Riley Stearns delivers a unique thrill in ‘Dual’

Director Riley Stearns behind the scenes of the sci-fi film, DUAL, an RLJE Films release. Photo courtesy of RLJE Films.
Photo courtesy of RLJE Films.

Writer/Director Riley Stearns (The Art of Self-Defense, Faults) has us seeing double with his sci-fi thriller, Dual.

Upon receiving a terminal diagnosis, Sarah opts for a cloning procedure to ease her loss on her friends and family. When she makes a sudden and miraculous recovery, her attempts to have her clone decommissioned fail and lead to a court-mandated duel to the death. Now she has one year to train her body and mind for the fight of her life.

Dual stars Karen Gillan (Guardians of the Galaxy franchise), Beulah Koale (“Hawaii: Five-0”) with Theo James (Divergent franchise) and Aaron Paul (“Breaking Bad”). 

Check out my interview with Riley!

(L-R) Director Riley Stearns as Gas Station Cashier and Karen Gillan as Sarah in the sci-fi film, DUAL, an RLJE Films release. Photo courtesy of RLJE Films.
Where did the story come from?

Riley: I mean, the short answer is that I came up with the idea for a movie where if you knew you were gonna die, have yourself cloned. I came up with that pretty early on, and I thought that it would be cool, but it wasn’t really worth making, like there was no twist to it, it didn’t fall in line with the way that I’ve been making movies. But once I came up with the idea, like the question of what happens if you go into remission, I immediately knew the answer was, of course you’re going to have a duel to the death. That’s when I realized that the movie was the movie. And after that, I pretty much knew exactly what the structure of the film would be. I knew where we would start, I knew where we would be in the middle and I knew, from day one, what the ending was going to be. And so then it was just a matter of sitting with the idea for an extended period of time, long enough to feel like I had an understanding of where the story would go, who Sarah was, who she wanted to be, how she wanted to better herself and then I guess I started writing in like 2018, August 2018. Then four years later, the movie is finally coming out. So, it’s been a process but it feels good that I always knew that it felt right like every step of the way. I knew that it was the right movie for me and it was the right progression for the movie.

Okay, I have a love hate relationship with how matter of fact everyone was speaking and acting in the movie. What inspired your use of this style of acting?

Riley: Yeah, I mean, it’s been the the thing that I’ve been doing now for, Ihad made a short in 2012, called The Cub that was at Sundance and if you look at it, it’s the exact same delivery and it really came out of, first of all, being inspired by some filmmakers who use removed emotional performance to focus on the dialogue itself and focus on the world and can kind of remind you that you’re not in our world. We are to the left of that we are an inch off the ground, so to speak, ever so slightly heightened. A lot of it comes down to not only the world but if you say a line a certain way, if you say something that’s kind of ridiculous like a normal person, the line sounds ridiculous, but as a character, if you say it as if you mean it or if you take in information in a sort of like just processing sort of way and you don’t react to it, I find that that’s more intriguing. It sells the humor better. So like if you say something so crazy, and you say it like it’s a joke, your audience feels like the character is in on it whereas if they just say something, and it’s just the information that’s funny, I feel like that’s more interesting and it’s the space that the world seems to live in. So the delivery enables the world to exist, but the world also tells the characters how to react, it’s all like a combination.

(L-R) Karen Gillan as Sarah and Aaron Paul as Trent in the sci-fi film, DUAL, an RLJE Films release. Photo courtesy of RLJE Films.
I also thought it was interesting that you juxtapose Sarah’s emotionless nature with hip hop dancing, because dance is very expressive within itself. Why hip hop dancing? 

Riley: I just thought that that was a funny thing for her. Like, I’ve got my own hobbies, everyone has their own hobbies, like I make movies as my career, but then my hobby outside of making movies is that I roll around on the mat and wrestle and do jiu jitsu with other people. It’s something that’s a little unexpected, I would imagine, especially coming from a space where people are like, ‘you’re a nerdy director,’ but then I compete in jiu jitsu tournaments and stuff. So, I wanted to find something with Sarah that felt like it was true to her character and something that maybe she had always wanted to do but hadn’t done. And I thought that it was really interesting to have her do the dancing, and then I just thought it would be very funny later on when Trent expressed his own interest in it, too, that they had that shared sort of experience. And then later on finding out that it was going to be Karen and Aaron doing it and being able to visualize that, that’s so funny to me just imagine them dancing to Lil Jon and the East Side Boyz’s “Get Low”, that imagery was just so funny to me. And so, again, just being unexpected, but also, like, I’m not a dancer, but I liked that music and I thought that it could counter the tone of the movie in a humorous way.

Karen Gillan as Sarah and Karen Gillan as Clone Sarah in the sci-fi film, DUAL, an RLJE Films release. Photo courtesy of RLJE Films.
What was it like working with Karen as two characters? 

Riley: Um, I mean, incredibly difficult but more so on her end. So she had double the lines of dialogue to learn, she had to act opposite her scene partner who’s her double, her body double and acting double, Katarina. Her last name is Finnish and I cannot pronounce it because we shot in Finland and everyone’s last name is impossible for me. But Katarina is an actress and was able to give Karen a lot of what she needed in the scenes, but then Karen has to then flip around, go to hair and makeup, get changed out of everything wardrobe wise, and then come back out and do the exact thing that Katarina just did. So, the challenges there are immense. And not only are you trying to make a different character, you’re trying to subtly make a different character. So it was very important for us to not be covert about the fact that they’re different people. It’s obvious they are and we made subtle choices about how different they are and what they do to encourage the audience to understand their differences, but we didn’t want them to just be wildly different. So finding the subtlety in that and the nuances in the performance, it really came down to, at the end of the day, the performance with Karen. It was her responsibility and I would help guide but she’s the one fully in it. So, I may be steering the ship for the most part, but she’s shoveling coal into that engine and just going for it. So, I can’t take full credit there, but it was a collaborative experience and I’m just so impressed with how she handled it all.

Is there anything else that you’d like to add about Dual?

Riley: I know it’s a weird time to kind of be going back to theaters but it feels like people are starting to make their way back. And I hope that if anybody goes and checks out Dual, especially if they haven’t seen my previous films, that they get something out of it that feels different and that they’re able to recommend it to their friends because we definitely are a small movie at the end of the day and every seat counts. So if people like it and want to recommend it to other people, it helps not only us, but the independent film community in general. So yeah, go out and see some movies and if you can, make sure that they’re independent. Give us some support.

Karen Gillan as Sarah and Karen Gillan as Clone Sarah in the sci-fi film, DUAL, an RLJE Films release. Photo courtesy of RLJE Films.
Dual is now available in theaters and will be on digital, on demand and streaming on AMC+ May 20.