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Finding Humor in Humanity with 'Dual' Writer-Director Riley Stearns

'Dual' writer-director Riley Stearns shares with Script his approach to character development, why he became a multi-hyphenate creative, and why he likes subverting expectations in his storytelling.

Upon receiving a terminal diagnosis, Sarah opts for a cloning procedure to ease her loss on her friends and family. When she makes a sudden and miraculous recovery, her attempts to have her clone decommissioned fail and lead to a court-mandated duel to the death. Now she has one year to train her body and mind for the fight of her life.    

The inherent conundrum of "what if's" we ask ourselves on a daily basis is pointedly observed in this film - down to taking your own life into your hands, for better or for worse...and your double's life, too. I had the great pleasure of speaking with Dual writer-director Riley Stearns about his approach to character development, why he became a multi-hyphenate creative, and why likes subverting expectations in his storytelling.

Karen Gillan as Sarah in the sci-fi film, DUAL, an RLJE Films release. Photo courtesy of RLJE Films.

Karen Gillan as Sarah in the sci-fi film, DUAL, an RLJE Films release. Photo courtesy of RLJE Films.

This interview has been edited for content and clarity.

Sadie Dean: This film certainly leaves you thinking about just yourself and your place in the world, and what if you did have another version of yourself and what would those ramifications be.

Riley Stearns: Yeah, I like the idea of going the opposite of exaggerating life's annoyances - there's horrible things in the world, and then there's little things and making the little things the horrible things. And this movie was kind of the fun, having to deal with texts from your mom at 8 am about a dumb Facebook post or something. That's the kind of stuff that I found funny, but also had to email my mom or text her before she read the script, because she's always one of the first people and say, 'This is not a comment on you! It's just a cipher for other things.' [laughs]

Sadie: It's just an observation.

Riley: Exactly.

Sadie: When you were kicking the story around in your head, what were you personally drawing from, especially when you were developing the character, Sarah?

Riley: A lot of myself goes into characters, usually, I feel like Casey from the Art of Self Defense has a lot of me in him, Ansel maybe to a lesser extent, but there's still elements of myself in him, but I think that Sarah is no different. She is a person who maybe at one point in my life, I probably was coasting a little bit and just accepting what came at me, instead of going out and making it better or actively seeking something better. I wanted to take a character too who wanted to better herself. In the beginning, you don't necessarily know if he's the right mentor or not, but ended up finding a mentor who actually does care and actually is wanting to help her. As opposed to my other films, where it tends to be maybe mentors who don't have that person's best interests at heart, even going back to my short, The Cub, similar sort of thing. I liked the idea of a character who was taking action, and even if the world itself wasn't always behind her, she's still trying to find a way.

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Sadie: That’s what I really enjoyed about that character, too. I want to dive deeper into that character development process and writing her dual. How were you able to pinpoint character personality traits, how they speak, etcetera – making them just different enough?

Riley: I didn't want the characters to be too different. I wanted them to obviously be different people, because they are. And I liked that the cloning procedure on paper is supposed to be you've got this person, they're a sponge, they learn how to be you and then they replace you; but in reality, they're not giving you the whole story as evidenced by the actual video that she watches where she finds out about how the cloning procedure works and that there are other people like this and when the man leans in to kiss his wife, and he's the double, she kind of recoils just ever so slightly. I liked that. And I found humor in that.

Headshot of Director Riley Stearns of the sci-fi film, DUAL, an RLJE Films release. Photo courtesy of Danny Scott Lane.

Headshot of Director Riley Stearns of the sci-fi film, DUAL, an RLJE Films release. Photo courtesy of Danny Scott Lane.

It was so important for Karen and I to make sure that they felt like different people. And in writing those two characters that it doesn't present itself as much, especially with the way of their dialogue isn't necessarily that crazy different from each other. It's just the subtleties in the way that Karen performed it and the way that we looked at their hair and makeup and how they would dress and all that, again, not going too different from each other, and finding those subtle differences. But getting back to the dialogue, and why it's less that they're different, it's more just that she ends up picking opposites on purpose. So, if Sarah says that she loves Mexican food, Sarah's double is going to just say that she doesn't. And it sounds so silly and obvious when you say it aloud like this, but then when it's in the context of a movie where the world backs up that choice, I feel like that's where a lot of humor lies, that was where we kind of wanted to be.

