Riley Stearns Helps Karen Gillan Look Herself in the Eye in Dual
Riley Stearns' new sci-fi drama makes its world premiere at Sundance
Dual is not the film about meeting yourself that Riley Stearns originally planned to make. Nor did the Austin-native filmmaker expect he'd shoot his low-key sci-fi drama in Finland. In spite of that, and yet suitably for a story of identity, he said, "It's the most me of the three features I have done. ... Everything about it is straight from me."
In Dual, which makes its world premiere at this weekend's virtual Sundance Film Festival, Karen Gillan (Doctor Who, Guardians of the Galaxy) plays Sara, a woman miserable in her life who finds she only has a few weeks left to live. She also plays Sara, the clone she has made to replace her so that her family won't be quite as sad that she died.
The seed of Dual has been growing in Stearns since before his 2014 feature debut, Faults. He had a script for a short titled "Niche" that he planned to make as a follow-up to his 2013 short, "The Cub." In that story, he said, "a character ends up in a time loop and meets themselves in the future. I just really liked the idea of putting an actor opposite themselves. Then at a certain point I came up with the idea that you had to duel yourself to the death, and that's the movie."
Filming during COVID has meant challenges for every filmmaker, not least finding somewhere to shoot. In Stearns' case it was the surprise of being invited by the Finnish government to make Dual in Finland, "but man, am I glad that we did." There's an unreal edge to his scripts, a disconnect from any specific locations, that allows him to easily to shoot anywhere (at no point when writing his 2019 feature The Art of Self-Defense, he recalled, did he ever expect to film it in Louisville, Ky.), but location always has an impact. The distinctive architecture of the city of Tampere, he said, "really lends itself so much to a pseudo-science-fiction narrative," while the unique quality of the light also influenced the look of the film – not always in a helpful way. "By the end of our first day's shoot, we had three usable hours of daylight to work with [but] it really informed the way the characters felt."
Think of how the look of The X-Files changed in season 6, when production moved from Vancouver, British Columbia, to Los Angeles. "You don't have these overcast skies, you don't have this dreary dread. You have L.A.," Stearns said, and what he wanted for Dual was closer to those early adventures of Mulder and Scully. "I always wanted it to feel lonely and barren, and I feel like that came across so much more in Finland than it would if we'd shot in, say, Kentucky."
But whatever else the near-decade since he wrote "Niche" meant for Stearns, Dual allowed him to fulfill his idea of having an actor in two lead roles. Moreover, due to advances in filmmaking technology, "I was able to show [Gillan] her acting opposite herself pretty much in real time right after she would do a take, and she'd go, 'Oh, that's really cool, it's like being on the set of Avengers.' No, it's not even close to that, but I love that she said that."
Dual is available as part of the 2022 virtual Sundance Film Festival. Premiere screening Jan. 22, 7pm. Second screening streaming Jan. 23-26. Tickets available at festival.sundance.org.