Mark Duplass was suffering from some serious quarantine fatigue.
“With the pandemic going on I started thinking, what are the things I can do to better myself besides watch ‘Groundhog Day’ again with my children,” the indie filmmaker remembers. “I decided to take some Spanish lessons and ended up developing sort of an interesting rapport with one of my teachers.”
That relationship between teacher and student provided the germ of the idea for Duplass, an indie filmmaker whose credits include “Cyrus” and “Jeff, Who Lives at Home.” He began to think about how he might make a film out of that kind of bond and hit on a simple concept, one that he pitched to Natalie Morales, a friend who had worked with Duplass on the HBO series “Room 104.”
“I called her with very little in the shape of a film idea,” Duplass says. “All that I really knew was that it should be a platonic love story. It should really be about two people who relate in all the confusing, funny, wonderful ways that you usually see in a romantic comedy, but without the romance.”
Morales was intrigued. The two came up their own ideas for their characters and then thought up how their worlds might collide. They quickly found that they were enough in synch to move forward with producing a movie in the middle of a global pandemic. The pair co-authored the screenplay and co-star in the movie, with Morales assuming directing duties. “Language Lessons,” their “secret” COVID project, will premiere at this year’s Berlin Film Festival, after a frenetic month-long pre-production and shooting schedule that saw Duplass and Morales make a movie at a furious clip.
“It was the right time in my life to do something like this,” Morales says. “I wanted to find someone who was willing to dive into this with, for lack of a less cheesy word, a full heart.”
The pair worked with a skeletal crew to avoid an outbreak and a minimal cast, an experience that brought them back to a more guerilla style of filmmaking.
“I did my own hair and makeup and wardrobe and set design,” Morales says.
“It connected me to feeling 25 again when I was running around and trying to figure out how to make movies in the first place,” Duplass adds. “As I’ve got my rhythms down and started working with bigger crews and budgets, I’ve lost something. I liked being in over my head and feeling like a kid who just got his first camera again.”
Both filmmakers are mum about the plot of the film, beyond sharing that a substantial part of the dialogue is in Spanish (something that challenged Duplass’s language abilities). There is one global event that won’t be referenced in the movie, even though it helped shape its production.
“Something that made us feel good about making a movie during the pandemic is that our movie is in no way about the pandemic,” Morales says. “There was a moment where we had to decide whether or not to include that in the story — when I’m walking around outdoors do you see us wearing masks? Ultimately, we wanted the movie to live in any time and not in a specific time. It felt more evergreen to make it that way.”
“Language Lessons” is part of a new wave of lo-fi films that have been made with little fanfare during the pandemic, joining the likes of Sam Levinson’s “Malcolm & Marie” and Sean Baker’s “Red Rocket.” It was an approach that Duplass and Morales embraced.
“A movie like this that has just as much of a chance of working as being absolutely unwatchable,” says Duplass. “I loved the idea that no one knew about it. We were off on our own and if it was horrible we could bury it and no one would have to know.”
“We could make the best movie possible without being beholden to anyone,” Morales adds. “That was incredibly liberating and part of that freedom came from not announcing anything.”