With 2013’s In a World…, the actor Lake Bell added a few hyphens to her job description: -writer, -director, -producer. She also landed the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award from the Sundance Film Festival, where In a World… premiered, ranking Bell as one of the more promising and exciting young directors to watch. Four years later, she’s delivered her follow-up, I Do … Until I Don’t, doubling down on her use of ellipses and her status as a jack-of-all-trades filmmaker. I Do … Until I Don’t follows a documentary filmmaker (Dolly Wells) who brings her crusade against the institution of marriage to Vero Beach, Florida, where she begins to document three couples in varying connubial states, played by an ensemble that includes Bell, Ed Helms, Paul Reiser, Mary Steenburgen, Wyatt Cenac, and Amber Heard. We caught up with Bell to talk marriage, cynicism, and the importance of directing with a fanny pack.
It’s interesting being a filmmaker who used to primarily be an actor, when you get to the stage of having to talk about your work. It’s such a big difference in the relationship you have to it.
It is, there’s an ease to it. It’s my baby, it’s born from the inside of my thoughts and my therapy and my everything. That’s what makes it so personal. And I guess that also adds to the keenness to share it with people, because at the end of the day it’s like, well, why do you do it? You do it because you have a sentiment that you feel is moving or encouraging or thoughtful that you want to share with people, because that’s like the only thing I can do — especially in this day and age. And with this movie particularly, because I am so clouded and disheartened sometimes about the tension in the country and the darkness and the angst that I feel, just even looking at Twitter, you know what I mean? We all have it, we’re all together in it, no matter what side, too — everybody’s feeling the tension. It’s sort of a privilege, really, to have this movie that is truly a respite to that kind of tension. It’s very hopeful and very kind-spirited, and it was always intended that way, but it’s just resonant in a different way in this time. Because the message is about being kind, and having a respectfulness to an institution and a concept of being loyal to someone, and to being generous with your ability to go through the mud and the shit together and come out the other end. That is kind of provocative in this day and age, or at least it’s not the kind of stuff we’re hearing every day.
The movie sets up almost the opposite at the beginning, when it comes in with this documentary and this character who is so intense …
Exactly. Was that always your intention with the film, to come at it from that angle? And what was the genesis of deciding to make a film about marriage?
The inception of the idea really did come from a jaded place. I always set out to end it by finding the hope in it, but I didn’t know what the ending would be, because I hadn’t had the experience of a meaningful, trusting, real relationship, where you’re like, “I’m seeing you, I see you eye to eye, and I will walk with you through the mud and the light.” That hadn’t found me yet. At the time I first started writing the movie, which was nine years ago …
Did this predate In a World…?
I started writing it right after I finished my last draft of In a World… Because it really has been a therapeutic place for me to investigate my thoughts on relationships, this script. Over the years, it’s changed, a lot, and then I met my now-husband while writing it. So finally I had the material and that feeling of what it is to be witnessed by someone through life, to fearlessly not bail, you know? Because it’s very easy to, when the shit gets rough, you bail and you find the next person. Because then you can get away with your shit — but if you have someone who’s going to call you out on your shit, and you’re going to call them out on their shit, that’s where true evolution really starts to develop. That’s growth, and that in itself is what life’s about, in my opinion. It’s a privilege to age — not everybody gets to — and it’s a privilege to evolve.
And cynicism can be a very weirdly comfortable place for an artist to come from.
Totally. And that’s why I feel like, when I create something, I am, in my heart, an optimist, and I feel like it is my duty and my privilege to choose to put out what I want to put out. I want to put out a kind spirit, that’s just what I’m going to do — other people can do other things, they do it very well, but it doesn’t feel good to me to put something out there that is cloaked in cynicism. I’d like people to leave and feel good. I feel like that’s cool.
And that is a choice that the filmmaker can make, how they want to send someone out of their film.
And I feel like you can send people off in a thoughtful manner — because a lot of filmmakers really do set out to make people think — but you can do that with a generosity of spirit and maybe make people feel warm inside. I feel like that’s so powerful, and I try to do it in a way that’s not sappy. Even In a World… is kind-spirited at the end, and this one is my take on a romantic comedy. I used to consider it an unromantic romance — when I first started writing it, that was my tagline for it.
I was just about to ask you what the project looked like before you got married.
It definitely had a similar arc, but knowing Scott, I could speak to those feelings in a more authentic way. I wonder if I, like, set it into motion as some sort of magic experiment or something. Maybe I was so hoping to be proved wrong about all my cynical ways and thoughts. And I was.
The only way you can get past that kind of idea is to interrogate it.
Absolutely, and I interrogated the crap out of it [laughs].
I think one of the most interesting things about the movie is that it takes on these three different relationships. How difficult was it to write that kind of movie and manage those different characters?
Especially if I’m going to direct and write it, I wanted to do something different than In a World… It would be easy to do something really similar to what I just did, but the hope and the idea is that I can try different things structurally, visually …
What visually did you want to explore in this that was different?
