Dual, the third feature from writer/director Riley Stearns, follows a young woman named Sarah (Karen Gillan), who opts to be replaced with a “double” after finding out she’s terminally ill. With a deadpan delivery and a dry sense of humor, the film and its characters navigate this alternate world, one that requires a duel to the death in Sarah’s unique situation. Sarah must learn to become violent, accept brutality into her personality, resetting herself in a way. 

Stearns’ newest draws clear inspiration from Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos, a comparison many are likely to make, but he still wants it to be a “Riley film.” He revisits certain threads from his first two films, Faults and The Art of Self-Defense, with the idea of a character learning how to alter themselves to feel safer or the need to fundamentally shift as a means of self-preservation. 

Dual finds humor in Sarah’s situation, using Gillan as a formidable lead actor playing dual roles, as Aaron Paul comes off the bench as her personal trainer and violence expert. With more robotic dialogue, though, emotional catharsis comes infrequently and human connection isn’t a requirement. There’s a sadness that reigns over the film, even there are more moments of laughs than of tears, as Stearn’s protagonist spends her days in a solemn, last-days routine. Yet, the director hopes for a payoff through a measured amount of tenderness and a collective humanity for both humans and robotic clones. 

The Film Stage chatted with Stearns during the 2022 Sundance Film Festival about the writing of Dual, the impact of loneliness, comparing the films within his filmography, and having emotional experiences while driving in the car.  

The Film Stage: Your films have this idea of programming vs. deprogramming, changing the way that your characters fundamentally think throughout the course of the film. How did that idea work its way into Dual

Riley Stearns: Yeah, it’s never an actual conscious thing to say, like, “Okay, how do I do my programming thing again?” But I think it just happened this way, which is interesting. And I’ve had a few people point it out to me, because even my short film has this indoctrination sort of element to it, which I didn’t really even think about until recently. It’s been less about how one gets programmed and indoctrinated to this. Particularly with Dual, it’s more about how one kind of reprograms themselves and tries to make a better version of themselves and The Art of Self-Defense has a little bit of it, but there’s kind of both things happening.

With Dual, it was more important that there is active reprogramming of Sarah herself. And I think it’s just kind of where you are in life. And where I was, when I was writing it, I feel like I was going through a lot of stuff when I came up with the idea for Dual and after I made Self-Defense, and was ready to write this. My life experiences were finding their ways into the script, in a way that the structure had already been in place. And I knew what that was going to be all along. But now I’m injecting emotion and feelings into it that I maybe hadn’t really thought of when I was doing the carding of the scenes and the structuring of it all. But yeah, I just feel like I want to be the best version of myself. I thought it was interesting to find a character like Sarah, who maybe had taken some parts that she didn’t really love and respect about herself, but then was able to say, “Well, now I’m getting this sort of new start.” Who’s the person that I want to be? And it just kind of felt natural to me. 

You mentioned the emotions and feelings within the film. There seem to be three distinct moments while Sarah is driving in the car, while the rest of the film is more matter-of-fact. Why choose the car as this place of emotion? 

The more broad answer is that I still needed the character to feel like a person and especially going from Self-Defense to this, I wanted it to feel more grounded and a little bit more human, if you will. But I just know that the times that I’ve had just kind of let things out have always been in the car. And particularly when a song comes on, maybe when you’re having a bad day or feeling weird about something, and then the song comes on that you’ve never really listened to the lyrics of in just the right way, they hit you in that particular way that day. Or even just like something really happy starts playing and you’re in a really bad place and it just makes you break. So we came up with a song that she’s listening to in the car when she kind of has her breakdown. And this whole time she’s kind of numb to the reality of the fact that she’s dying and it doesn’t sink in and she literally has the line like “Why aren’t I crying?” And then it just finally breaks and it can happen in that sort of way. And so it felt like the car was the right place for that. I think she’s a little bit more relatable than the Casey character in Self-Defense and not to compare the two but I wanted that. That was a conscious thing this time around.

How do you go from one film to the next without comparing them? Do you find yourself comparing even when you don’t want to? 

