Dual Director Riley Stearns On Mentor Characters And Subverting Expectations [Interview]

In his films, writer/director Riley Stearns has often played around with morbid comedy, the dark relationships between mentors and students, and the challenges in finding one's place in the world –- all while his characters keep deadly straight faces. In his latest movie, "Dual," those themes are revisited in spectacular, downbeat sci-fi fashion as Sarah (Karen Gillan) clones herself in the wake of a terminal diagnosis. When she's inexplicably cured, she's faced with the surprising revelation that either she or the clone must die in a duel to the death.

In advance of the release of "Dual," /Film spoke with Stearns about audience expectations and making grounded sci-fi, as well as shooting a low-budget film at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Not your standard clone duel to the death movie

I saw your original conception of this was a "standard duel to the death clone movie." You really subvert that expectation for bloodlust, though. And I think a lot of that has to do with Karen Gillan's character.


Because she's not really an active participant in her own life, even before the cloning process happens. She's not someone you're really going to expect to move into the action. So I guess what I'm asking is, when you began working on the story, did you know this was going to be a character who was really passive?

I knew that her character would be passive initially, but I knew that she was going to take an active role and try to better her situation as it went along and that was part of why I wanted to make this movie. I liked the aspirational element of that character within the context of this crazy, hyper-stylized world. It's funny to hear that line read back to me because I remember saying it just being, like, "the standard thing." I think that a funny side effect of the description of the movie prior to a trailer coming out or prior to a lot of people seeing it is that a lot of people went into that movie thinking they knew what it was going to be about.

I think in a weird way, it actually disappointed a lot of people who, like you said, wanted it to be about something more bloodlust-y or wanted it to be a little bit more overtly action-y and, not to spite people, it's just not the person I am. I'm just never going to make that thing that I think everyone's expecting. So I very much knew what this was from the get-go and knew where it was going to go. But it was an interesting experience around Sundance having people see it for the first time and go, "Oh wait, this isn't what I thought it was going to be."

Developing Sarah (and her clone)

I think I was expecting that as well, a "Looper" or "Gemini Man" situation. And instead it's so directly about the character. When you watch a movie where you see an actor playing against themselves, you're always curious about what kind of work they do or the director does with the actor to help them differentiate the characters. So in this case, how do you think you did that?

Karen gets most of the credit there because she's the one who actually has to do it, but we never wanted it to be so different, so split that it's ridiculous, that they're completely different people. We didn't want that. We wanted them to feel similar, but different enough. And that's a hard thing to describe and it's an even harder thing to actually do. So it really just came down to little details. Like one character tends to not care as much about how she dresses, puts her hair up usually, doesn't wear as much makeup or any at all. It's easy in this space and in this world for a character like Sarah to say "My favorite food is Mexican food." And then Sarah's double could be like, "I don't like Mexican food." It's almost like she was saying it to spite Sarah. And that comes in as part of the movie and part of the humor of it all. But yeah, at the end of the day, Karen's the one who's actually delivering the lines and being subtle, but not too subtle so that they feel the same is such a hard space to hit. So hats off to her and also having to learn all the dialogue that she did.

It's one thing to learn a big monologue. It's another thing to learn one side of the dialogue and then go back in and learn the other side and not have those wires get crossed. It's way more challenging than people realize. I'm not good at memorizing dialogue, period, but the second you don't have somebody else's dialogue to go off of, where they could give you a line and then you read your line next and then they read their line and you read your line — there's like a ping pong to it. When you're the one just ping ponging to yourself, that's a completely different animal. So Karen's way better at that than I would ever be.

The scene you're talking about with the Mexican food was one of my favorite scenes in the movie. It's their introduction to each other, and you see Sarah sizing up her clone. It's a very uncomfortable scene, because it's almost like she's threatened by this perfect version of herself. What made you think of drawing on those sorts of insecure internal conversations?

We all feel that way. I feel like we all have those moments, whether it's with somebody we look up to, somebody that we work with, or even people that we don't like, but we see why other people like them. I do think that there's an element of humanity in everything I do, despite the fact that it feels removed emotionally. I think this just says a lot about who I am as a person and why maybe my style is this way whereas other people feel like it's so crazy. This feels super normal to me.

My sister talks to me all the time about how for a while I was being like, "I don't know, it's like, everything's so stylized. The dialogue's so different than anybody talks." My sister's very adamant, immediately said, "Riley, you talk exactly like that. Like, you are the characters in your movie."

So I think that this space feels comfortable for me, but I get why it feels a little alien to other people. But then having that emotional beat still be something that everyone can relate to, despite the fact that it's in this world that may feel a little uncomfortable to you. That's interesting to me, and that's where my movies tend to live.

Doing lo-fi sci-fi

You have this incredible cloning technology, this sci-fi hook, this big fantastical premise. Despite that, the world feels largely similar to the one we live in. I really like that lo-fi grounded science fiction. Can you give an example of some science fiction influences in that vein?

