The Pretty One is Jenée LaMarque’s debut film starring Zoe Kazan and Jake Johnson. In it, Kazan portrays two characters at once, the twin sisters Laurel and Audrey in this romantic film that is both tragedy and comedy, heavy and light and very entertaining. The sisters are physically impossible to tell apart, but have very different personalities. Audrey has confidence, style, independence, friends and the spirit of adventure. Laurel is sweet but naïve and awkward, and is still living at home taking care of their father and wondering about a relationship with the boy next door, for whom she used to babysit and whom she used to end her virginity.
When the sisters reunite for their birthday, Audrey is killed and burned beyond recognition and a mix-up leaves Laurel faced with an opportunity to reinvent herself and her life as her beloved twin. Doing that brings love, heartache, guilt and eventually the confidence to be who she really is….and a happy ending.
The Pretty One is directed Jenée Lamarque and stars Zoe Kazan, Jake Johnson, John Carroll Lynch, Sterling Beaumon, Ron Livingston. Zoe Kazan and Jenée Lamarque sat down with Vents correspondent Patrick O’Heffernan recently in a hospitality suite at the Standard, a boutique hotel on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood.
When I arrived in the fourth floor suite with a view of Hollywood and Los Angeles to east, director Jenée Lamarque and her publicist were finishing up breakfast at a small table and looking over the day’s schedule. Zoe was in the conference room of the suite preparing for interviews and nibbling on strawberry covered waffle. While we chatted, another member of the publicity team poked her head into the conference room and found Zoe ready, so we went in.
Zoe and Jenée sat at a small table sipping coffee. Zoe was wearing a black leather sheath dress with a very subdued lizard print and a cotton top. Jenée wore black pants and cream silk blouse. Both were friendly, open, and inviting. After introductions, we got down to business.
Vents. Jenée, you were inspired by movies like Little Miss Sunshine that are great films crowned by great casting. When you were writing this film, were you thinking about casting?
Jenée Lamarque. I wasn’t, but I knew that you have to find the exact right person who understands the film, who understands the tone and the feel of what you are trying to do and can just bring it to the room or the set so that you can trust that they are going to do the very specific things you need. No other actors who came in (to audition) – did what Zoe did in terms of matching what I felt was the tone and feel and the vibe of the film.
Vents. Are you thinking of yourself when you are writing?
Jenée. When I am writing I am sort of each of those characters. I get really into it. I can’t write in public because I look really funny, I make weird faces and I cry – it would be like people watching me going to the bathroom in public. I am like a weirdo in my writing.
Vents. Did you workshop this at all? And how important was that process of taking it through other minds to read what you were writing and getting the tone right?
Jenée. The most important thing is to get other peoples’ input when you are trying to a specific tone and make sure what you are trying to is actually being executed. It is totally necessary to get feedback so that they can point out when that is not happening or it is not convincing. I started writing this film just before I started AFI screenwriting (class) so I was learning screenwriting while I was writing the film and I was learning how to digest feedback as I was learning how to write while I was writing, so it was quite a growth experience. I feel like there are so many minds and people who contributed along the way. It is a collaborative medium even when you are writing alone, you need to get other eyes on and get feedback. So the most helpful thing was workshopping it. I workshopped it at AFI and with Joan Scheckle ,who is a script consultant and director and who worked on Little Miss Sunshine and Whale Rider and other films. She really helped.
Vents. Was the focus hard? The film could have explored many different directions as a result of the accident, but you stuck with what was in her mind rather than more loss or being heavy handed.
Jenée. Yes, that was a tough challenge but the point of the film, what you want to have come across, sort of reveals itself in the writing. This is a movie about identity and about valuing yourself and the question is how can you do this without being heavy handed or lose the feel that it is happening over time and not all at once.
Zoe. One of the most important things about re-writing, what is what you are talking about, or the process of building something is that you really have to know what you are writing about before you can pick up other people’s notes. That thing of centering in on what is the version of the story that I am interested in is so important, that it is what is going to guide you through the rest of the process. If you make a move without that, it can be very difficult to know which notes are valid and how to take other people’s advice. I have a strong sensation that you (Jenée) know why you were writing and what it meant to you and it helped guide you.