Sadie: There’s that great scene with the duals and originals and this talk of self-betrayal – and there’s that one dual who also now wishes he could die too.

Riley: Yeah, there's one line that he has after that, which is one of my favorites, where he's like, ‘I want to kill myself too. But we all know there cannot be doubles of doubles.’ And he's like, ‘But I'm not going to let your family down like you did.’ And I felt like that scene was really fun, because you get even though the dialogue again, is still specific and stylized, I think you get a little bit more humanity than you've gotten in the previous parts of the movie. And not to say there isn't humanity, I actually feel like it's very human, and it's just a stylized version of it, which is why it's more interesting to me and why I tend to write this way.

I find the characters incredibly relatable and grounded and I do care about them, but not everyone's going to feel that way. But at the end of the day, you kind of have to trust your instincts and trust the direction you want to go. But specifically, that scene, or anytime Sarah or her double are in the car, you kind of get those releases, that's a place that a lot of us spend a lot of our time, and we do get to be a little bit more free for that brief moment. And then you're in the office or you're at school or at work or whatever it is, and then you have to kind of like close off those emotions again. So, finding the moments of humanity were important, but also still having that disassociated emotional response to abnormal statements is there as well.

Sadie: In terms of direction, when you're approaching your own material, you know, what's important for you to really laser focus on? Is it story, the world-building, characters and voices, actors, all of the above?

Riley: Yeah, it's all the above. I mean, that's part of everything in making a movie, you have to have an oversight of it all. But specifically, I guess the way that I would start would always be story first and then structure. I'm a very structure-oriented writer. And I'll sit with an idea for a long time before I go to cards, but I like to card things once I feel like I have a really nice throughline. And then those cards might be like 10 of them and then I start filling in the gaps between. I worked in TV for a while. That's how I kind of got my start. And I only was a staff writer on one show, but I worked my way up from PA in a writers room to all the way to being a staff writer. And almost every room I was in that did well was always a room that the carded a specific way and specifically the show that I was a staff writer on called Tower Prep for Cartoon Network, we had some really talented writers in that room. And their specific way of carding is how I've kind of done it ever since. And it just really gives me the sense that I know, going into the script process, in between there's probably an outline process too usually, but not with Dual, going from cards or outline to script, I have the structure in place. Then I get to put up cool walls and put up cool wallpaper and all of that. As long as the bones are there, then I can feel free to make the world that goes around it. But it's most important for me that structures there. I'm not one of those people who just starts writing and then sees where it goes and then they wonder why they rewrite like 50 times. For better or worse, this may not be everyone's kind of way of doing it - I think about something for a long time, I structure it out, I do all those things, and then when I write the script, I get to have fun, like I said, decorate and paint. And then I'm kind of like, 'OK, that's the movie. That's the script.'

I'm pretty set on my first draft as being the main draft. But it's not because I just threw it out there, it's something that has been a process. So, three movies in a row now it's been first draft movies, not to say you don't go back and tweak things, obviously, but I don't have anything that says 'second draft' on it. Some people will be like, that makes sense as they're watching it, but for me, I feel like it's the way that I do things.

And I'm directing it too. That's the other thing, maybe if somebody came in as a director, and they didn't think that something worked for what they wanted to achieve visually or tonally, then you would have to tweak it, but because I'm seeing it from start to finish, I get to make those choices early on. And so, it just cuts out some middlemen, I guess, if you want to think of it that way.

Sadie: What inspired you to become a filmmaker?

