When Henry (Mad Men’s Ben Feldman) and Dianne (Olivia Thirlby), a young couple who have settled into an established routine, decide to get married there is no ring and little to no romance. Tapping into their playful banter and surprised that they’ve just agreed to get married they begin chanting and dancing their way around their apartment until they tire each other out: “Husband and wife! Husband and wife! Husband and wife!” For them, who pride themselves on, as Henry puts it, living outside those cookie-cutter suburban lives they so despise, getting married becomes both a joke and a promise.
But when the big day comes, they both find themselves coming to terms with the irresistible desiring urges they’ve been fighting: Henry’s been inappropriately texting with a lascivious girl who has no qualms about sexting him back, while Dianne has inadvertently been flirting with one of her clients. That’s when Between Us takes it upon itself to ask the question that will drive it: can Henry and Dianne overcome these temptations and find their way back to each other or will they merely destroy what they’ve built in the process? It’s a tricky premise and one which asks very timely questions about what it means to be in a modern-day relationship where certain notions of marriage, monogamy, and commitment strike some as wholly antiquated. Against the backdrop of a sunny Los Angeles that’s host both to after-parties that promise to turn themselves into orgies and to overthought performance pieces on artificial intelligence, director Rafael Palacio Illingworth has crafted a thrilling follow-up to his 2009 debut feature Macho.
We sat down with Palacio Illingworth the day after he premiered Between Us at the Tribeca Film Festival to talk about the very personal issues he found himself exploring in this marital drama and ended up talking about how his Latin American background (he spent his youth in Mexico and Colombia) influences his work. Check out our interview below.
UPDATE 7/7/2017: Between Us is now streaming on Netflix.
Let’s start by talking about that “cloud” in the living room image that opens the film.
You weren’t there but yesterday we mentioned that the movie used to be called “The Force” in its early stages. Because as any filmmaker, you start out saying like, “I want to make a movie everything! So I’m gonna call it ‘The Force’!” So I started from the top and in the first iterations we would go out to space — I was concerned more with what is this thing that I cannot get rid of? I am now married and at that moment I was expecting a child and I said, I see a woman in the street and I want to go with her. And it’s not something that any discipline can take away. Neither religion, not guilt. I’m gonna see a beautiful woman and I’m gonna desire her. But I think that desire is just always there and always this fantasy of something that you might have been, that you never were, that you think you’re losing as you’re going and you blame the other. That was my main concern. And getting there was hard.
The cloud was this literalization of “the force” that was always there. It was more present before, then it was less. You know, it’s in their apartment. It’s there. It’s between them. Just floating. And I arrived to this image of the cloud because, you know, it’s there but you cannot really touch it. But it’s there. Just because you cannot touch it doesn’t mean it’s not there; it’s only when you see it that you can describe it. So that started making sense and I started doing research and I saw the art of this Dutch artist, Berndnaut Smilde who makes these clouds. Everything connected and said, yes that’s exactly it and we went with it.
The film strikes me as very self-therapeutic. I’m curious whether writing and producing it has helped you learn something about yourself and even your relationship with your wife.
My wife is one of the producers, actually. She’s produced all of my films. A lot of my films tend to be very self-revelatory. My first feature film [Macho], I was acting and she was there sitting next to the camera. I think we’re past that part and it’s great and we both acknowledge that we see ourselves there. But it’s a funny thing that we’ve developed where it’s never talked about. She reads it the first time and she knows that that scene refers to that time [in real life] but there’s never a conversation. I always want it to be cathartic and it is as you’re doing it but it stops being it as you lay down the last word, and I have not changed. But that’s also the point of the film, nothing’s gonna change. I’m never gonna stop desiring… maybe some chemical thing [will stop] when I’m 75. But what has to change is my approach to that or my handling of that desire, my acceptance. So I always remember, I think it was Robert Crumb, the famous graphic novelist, an amazing artist, and he’s very explicit in his comics about self-exploration and they asked him if it was cathartic to put all these things, and he said, yes, for a minute.
Did you worry about keeping a balance between the two sides of this couple?
It was the most important thing for me for the story to be balanced. I always knew that if you lose that balance then it’s a dude movie. And if you don’t, it’s a feminist one. And it immediately it falls into classifications. I wanted it to go beyond that. I feel like true respect for both genders and for the equality of our relationship and both sides is to treat them both equally, both in their desires. And that affected every decision from set decoration, professions of the characters, [to] cinematography — everything. The balance of giving them equal editing, equal space, equal time — even to the side characters. I didn’t want these other side characters a tool. I wanted them to have their own life and disappointments and all that.
Do you think your background informs your work in general and Between Us in particular?
Yes, definitely. I think it does but not beyond… how can I say this? It’s ingrained. And I feel like I just gravitate towards certain choices that people can see and recognize. Last night, for example, somebody said that you can feel like this guy [Henry] is a Latin guy and I would agree but I don’t make choices based on that. And you know, I grew up with, for example, Colombian storytelling which is really important to me, but maybe it’s gotten to the point where I don’t recognize it anymore, not consciously when I choose to write. I mean, what do you think?
Well, the need to follow certain parameters — of getting married, and getting the house — they read really quaint in terms of these Los Angeles creative types and I thought there was an interesting friction there. Especially with this idea of guilt and that Henry is staging these conversations about masculinity. That’s where I saw something happening.
I think you’re completely right. For example, I wouldn’t have seen that but now that you say it, it’s totally there and I’m aware of that. If you grew up like us, I would say, they were injecting religion into you, and like that guilt is always there. There’s always this divided question, of am I supposed to be enjoying this? The sex. You have to, at some point in your life, you have to say, there’s nothing wrong with having sex, or masturbation or any of that. So that Catholic guilt, in Latin America at least, it’s definitely there, maybe, I think. It makes me wonder if someone that didn’t grow up like us, can understand this religious kind of thing. I don’t know if they’d read that. Or if they’d find us ridiculous. Or square, that an artist would think about those things. The hope is that everybody goes through this. And that is nice, I think. So you think, oh I’m not alone; it’s normal what I feel. At least that is good. Talk about Catholic guilt!
I think the talking is important. It’s what I loved about the voice-overs, they seemed crucial in that they showed Henry and Dianne communicating, a moment where they’re finally opening up.
I completely agree. Maybe communication is the key.