Aaron Paul and Karen Gillan appear in DUAL by Riley Stearns, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.
Aaron Paul and Karen Gillan in DUAL. Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Dropbox for filmmakers, Sundance Film Festival 2022

Director Riley Stearns on staying inspired in isolation and asking “What if?”


Published on January 28, 2022

Remember when 2022 sounded like the distant future? This year, dystopian science-fiction stories don’t seem so futuristic. But sometimes, watching characters scrape and fight to get through circumstances darker than your own can feel oddly energizing. 

That’s what I enjoyed about Dual, the new film from writer/director Riley Stearns, starring Karen Gillan (Avengers: Endgame, Guardians of the Galaxy) and Aaron Paul (Breaking Bad, Westworld), which premiered this week at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Best known for the 2019 dark comedy The Art of Self Defense, Stearns revisits the world of martial arts conflict in an even more unique way this time around.

After the main character Sarah receives news that she has a terminal disease, she's given the option of cloning herself to help her family cope with the loss. In her remaining days, she’s tasked with training her “replacement” to become more like her. But when the plan doesn’t go as expected, the two are told the world isn’t big enough for both of them.  

The story invites thorny, philosophical questions, somehow managing to squeeze gallows humor from deadpan dialogue. But it’s not just the words and circumstances that create the dark, intriguing tone. It’s the pervasively overcast atmosphere of the world his characters inhabit. 

I spoke with Stearns to find out how filming in Finland helped him capture the ideal mood, how a Netflix series inspired him to push outside his comfort zone, and how Dropbox helped his crew keep working together even when COVID kept them apart.

“We ended up being the first film for the United States to shoot fully in Finland ever. The locations ended up giving so much to the feeling of the movie.” 

Riley Stearns, director of DUAL, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.
Riley Stearns, director of DUAL, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

What motivated you to choose Tampere, Finland as your location for shooting Dual?

The initial conversation came up because of COVID. We were supposed to shoot. COVID hit. Waiting, waiting. [Didn’t] look like anything was gonna change anytime soon, and it didn't. So I'm glad that we pounced. The people in Finland said, “Have you looked at our numbers and how things are going here?” They gave us all the information and made a great case for shooting in their country. 

We ended up being the first film for the United States to shoot fully in Finland ever. There have been films from the states that have shot parts, or a sequence here and there, but we were the first front-to-back, start-to-finish production in Finland out of the states. It ended up being the perfect marriage. We had the safety and security of a country that really took COVID seriously, and gave us the proper testing and protocols to follow. Great crew. We had our pick of the best in the country.

The locations were incredible and ended up giving so much to the feeling of the movie. The movie feels very specific and deliberate because of the architecture and the woods, the overcast skies and the light. I can't imagine it being shot anywhere else.

What inspired you to explore themes of identity, self-defense, and the dubious progress of biotechnology as you were writing Dual?

It was less about the technology—the cloning and science fiction elements were just the setting, then I got to explore more humanistic things around that. I'm always fascinated with identity. In my other films, I've touched on being indoctrinated, cult aspects, and being persuaded to be somebody you're not. 

But with this one, it was more about somebody trying to better themselves. You have something hard happen and how do you rebound from it? Do you feel sorry for yourself or try to make a better version of yourself going forward? That was where I wanted [the main character] Sarah to come at it from. I wanted her to embrace getting a new start. Where does she go? Who does she want to be as a person? 

So even though it's a stylized movie, and set in a pseudo-science fiction world, I wanted it to feel grounded in other ways, emotionally speaking. I especially wanted [Sarah] to feel relatable to people—even if they've had different life experiences, they can still find parts of themselves in her.

Was there an event that was the catalyst for the idea? 

I came up with this idea for a short called Niche that I never made, [where] a character is confronted by themselves at the end of the short. I was like, “I still want to do something where an actor acts opposite themselves.” I started to figure out what a feature version of that would look like. So much of it changed, in every way, shape, and form, but I was able to figure out this initial construct of: You can have yourself cloned if you're dying. 

What happens is, you have this idea, then you say, “What if….?” The what if was: What happens if you're dying, but now you're not? In this world, my version is that you would have to duel to the death. 

That structure, once it was set in stone, just stayed. I wasn't necessarily influenced by events or my life. The emotion that comes into it was like something I tried to put parts of myself in, but not in a literal way. I wanted people to be able to relate to this person, and really find themselves in characters in the movie.

