LaMarque’s birth that she discovered she wasn’t alone in the womb, but even before being able to comprehend the fact that she had a sibling that she lost to an in utero complication, she had the feeling something was missing. Yet if there was any absence she perceived, in its place was a perspective that was unique, to go by her debut feature “The Pretty One.”
The story of a sheltered young woman named Laurel, whose admiration for her urbane twin sister Audrey becomes empathy when she’s mistaken for her after a tragic car accident and begins to live life in her place, LaMarque’s feature debut continues a fascination with the feeling of emptiness that began with her quietly effecting short “Spoonful,” about a grief-stricken woman puzzled by her suddenly lactating breasts. There was an ethereal quality to “Spoonful,” as well as a mischievous sense of humor, both of which LaMarque pushes further in “The Lucky One,” armed with a dazzling dual performance from her lead actress Zoe Kazan and a fairy tale spirit that places the film in no specific time period but is emotionally acute.
As I wrote about the film when I saw it last year at the Tribeca Film Festival, it bears “a wit and wisdom that permeates both the film’s screenplay and visual style,” something that I found to be true of LaMarque and Kazan when I sat down with the pair recently on the eve of the film’s release.
Jenée LaMarque: Oh yeah. She came over to my house and my daughter was there and got to know my family. She was like, “Let’s go through the script like I’m a six-year-old. You just explain. We’re going to go through it with a fine-tooth comb.” She took notes and she wanted to know exactly the intention of every single part of the script. That was incredibly helpful so that we started off from this basis of clarity in our intentions.
Zoe Kazan: I’ve never done that with a director before. I’ve never had the opportunity to, for one thing, except on “Ruby Sparks” because I was talking through every element with my directors anyway [as the screenwriter]. It was so helpful to me because of this deep challenge of playing these multiple parts just to have complete and utter clarity about what your intention was at all times so I could really concentrate. This was not a set on which I felt like I could concentrate on the clarity. I had to have everything squared away before we ever stepped in front of the camera because the other stuff was so complicated.
JL: Right. There was a lot of preparation involved to execute.
I imagine you had an interesting relationship with the camera on this one, not only because of whatever trickery was involved in playing twins in the same scene, but also because there were a lot of scenes where Laurel was alone in her room and the space around her speaks to the character.
ZK: I felt pretty acutely aware that Jenee was trying for a very special tone on this movie and because of that, I think I was interested in what the camera was doing just so I would know, what does this look like? What frame am I standing in? How much of my body am I going to be using here? Because of the technical stuff, when I had to play both parts, I was very aware of what the camera was doing because I had to match exactly the body language of my double. Where the camera was became incredibly important. Once we were out of that, I had a much more normal relationship with the camera, normal to other films I’ve done.
JL: When she’s alone in a room and there’s a lot of space around her — for me, one of the characters in the movie is this negative, empty space around her because this part of her that was once there is now absent. There’s this sense of the space around her body that is important.
It was particularly interesting seeing this film after Jenee’s earlier short “Spoonful” and “Ruby Sparks” because it deals with grief and identity, both themes that carry over to this film. Is it coincidence or are they of continuing interest?
JL: Zoe and I have shared interests in certain [things] — in what it means to be a woman, right now, in this time, and interested in what creates our identity and what defines us as people. Do we define ourselves or are we subject to other people’s assessments of ourselves? We have that in common and also we’ve both had experiences with loss and grief, so there’s that commonality too. That’s a very universal experience.
ZK: We also like a lot of the same things. We respond to things similarly. I don’t feel like my work as a writer bleeds over into what I choose. If anything, I feel like I would try to choose films that are different from the ones that I want to write just because I try to have a broader and more interesting artistic experience. The heart wants what it wants.
JL: The first day? The whole thing feels like there were birds chirping around me and that everything was like, “Oh, your dreams are coming true.” Not that there weren’t moments of extreme stress, because there definitely were, but in general, I just felt really grateful everyday that this was actually happening. It just didn’t feel real.
ZK: Fun fact: we were shooting all the twin stuff first, so the first 10 days were pretty intense. We were in Piru [California], which was in the middle of nowhere.
JL: Staying in a hotel was the tough part. We weren’t at home.
ZK: That was the hardest part, then we were done in Piru and done with the twins and I remember [Jenee] coming out of it being like, “The rest is easy! It’s going to be a breeze.”
JL: Yeah, there’s that feeling. I’m glad that we did that when we had the most energy.
If you did the twins stuff first, did that actually help with developing Laurel as she gets a taste of freedom?
ZK: Yeah, it did. I remember being sad that once we were done in Piru, there was no more Audrey. I remember feeling really weird about that and also that I really enjoyed playing Audrey.
I don’t want to spoil one of the climactic moments in the film, but there’s a scene late in the film where Laurel’s father (played by John Carroll Lynch) shows his affection physically. It would seem so easy to fill that scene with dialogue, but you find a solution that’s graceful. How was that achieved?
JL: I love that moment. That’s one of my favorite moments in the movie and that was something that [John] came up with. In the script, he struck her. He hit her in that moment and John is this imposing guy. He’s like 6’4” and Zoe is very petite. He’s like, “I can’t hit her because I would kill her.” I was like, “Yes. You’re not going to hit her. That doesn’t fit in the tone of this film.” It’s like, why is that even in the script? I don’t know. He’s like, “Let me show you this thing…” Zoe was getting ready and her body double was there. He’s like, “I’m going to try it on Katherine [Macanufo, the body double].” He lifted her up and it took my breath away.
When you work with actors that are as talented and brilliant as these actors, those things that they improvise and bring their point of view [to], and that texture of life are those wonderful surprises on set that end up being your favorite part of the movie.
ZK: And I worked with John Carroll Lynch’s wife [Brenda Wehle] when I was in my Broadway debut [2008’s revival of “Come Back, Little Sheba”] so I had known him a tiny bit through her and I felt there was a really natural trust between us very quickly on set, which [Jenee] definitely helped foster. That kind of trust and [Jenee] being open to ideas like that is part of what makes making a movie like this really special. I feel like so much of collaboration is compromise and that the ratio has got to stack up in your favor. As a writer, you’re giving your work away and if you’re getting a return of eight things are better than they were on the page to every two things that you lose, that’s a good ratio.
JL: That is a good ratio.
ZK: I feel like we were around that ratio. There was a real openness and warmth on set that was allowing people to feel empowered to bring their ideas. Which I think is what people say about Francis Ford Coppola, that when he was making “The Godfather.” He was using everyone as a think tank. That’s a little bit of how I felt like on this, which is, in some ways, surprising as a first-time filmmaker and as a writer/director. I think a lot of people would have been much more precious about everything that was on the page. You really had faith that you had brought the right collaborators into the project.
JL: I did. I trusted you guys.
“The Pretty One” opens on February 21st in Los Angeles at the Sundance Sunset 5 and the Edwards University Town Center 6 in Irvine, the AMC River East 21 in Chicago and the AMC Metreon in San Francisco.