It’s been four years since Lake Bell’s 2013 directorial debut hit theaters to an overwhelmingly positive response. (The comedy-drama, which Bell also wrote and starred in, still boasts a 92 percent on Rotten Tomatoes.) Since then, Bell has stayed busy in acting roles — most recently playing the hippie Donna in Netflix’s but fans will be happy to hear she’s finally back on both sides of the camera again in her new film, .
Bell’s second film stars all big names: Ed Helms, Mary Steenburgen, Paul Reiser, Amber Heard, Wyatt Cenac, and of course, Bell herself. The comedy follows a BBC documentarian Vivian Prudeck (played by British actress Dolly Wells) in her quest to prove marriage is a sham. Marriage, she argues, should not be a life-long commitment but a seven-year contract. Vivian recruits three couples, all of whom seem to embody her thesis that monogamy just isn’t realistic. Alice (Bell) feels her marriage to Noah (Helms) is holding her back professionally, and she secretly dreads his dream of starting a family. Cybill and Harvey (Steenburgen and Reiser) despise each other so deeply and so openly, you wonder why they even got married in the first place. Meanwhile, Fanny and Zander (Heard and Cenac), seem perfectly happy, but that’s because they’re in an open relationship, or so we’re lead to believe. But as the film progresses, the documentarian’s thesis breaks down.
As it turns out (spoilers!), all of the couples harbor a deep respect for not just their partners, but for the philosophy of monogamy and life-long commitment. Despite the film’s title, it ends on an unexpectedly pro-marriage message. Bell spoke to Elite Daily about this decision, her own cynicism-turned-optimism philosophy on marriage, and the process behind making her second film, which hits theaters everywhere Sept. 1.
Elite Daily: How did the idea for come about?
Lake Bell: The inception of the idea really came from my own investigation and cynicism about the institution of marriage. Nine years ago when I started writing the film, I thought of [marriage] as an archaic institution. It’s kind of a tall order to say, “til death do us part,” when we live until 90 years old. The institution was, at first, really a contract between two families, and we all lived until 40. That felt a little more reasonable. And, by the way, I was a child of divorce, so I saw it from the inside out. I’ve been around family and friends who have, unfortunately, had to go through that painful divorce process. So I just felt doomed.
I set out to write to something that — because deep down I have an optimist inside me — would prove me wrong. I set out to write something hopeful. I met my now-husband, Scott Campbell, while writing the movie. I don’t know whether the relationship manifested me or I manifested it, but he and I found each other during that time. I continue to learn so much about this committed union and the import of it.
What I’ve really taken away is, to vow to be with someone, to commit, is to allow yourself to be called out on your crap, which will force you to grow and evolve. That, in a sense, is kind of our privilege as humans. To be in a vortex of single-hood, and to not have someone reflecting your flaws at you… that feels like a path to arrested development. Versus this messier, muddier, crazier path of being with someone who doesn’t allow you to fall into your same rhythms. You have to constantly be comfortable with the terms changing, and that kind of movement and fluidity is really living. So I guess while the one perception could be, “Oh, it’s a cop out, you got married, you settled down,” I actually think [marriage] is when your world gets bigger, because your frame of understanding yourself becomes larger.
ED: It’s interesting that you started the film at this point of cynicism, because all the couples have such happy endings. Was that always the plan?
LB: When I set out to write something, I really do use it as therapy. So I wanted it to end happily. I didn’t know everybody would end up happy, but it felt like, “Maybe it’s possible.” Or maybe it’s some version of happiness or satisfaction. I didn’t know fully what I wanted to say until I met Scott. That’s when it got interesting for me, because then I started to live through my experiences and write those findings. And that experiment is ongoing. I think of this as Chapter 1 to a life-long investigation of this expression of love.
ED: Are any of the characters in the film a reflection of that relationship with your husband?
LB: Nothing is exactly our relationship in the movie. I take aspects of what is real to me and then I disperse it across the whole story. Then I unpack things that make sense for each character and each relationship. And then I might talk to someone on the subway who inspires me to take it in a different direction. All of the characters are deeply personal and true to me. Even Vivian, the documentarian. I enjoy that they’re all very different, and yet I feel very connected to all of them.
