While most of us are just grateful to have survived the latest incarnation of global catastrophe, there are those overachievers and malcontents in our midst who bemoan not having used the past traumatic epoch to do something more “productive,” like learn a language or make a film or cultivate new friendships in virtual reality. And then there are those among us who actually made a movie while doing Spanish immersion with their new best friend. Those people are Natalie Morales and Mark Duplass, and (thank the god of failed prodigies) there are only two of them. Unfortunately, they are impossible to hate. Their film, the Morales-directed Language Lessons, presents the two writer/director/actors as infinitely lovable, and although they play characters distinctly different from their auteur selves, the on-screen relationship reveals a complex intimacy that simply cannot be faked.
The gimmick of Language Lessons—the whole movie takes place on Zoom—is easily the least interesting thing about it. This is a movie about the dance of friendship, the courtship of trust and the magic of grief. In the film, Adam (Duplass) is given the not-so-welcome gift of one hundred online Spanish lessons, paid for and orchestrated by his boyfriend as a surprise. His instructor, Cariño (Morales), enters the film in the awkward position of forcibly immersing Adam in a language in which he is not only not fluent, but not particularly interested in becoming fluent. Then (SPOILER (but not really because it’s in every description of the movie)), Adam’s boyfriend dies, and through a simple twist of fate Cariño is the first person he tells. Despite the framing device, this is not a film about casual interaction or about fetishizing banality. This is a high-stakes love story. The relationship does not fit neatly into categories of romance or specifically sexual attraction, but a love story it is nonetheless.
While Natalie Morales was directing Language Lessons she was simultaneously working on her official directorial debut, Plan B, a slightly different kind of love story, about best friends who have to hit the road to find a plan B pill. Judging from her (simultaneous) first features, telling the truth about these kinds of fraught, deep connections in the most effortless-seeming way possible is apparently her thing. Naturally, trying to establish an authentic rapport with these two experts on contemporary intimacy was a little nerve-racking, especially on their home turf of Zoom, but I just kind of pretended I was in the movie.
Leah Hennessey: I just first of all wanted to congratulate you both on a fantastic film. I watched it last night, was very moved. I didn’t cry as much as I cried watching Plan B, but I was very moved. I was telling Natalie how much I cried watching Plan B.
Mark Duplass: Same here, same here.
LH: I heard you guys talking at South by Southwest about the state of mind you had during the pandemic, in this extreme historical epoch that we’re still living through, but have lived through. I’m really interested in the state of your creativity and what led to this film—and the over-quoted David Lynch thing about having the image of the severed ear in the grass and how that one image sparked the whole movie or whatever nonsense that is.
MD: I can start with that because it did start on my end. And those two things you’re asking about, for me, state of mind and spark, are inextricably linked with this project. And logistically it started when we were a couple of months into the pandemic. I was actually doing fairly well, from an emotional and spiritual standpoint. I was therewith my wife and my two kids. We all like each other. I’m in a place where our company was still able to work on things in post-production. So we weren’t struggling as many others were. But I found myself with extra time on my hands and I found myself opening myself up to different things for the first time in a long time because I didn’t have such a busy schedule.
And so I started taking online Spanish classes to brush up on my Spanish with this institute in Guatemala that was having financial troubles. And I found it really interesting that over this 2D, choppy Internet connection where I was taking conversational lessons, rather than it stifling the connection I had with this person, because we were so bad at small talk we ended up talking about more interesting and emotionally more resonant things more quickly. And I thought, wow, that’s very interesting. The 2D, pandemic nature of communication has made us connect more quickly rather than less quickly. And I thought that was interesting. So that was the spark and it didn’t go much beyond that. And then of course everything else in my production, logistical brain took over from the history of how I make things, which is: well, this is a movie we can make cheaply, we can make it during the pandemic with somebody in their house and me and my house. And all of that stuff started taking off in my brain. And that’s when I called Natalie and wanted to see if she could partner with me on this.
LH: And what about you, Natalie?