Riley: Briefly, my journey, like I was saying, I started as a PA in a writer’s room, worked my way up to staff writer over the course of several shows. I was always going from one thing, and meeting somebody on that, who would start a show and then they would bring me on to the next thing and work my way up the ladder that way. And once I got to be a staff writer, and realized that my stuff was going to be rewritten, be based on studio network notes, and then that somebody else was going to come in and direct, I went from being very determined to just be a writer and wanting to just hang back and not need the spotlight, so to speak, to really thinking that it wasn't a matter of spotlight, it was just a matter of seeing a vision from start to finish all the way through. And so that's when I started making my own shorts. And the short The Cub got into Sundance led to me making my first feature Faults. I've been very fortunate since then, to not only get to write and direct my own stuff, but to work with producers who have believed in the vision and have let me make the movies that I wanted to make. To the point where now on Dual, it was my first thing I had final cut on and the producers of XYZ had my back from day one. And if anything, they went above and beyond what they promised in that initial meeting, too. I've been very, very happy with the trajectory of everything, and the way that I like to work is pretty set in stone.

I'm also excited to see what happens next and where things go. I'm going to potentially be doing a TV show that I'm attached to that hasn't been announced yet that somebody else wrote that is not necessarily in my world, but you can see how it's like adjacent to it, and how it fits in with maybe what I would do. And that's very exciting. And then I also would like to figure out the next thing and the original idea and maybe find a script that somebody else wrote that really speaks to me too, and not necessarily stay so closed off in the way that I work but open it up little by little, and each film get like progressively bigger and bigger. I've always looked up to people like Rian Johnson, the way that he structured his career, and whether it was on purpose, or it just worked out this way; it was always an influence to me that he started with something like Brick and progressively got bigger and bigger. And he did get obviously a big jump from Brothers Bloom in terms of budget, but it always felt personal and small and intimate in a way too. And so that was always important to me to not go into something too big too early. And now with Dual, it's like a $5 million movie, it's nothing crazy. But it was what the movie needed and it's where I felt comfortable making this movie, and who's to say where the next thing will be. But I imagine just progressively bigger each time. That's the goal.

Sadie: That is a great goal to aim toward and not peak too early.

Riley: Exactly. And I've seen it happen before. And it's not necessarily that I can't tell people what they should do for their careers or for their art. But for me, it's important to stay within a space that feels comfortable, but challenging at the same time.

Sadie: And for you as both writer-director, are there any specific themes that you're drawn toward exploring? Either through your own work and then maybe in other people's work down the line?

Riley: The first thing that comes to mind, and maybe this is too broad, but I really like subverting expectations. So, it's not necessarily a theme, but I like when somebody thinks that they're going in and seeing something, or because they've seen it done this way before, or they read a synopsis, and they're like, 'Oh, I know where that movie is going' I like to subvert the expectations of what that assumption is going to be. My movies have had little twists in them; I don't care about the twist, I feel like that's beside the point, if you catch that early on, it's not because I'm trying to hide it, it's just that you're used to a narrative going a certain way, so obviously, you're going to pick up on that. But then it's where that takes you, that's the more intriguing part to me. With The Art of Self Defense, people knew that it was going down a certain path, because it was structured like a traditional sports narrative. And that's where a traditional sports narrative would have gone - the conflict hits and then, ‘Oh, they're probably the bad guys, even though they are claiming they're the good guys.’ But it's where that movie goes after you know all those things that is more intriguing to me. I like to think about humanistic things, but then twisting them and again, subverting expectations of where you think a narrative is going to go.


Sadie: We sit with your characters long enough that we get attached and begin to know them so well, and then you throw in this twist, and you saw it coming but you’re also sad at the same time.

