Like “Zoom fatigue,” watching pandemic-related pop culture can be tiring — especially if the central plot involves two characters being locked down and talking on Zoom.
Given the production restrictions that existed throughout much of 2020, it’s understandable that a lot of creators turned to video-calling platforms for their storytelling. But 18 months into the pandemic, it can be hard to get interested in yet another movie, TV show or virtual play that unfolds entirely over Zoom.
Yet “Language Lessons,” which opens in theaters Friday, manages to feel fresh. It thawed my cold, cynical heart.
There are realistic moments that briefly remind us we’re watching two people talk over Zoom, like the connection lagging, screens freezing and the audio cutting out. But none of it feels heavy-handed or draws too much attention to the format. The film’s primary focus is the profound friendship that develops between Cariño (Natalie Morales), who teaches Spanish immersion lessons on Zoom, and her student Adam (Mark Duplass), whose husband Will (Desean Terry) has surprised him with an inordinately large purchase of 100 sessions. Morales and Duplass co-wrote the movie, and Morales directed it, making her feature directorial co-debut of sorts (along with “Plan B,” which she also shot last year and is streaming on Hulu).
Morales and Duplass previously worked together on a few episodes of the HBO anthology series “Room 104,” which Duplass co-created and Morales acted in and directed. As they explained to me (on a Zoom call, of course), they had been looking for a way to collaborate more directly. Then, the pandemic happened. I asked them about the hardest parts of making the movie, how they found creativity within the confines of the Zoom format, and why they chose not to set the story during the pandemic.
How did you come up with this concept? What was the seed of the idea?
Mark Duplass: The seed was pretty tiny. You know, I was about two months into the first lockdown. I was doing a lot of writing, but I was feeling creatively frustrated. I wanted to make something because I’m just used to making a lot, and I was, at the same time, doing those things that we all do, like, oh, making bread and watching old movies and doing all the dumb shit. One of the things I was doing was, I was taking online Spanish classes to brush up on my Spanish, and I was taking conversational lessons. What I noticed is when you’re taking conversational lessons is, if you’re not good at small talk, you have nothing to talk about. So we just started going deep kind of quickly. And I thought it was interesting that the 2-D video connection that we were all starting to lament as an inhibitor to connection was actually facilitating connection in this moment. I was like, “Oh, that’s kind of fun.” And so I took that small kernel of an idea — of a Spanish teacher and her student, and maybe they end up with a connection that can develop on this unlikely format — to Natalie. And she was like, “Cool, what’s the story?” And I was like, “I don’t know! We’ll figure it out!” And that was it. We were shooting in three weeks.
Wow, so this was completely born out of the pandemic.
Natalie Morales: Completely, yeah. I mean, I don’t think this would have been inspired or happened or had time to happen without the lockdown or the pandemic. Right, Mark?
Duplass: Yeah, no way.
I noticed that the story itself does not take place during the pandemic — it’s not set in a particular time or place. Was that a specific decision? Did you want to just let us focus on the relationship that these characters are building?
Morales: Yeah, I mean it was definitely for that reason, and also, we wanted it to be evergreen and not necessarily live in a specific time — although, the technology will make it not as evergreen, I’m sure, in the future. Also, I think we made that decision really early on because we had to, because one of the first things that we shot, we would have had to make the decision to do it then. And also, we were just like, even at that point, I don’t know, a good two months into lockdown and into all the new stuff and everything that was happening, the world completely changing. We were already tired of dealing with it and tired of having to look at it. We wanted to make a little bit of a form of escapism in the movie, and not have to be reminded either of the present world we’re living in, or the past world, depending on when you watch the movie. So yeah, we wanted it to be its own thing, you know? I think it would be a little extra depressing if it had to do with the pandemic.
Yeah, for sure. And I imagine you were making this, like, early last year, so you probably didn’t think at this point, we’d still be here and still be talking over Zoom.
Morales: No, we did not think that at all. I don’t think anybody did, and I hope it all ends very soon.
Hopefully, this movie will be a period movie soon. In terms of the filming, how did you shoot this — like, Natalie, were you directing over Zoom?
Morales: Because we were very much in the beginning of lockdown, where people were not leaving their houses, like, at all — it was in the month of June of 2020 — we did it all from our own homes. We did have a small crew that was also on the Zoom with us, but we shot it with webcams and with our phones, and with, you know, rigged little lighting setups that we could figure out. We did it all ourselves. As far as the on-set directing, there was no set. I mean, the set was everywhere and nowhere.