Natalie Morales: I don’t think I was in as good of a place as Mark. I was going through a hard time. Not only in taking in what was happening in the world in general to people I didn’t know, but also to people I did know that were sick and, in some cases, died. And in my personal life I had just gone through a lot of big life stuff, a big breakup. The first movie I was set to direct that I had worked for on for two years up to that point got shut down the Friday before the Monday we were going to start filming. People’s hair had been bleached (laughs). And by the time we started filming this, which was either late May or early June because... I’m trying to think about when that phone call was. I’m sure it’s in my texts—that first text you sent me that was just “Do you speak Spanish?” (laughs).
MD: (laughs) I think it was late May. That’s what I want to say.
NM: By the time that rolled around, the only sort of creative things I had gotten up to—I was trying to do what I could do for people at that time, which was soothe in any way. So I was reading chapters of The Little Prince on my Instagram Live for kids, for people in general. I was just sort of wallowing the rest of the time, not knowing whether Plan B was ever going to come back or what was going to happen next, or if we were all going to die, you know, etcetera. So then I got that call from Mark right as I had started writing a feature with my best friend and comedy partner.
We were in the thick of writing and Mark’s like, do you want to make a movie? And I was like, okay! (laughs) So we did it. And it was such a buoy for me, getting to work with Mark in this way. We had worked together on Room 104 (2018-2020), but not actually together. He had written both the episodes that I directed and he was there for production meetings and stuff, but we never actually worked side by side. So that was really exciting for me because—and I’m not flattering Mark, he knows this already—I’ve always been such a big fan of his and of the things he does.
And, also, with everything I do, work-wise or otherwise, I look at it as a learning opportunity. It was a really interesting way for me to get a close-up look at how his brain works and how he makes a movie. And I don’t know if this is how he’s made a movie before. I know elements of it were not the same at all.
And, like he said, the Spanish lessons were sort of the germ of it all. Then we came up with these two characters and decided to go off and write them on our own before we came up with the story or anything. Then we figured out how to bring those two together and crash them into each other. When we shot it, I was writing with my writing partner in the mornings and shooting this in the afternoons. I think we shot it in four or five days. Is that right?
MD: It was like four or five half days basically.
LH: That’s amazing. I’m so glad you guys found each other. I’m so glad for all of us. I’m very interested in the process and in your separate processes. And I feel like you guys are both very functional, polymathic multitaskers. I feel like, over this time, I’ve been asking people a lot about the rituals and games and systems they devised for working in a new way. For me, I started a songwriting workshop with my friends every Thursday. And we still, to this day, every Thursday at eight o’clock, all get on Zoom and play a new song we’ve written that week to each other. And when that wasn’t enough, because this is all like an addiction, when that wasn’t cutting it, my friend and I picked up this book called The Frustrated Songwriter’s Handbook. And there’s a challenge in the book to write and record 20 songs in 12 hours. And that completely jump-started my whole songwriting in a new way. I just kind of started collecting these weird games and rituals and challenges and crazy stuff, not to maximize productivity, but to feel okay and get anything done. So I was interested in the two of you—and it doesn’t even have to be about the movie, it could be about other projects—but with the movie, did you guys come up with any new rituals or systems? Did making this movie feel like a game and a ritual? And did you guys teach each other any new systems like this?
NM: It is interesting that you bring that up because all of the games and rituals and ways I had figured out how to live life and be a human and be productive were gone when COVID hit. And I realized, when I was writing with my friend, we would sit together on Zoom and I could not concentrate. I couldn’t focus on anything. I kept interrupting her. I kept hearing a noise and looking outside. And then at a certain point, I literally looked at her through Zoom and went, I should get tested for ADD. It was something that I had always thought about, always in the back of my brain. And I’ve learned so much about this in the last year. But the back of my brain was always like, you just want the easy way out you just want to cheat. You just want someone to give you a prescription to Adderall, so you can clean your house. That’s all you want. And while that’s true (all laugh), I was like, let me just actually talk to my doctor about it and actually be frank because if this is the only way I can make money right now, if the only way I could earn a living is by sitting with my friend and writing and I can’t physically do it, then something is wrong. And so I talked to my doctor and she gave me tests for depression and anxiety and ADD. I passed the ADD test with such incredible flying colors. The questions on the test were so eye-opening to me because I was like, all this time I thought I was just annoying and there’s an actual reason for it and all of these things that I do that I hate that I do are all symptoms of this. I’ve done them since I was a child!
