It's one thing to keep the twisting surprise plot of a new film under wraps when you're a first-time director shooting with just two actors on a closed and limited set. But after that movie — "The One I Love," by Charlie McDowell — premieres to accolades at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival, can Internet spoilers be far behind? "After Sundance, I thought it would be 'cat's out of the bag, everyone knows,'" says McDowell, by phone from his home in California the day before flying to Sarasota for tonight's closing screening at the Sarasota Film Festival. "But all the reviewers wrote, 'We went into it knowing nothing and you should too.' We were pretty shocked and surprised, but very pleased, that happened. I'm going to ride it out as long as possible."
This first full-length feature for McDowell — the 30-year-old son of actors Malcolm McDowell and Mary Steenburgen — stars Mark Duplass as Ethan and Elisabeth Moss as Sophie, a married couple whose relationship is foundering and who are encouraged by their therapist (Ted Danson, McDowell's real-life stepfather) to reconnect at his remote vacation home. But from the start, the couple's divide appears to involve something more than just a lack of communication. What initially appears to be an engaging dramatic comedy soon crosses genres into the realm of sci-fi and the surreal. (No spoilers here.) Shot in just three interior locations with only the two actors, it represents a paragon of virtues for a neophyte director, says Tom Hall, director of the SFF, who snagged it for the festival here after seeing it at Sundance. "It stood out for me so much for a first-time filmmaker," says Hall, who also chose McDowell to receive the 2014 SFF Breakthrough Award at Friday's SFF Tribute Luncheon. "There was a total sense of a real discovery, like 'where did this come from?' A lot of younger directors make something sprawling, because they want to fit all their ideas in. This is ambitious, but incredibly tightly focused and consistent. You get wrapped in the intimacy of it." McDowell says that approach was more of necessity than by design. When a previous and more involved project that he'd been working on for several years with Lader — and for which he'd tapped DuPlass as talent — fell through, he took his seasoned actor's advice to try a different tack. "Mark said, let's come up with a movie that's contained, that we can control and we can just go and make without waiting on other people to tell us what to do," says McDowell. "Those restrictions challenged us to come up with a really unique plot and focus on an intense character study. It was almost like reverse engineering."
Lader, McDowell's longtime writing partner, developed a 50-page "scriptment," which McDowell defines as "a very structured idea of what the movie would be, but not fully fleshed out with dialogue." Plenty of collaboration and rehearsal with the actors, who came at the project from different backgrounds ("As a filmmaker himself, Mark knew the little things a director might need in the editing room, and Lizzy is someone who doesn't even know the cameras are there") resulted in the unconventional mix of comedy, drama and mystery. The project came together remarkably quickly, with the script completed in the final months of 2012 and the shooting begun just four months later. Though he grew up in a household where great directors were frequent visitors, McDowell, who has previously directed only short films, was admittedly feeling his way on this one. But he'd long realized there was no surefire forumula for success. "For me it was really trusting my guts and instincts and creating a safe environment where we could trust each other and go places we might not have been able to go without that," he says. "People have responded to this movie because it doesn't fix neatly inside a box and that's exactly the movie I wanted to make." World-wide rights to the film were picked up by Radius-TWC immediately following its Sundance premiere and it will have a general release in August, after screening at several other festivals, from Tribeca to London. The surge of praise that has come since its debut has been both gratifying and "totally terrifying" to the young director. "I feel like I've peaked and that's the end of it," says McDowell, chuckling disconcertedly about the pressure on his next project, a script he is working on with Lader. As the son and stepson of celebrated actors, McDowell says he absorbed elements of the business almost by osmosis from childhood exposure. But there was a time, when he was about 13, that he rejected the idea of following his parents into the industry. "I didn't like not being able to have a name for myself, always being 'the son of,'" he admits. Instead he plunged into the world of competitive surfing for about five years. Eventually, realizing it would not become his profession, he obtained the equipment necessary to film his surfing comrades underwater instead. "That transitioned from the ocean to a little scene on the beach," he recalls, "and then finally, I made my way onto the land. That's where I really started to love telling a story visually."
He also has some experience telling a story in words — albeit 140 characters or less. Several years ago, irritated by his inability to block out the inane conversations of the two female 20-somethings who live in the apartment over his, he started a Twitter account detailing their commentary as an act of revenge. It eventually went viral, and last year became a book, "Dear Girls Above Me." Though he once perched with his laptop in the kitchen sink (the best place for eavesdropping) to gather material, McDowell seems grateful to have moved on to another medium. However, he still has the apartment and the upstairs neighbors. After a few awkwardly silent crossings in the hall, he eventually introduced himself. But when asked to reveal their long-hidden identities, McDowell demurs. "No," he says definitively. "That's a secret too." SARASOTA FILM FESTIVAL THE ONE I LOVE, SFF closing night film, directed by Charlie McDowell, starring Mark DuPlass, Elisabeth Moss and Ted Danson. April 12 at the Sarasota Opera House, 61 N. Pineapple Ave. 2014 Filmmaker Awards at 6 p.m.; screening follows at 7 p.m. $25-$55. 366-6200; www.sarasotafilmfestival.com