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Riley Stearns explains the bizarre performances in his micro sci-fi movie Dual

He talks through the film’s choices and secrets, and what Karen Gillan and Aaron Paul learned from his other movies

Aaron Paul and Karen Gillan do a straight-faced, synchronized dance in Riley Stearns’ Dual Photo: RLJE Films
Tasha Robinson leads Polygon’s movie coverage. She’s covered film, TV, books, and more for 20 years, including at The A.V. Club, The Dissolve, and The Verge.

Riley Stearns’ Dual is exactly the kind of indie movie that fans of thoughtful science fiction are always looking for: a strongly idiosyncratic vision of a completely new world. Guardians of the Galaxy’s Karen Gillan stars as Sarah, a woman who agrees to clone herself when she’s told she’s dying of an incurable disease. The clone is meant to take her place — as a representative of the cloning company cynically tells her, she’s paying to make sure her friends and family won’t have to be sad when she dies.

But then her fatal condition reverses itself, and suddenly she has to live with and pay support to the clone, who’s stolen her boyfriend, won over her mother, and generally is doing a better job of being Sarah than Sarah was. Legally, the clone can’t be destroyed, even though it’s no longer necessary, and Sarah is told she’ll have to battle it to the death for her place in society. Unused to murderous violence, Sarah turns to fight trainer Trent (Breaking Bad’s Aaron Paul) to teach her how to kill.

Dual raises a lot of big, interesting questions about society and humanity, but some of them have been overshadowed by the acting style in the movie — the characters are so deadpan that they seem unemotional, and they say the most outrageous things without giving away how they feel about it. It’s a style familiar from Stearns’ previous movie, the engaging, subversive comedy The Art of Self-Defense, and to a lesser degree, from his fantastic first movie, Faults. But in Dual, it seemed to take viewers by surprise — even critics who enjoyed and praised the movie called the performances “eccentric, over literal, and stiff-backed” or “almost robotically numb, artificially stilted.” Critics who didn’t like the film were less kind.

Polygon sat down to talk to Stearns about those calculated performances, how his film fits into the sudden boom in multiverse movies, and the secrets people don’t get to see about the world of Dual.

This interview has been edited for concision and clarity.

Theo James, sitting on a sports field behind an overturned table, surrounded with guns, in a clone battle to the death in Dual Photo: RLJE Films

One of the most divisive things about the film has been the characters’ unusual, exaggerated lack of affect. Why did you style the movie this way?

Riley Stearns: I just like the delivery […] Somebody can say something insane, and then if you don’t say it like it’s a joke, I think it’s funnier. I think that sort of delivery just works with the dialogue I tend to write. Going into it a little deeper, the world itself is stylized, and we’re already creating this stylized space for everyone to live in. If people spoke in a normal way, quote-unquote, I think it would actually do damage against the world we’re creating. I don’t think somebody could walk into a movie like mine and speak normally and fit into the context of that world. The [absurdity] informs the dialogue, the dialogue informs the world. All of it works in tandem.

What’s what’s it like working to get experienced actors like Karen Gillan and Aaron Paul to the mode you wanted them in here?

Aaron and Karen, luckily, are at the point now where I have movies that they can go back and watch. Karen and Aaron had both already had seen Faults and The Art of Self-Defense, so they were able to tap into where I was probably going to be going, prior to me ever even having to have a conversation with them. But I do think that this film is different in some ways from those two films, and we talked about those differences, and the subtleties in the delivery.

It just shows what kind of person I am that I initially thought Dual was more grounded than The Art of Self-Defense. I’m finding that people find this movie even more alienating in some ways, which is so interesting. It just shows that my brain maybe works a little more differently than I realize sometimes. I never wanted people to feel like these characters weren’t real people, but I wanted that disconnect in terms of emotionality and connection.

So yes, it’s interesting for them to come into the space, but they were fully present and willing to go there. And they’re such talented people that even if they’re used to doing something a certain way, they can snap into a tone or a style the second they need to, and they did fully commit.

A lot of your characters seem to be feeling a deep-seated anger that they express through choices instead of through their voices or faces. Do you think it’s more effective for a story to have people channeling anger in these subverted, underground ways?

I feel like there’s anger in Faults, from Ansel’s perspective, that life didn’t go the way he wanted it to go, and that despite his best efforts, it just keeps beating him down. And there’s an explosion off of that, in terms of his response to it. In Self-Defense, I feel like Casey doesn’t really have anger, he just has this desire to belong, and to feel like he connects with other people.

And in this film, I feel like our lead character Sarah has given up, and maybe isn’t trying — she’s just fallen into this comfortable lifestyle that maybe doesn’t push her. So I feel like they’re all coming at life from different perspectives, but I feel like they all want similar things, which is for things to work out better for them. So I don’t know that I think about the anger of it all. It’s interesting that that’s something that you’ve gathered from it, which is part of the fun of watching art, reading, listening to music — we all have different connections to it. But at least that’s where those characters are coming at it from for me.

Director Riley Stearns and a cameraman setting up a shot in the woods in Dual Photo: RLJE Films

The few moments where you break the deadpan style often happen in cars. It’s almost a running gag for the characters to show strong emotions when they’re driving. What about cars breaks people down emotionally for you?

The really simple answer is that I feel it’s a space where a lot of us do have emotional moments. At work or at school or whatever, maybe you can’t show any signs of emotion around your colleagues. I think there’s a certain sense of safety inside of our cars. The movie tends to focus on the minute details and the minor annoyances in our lives, and how those all those minor things can build to the bigger question of Do I like my life? Do I feel like I’m giving enough or getting enough from it? Going with that minor thing, a lot of us do tend to find safety inside of our vehicle.