ADHD in women is incredibly underdiagnosed. It’s underdiagnosed in girls and very underdiagnosed in grown women. For example, I look back at stories that my mom used to tell, like, “When you were in kindergarten, you used to talk so much and talk to everybody so much and get up off your desk, your teacher moved your desk next to hers for the whole year.”
And I’m like, “That wasn’t a sign to you, that I wrote backwards and mirrored, that wasn’t a sign that I might’ve been dyslexic!?” So what was amazing about that diagnosis is that it completely changed my life and it made me appreciate the cases in which ADHD gave me such a superpower in hyper-focus and an ability to be a so-called polymath, which is just me looking for dopamine anywhere I can find it (laughs), whether it’s making movies or making a pie.
So I realized where I could allocate those things. I became appreciative of those weird things that my brain was doing by understanding them more. So everything changed for me last year in so many ways. But especially with work.With that diagnosis, I was able to go easier on myself, understand what I was doing and what I needed.
So in answering your question, I think I was able to build actual new systems within myself and my own life that are pandemic-proof, that I didn’t have before, because all of my systems relied on other people’s scheduling and pressure and last-minute deadlines that suddenly were gone. I didn’t have to show up anywhere. So then my body was like, “You don’t have to do anything. What do we do now?”
Working with Mark was inspirational in so, so many ways. There’s an impostor syndrome that kicks in for me. Mark doesn’t let you linger in that too much and it’s kind of awesome. It really pushed me to trust myself more and to also believe that my ideas and thoughts and opinions are just as valid as Mark’s or anybody else. It was really supportive in that way. And I am very appreciative of that.
LH: That’s so beautiful. Pandemic-proof routines and strategies and ideas are the gift that keeps on giving.
MD: First of all, Natalie, it was so great hearing you talk about that. A lot of that resonates with me in a great way. For me, in terms of my systems and my little things I set up for myself to stay productive, to stay healthy and whatnot—the biggest thing that happened to me during the pandemic was that I realized that I wanted to keep working. I was not able to work in the way that I normally could because of the physical limitations of the pandemic, which led me to want to make projects like Language Lessons. Part of that was about continuing to make art because I am compulsive about it and my engine is running that way. So part of that is rhythmic, but part of it is about wanting to deeply connect with people. What I’m discovering about myself is that I like making these small movies. I don’t write ensemble movies because I don’t like big parties. I like small movies because I like one-on-one long dinners with people. I knew that by making this movie with Natalie I would have a chance to have this deep one-on-one connection with this person that I really liked that was on the periphery of my life, that I had a sense was a soulful individual that I would like to connect with more. This sounds more surface level than I want it to, but what would be an efficient way to make a piece of art which satisfies that compulsion, while also having a meaningful connection with a person at the same time? And then being able to share that very connection with the world, because that’s what I think people respond to in the movie. Adam and Cariño are falling in platonic love with each other.
What you’re also experiencing is Mark and Natalie getting to know each other really well and improvising and making each other giggle as we surprise each other. There’s something about that that I really love. So I like the efficiency of doing that all together in one little bucket. So that, that occurred to me.
The other thing I’ll just say overall with the pandemic is that I wrote tons and tons in the thinking of, “Well, when things get back to normal, I’ll be able to make these things.” I’m like a squirrel storing up for the winter. But what I realized in the process is that I’m one of the few people I know who loves writing—all the writers I know, they fucking hate writing. They do it so that they can get to production, which they love doing. But I loved being inside by myself, facing the page and myself and failing and then getting up and feeling “Oh, I won, I feel really great!”
What I discovered through that whole process and through the whole pandemic is that I am an introvert who masquerades as an extrovert. Because I’m an actor or whatever, I can behave like the president of the student council and I can go to a party and look like that.But at the end of the day, that’s actually not who I am. And I like being inside with the page, or with just me and Natalie, or just me and my wife, or just me and my kids. So it was actually a really good learning process for me.
LH: Jumping on the president of the student council thing, after watching Plan B, I feel like I have to ask you guys, do you think that you guys would have been friends when you were 17?
MD: I know we would have.
NM: Oh, totally. We would have found each other in whatever school we were in and been like, “Hi, let’s be weird together.”
MD: “Let’s be weird.” Also the rapid pace at which we would have been making horrible art. Just terrific, unwatchable things.