“What happens is, you have this idea, then you say, ‘What if….?’”

Some might see this as a satire of Hunger Games, but the fact that she's battling herself is more interesting in contrast to the tribalistic tension we've seen play out in recent years. What can satire illuminate about these topics that straight drama cannot?

It's not that I look at this as a satire. I look at it as a subversion of expectations of what a story like this would be. Movies that I end up enjoying the most are ones where I've no idea where it’s gonna go. Licorice Pizza was one recently where every step of the way, that movie took a turn I wasn't expecting. It doesn't have a traditional through-line narrative. I like that kind of stuff. [Dual] is different than that, but a thing that I relate to is that sense of wanting to open up a passageway for the audience, as opposed to the route they think they're going. 

Does it get harder to subvert your own expectations with every film you make?

I don't really think of it that way, maybe for a good reason. That would be getting into my head too much. I tend to sit with an idea for a long time. I don't rewrite really, because by the time I've written my script, I've thought about it for quite some time. I've structured it out. I go into outline mode. I really want to know where it goes, so I'm not thinking of a million different ideas. I hone in on a few specific things that excite me. If something doesn't excite me, I just throw it out. I don't sit and go, ‘How do I make this exciting in its own way?’ I don't think there's any real twists in Dual, but it doesn't ever go the way you're thinking.  

Can you describe how you used technology for remote collaboration?

We were pretty fortunate in that when we got to Finland, everything was in person. But leading up to it, we were Dropbox-ing all of our locations before I even got to visit. I was seeing options in Tampere, which is the city that we shot in. We were creating shared folders about the look and tone and architecture we were after. 

Most days, I was in person with my editor, Sarah Beth Shapiro, who is a new mom. She and I worked together in the past on all my features. I didn't want to not be able to be in the same room as her, so I basically isolated—didn't see anybody for the entire time that we were editing the movie, so that I could do that in person. 

But anytime we had a scare, where we would think maybe somebody came into contact with somebody else, we were doing our remote edits. I would be at my place and she would be at hers, even though we're in the same city. I was worried about how that would work, but everything worked relatively well in terms of syncing up. 

We had a great first assistant editor, [Anna Rottke], who was able to make sure all of our technical issues were solved in any given point. Anytime we had to go into remote edits, it was fantastic. All of my sound was remote. I was at Technicolor here in LA working with Technicolor Toronto. I was able to do all my color that same sort of way. So it was a mix of on location, fully present with people. Then on the post side of things, a lot of it ended up being remote, but super streamlined.

“When we got to Finland, everything was in person. But leading up to it, we were Dropbox-ing all of our locations before I even got to visit.”

What advice you would give to other creators who are struggling to stay inspired during this time of isolation?

I wish I had a magic ball sort of answer to this. Luckily, I wrote Dual prior to the COVID situation. So had I not, I think it would have been very hard for me to write during this time. But I watched this series on Netflix that was established directors doing their isolation shorts. I had a couple that I was like, “These are really cool.” I'm glad I saw them try something outside of their comfort zone. It made me want to make something during COVID, too, prior to shooting Dual. So I ended up coming up with this idea. I'm not an actor, not a cinematographer, not a sound guy. But I did all these things myself, because you had to. I'm really glad that I did it. I had to push myself to do it. But I know that that's easier said than done. 

I would say also not [to be] too hard on yourself if this is not the right time to do something. If you're like a lot of people, feeling that sense of despair coming back with Omicron, and feeling like it's never-ending—that's okay. But if you push yourself a little bit outside that comfort zone, maybe you'll end up figuring something out that you're inspired by. At the end of the day, you'll never be mad at yourself for making something. You'll always regret not making something.

What would you like audiences to feel after watching Dual?

The main thing is, I want them to be able to relate to the movie. I want them to find it funny, to find it sad, to be confused in terms of their feelings at times. It’s always more exciting for me as a filmmaker, when something doesn't spoon feed you the way you're supposed to feel. 

I want people to find themselves in the characters, particularly Sarah. My hopes for the movie down the line—I want to be able to go to a theater and watch it with other people. Every time you show something new for the first time, you get to see, like, “I thought this was the funny part, but now I'm finding out the audience actually relates to this moment more.” I love finding that out about movies. I'm always excited by that. 

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

To learn more about Dual and the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, visit festival.sundance.org