Something that comes to mind — it's a hard one to talk about because of some recent circumstances — but one film that I feel like is very grounded and handles science fiction very well at a low budget is a film called "Primer." And there's something about that movie that feels tangible and lo-fi, but still has these high concept ideas in it.

But then also something that it does that I didn't want to do — and I'm acting like ["Primer"] was a direct inspiration. It's not. But one thing that movie does is that there's real science behind it. There's other movies where it's all expository, and it feels like they just farted out some stuff that they thought sounded cool and science-y.

I would rather not get bogged down in the science of it all. So something that we do in the movie is anytime you're about to get some information about how this all works or Sarah's watching something about where the cloning procedure was developed or how it was developed, she's not interested. The audience thinks they're going to get some information and her character's actively saying no. And I think it brings us back down and reminds us that stuff isn't important in this world in this movie, it's more about the characters. It's more about their relationships with each other.

Again, they might be stylized, they might be a little alien to people, but at the heart of it all, that's what I care about the most: The way that Sarah relates to the world around her.

There's a really smart choice to keep it character-driven, to focus on that instead of the technobabble. I always love when there's diegetic information given, it feels like "Jurassic Park" almost.

That was very much an inspiration, that or the infomercial at the end "Being John Malkovich" and all that. But whereas they go through and actually explain it, I liked [the idea of] what do you do if your character watching it just really doesn't care?

Frontloading the action

I was also thinking about "The Art of Self-Defense" and how in that movie, you have another similar almost-mystical mentor character. Aaron Paul's character in this movie is pretty benign, I think, by comparison. But what draws you to those personality types and those kinds of characters?

It's funny, because it's not necessarily intentional, especially with "Dual," to have another mentor, but all of my movies, including "The Cub," my short before "Faults," had an element of somebody learning from somebody else. And maybe there's a misplaced trust in the guidance of that person. So whether it's cult-like, or nefarious in nature, there's always an element of a person who is giving you information that is probably questionable.

I liked with this one that maybe we would set that up to be a little bit nefarious. And you think that Trent has some ulterior motives of some sort. At the end of the day, you just subvert the expectation in the opposite direction and say, no, he's actually a pretty cool guy. He may not be the best trainer in the town and he's definitely the cheapest, but he does genuinely care about Sarah.

That was a fun reversal of expectations and a different direction than I've gone for in the past, which tended to be, "How do you start with something bright and subvert it and show that it's actually really dark?" instead, this time, going around the other way.

The major subversion, of course, is that you open with an example of the duel. You open with this great action scene. And you're priming the audience, you're visually explaining the rules. You know that's not going to be the climax. But the viewers are expecting it, because they saw it play out already.

Going back to the Sundance of it all, it's so fascinating to me that there are people who probably assumed the movie would be this bigger action-y thing when it's an in-competition film at Sundance Film Festival. That should indicate where it's going a little bit, I would imagine, but I think people just wanted it to be a certain way.

I liked starting with this bang, explaining everything, having this really exciting action set piece and then just never coming back to that. So much so that the way that I described it to the crew when we were shooting, was that scene, over the two nights that we did it, was our biggest moment in the movie. It's like where all the adrenaline is, all the action, and it's only going to be downhill from here for the audience. And they laughed, but they also were like, "Well, if that's what you want, we're going to go big."

I think it was the only way that I could start and then follow through with the movie. It was the only way that made sense to myself. If anybody else made it, they would've made a different movie than me, but like, this is the movie that I wanted to make. It was the only way that I felt like that structure and story could work. So yeah, for better or for worse, that's the trajectory that we followed, and it's one that I love personally.

Shooting in Finland

What was the experience like shooting in Finland?

We shot in Finland because of the Covid protocols at the time. So we prepped August of 2020, and we were shooting all the way through to the end of November. And that was at the peak of Covid. That was when not a lot of films had gone back into production. We pretty much were one of the few independent films, if not one of the first, to go back. And so we learned a lot as we were going. A lot of things that we did were then used on other films and the way that they tested and structured shoots and just created the whole zone of it all, where you couldn't have actors interacting with some people who didn't need to be on set.

On top of it, shooting in Finland of all places, there's a different culture, the language is so different from English, but luckily all of the crew tend to speak very, very fluently English, if not better than most people in the United States. And as crazy as the circumstances were, Finland afforded us so many things, like being able to shoot in locations that we never would've been able to shoot at in the States because you would have to pay so much more money to close it down or whatever it is. They really wanted us to be there and wanted to help the production.

I also just loved the architecture, the way that it feels like a different world, the wooded areas that we were able to use, and the skies in particular are so overcast and really provided this tone and mood for the movie. I'm very happy that it worked out, that we shot there. Obviously, the circumstances were not ideal. And it was obviously not the funnest time for people, but our movie did benefit from being in another country like Finland and I would go back there in a heartbeat.

"Dual" arrives in theaters on April 15, 2022.