I think any movie where the director is also acting in it, you need a collaborative environment to tell you if you sucked or not, you know? Mark and I were collaborating in directing each other and helped each other out while we were making the movie, while we were filming it via Zoom.
And then editing it was a totally different part of the whole puzzle that our editor, Aleshka Ferrero, really was instrumental in. It’s essentially just two shots. It’s just literally what you’re seeing right now. [points at Zoom screen] And how do you cut that? How do you edit it? How do you make it dynamic? How do you not make it super boring? And that was an entirely different piece of the puzzle that had to be figured out to make this whole thing.
Were there things that you were kind of restricted in doing — I mean, certainly the physical restrictions of not being able to go anywhere, but also the restrictions of the Zoom format?
Morales: No, I think actually — and I think Mark might agree with this — is that sometimes, so much creativity is born out of those restrictions, and that’s kind of fun. We knew that the movie was going to be in this format. So we were very prepared for that, and using those elements of this format to push our story forward and to create scenarios and to create dramatic pieces that hopefully didn’t feel contrived and like they were just a gimmick. But it was inherent to the way this form of communication is now very interwoven into our lives. And so, I think those restraints were an inspiration instead of a hindrance.
Duplass: I always love working within limits and have made it a big part of my process. I liken it to, you know, when you take a vacation in a small town, and you’re there, and there’s only, like, two restaurant options and that one river that you’re going to go visit. You’re not really tortured by all of the restaurants in New York that you’re not going to that night, and you tend to have a blast because you’re just working within what you’ve got, and you maximize that. And that’s how I felt on this movie. It was like, there’s only a certain amount of things we’re going to be able to do, so let’s just do our best with it and have fun.
There’s a dramatic event toward the beginning of the movie. I kept thinking that in maybe a lesser movie, it would have probably been toward the end, or at least not as early as it is here. It opens up their relationship so quickly, and it becomes such a profound friendship. As you were developing the relationship between Cariño and Adam, how did you think about where to build tension, what to reveal early on, and what to let us as viewers figure out?
Morales: You can only watch people take Spanish lessons for so long, and it wouldn’t have been that interesting for much of the movie. So we had to thrust you into how these people start to connect, and what the catalyst for the rest of their friendship might be pretty early on, so that this is a movie that isn’t too boring.
Duplass: The way we built the story was that we each sort of built our individual backstories separately as characters, and then we sort of melded the two characters together and created a synchronous story from there. I had a lot of ideas about Adam, but one thing that I felt certain that would be right for him and that would be right for this film is someone who doesn’t really have a lot going on in their lives, and has the space and time and attention to dedicate to deeply caring for someone. What does that mean on both sides of that coin for each of these characters? I think that’s a novel thing in North America right now. We’re just busy, and we’re struggling, and it’s just not what we can do. Adam, luckily in his life, has the financial cushion to be able to do that. He doesn’t have a lot of other things going on, and we plotted it so that we can accentuate those things. A lot of those decisions are built around these central tenets of, honestly, a wish fulfillment for me. Like, to watch a character whose main concern is someone else’s well being, eventually, and how, just un-North American in 2021 that is, I thought would be really fun to watch.
What was the hardest part?
Morales: We wanted the movie to feel as real and as natural as possible, making it feel like we were actually speaking Spanish, and I was actually teaching him these lessons. And so there were a lot of parts of the movie that were written and that we followed, and there were a lot of parts of the movie that were improvised completely. There were some scenes [where] we knew where we wanted to go, we knew some points that we wanted to hit, some jokes that we wanted to say. But we didn’t want to write too much in order to keep it in this really fresh, believable, conversational way that didn’t feel ultra-rehearsed or ultra-repeated. It wasn’t easy, but it was really fun, and it was a new thing for me to do: half-scripted, half-unscripted. It was challenging in the way that challenging can be really, really good.
Duplass: The hardest part for me was just acting in my nonprimary language — you know, just trying to grasp for words, while at the same time, trying to grasp for the emotions. It was exhausting doing that. I loved it. It was really rewarding, but it was tiring.
“Language Lessons” opens in theaters on Friday.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.