'Lola Versus' team turns their romantic baggage into films
Couples that collaborate are nothing new in the movie business. But you’d be hard-pressed to find a relationship as tangled as that of Daryl Wein and Zoe Lister-Jones, the twentysomethings behind the new offbeat romantic comedy “Lola Versus.”
For the film, which opens in Los Angeles on Friday, the duo wrote (both of them), directed (him), acted (her), executive-produced (both) — and, oh, yes, went through a yearlong, real-life breakup whose spirit they funneled into the movie.
Wein: “Our personal and professional lives have completely blended. I honestly don’t know if I’m at home right now or on set.” (He was on set, in New York.)
Lister-Jones: “Not everything from the script is from that year. Some is from single men and women I know.” Pause. “A lot is from that year.”
Unlike their 2010 feature debut “Breaking Upwards,” a low-budget DIY effort (think $15,000 and plenty of helpful friends) about a couple who decide to try an open relationship, “Lola” centers on a woman coping with the fallout of a breakup. It comes with a positively Spielbergian budget (for them) of about $5 million and veteran hands in producer Michael London (“Sideways”) and specialty-film giant Fox Searchlight, which financed and oversaw production and is distributing the movie.
The film stars Greta Gerwig (of “Greenberg” and seemingly every third indie romance) as the titular Lola, a woman dumped by her fiancé (Joel Kinnaman of TV’s “The Killing”) just before their nuptials — a destination wedding in Mexico. Rather than running permanently into the arms of her pining male best friend (Hamish Linklater of “The New Adventures of Old Christine”) or back into the conciliatory embrace of her ex, Lola tries to work out a single life with the help of her family and her bawdy gal pal Alice (Lister-Jones, also the wisecracking sidekick Lily from NBC’s “Whitney” and as outspoken in real life as one of her characters).
Though there is romance and comedy, “Lola” is as much about a quest for identity as it is a story of happily ever after.
“It’s a romantic comedy, but the romance is with herself,” Linklater said. “That doesn’t sound like I know what I mean. But you know what I mean.”
Lister-Jones and Wein have an idea. The Brooklyn-raised Lister-Jones, 29, and Westport, Conn.-born Wein, 28, have been through plenty of their relationship-related ups and downs. After getting together as undergrads at NYU eight years ago, they settled in Manhattan and tried to pursue careers in the film business, she as an actress in small indie movies and he as a documentary director.
But five years ago their relationship began hitting the skids, and they responded by attempting to see other people while they were still living together. On a personal level, the experiment resulted in a yearlong breakup and an eventual reconciliation. Professionally, it yielded “Breaking Upwards,” a movie in which they starred as a couple going through the same issues.
Acquired by the boutique label IFC, the film didn’t do much business when it was released in 2010. But it caught the attention of London and Fox Searchlight, who decided to get into business with them on a new film about a 29-year-old woman who’s going through a breakup.
On the New York set in a sweltering Chinatown tenement, the real-life rupture on which the film was based seemed a distant memory. Wein would take Lister-Jones aside and talk quietly in a way that was as much boyfriend as creative collaborator. (The couple are now on more solid footing, having recently bought an apartment together.) Their method of collaborating is charming if quirky — though they live under the same roof and work on the same screenplays, they don’t write together, instead taking separate cracks at a script and then swapping pages back and forth.
In an interview between takes, Lister-Jones said that having Wein behind the camera afforded her a certain freedom. “I probably give him more lip than I would a director I wasn’t sleeping with,” she quipped.
Their relationship certainly presented an unusual situation on set. “There’s no divide and conquer with Daryl and Zoe. I tried. It doesn't work,” London said wryly.
Gerwig, who has worked with directors such as Noah Baumbach (“Greenberg”) and Jason Winer (“Arthur”), said a filmmaking tandem offered an actor a certain advantage. “I like working with a team,” she said, adding that she often prefers it to a disparate group of producer, writer and director “when there are all these different rhythms and you get a lot of ideas punched at you by a lot of different people.”
Leavened with a fair degree of drama and soul-searching, “Lola Versus” tries to bridge the gap between breezy studio romantic comedies and improvised slice-of-life independents.
“I don't think [there’s] been a good romcom made since 'Broadcast News' or ‘Moonstruck,’” Wein said, citing two 1987 films that were made before he was in kindergarten. “We wanted to try to get back to that by borrowing what’s fun about the newer studio movies but also what's visceral and authentic about mumblecore,” alluding to the late-2000s subgenre of low-budget improvised movies about young people. (“Lola” was scripted.)
The filmmakers also wanted to switch up the point of view. Lister-Jones said she thought it was important for the story to be told from a female perspective. “I just know when Daryl and I broke up — for him it was a bit of a cakewalk and for me it was much more of a war zone,” she said. “I wanted to make a movie that explored the casualties.”
Wein added that he wanted to co-write this film because “there are so many male-dominated movies out there that don’t show the complexity of women in a true way.... I wanted to show independent women who are bold and brash.”
A minute later, Lister-Jones offered an unintentional demonstration of what he meant. For a scene in which her character, Alice, is supposed to mention a TV show she’s recorded, Wein told her between takes to improvise something using the word “sex.”
The cameras rolled and Lister-Jones, not missing a beat, began reciting her lines, then ad-libbed that she has to leave a party so she can go watch a made-up documentary series called “Sex Secrets of Pilgrim Times.”
Wein smiled a little and lifted off his headset. “I really could be home right now,” he said, to no one in particular.
-- Steven Zeitchik
Photos: (Top) Greta Gerwig, left, and Joel Kinnaman in a scene from "Lola Versus." Credit: AP Photo/Fox Searchlight, Myles Aronowitz. (Bottom) Daryl Wein, Zoe Lister-Jones, Greta Gerwig and Joel Kinnaman attend a screening of "Lola Versus" on June 5 in New York. Credit: Evan Agostini/Invision/AP