Riley: Yeah, that's a good way of thinking of it is that you can almost see it coming. And then because it actually happens, you're almost sadder for the character that they didn't see it coming. And I do in terms of writing, I do a lot of stuff where I set up something, and it's going to pay off. There's not a lot of fat in my stuff. And whether people agree who like my stuff or not agree with that is beside the point, because I feel like if something's in there, it's in there for a reason. I can't cut scenes in my movies, for the most part, Dual had one dream sequence that was cut. And I'm glad. And the reason it was cut, and I knew that it wasn't working was that it didn't relate to the rest of the movie, it didn't need to be there. But in everything I've done so far, every scene has had a piece of information that comes into play, whether it's in the next scene or the scene that ends the film, and then also setting up plot devices that we're going to come back to later. On The Art of Self Defense, I didn't even know what the term Chekhov's Gun meant, because I'm a dummy who doesn't read a lot. And so, when people were telling me that it was a Chekhov's Gun sort of ending, I had to look it up. And I was like, ‘Oh, it totally is. It literally is.’ I write what feels right to me, and I like, again, going back to structure if you know where your films go, and you can put those sorts of things in there, and then have them pay off later.

(L-R) Aaron Paul as Trent and Karen Gillan as Sarah in the sci-fi film, DUAL, an RLJE Films release. Photo courtesy of RLJE Films.

(L-R) Aaron Paul as Trent and Karen Gillan as Sarah in the sci-fi film, DUAL, an RLJE Films release. Photo courtesy of RLJE Films.

Sadie: And that book ending for this movie where you open up with the big, flipped version of a Battle Royale, and then have more like a guttural punch at that end.

Riley: Yeah, it goes into spoiler territory, sort of, but like I told the crew in Finland, when we were shooting the opening scene of the movie, which is the big duel, that this is our big action scene, we're going to put everything into this. And the movie is only going to go downhill from here. And they laughed. But they were like, 'Are you serious?' And it's not going to be for everybody. And I understand that. But I think that it is the only way that this film could have ended. And anything that people have suggested otherwise, in terms of how they would have ended it, those are expected endings. I feel like this is the ending that had to happen. And it's the only ending that was interesting to me, and it's because of the expectations and changing those.

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Sadie: Any general advice for those who are on this journey in their career where they're looking at starting off with either a short film or maybe diving into a feature, as both a writer and director?

Riley: As a writer-director, specifically, I would say start with short films. I wrote seven features before I made my first short and all those features are horrible, but I learned a lot about writing and I learned about my voice and writing those, so I will not ever like question the past but they're bad scripts and I'm glad they don't exist in the world. Making shorts, put that stuff on the page that you think is so good into an actual medium where you can watch it and then you go, 'Oh, this isn't good.' I think it's easier to see when something's bad when you have to watch it when you have to actually answer questions to actors about why they're doing a certain thing a certain way, you have to actually talk to a DP about why a shot is going to be set up a certain way, even though the script makes it seem like it should go this other direction. I think that you can learn so much in the short space and not spend a lot of money. And it also means that when you make something that you're really proud of, like I did with The Cub, and it gets into something like Sundance, now people will come to you and say, 'What scripts do you have?' As opposed to you just going to them with nothing and saying, 'I have a script, like read it?' And everyone's like, there are a million scripts, why am I going to read this? Or maybe they don't get your tone. So, if I hadn't made The Cub, and somebody read Faults, they may have thought that the movie was completely different in terms of tone and might have been intrigued by it had they seen the short and then put that tone on top of the feature. But if they're reading it blind, then they're putting their own assumptions on it. I like the idea of shorts being the path for most people. And I would recommend that.

In terms of writers, if you are just a writer, and you have no aspirations to direct, hopefully, you can try to find somebody else who is a director that you can partner with, and maybe make something on a smaller scale. And then make that short as well then, the feature hopefully, that you've got sitting there that you really are proud of, now people will have something to find that via. I guess my big thing is always just go for shorts first, but everyone's path is different, and as long as you are true to yourself, that's all that matters.


Sadie: I love that idea of just finding and leaning into your vision and your voice through the short form because writing shorts and directing shorts is also very hard.

Riley: It's a very challenging thing for sure. But imagine doing that, like a two-day or one-day short, too, and having it not work very well. And then go and try to do 20 days of that and have it not going very well. It's a lot more money at stake. And if you make something pretty bad your first outing, are you going to get that next chance? Give yourself all the practice that you can to give yourself a better chance later on.

Dual is available in Theaters on April 15, 2022.

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