I don’t compare them mentally anymore, but people ask about them. And I think because Self-Defense was one that a lot of people saw… nobody really saw Faults. There are people who did, but not a lot of people, especially prior to Self-Defense. I feel like it caught people in the right way where I think it surprised them. And it kind of stuck with them and I know in a way that they’re like, “Oh, this is somebody who I want to see what they do next.” And so inevitably, when the next thing comes out, people go, “This is sort of like Self-Defense.” And it’s weird, because I do think they’re similar in some ways. Yeah, I think they’re so different in other ways, too. And I feel like this one just has a confidence about what it wants to be. And I had a confidence in writing that I wasn’t trying to mimic anything. I wasn’t trying to be anything other than myself.

And I do hope that when people watch it, even if they can see influences here and there in terms of an overall style and aesthetic, especially like looking at my stuff previously, that they’re going to be like “This is definitely a Riley movie.” That’s my hope and everything. But I don’t mind the comparisons, I’m proud of my other movies. So if people are comparing something in a positive way, or even if they’re saying they didn’t totally get Self-Defense, but they really dug this, which I think might happen with some people. And maybe vice versa, too. But I think more so people who didn’t like Self-Defense, for whatever reason, might find more here. I think that’s fair. And I think that’s what’s worthy of conversation, regardless if I think that way or not.

Do you find yourself feeling pressure when those expectations are put on you? When people mark you as up-and-coming, and start wanting to see what you’ll do next? 

I tried to put it off. I mean, there’s probably an innate amount of pressure that you put on yourself, regardless of how much you don’t want that to be a thing. I think the cool thing about Dual that happened was that I made Self-Defense and edited the film, and then after the edit, a few months later started writing this. So I wrote this before Self-Defense ever even came out and there wasn’t anybody who had seen it. So I got to kind of live in this bubble that didn’t really exist yet, or at least in the public consciousness with Dual to the next thing. That’s where I’m more right now, because I’m breaking the story on the next thing. I’ve added a sense of pressure on myself unfortunately, because I love Dual so much. And I know what I want this next thing to feel like and I know where I want it to go, and how much bigger I want it to be. And not saying that it’s going to be gigantic, but it’s going to hopefully be a little bit bigger than Dual. There’s an added pressure. I think that’s happening, because I didn’t have it all figured out ahead of time. But it’s also good to have pressure sometimes. And I do think that it’s making me really consider what it’s going to feel like and what it’s going to do and how much effort I should put into it. 

You’ve talked about wanting a feeling and vibe to your movies. What’s the exact feeling you think of with Dual, that you’re hoping people pick up on? 

The bigger answer is that I hope people connect to it in some way. I hope that they can see some of themselves in Sarah, but the very specific one word answer, which was something that my composer asked when she first came onto the project. What do you want it to feel like? What word would you use to describe or a feeling or emotion and I just said, “I think it’s going to feel like loneliness, I feel like it’s going to feel like this disconnect. And this sort of regression” But loneliness was the key word. And she was able to take that and go into the score with that in mind. And I was able to kind of go forward from that moment and say, like, “What can I do as a director to make sure that that comes through?” Via Sarah or via Trent or whatever it is. And I feel like the movie succeeds in that way. And I feel like in a way that doesn’t make it sound depressing, but the movie is comedic at heart and never loses that. But I think it’s relatable because it has real emotion behind it.

Is that what you were feeling during writing and shooting it? Loneliness?

Well, that’s, I mean, that starts talking about it more literally. But what I wanted the movie to feel like, whatever I was feeling when I was writing it, it’s not that this is therapy, if that makes sense. I just like to use stuff that I’m feeling to make something feel more relatable and feel real. With Faults, for example, like I just wrote a play, basically. And the characters do what they do. But it’s not really like there was this life experience behind it, like an overall life experience.