ED: This is your second film, so do you feel like you approached it differently than ? How do you feel you’ve changed as a writer and a director since ?
LB: I approached it in a really similar way, because I’m also an actor for hire. I like to work as an actor on someone else’s set and help them create their vision by just showing up and doing my job. That experience, while writing something, is really profound. I’m still part of the storytelling process, the rhythm and the bustle and infrastructure of making films, but I’m allowed to peel off and express myself privately in my own story.
I did that with too. I was working on one project as an actor, and then peeling off and going home — and even in my trailer some times — to write a couple of scenes. I like working while I’m working, basically. Writing can be very lonely, and there’s something about when your muscles are being exercised in that fashion that makes it easier for me to write dialogue and think in those structural terms.
ED: Tell me about your character in the film, Alice. She starts off as a passive, soft-spoken character — very different, I feel, from the character we saw in
LB: Yeah, her characterization is very different from anything I’ve ever played in my career. I really was excited to take on something different, and I had always wanted to portray a character who is almost like a neo-traditionalist. Someone who is quite young, but is leaning into these old-fashioned set of values. But I was also interested in a woman who feels small and apologetic for the space that she takes up on the planet. I know those people, and I’ve always been curious about how they function. It’s heartbreaking and somewhat endearing as well. The actual characterization is nothing like my mother, but I did take the physicality of my mom for the character of Alice. My mom noticed that right away. I think she was self-conscious about it initially but has come around to the fact that it’s deeply flattering.
ED: It was really satisfying to Alice find her voice by the end of the film, too.
ED: How was working with Ed Helms?
LB: I’ve known Ed for many years. I love him, I think he’s a great guy. I had written this part with him in mind — I often use my friends in the writing process. The writing process is kind of cool because you can cast whoever you want. It’s just in your brain, so there are no limitations. I used Ed’s voice while I was writing Noah. When it came time to actually put the movie together, I just was like, “I’m just going to see if he wants to maybe come and play with me on this.” I was very lucky that he said yes, and sure enough, it was a beautiful experience. Part of what I love about making movies myself is being able to work with my pals.
ED: Also very funny in the film were Wyatt Cenac and Amber Heard. Tell me about writing that couple and finding the perfect actors to play the roles.
LB: I just want to go on the record apologizing to my sister, because that character is hugely based on her. In fact, she knows it… My sister, Josie Courtney — she actually FaceTimed with Amber to understand, philosophically, the free-spirited beauty and magic that is my sister. Obviously Amber has her own sparkly magic, and Josie really does too, so I felt like they were perfectly suited to represent each other. My sister — I couldn’t even write some of the things she exists as. Some of it was almost too extraordinary. But Amber was so professional, so warm, and generous in her performance.
Wyatt Cenac and she had not met until we were rehearsing and playing out the scenes. So I was really lucky that everybody, Mary Steenburgen and Paul Reiser, and Amber and Wyatt, had effortless chemistry. You can’t really build that, you have to kind of just have it or don’t have it. I enjoyed having Wyatt, who is a comedian. I get really excited about having comedians take on dramatic scenes, and vice versa. Amber doesn’t really get to play comedy ever, and she was wonderful.
And then with Mary and Paul, I can’t even believe still that they said yes. I’m huge fans of both of them from afar. I did not know them, so I had to court them. They luckily came on, and I ended up becoming very good friends with them. And you can see in the film that they have an ease of existing together. The musicality of the language, the way they ping-pong off of each other, is better than I could have even imagined.
ED: What do you want to do next in your filmmaking career, and who would you love to work with?
LB: I have a couple projects. I always put a couple of things on the fire, a lot of options, and I don’t which one is going to come through first. I feel really lucky that when people ask, “Where do you see yourself in five years?” I don’t have an answer because it’s so wildly unpredictable. I want to continue to work with friends. Making movies and making TV shows takes a lot of time, you know? It takes you away from your family, and when you work really hard you have less time to see your friends. So I build into whatever I’m doing — I try to cast as many people that I just want to smoke pot and eat cookies with. I don’t know what is going to be next, I have some ideas. I don’t want to jinx it.