Movie nights with your girlfriend—it doesn’t get much less exciting than that. Well, unless the female half of the relationship appreciates a killer horror flick or testosterone-heavy action show as much as the next beer-chugging dude. In most cases, though, the ladies in our lives only suggest “date night at the cinema” when the newest Channing Tatum and/or Robert Pattinson movie opens, usually based on Nicholas Sparks bores or some other piece of excruciating young adult literature. You know, the romantic stories that instantly leave her asking you, “Why can’t you be more like that?” Because you’re actions and dialogue aren’t written by hack screenwriters, obviously.

This weekend, however, one of those rare, truly effective cinematic love stories opens in limited release, the Sundance Film Festival sensation Like Crazy, and it’s one of the best date movies you’re likely to see any time soon.

Directed and co-written independent filmmaker Drake Doremus, Like Crazy follows two college students—played by Anton Yelchin and the excellent English newcomer Felicity Jones—who struggle through a painful yet love-powered long distance relationship after customs officials prevent her from returning stateside, due to a visa violation. Through believably heartfelt and raw performances, as well as Doremus’ unconventional pacing and focus on smaller details (i.e., drunk-dialing, unwarranted jealousy) over broader sexual strokes, Like Crazy treats love’s ups and downs with tangible sincerity.

Complex recently chatted with Doremus about Like Crazy’s anti-Hollywood approach, how tequila refills helped the casting process, and why sex scenes are overrated.

Interview by Matt Barone (@MBarone)

Complex: Full sensitive-man disclosure: After seeing Like Crazy, I immediately wished I could find the right girl and fall in love. And I’m not sure why I’m admitting this to you right now.
Drake Doremus: [Laughs.] Exactly, man. That’s exactly what I want people to feel. I’m a crazy, crazy romantic, so I feel like the character of Anna [Felicity Jones] is, in a lot of ways, my perfect woman. She’s my fairy tale idea of the perfect woman, and the relationship, or at least what they have, is sort of a fairy tale of mine, too. It’s relationship utopia, if you will.

What’s so interesting about the response I had is that most of the film centers on the hardships and stresses of love, not as much the blissfulness.
Yeah, totally. That was the goal, to try to make something that’s totally honest, and not try to cover anything up or sugarcoat anything. Just do it as honestly from my perspective as I possibly could. It was difficult, actually. It was a very hard movie to make—a very sad, difficult, and emotional process, but I think, by virtue of putting so much of myself into the movie, that’s why it resonates so much with people. It’s honest, and I’m not trying to do anything other than say how I feel.

Did the difficulty come from having to pull from some painful real-life experiences?
Yeah, I think that, and reliving feelings. Myself, Anton, Felicity, and my co-writer Ben [York Jones], we all really put a lot of our past feelings into the project. We wanted to go somewhere where it hurt in order to make something that’s really authentic, so we did go somewhere where it hurts. Often.

Have you always been such a big fan of romantic films?
Yeah, man. It seems like I’m always gravitating towards more romantic stories, and I’m just compelled to try to find fresh and unique takes on such an age-old style of filmmaking. I think I’m just obsessed with love, to be honest, and it’s an unhealthy obsession. The only way I can work it out is to work it out in my movies. I’m obsessed with having it, finding it, holding it, maintaining it, losing, growing it—every facet of love. Every aspect of it is something in my life that I find to be fascinating. I can’t totally figure out why I’m so obsessed with it, so I guess, in a way, the movie is my way of working out my own feelings and what I’m going through.

Going into Like Crazy, Eternal Sunshine [Of The Spotless Mind] was a really inspiring movie to me; A Place In The Sun, from 1951, with Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor, I think is one of the best love stories ever told. Even the darker side of love appeals to me, films like Breaking The Waves and Punch-Drunk Love. So many great romances over the years have inspired me.

Like Crazy focuses on the younger side of love, something that’s usually handled in a pandering, CW-cast way by Hollywood. Did you have that “the kids need their own great love story” feeling in mind while writing the script?
Absolutely. If anything, I’ve been more inspired by the romantic films I feel have failed to capture anything that’s authentic in the last couple of years. There are a lot of movies, like you said, that I feel do pander and do sort of go for style over substance. They cast it off of what looks good on paper instead of finding who will genuinely resonate with audiences. I really wanted to try to get that right; I really wanted to create a chemistry on screen that would go beyond the cinema, make you think about the movie, and touch your heart.