For Self-Defense, even though it’s way more stylized than this one and Faults, and it’s got metal and karate and all this stuff in between, that’s such a cross-section of my brain. And it really touched on my sense of fear of what it meant to be a man and not feeling as masculine as maybe other men did. And having to kind of confront that. It’s not necessarily that it helped me get over it, but it helped me kind of talk about it in a more public way or in a more just, acknowledgment of it all. And similarly here, it’s not necessarily that I was super lonely when I was writing the movie, but it was definitely good to confront the idea that I do, that we all are dealing with something at any given time. And even if the movie gets to be its own thing, it’s impossible not to see elements of yourself in it. So in ways that’s really fun, and freeing in other ways. It’s like, “Oh, I’m going to be living with this now for the rest of my life in its own way, because it’s going to be a part of my film filmography and people are gonna be able to go back to it.” And so you’re kind of being very vulnerable in a way so there’s no real answer there. I guess. It’s a lot of me just talking around it. But I’m glad that I did it. And I’m glad that it feels the way that it feels. So yeah, that’s something.

No, no, I still appreciate the honest answer. 

Oh, I think things can be misconstrued by people sometimes, too. And being like, “Oh, he’s talking about something literally.” And I don’t want to give that impression because this is still very much its own thing outside of my life experiences. But it’s impossible for them to not be sort of in touch with each other in some way, shape, or form because I’m the one writing it.

What exactly is the time period in the film? The near-future? 

So my answer is more along the lines of that I look at it as an alternate reality where maybe it’s the exact timeframe that we have. I like this anachronistic technology, sort of mixed-together thing. So there’s still VHS tapes, I guess on this one there are more DVD players, you’ve got her car from the late 90s. But you got this cloning procedure that can happen. And then like the texting system that they use is completely its own iOS. That was very much on purpose. I didn’t want to use an iPhone. So yeah, there’s no real answer. I would just say that it’s now but an alternate dimension where everything is just a little different.

And how did you attempt to direct someone who is talking to themselves, basically, as Karen Gillan is doing while playing Sarah and her double?

Luckily, with this movie, we were able to find an actor who was also Karen’s stand-in, who had red hair, the same sort of build, same height. We lucked out. And her name is Catarina. She was able to read lines opposite Karen. And even though she’s got a different accent, and a different sort of cadence than Karen might have, Karen found it super valuable. And me as the director not having to read lines or to figure out somebody else who’s not like a scripter who’s going to read opposite her. I didn’t have to worry about any of that. I got two actors being able to be opposite each other. It was hugely valuable. And I think by the end of it, too, Catarina kind of got the sense of Karen’s delivery and tried to mimic it. And what was great too, is that she was able to cover while Karen would do the opposite coverage. And she would try to mimic that as much as she could. So Karen always had a really great scene partner, and hopefully for her, never really felt like she was reading to herself, because she wasn’t.

And how did you attempt to inject human emotion into a movie with this deadpan style of acting and delivery? Especially with the dialogue being presented without as much vagueness. 

Those moments in the car, for example, are great moments where maybe it’s there. This movie has more breadth, I guess, than the other films, and especially Self-Defense, which is just so incredibly dialogue-driven. This has tons of dialogue in it as well, but then a lot of our time with Sarah is by herself, and really informative into how she’s feeling, and really kind of gives us a little bit more of an insight into how she’s feeling. But I think just if you had a family, if you are watching the movie, and you imagine yourself in a situation where your family has kind of chosen somebody, as opposed to you, they’ve chosen the other person. And you’re like, “Oh, this is crazy. This is a movie. And this is funny.” But then you actually think about how that would feel.

I think that’s kind of part of what is coming through, I hope that you’re able to see it, even though it’s done in a way that is stylized and heightened. You’re able to still say that that would be fucked, though, if that happened in real life. And that kind of seeps into your reading of everything we have. I feel emotion when I watch it. I feel like they’re real people, even though it’s this sort of weird way of speaking. But I’m very curious to see what other people end up feeling as well. And if that kind of comes through in the way that I want it to. I’ve only had the experience of talking to people who either watched it as like a director’s cut or gave me notes there or recently now, talking to people who have seen it via pre-Sundance screeners, to see if they’re feeling some of those things.

Dual premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival and will be released by RLJE Films.

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