NM: We would’ve had a really bad band. You know how I know we would have been fast friends in high school is because the way we actually became friends was peripherally at parties. We just kind of found each other. I mean, high school is actually forever, really. You just figure it out and that’s how I know.
LH: I love thinking about you guys having a horrible band together. That’s really cute. Mark, it’s really interesting, you saying that making work together is sometimes the most efficient, expedited process of getting close with someone. I just learned something from you saying that.
MD: It’s church and ceremony for me, it’s everything altogether, you know?
LH: Because I always tell myself the kind of limited narrative that in order to get close to people, I need to involve them in my work and needing to have everyone I’m friends with be someone I work with and vice versa. But I think it’s interesting to think of it as not the only way.It’s just the fastest, most efficient way.
I can tell from your work, Mark, that you are absolutely a collaboration addict. I was wondering, Natalie, do you identify as a collaboration addict?
NM: I don’t know that I would say addict because I do really like making things on my own, but I will say that I love it. It’s my favorite part about this particular business. There is no movie that is made alone, even if you write and direct it and you’re the only person starring in it, someone else has to be there at some point. There’s always someone else working with you, at least in another place. And to me, It’s always been the fun part.
My favorite part of directing is hiring a bunch of people that are so much better at their jobs than I am. And then going, like, what do you think? And then watching other people around me become very excited to do what it is they do and all for the same goal.
LH: This is very rich, what you’ve shared with me here. Is there anything else that you want people to know about this movie or about Plan B?
NM: With Language Lessons, it was such a surprise to me. I don’t know if it was that way for you, Mark, but because we were making it in such a bubble and we didn’t know if it was going to ever be seen by anybody really, that when we finished it and certainly when it went to Berlin and it got the reception that it got—it was like somebody had seen a part of me I didn’t know anybody could see. It’s such a special feeling because my only intent in making that movie and making it with Mark is to tell a very honest story about being seen by somebody and somebody loving you for no reason, just because you’re you. It comes from a part of me that I didn’t even realize I was projecting. Only after it was done was I like, “Oh, yeah, that’s the me inside screaming out.” And I’m glad I got to make that with Mark and that he trusted me to make that with him.
MD: I feel the same way, Natalie. I couldn’t have said it any more clearly. You said it perfectly. We’re so lucky that the movie came out watchable, thank God, because you just never know when you’re making something like this. But, even this conversation that the three of us are having right now, is different than maybe an average sort of interview, where we’re all kind of sharing some things and you’re telling us about your songwriting with your friends. I think that the movie sort of engenders that spirit of a quietness and a gentleness and an openness to be seen and to be valued. And I appreciate you sharing that with me and Natalie. I appreciate you coming to a place where you felt like that would be part of this conversation. And I love that it made it a much more enjoyable conversation for me.
LH: Thank you. Normally I would say something self-deprecating at the beginning, like “I’m not really a journalist, I’m a writer, director, musician.” I was like, “I’m talking to these guys, I don’t need to say anything about who I am, I’m just going to be myself.” And I even—you can’t see, Mark, but Natalie can see—I even have my camera turned onto my insane, chaotic work space, which I didn’t feel the need to you know, Instagramify.
NM: I find your work space very inspiring.
LH: (laughs) Thank you. It’s really chaotic. But I was like, they can see it, they get it.
NM: Mark, there’s a sewing machine and a guitar and a black-and-white tiled floor and a chest, and a lot of stuff on the wall (all laugh).
LH: A box of pedals and a theremin and a Velveteen Rabbit poster. But I just wanted to say, it’s very funny being in the middle of this now after watching this movie—it’s like a weird self-insert fan fiction. But you both really let yourselves be very lovable in this movie. Even though you’re sharing so little, there’s an openness and a vulnerability. I was especially amused at the beginning because I had seen Creep (2014) and I was like, “Is this the same guy?” This is the same boundary-crossing guy, but in a very different body. I really loved that about it because it’s a part of you that you’re sharing that is honorable, truthful and what all actors strive for, some kind of soulful essence. And you guys accomplished that, which is a feat of not just acting, but directing and writing.
Craving more culture? Sign up to receive the Cultured newsletter, a biweekly guide to what’s new and what’s next in art, architecture, design and more.