It’s a “big year” for Lake Bell, to use her own words. She’s appearing in two new movies, the Reese Witherspoon comedy Home Again and the prison drama Shot Caller, but more importantly, she’s also starring in her second effort as a feature director, I Do…Until I Don’t. The bittersweet comedy-drama follows three couples — played by Bell and Ed Helms, Amber Heard and Wyatt Cenac, and Paul Reiser and Mary Steenburgen — as they navigate what the concept of marriage means to them, all while an opportunistic documentary filmmaker (Dolly Wells) tries to manipulate them into proving her thesis that it is an archaic and outmoded institution.
The film, like Bell’s 2013 directorial debut In A World…, is charming, eccentric and — while not autobiographical — feels very personal. “Anything that I take on as a writer is going to be deeply personal,” says Bell when we meet recently in Los Angeles. “This started from my own investigation of relationships and commitment. In a therapeutic way, I always kind of take something on like its therapy. I grew up in a family where there was divorce and as a young kid I was exposed and very much entrenched in a divorce. And even just like with friends and in the tapestry of my life, I have just seen a lot of that, philandering and whatnot. It just seemed like a doomed institution.”
Bell admits that she began writing the movie from a cynical perspective: “(In) this day and age, perhaps, it is just a tall order to ask someone, ‘Till death do us part?’ Are you kidding? We live nearly 100 years. At this point, that is a lot. But I think, secretly, every unromantic cynic hopes desperately to be proved wrong. I was a closet romantic and now I am pretty open about it because my husband came into my orbit while I was writing this movie. That’s why it ultimately is deeply pro-unionship and commitment and marriage. And that, in a way, is very provocative in this day and age.”
Bell says her preparation for making the movie was similar to the way she prepared for In A World…, with two notable differences: “I applied a lot of the same strictness in my preparation. That really worked for me in In a World… I bit off even more to take on in this movie with seven main characters and a story structure that sort of laced within it other. That forced me to take my preparation even more seriously. I wasn’t cocky, thinking I’ve already done it so I didn’t have to prepare as much.
“I feel like, if anything, I prepared more, because this time I also was not only the writer, the director, the co-star, the producer, but also a mom for the first time,” she adds. “So I had this other profound life and hat that was more than a hat, but like the whole suit that I was wearing every time I would step off the set. ‘Cause really, when you get on set, you can’t bring too much of that into the space because I just was responsible for too many jobs.”
One aspect of making I Do…Until I Don’t that perhaps did catch Bell off-guard was the difficulty involved in getting the production funded and launched. “I admit that it was a little harder than I thought to raise money for my second feature,” she confesses. “That was the only place where I was like, ‘Oh, that’s surprising.’ I’m biased, but I was like, ‘Look at this amazing script. I’m a proven director.’ And, I thought it would be really easy, but it wasn’t. I’m so happy that I waited for the right collaborators because Cold Iron Pictures and The Film Arcade were like the perfect team for me.”
Bell dismisses the notion that any problems related to getting the film financed were due to her gender. “I truly believe it’s not because I’m a woman or something like that,” she insists. “It’s simply because the business of independent movie-making is hard. There is some fear there. It’s not like making independent movies is a surefire way to make tons of money. It’s certainly not as a filmmaker, I can tell you that, ’cause I have yet to see a penny on In a World… I do it because my little superpower, albeit a small one, is to tell stories and share them with people and hope that it evokes some sort of feeling or hope or provides some sort of kind spirit or just laughing.”
Hours before I speak with Bell, the news breaks that Wonder Woman director Patty Jenkins is signing the most lucrative deal ever offered a female director to return for Wonder Woman 2. I ask Bell what it means and if the deal signals a long-overdue shift in the culture of Hollywood. “I think it’s a big goddamn deal,” she says. “It’s a first and it’s splashy and I love it. Speaking as a Women in Film board member, but also just as a female filmmaker, I feel that there’s been a real tipping point for females depicted in different stories, whether it’s TV or film. I think that there’s a robust variety and diversity in those kinds of characters that are being portrayed. Behind the scenes, we still have a long way to go and we’re far from the tipping point. But we’re moving in the right direction. Wonder Woman is a huge step forward in that movement, mainly ’cause money talks and that’s what it needed.”
As for Bell herself, she’ll keep pushing forward. While a proposed adaptation of the best-selling book The Emperor’s Children — which would have had her directing Keira Knightley, Eric Bana and Richard Gere — fell through, she’s already preparing to direct a new film in the beginning of 2018. “And then I’m writing a couple of other projects,” she adds. “But it takes me a while to be ready to put something out there. As an actor, I have a lot of stuff that I’m nurturing as well. But, the good news is, I have many jobs and as a writer I don’t like to rush. I like to use it as a tool to investigate things I’m thinking about and I want to keep it fun. I sort of give myself my own deadlines. It keeps it fun for me. It keeps it fresh. But, yeah, I’m excited to take on the next year — now with the two kids.”
I Do…Until I Don’t is out in limited release on Friday (September 1).