A winner at the Brooklyn International Film Festival and a hit at SXSW, the new indie romance Breaking Upwards works like a combination of John Cassavetes and Norah Ephron, street smart, gritty, funny and tender hearted, but without any kind of typical Hollywood formula. It tells the story of Daryl and Zoe, a young New York couple with a four-year relationship under their belt. The sex is getting tired, and routine has settled in, so they decide to take a break from each other. Not full time, mind you, but just three days off each week. Director/co-writer Daryl Wein, who plays Daryl, and co-writer Zoe Lister Jones, who plays Zoe, went through something not unlike this in their real-life relationship. It sounds crazy, but it worked like gangbusters, both in real life, and for the movie. Daryl and Zoe recently chatted with Cinematical to discuss their lives and work.
Cinematical: In creating these characters, were you acting as yourselves? Or did you try to add some kind of new character traits to make the characters more interesting?
Daryl Wein: They were not called "Daryl" and "Zoe" to begin with. They were just fictional characters. Zoe and I were the templates for the characters. There were some similarities, but obviously a lot of the qualities were fictionalized, like Zoe's an actress in real life and I'm not a journalist in real life. But in terms of qualities, I don't think we were really thinking about how to best portray us, how we were being represented. I think we were trying to make the characters complex, with flaws, and balance. I think we just tried to show two real people. In retrospect, I wish I could have made myself more interesting or smarter! The line is so blurred at this point that I don't know the difference between the characters and the real "Zoe" or the real "Daryl."
Cinematical: How did the writing take place between you two and co-writer Peter Duchan? Did the three of you get together?
Daryl: Zoe and I really went through this about two years into our relationship. The way that we went about it was so funny. I said, "This should be a romantic comedy," and she said, "You're crazy. I don't want anything to do with that." I brought the idea to Peter and he really lent some objectivity to it. Together we spent a year on and off coming up with the screenplay, without Zoe, because we were going through the "on and off" period. Zoe knew about the project of course, and she warmed up to it. Peter and I would write separately and then show each other what we did. Then Zoe really added the female perspective. She balanced out the story. When I was writing it, it was more from my point of view. It was more like I was the hero and she was the villain.
Cinematical: How are you two doing today? I would guess that making this movie together might have been even tougher than going through the "on and off" period.
Daryl: I don't know which was tougher. We're great now in real life. We've been together six years. Everything's fine. It gets hard sometimes when we're working 24/7 together. There's no division between personal and professional. We work from home and our projects are happening non-stop. We're producing and working until the wee hours of the morning.
Zoe Lister Jones: There's no coming home and saying, "Hey Honey, how was your day?" I go off and do my own acting projects without Daryl and Breaking Upwards has been non-stop for the last 3-1/2 years. It's definitely taxing, but it's also very fulfilling.
Cinematical: Olivia Thirlby is probably your biggest "star" in the movie; she's recognizable from having been in Juno, Snow Angels, The Wackness, etc. Did her presence help sell the movie?
Zoe: She definitely helps with the film. In some small way she was a selling point. She's on the rise. We were really lucky. She did us a big favor. She's been really game the whole time to come out in support of the film. Not so much the distribution, but other factors.
Cinematical: Clothes are very important in this movie. Everyone had such unique clothes, and I even noticed band t-shirts for Ratt and New Kids on the Block.
Zoe: Everyone wore their own wardrobe. Daryl and I had final say, and people would bring costume options from their own closets and we would choose. Everyone was really generous, and schlepped their many options to set. We worried about the brand names, but they're no longer bands. There's no shame in owning a New Kids on the Block t-shirt. They were my first concert when I was eight.
Cinematical: Zoe, I was thinking of comparing you to a young Barbra Streisand. Would that offend you? Or is that something you get all the time?
Zoe: I usually get Kristen Scott Thomas. But no. It wouldn't offend me. I'm a big fan of Babs. Thank you!
Cinematical: Daryl, I really admired the editing in this movie. Obviously you had some good locations and some good actors, but the movie really has a strong rhythm that kind of makes up for the lack of budget and flashiness. I especially like the way you cut that climactic Seder scene.
Daryl: Here's a bit of trivia for you. Andrea Martin -- who plays Zoe's mom -- we hadn't yet cast. We shot everybody without her. We didn't do a super wide shot of the whole table. We had everybody talk to an empty space. We edited it together so you wouldn't know. We couldn't work with all the actors all at the same time. They were all in Broadway shows. I wanted it to feel tight and to not come across as meandering, and I wanted it focused and a strong structure. All the different beats of the story all have their own rhythms. It was just feeling intuitive about whether there's a pause or not. I didn't have an assistant editor; I just relied on Zoe and Peter. Once I finished the first cut, we had a little screening for about 20 of our closest friends. That cut was a little over two hours, and they gave us some good feedback. I did it on Final Cut Pro on a Mac Pro Tower. The movie took up 5 terabytes of memory. It was a little nerve-wracking, thinking that the hard drive could crash and we'd lose everything.
Cinematical: Would you recommend a polyamorous lifestyle to people who are watching this movie? Is that a message you wanted to get across? Or were you more interested in simply telling a story about something you went through?
Daryl: First, there's a difference between what we did and being fully polyamorous. In full on polyamorous mode, you have your full-on partner and then you have another full-on relationship with a different partner. We didn't really have that. We went out on dates with people, but we didn't have other boyfriends/girlfriends at the same time. It's totally taboo, and everyone is raised to think marriage and commitment. It depends on the couple, of course, but Zoe and I have open minds. I think Zoe and I support it if they want to do it.
Zoe: I was reading Entertainment Weekly and they're saying Mo'Nique's Oscar win was overshadowed by her admission that she was in an open marriage. We are very puritan in America. We still hold true to these really antiquated values, this idea of the sanctity of marriage. I think there's room for exploration in terms of those values. It's human nature to want to be with other people. I don't think we intended for this to be a message film. It's just about communication. It's just exploring.