Riley Stearns makes films that are hard to categorize and impossible to forget. his feature film debut, Mistakeand its continuation The art of self defense, could be characterized as a drama and a karate movie respectively, but neither label does justice to the intensity and dark comedy present in both films. Its third feature dualis no different, as Stearns alienates the sci-fi concept of a woman trying to kill her own clone, mixing deadpan humor with a subtle critique of capitalism, reality television, and the raunchy nature of identity .
Digital Trends recently spoke to Stearns about this dual, why he decided to work with Karen Gillan and why he believes his latest film isn’t just a sci-fi movie. He also talks about the challenges of producing the film during the COVID-19 pandemic and why horror could be the next genre he works in.
Note: This interview has been edited slightly for length and clarity.
Digital trends: You mentioned in previous interviews that you were inspired to do this dual because you wanted to see an actor play against yourself. Where did this idea come from?
Riley Stearns: The idea of putting an actor in front of you and playing out this situation came from a short film that I wanted to make in between Mistake and The art of self defense called niche which I actually never did. At the end of this short film, the main character is in a time warp and has a brief interaction with himself. I really liked this idea, but I knew it wasn’t a full-length idea yet. So I asked myself, “What do I do with this now?” That was the crux of an idea that eventually became dual.
How did you recruit Karen Gillan for the lead roles?
We’re at the same agency and her name came up at some point and I remember thinking, ‘She’d be really cool in this movie.’ I’ve never seen her in anything like that. So we had coffee and by the end I was like, ‘She’s a great person.’ We didn’t just have to talk about the film. You can talk about life, you can talk about your friends and family and what you’re working on. I knew she was talented, so it wasn’t a question of whether she could do it, it was what she’s like as a person? And I really appreciate that. Life is short. When you work with people you don’t get along with or who aren’t there for the right reasons, you’re really underselling yourself. And I just liked that she really cared. At the end of the meeting, I just asked her, “Do you want to do that?” And she said yes. It was that easy.
Her previous feature films have mostly been dramas or comedies. As a filmmaker, what interests you about the science fiction genre?
As a moviegoer, I just love sci-fi movies, period. I like to think of my films as dark comedies in their own way. During dual has a sci-fi element, I wouldn’t really call it a sci-fi movie. I think it happens to be set in a space where sci-fi takes place, but it’s not about the duel of life and death. It’s about the human relationships between these characters, and all the sci-fi stuff is just the setup for that. You can call The art of self defense a karate movie, but I feel like that sells the movie short. I think there’s a lot more going on than just a karate movie. I think it’s a movie that has karate in it, if that makes sense.
Absolutely. There’s a great tradition of The Double in cinema, by Brian De Palma sisters to Christopher Nolan’s The prestige, just to name a few. What do you think dual adds to this subgenre?
That is a difficult question. I’ve always been a fan of double or clone movies, but I wanted to step in and add a fresh perspective [to the genre]. I think I did, for better or for worse. Some people may disagree with my chosen perspective, but it’s what I wanted to contribute. You can choose the really big budget route where Will Smith fights his clone on a motorbike [in the Ang Lee movie Gemini Man]. You can enjoy this for what it is, it’s entertainment. But my version of it was much smaller by design. It’s more about where you’re going in life. When this “better” version of you is presented to you, do you just accept it or say, “Well, I need to improve too.” I think that’s why the film had to be a clone film. Sarah literally confronts herself. And then, figuratively, she has to confront her choices, and that helps her grow as a person.
What was the biggest challenge for you with this film?
The first thing that comes to mind is that we shot this at the height of the pandemic. We prepared and shot in Finland around August 2020. There were no vaccines yet. At that time there were only 3,000 cases out of 5 million people in Finland. But it was still very, very frightening. Every day you show up you start thinking this might be the day we close. Always having that weight on our shoulders and knowing that one of the people on our crew and/or I could get COVID was terrifying. But in the end I think we followed the safety procedures as best we could. And we’re always very, very busy testing. We ended up with a shoot that did have rough days, but ended up being the smoothest process I’ve ever had to make a film. It just ran on time and efficiently and I definitely had this crew to thank for that.
If you had to fight your clone to the death, what would you do to defeat it?
Hopefully my clone can’t do jujitsu, which I’ve been doing for nine years now. I would like an unarmed combat situation. Like Aaron Paul’s character Trent in the film, I would probably attempt to blow up a weapons cache and then use only our bodies to make an unfair fight out of it. Now if a gun came into play or a gun I would probably get killed pretty easily.
Is there a chance of a feature length version of You always kill the ones you lovethe short horror movie parody in dual?
I loved doing that thing. It took about four hours to shoot that. I told the crew that it would be about 20 setups for that short period of time, relatively speaking. And everyone just said, “What the hell? There’s no way we’re going to get through this.” And I told them that we take a take of every take. That’s all we did. We basically treated it like we shot on film in the 80’s and didn’t have a multi-take budget. So we shot everything as quickly and as easily as possible.
It was so much fun making this film. I think it’s great that there’s a sequel in the world of dual. Maybe there’s a chance that might end up in a movie later. And I love that Trent says it’s a worse movie but it’s even more brutal like that’s a good thing.
What films did you have in mind when shooting? You always kill the ones you love?
I’d say a lot of those cheesy 80’s horror movies. Because of the blood effects, I told Salla [Yli-Luopa]our special effects makeup artist, thinks like Dario Argento and uses blood as in suspiracy. Yes, we went very neon for that. A lot of those ’80s movie stocks were really, really crappy too. There was a time when Kodak just made stuff that didn’t look that expensive, so we really tried to approach it that way. And then Emma Ruth Rendell’s score was channeled for that section suspiracy and this Italian kind of horror room. It was one of the funnest parts of the shoot.
The score was very goblin-like In this section.
Yes, exactly! I’m glad you understood.
I know you’ve worked in many different genres, so maybe your next film could be a horror film?
I would like to do something with horror. I will never make a film that is pure horror or drama. There always has to be an element that subverts expectations of what this genre is meant to be. And while I love watching a straight horror movie, and I love the genre in general, I don’t think I would do it unless I looked at it from a different perspective. Maybe people would think that’s pretentious, but I feel like I’m being true to myself with that. Someday I would like to invent something.
dual is in theaters and can be streamed.
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