‘Dual’ Interview: Riley Stearns On The “Trojan Horse” Aspect of Genre Filmmaking

Director Riley Stearns behind the scenes of the sci-fi film, DUAL, an RLJE Films release. Photo courtesy of RLJE Films

Director Riley Stearns’ uncompromising and pinpoint narrative The Art of Self-Defense grabbed my attention in a good way, and his latest feature Dual is just as powerful. Karen Gillan is Sarah, a woman who requests to be cloned after receiving a terminal diagnosis. Stearns talked to Deepest Dream about how genre filmmaking can be a “trojan horse” in regards to effective storytelling. Full video interview with Stearns is below!

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

When Sarah learns that she is no longer dying, the news does not bring her immediate elation. In fact, much of the emotions behind the story are muted, and if you have watched Stearns’ previous work, you will realize there is much more than meets the eye. While Dual’s tale may be seen as cerebral and possibly perplexing to some, I was immediately taken by the narrative’s specificity and subtle subversions.

Before you read the Q&A with Riley Stearns and/or watch the accompanying video, I will also add that my three podcast co-hosts (CinemAddicts’ Anderson Cowan, Find Your Film’s Bruce Purkey and Eric Holmes) all had different reads on the movie’s ending. I also had my own take on the final moments of Dual, and members of our CinemAddicts Patreon will see Riley Stearns personal take on the climax. Would love to hear what you think of Dual as well (it is now playing in theaters and hits Streaming, Digital and On Demand May 20).

Director Riley Stearns as Gas Station Cashier and Karen Gillan as Sarah in the sci-fi film, DUAL, an RLJE Films release. Photo courtesy of RLJE Films.

Check out Anderson Cowan’s review of Dual on CinemAddicts:

On a surface level, Dual can be seen as pure genre storytelling, but I found it to be a very resonant and human narrative once you peel back the layers.

It makes me feel really good to hear you say that. Because I think there is a way that people can watch a film like this and not find the humanity in it. It was always a humanistic film for me.

It was always a movie about how you relate to people around you and how you are the one who drives your life. If you let yourself fall into a complacency – what do you need to get you out of that? To become a better person or to become a better friend or loved one. That means a lot to hear you say that.

I’ve made three features now and every one of them has a genre element to it that is only going to be the surface level. And then you’ve got so much going on underneath that is more important to me. I think genre is a great way to explore human tendencies . . . to explore politics, to explore any number of sort of topics but through a way that people are not expecting. Genre in general, whether it’s sci-fi or horror, thriller, whatever I think it’s a great trojan horse almost in terms of getting people in explore ideas that they wouldn’t have otherwise.

***Dual is reviewed on Episode 111 of Find Your Film:

In Dual, we live in a world where people can have a clone of themselves. But with all this high tech, even breaking to someone that they are dying is hard and awkward to do. It’s heartbreaking.

If we’re looking at how Sarah is told how she is going to die – in Sarah and Peter’s relationship until we jump into the 10 months later point, you don’t see them in the same room together. That’s something that many people have experience. You have so many people in your life that you feel are close to you, whether it’s social media or whatever it is, but you never get to talk to them face to face and have that connection.

I feel like we can get into this place where we are lulled into this disconnect with people that we do love. For her to find out that she is dying from a video chat, that also is an unintentional comment on sociey as a whole.

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

I have not seen Faults, but from watching The Art of Self-Defense and now Dual, I wonder if writing is a solitary time for you especially since you really develop your characters and storyline in a specific manner. Or maybe it is ultimately a freeing process?

I would say it’s freeing and challenging and solitary all at the same time. I write by myself. I write to direct. I know what I write is oging to be what I make which is great. I love that sense of responsibility and that freedom. It’s also challenging because it’s all on you to do it. I sit with an idea for a while before I go to script.

I’ve structured the story in a way where I am very confident that the foundation is sturdy enough to then start putting up those walls and decorating it in a way represents me at that time. But it’s always challenging and it’s always a little solitary in a way that feels scary but when you come out of the other side with a script you are very proud of and then you know you’re going to get to make – not that I knew I was going to make The Art of Self-Defense but I thought and hoped that I would. It’s a super rewarding experience to say, “I did this.”

And then when you make the movie, you’ve got collaborators and that because the different part of the process which is just so much fun. (You’re) working with people who are much better at their job than you are at that job. You get to kind of be the overseer and the person who guides that ship. That’s where the real fun stuff.

As challenging as writing is, the older I get and the more I do it, the more I enjoy it. It’s just a tedious process at times.

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

Your films have characters speaking in a specifed tone and cadence. What has it been like collaborating with talented actors such as Karen Gillan who knock your dialogue out of the park?

It’s a very specific delivery that i have needed for all three of my movies. I am completely aware of that and know that it is not necessarily everyone’s safe space. I think what has connected all the leads of my films has been the sense of full commitment to the project. What that ends up entailing mostly is full trust in me as the director. I’m not going to steer them down a path that is going to not work or it will not suit the character. There has always been a full trust from the actors that I know the overall movie and I’m going to be there for them to help them achieve that with me.

Similarly I’ve always had implicit trust in them as creators so it’s not like it is just my say. I want them to have a relationship with the character that I might not even have. The trust on everyone’s end is the biggest thing. That is something that Karen, Aaron (Paul) and Beulah (Koale)came into in Dual. Luckily they had already been able to watch my other films so they sort of knew the space we wanted to be in.

Even then, I feel this movie is different from those other two movies in its own way. And so having an initial idea coming in but also being able to change one way or the other. Yeah, I’m very lucky that I get to work the way that I work.

Well I think the thing is, it’s an instinctual thing. I don’t consciously come out thinking, “this is how it has to be because I don’t want to do what they are expecting.” It’s more of, I know what I know.

It’s conscious in the sense that I am actively thinking about the project and trying to figure out what it’s going to be. But I’m not going “Oh everybody’s doing this, so I’ve got do this.” It just naturally tends to be that my perspective is very much a certain thing. When I come to create something, that is impossible for me to shake. I know what I do. I know how I write. I know how I create.

I feel like there was more of a generation that did this in a specific era where you would come into a project and say “I don’t care if anyone likes it, I’m making it for myself.” I cannot work that way.

You mentioned that I could make this big, entertaining sort of thing. At the end of the day, I want everything I do to be entertaining, but I want it to be entertaining in its own way. For me, I think Dual explores topics that are interesting. It may not be entertaining like a big action movie might be, but there is always an element to it.

If there is not some (entertainment) for people watching Dual, I get it. But for most people, if they are challenged at times, hopefully they will find something that is entertainment about it.

Theo James as Robert Michaels in the sci-fi film, DUAL, an RLJE Films release. Photo courtesy of RLJE Films

Thank you for your time Riley. Really loved your film.

Thank you for having me. It was really nice.

Dual is now playing in theaters and hits Digital, On Demand and Streaming May 20.

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