Because I set it in Vero Beach, I had a very specific aesthetic that I wanted to go for, because its heyday was the ’50s and ’60s, and I love the idea of that palette. From color correction to the set design to the art direction, everything is these cyans and pastels. I know Vero Beach very well and it’s very specific, but not everybody knows about it. Then there was the actual cinematic visuals that I was excited to explore with Wyatt Garfield, my DP. We had to create two personalities, the documentary and the movie. It was really fun for me to poke fun a little bit at how pretentious I was going to be with her visual style. I shot it on DVX — initially I really wanted to do 16 but that was a pain in the ass and I ended up really liking the DVX because in a way it kind of washes over, it makes the colors look saturated. And I’ve always really wanted to use the zoom, but it’s not quite right for my films, so it was fun to experiment with zoom within the parameters of her visual sensibility.
Your next film can be a Robert Altman zoomfest.
Totally [laughs]! I mean, I love Short Cuts. I thought about zoom for this, it wasn’t appropriate for this one, but maybe I will for the future. I like being in studio, on sticks. I like something a little more measured. We really had to police and plan in a way that was a little more obsessive, because there was a very specific visual experience for Vivian’s stuff, and then there was a very specific visual for Alice and Noah, my character with Ed, and then for Fanny and Zander, which has some Steadicam. But it’s just so fun — I love making movies on every level. And I’m really proud of this movie — it’s so personal, and one day I get to show my kids, you know? What a nice thing, to show them something that has these good values. And I’m not even conservative!
You’re looking at something that you think is important.
And look, sometimes relationships between two people just don’t work. But every relationship deserves an effort.
We do live in a time where divorce or separation is almost the expectation.
Totally. I think we have to reassess how we take it on. It’s hard, it’s really hard, and I think maybe it’s been painted as it’s supposed to be effortless. And there are times when it is effortless, but there are other times when it’s not, and it deserves effort, and it deserves fighting for. It’s funny, Rob Corddry is a really good friend of mine, and we’re always talking about this, and he’s got an amazing marriage and kids, and he likes to say that it’s easy, because he’s sick and tired of people saying it’s hard. And I understand that, but for the parameters and for the sake of this story, if we’re being really honest, hard doesn’t mean bad. Lots of things are hard and they’re really rewarding. Making a movie is hard, but it’s the best fucking thing ever! Hard isn’t negative in my opinion, it means it’s rewarding.
One thing that you’re talking about that’s really interesting is the way that people treat relationships, whether it’s their friend’s marriage or whether it’s a celebrity’s marriage, as these ideal measures for the institution. How do you think that fits in with this attitude?
I did a lot of research and reading about marriage and whatnot, and there was one concept of “performance weddings,” which is something that I loathe, even though I had a big old wedding. Initially when Scott and I were going to get married, we were like, “Let’s just go to town hall, because it’s not about that.” And it’s really the framework in which you get married. What are you setting out to do? These weddings, it’s turned into such a Hallmark thing — it’s this grand expense, and I think that is where we sometimes lose sight a little bit, because performance weddings are like, “Look at me in this moment!” That’s not a sustainable existence. The wooing and the “I look my thinnest and I look my best and my youngest” —that’s not marriage!
And if you set yourself up for marriage where you start at what’s supposed to be the apex of your life, you only have one place to go.
Exactly. I remember when Scott and I set out to make a wedding, I think it was really important to both of us that, if we’re going to do it, it’s got to be a little messy — it can’t be like, pristine and perfect. It’s got to be a little gamey, a little sweaty, a little messy. It was like a hundred degrees. There was dancing — my sister cut her foot on a dance floor, there was blood. It’s got to be a little primal. And it’s got to be a party. It’s got to be the dopest party, the greatest reason to throw a huge party. It’s an excuse to get your friends together and then stand in front of them and say, “We’re going all in.” And bringing them into it, it’s like, “It’s all your responsibility to support the shit out of us.” I always like that in weddings, where it’s not just like, [singing] Look at me looking so beautiful. It’s about, we’re all in this together. Because marriage, kids, all this stuff, it’s largely about community. That’s why I like that there’s camaraderie in the movie. It’s about a team.
Making a movie is such a team effort. You’re the director-producer-writer-star but you still need a million other people.
It’s athletic, making a movie. It’s a sport. I always talk about the key to happy filmmaking is comfortable shoes — you need your sneakers, maybe an orthotic insert, and a fanny pack.
What goes in the director’s fanny pack?
Oh, okay, I can tell you exactly what goes into it. You need a good chapstick. I like to have Aquaphor or something like that, but I change it up — just moisture, everything’s efficient in that fanny pack. And then an emery board, incidentally, because sometimes I get a little, it’s like a nervous tic, I’ve got to do a little nail file thing. And then sometimes I have my viewfinder, but often I don’t need it anymore because now we use Artemis on our phones. And then sometimes I have like one pack of Stevia, just in case it’s a tea emergency. A couple tea bags of my favorite. My phone, obviously. And really skinny sunglasses that fit right in there. That’s the basics. The new thing for this movie, I talked about this on Kimmel, was that I had different scents. I had my two scents: I had my Alice scent and my director’s scent.
Right, to change your status.
Right — the hardest part of it was that Alice was so low status, and to direct, you have to be like, high status.
This interview has been edited and condensed.