I know I’ve had moments like that. I remember a moment where I broke down while driving to a Robyn song, a happy dance number. I just had this emotional break in the middle of listening to a song that I actually love and get a lot of positivity from. I remember clocking that, and saying “That could be an interesting space to have a breakdown.” And then it popped up a few times in other parts of the movie. There aren’t a lot of moments in this film where people can fully embrace how they’re feeling. That and the clone support group near the end of the film were two spaces where I felt it was safe to venture into a slightly different space for a moment, then snap back to the world that we were living in.

We’re having a big moment right now with science fiction stories about multiverses and alternate possibilities, from Into the Spider-Verse to Everything Everywhere All At Once to What If…? to Dr. Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. This movie is another one about someone facing the alternate paths she could have taken. Do you see this film as part of a movement or a trend?

I don’t necessarily consider it directly related to those movies. But I think it’s something that’s come from our shared experience, post-COVID and post-lockdown. […] I wrote this film in 2018, and I came up with the very initial idea at the end of 2016, so this was very much pre-COVID. But I do think that coming out of COVID — honestly, I was so in the middle of it when we were making this film.

We shot it in 2020. It was one of the first movies back, let alone one of the first indies [to return to production]. I feel like it was impossible to come out of that experience and that disconnect from other people and that feeling of loneliness. I think it’s impossible for those experiences not to pop up in the way that I directed, or the way that the movie feels, even though the script stayed the same from 2018 to 2020. People like my sister are — she’s one of those people who lost her job [during the quarantines] and decided to reinvent herself, and is going back to school and trying to work toward something more than she had before.

The special effect of Karen doing her dual role is seamless. Was it a major technological concern? Have we gotten to the point with digital media where it’s easy to do something this visually perfect?

Hats off to our VFX team. It’s a Canadian company that was brought on board that just absolutely killed it. What we really wanted to do was, like you said, a seamless sort of integration. I never wanted to call too much attention to it. The times we do have Karen opposite herself, I wanted them to feel real, as opposed to being an effect. I know that’s a very obtuse, overly stated answer, “We just wanted to look real,” but part of that was not overdoing it.

So panning the camera to give a sense of motion as a character is walking in and out of frame, and making it feel like they really are in a room together, and having their audio match and track with them, it’s all very calculated stuff. It’s not necessarily an easy thing to do, but we did use motion-control cameras, which allow you to re-create a camera move perfectly, any time you need to do it, to the pixel. And so doing a split-screen is much easier for the VFX artists at the end of the job to match two shots together.

I would be lying if I said I knew how to do this going into it. I learned a lot while directing — the big thing for me was knowing how to efficiently schedule our camera moves, and schedule Karen to go to hair and makeup to change over to the other character. Because any time you do that, you lose 30 minutes of that character going to hair and makeup, costumes, and coming back and having to reset and do our takes again. So there was a lot of learning on the job, and it’s not necessarily easy. But when you have good people around you, it makes it look easy.

Photo: RJLE Films
Karen Gillan and her clone look at themselves side by side in the mirror in Dual

It’s never clear whether Dual’s society really does believe somebody can be utterly replaced by somebody who looks like them. There are hints that it doesn’t. Is this a movie critiquing capitalism, because companies are selling these horrible alternates? Or critiquing relationships or society, because those are so equally flawed here? What’s the big picture for you?

I never really thought too deeply about the exact reasons. There obviously is a comment on capitalism, in the way the procedure is sold to people, and the way you’re thrown into debt — and not only you, but the people after you, and the people after that. It’s pretty on the nose; it’s there.

But I think more so, Dual is about our relationships with other people: how we connect with other people, what happens if there’s a better version of you. Not literally, because obviously we don’t have clones going around in the real world. But, like, if somebody starts working alongside you, and they’re better at your job than you are, and they’ve got less experience, or whatever it is — you’re always comparing yourself to other people.

The big thing for me, at least coming from it from my perspective, is I always want to be cognizant of the fact that everyone’s different, and we all have our different paths. As long as you’re doing the best job that you can do — I know that sounds corny, but that’s all you can ask for. And when we start to compare ourselves to other people, that’s where problems arise.

So I think that’s probably the closest thing I could say was actually on my mind while writing it. But at the end of the day, a lot of stuff that you write, it just tends to come out of you, and then after the fact, you go, Oh, that’s interesting. Not to make it sound like it’s by chance, but sometimes chance happens while you write, and there’s a lot of fun there, too.

What we see on the screen in this film feels like a small corner of a big world. Did you do a lot of elaborate world-building? Are there things about this world that that would be useful for people to know or that you didn’t have a way to get into the story?

If something isn’t in the movie, it doesn’t need to be known by the audience. But it helps me and the crew — and particularly the cast — to know more. Like I know exactly why cloning was invented in this world. I know how it turned into a procedure [around fatal illness], rather than being a thing anybody else could use. I wrote a short-story version of the movie in 2017 that I only got about 20 pages into. I intended originally to adapt that short story into the feature. Once I finished Art of Self-Defense and knew I was going to come after Dual next, I knew I probably didn’t need to finish the short story, that I was ready to just go to the script. In the short story, there were a lot more implicitly stated things that didn’t need to be in the script, and I was able to use that to help the world. But if anything, I almost use it as a joke in the movie that you’re never given any more information than you need. I just ran with that direction.

Dual is in theaters now and will be streaming on AMC Plus and available for digital and on-demand rental on May 20.

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