Interview: Breaking Upwards' Daryl Wein & Zoe Lister-Jones

Posted by: Elizabeth Hughes Belzil  //  April 2, 2010 @ 2:16am

Filed under: Interviews

It had been ages since I had experienced true agitation: hands slick with perspiration, hollowed-out insides, shortness of breath, compulsive pacing. But this was the state I found myself in last Tuesday afternoon as I waited by the phone, reading and rereading my notes. I felt like I was about to perform a play with an unfinished script. In reality I was waiting for a phone call from Daryl Wein and Zoe Lister-Jones with whom I had an interview scheduled. Though you may not have heard of them yet, I have no doubt you will. They are the filmmakers, stars and real-life couple of Breaking Upwards -- an independent romantic comedy set in New York City and beginning its theatrical run this Friday. The film stands as one of those rare blends of humor, genuine insight and the right amount of "cool". It received official selection at SXSW and has received numerous awards at festivals around the world. It was a treat to have the opportunity to chat with them -- two people whose work I admire, (thus the nervousness!).

Upon learning that the film cost a measly fifteen grand to make, I was flabbergasted. Though the film features no mega-watt stars, nothing about it seems cheap, shoddy or second-class. The narrative pacing is smooth, the acting fantastic, it's well-shot, and there is a wide array of locations, including NYC streets where expensive permits are normally required. Daryl explained it was a very unconventional shoot. "We'd only shoot a few days a week for a couple of hours at a time." All the actors are personal friends of the filmmakers and most received no monetary compensation for their performance. Many were working on other New York-based projects during the film's production and scheduled shooting around their other conflicts, sometimes with only a few days' notice. The two also saved money by working a variety of jobs normally divided amongst several people. "Once we were making (Breaking Upwards)," Zoe said, "we were both wearing so many different hats." In addition to being co-writer, co-star, and co-producer, Zoe often catered shoots!

Zoe and Daryl have made no attempts to conceal that the film's premise is based on their own relationship -- the main characters even share their first names. More particularly, the film focuses on the couple's experiment opening up their relationship with the possibility of eventually breaking up. I wanted to know to what extent reality permeated the narrative. "Our relationship was just the inspiration -- the whole movie is fictionalized. I thought that the way we went about our relationship in real life, strategizing it together, was a unique way to break up with someone and would make for a fresh romantic comedy premise," Daryl told me. Even if the film is not a literal adaptation of their lives, given some of the its heartbreaking moments, I wondered what kind of emotional impact the project had on the two. "In the writing process it was definitely cathartic. It's rare that a real life couple has the opportunity to hash out what happened between them... Definitely theraputic," said Zoe. Did they learn anything new about each other in the process? Daryl chuckled. "I think we already knew everything about each other."

Every year Hollywood spits out several romantic comedies that all seem to be spliced from the same DNA. Though Breaking Upwards certainly has its influences (Woody Allen for one, whom Daryl cited as an inspiration) it feels novel. Daryl explained, "Most romantic comedies deal with just a couple falling in love -- the beginning of their relationship. You don't normally see a couple breaking up in this way: together at the end of a relationship and then it's turning into an open relationship where they see other people. In that way we felt the film was kind of original and a fresher perspective than others." When I asked him what message he wanted viewers to take from the film, he replied, "We just want people to be entertained and to laugh. To first enjoy themselves but also ask questions about relationships in general and how to deal with codependency, honesty and communication." I asked Zoe about the film's appeal. "Although we knew we were dealing with universal subject matter, I think it's such a New York story we thought maybe it will be limited to New York but you know we won the Audience Award when we took it to Little Rock, Arkansas."

Breaking Upwards opens at the IFC Center in New York on Friday, April 2nd and is currently available on Video on Demand. So will the couple work together again? "Zoe and I have written a couple (screenplays) that we're excited to get made. It's hard to get independent films financed these days -- I mean always it's been a struggle." I pressed Daryl for details to which he responded, "All I'll I say is they're New York based, New York-centric -- in the comedy world of Breaking Upwards." I, for one, will certainly look forward to seeing what their next collaboration produces.

Tags: Breaking Upwards, Daryl Wein, Zoe Lister-Jones, Olivia Thirby, Julie White

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