 

Was it difficult to get the financial backing and support early on for such an anti-Hollywood young love story?
Yeah, certainly. It’s always difficult to get a film financed, especially one without George Clooney in it, but, luckily, I had a producer who really believed in me and went out and got the money. The film was shot 22 days, and we made it for $250,000 , so it was practically made for nothing. We didn’t have trailer or any fancy amenities—we just made it on the down and dirty in Los Angeles, and then in London for about a week.

So once Paramount jumped on board to distribute at Sundance, that must have been the ultimate “Wow” moment.
Dude, you have no idea. [Laughs.] It’s still surreal. It’s a dream come true.

Speaking of dreams, the look of Like Crazy is really dreamlike, almost whimsical. How important was it for you to give the film that kind of aesthetic quality?

 
It was important for me focus on the smaller moments—those are the things that people can really connect with, because we’ve all been there.
 

It was so important. We shot on this camera called the Canon 7D, which is a still camera that has a nice, soft aesthetic to it. We built this rig to put film lenses on it; we really wanted to put a touch of nostalgia into the look of the film. So I think the film does have that heightened, uber-reality; the texture of it sort of feels like you’re remembering something. It’s kind of a distant memory, but it’s still a close memory.

The chemistry between Anton Yelchin and Felicity Jones, who both give great performances, is what gives the film its unique strength. How quickly were they able to develop that chemistry?
To be honest, it happened pretty fast. The three of us sat down to have dinner for the first time, and I had never met Felicity in person, and Anton hadn’t met her yet either, and we sat down to have some Mexican food and a lot of tequila and had a really long conversation about our lives and past relationships. They really became friends really fast; it was immediate, and it was really exciting to see it develop over the course of a week, during rehearsals. We did tons of exercises and in-depth things to delve into their chemistry and fully realize what their chemistry was.

I’m sure all of that tequila helped bring out the brutal honesty.
[Laughs.] Yeah, it was definitely a social lubricant.

There’s a really effective scene in the movie where Anton Yelchin’s character steps outside of a bar, while drunk, and talks to Felicity, even though he knows it’s probably not the best idea to drunk-dial. That’s something that any guy or girl who’s ever been drunk before can relate to.
Yeah, I can’t even count on one hand how many times I’ve called a girl while drunk at a bar. [Laughs.] That’s a very common experience in my life; that scene in particular, it shows that gray area of “Should I shouldn’t I? Are we or aren’t we?” Those are the questions we ask when we’re in love. It was important for me focus on the smaller moments like that—those are the things that people can really connect with, because we’ve all been there.

In light of focusing on the smaller moments, you don’t have any sex scenes between the main characters, which is an interesting way to develop their love without having to spell it out for the viewer. What was your rationale behind that decision?
I shot a bunch of bondage scenes, actually, but they didn’t fit into the film, so I ended up having to cut them. [Laughs.] They’ll make for one hell of a DVD package, though. No, I didn’t really think about that until after we’d written it. But the story isn’t about the sexual side of love; it’s funny, when I think of my first love, it’s not about the sex, especially as much as it is now.

It’s such a pure, pure thing, and the sexual aspect of it is there, but it’s not the point. You see them in a sexual context with their other boyfriend and girlfriend, but now with each other, and that was a way for us to show the effort it takes to get into somebody sexually and have it not matter, have it not be relevant because the connection with the older love is so strong.

And their follow-up partners are still good people—Felicity’s new guy isn’t the prototypical douchebag character that usually sweeps the rebound girl off her feet in movies, and Anton’s girl (Jennifer Lawrence) isn’t some floozy. That makes it harder for the viewer to root for Anton and Felicity to get back together. Was that how you approached those side characters?
Absolutely, and, for the most part, they’re really healthy for them. But it’s just that little X-factor, and that’s the frustrating part: Somebody who’s really good for you and healthy for you is right there in front of you, but you just don’t feel that connection with them.

More than anything, that’s heartbreaking, because you want to be with that person and you wish you could be with that person, but you just can’t. That’s the kind of honesty I hope translates with audiences.