Jenée. Yes, it absolutely helped.
Vents. In your film Ruby Sparks, you kicked off a national conversation about female identity and male fantasy about it. In this film you are involved in female identity but in a female fantasy about it. Are The Pretty One and Ruby Sparks kind of book ends, or a continuation of exploration of identity, or did you not even think about it?
Zoe. I didn’t really think about it. This was such a different movie to me. That film was so much more about the way men and women interact. What appeals to me the most about this film is this journey she goes on, her internal journey was much more important to me. The movie I wrote was about inferiority and denying other people’s inferiority. This movie just felt to me much more about breaking through something, breaking through grief, breaking through an old conception of herself, breaking through her childhood to become an adult. It never occurred to me that these two films had thematic similarities. Jenée and I have similar tastes, so is not surprising to me that this film and the film I wrote has something in common, but if I felt they were too similar I probably would have never auditioned for her.
Vents. Speaking of that audition, I know Jenée saw a lot of people and that the two of getting together was sort of a geographical good fortune. What went on in that audition – I understand there was a lot of laughing?
Jenée. Oh yeah. I was a fan of Zoe’s, but she was based in New York. She happened to be in LA that week. We were about to cast someone that nobody felt 100% about – we were kind of bummed actually. It was kind of like “what are we going to do, so let’s just have a few more sessions.” She happened to be there that day and she came in.
She came in and there was this one moment where she is playing in the scene with Ron Livingston in the restaurant. In the audition she had her purse on her shoulder and she put it down and everything fell out of the purse and she was cleaning up and she was in character and it was totally an accident – she didn’t mean for it to happen and it was hilarious the way she was fixing her mistake. Her physicality, her physical comedy was just from head to toe and her sense of humor and innate communicability was exactly was I wanted.
I didn’t know her at the time, although I knew at that moment she was the right person for the role, and when I looked over to my producer Steven Berger and we locked eyes and we knew she was it. Getting to know her what I really valued about our collaboration is that she is so warm and intelligent and thoughtful and joyful in her life and in her work, it made the process of making the film - which could be heavy at times - so joyful. I really respect her as a collaborator.
Zoe. That’s so nice. I don’t have to go my funeral again. Is that like my eulogy?
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I just had this memory of Jenée in the first few scenes giving me really good directions and I could tell she is a really good director. I was doing this scene at the end of the film where I talked with Jake’s character and she said “that was good, but could you do it for real.” That was what her direction was: she would say “that was a good fun version, but could you actually bring it this time”.
That was great because she could actually tell the difference. So often you go to auditions people think that whatever you are giving is the best you can give, but often people don’t actually want you to go there emotionally, they want the trappings of it. When she said to bring it for real I know I was in good hands.
Vents. About the title of the film, was there a specific person you had in mind or were they interchangeable?
Jenée. It is sort of interchangeable in a way, and there is a bit of irony in the title in that there are families with siblings and particularly with twins there is a lot of labeling goes on - the smart one, the good one, the bad one…it goes on and on. What is happening in this film, is that it is not about those external assessments of you, it is about your internal assessments, of what you want to do and how you see yourself and what is the most important thing in your life. In some ways, Audrey is the pretty one, but they are identical and it has more to do with the ways they present themselves to the world. She chooses things that make her more conventionally beautiful, but they are identical. So it has to do with female identity in the sense of where you sit on the spectrum of being a woman and how you choose and present yourself and therefore other people label you that way. I think it is necessary in the world, but it is also kind of bullshit.
Zoe. There is so much you have no control over. And then there is the stuff you have control over. Those are the things Audrey has made the most of, like the haircut and clothes, learn how to put on makeup the right way. Laurel has made the choice to neglect herself. It is not about her neglecting herself and it’s bad that she is not making herself as pretty as possible, but that she neglects every part of herself. Not cutting her hair and wearing whatever clothes are available and not making those choices is an indication of her greater ambivalence about herself.
Sometimes I think we think of prettiness as being superficial and that important in terms of the quality of a person. But I think that when people feel happy they look beautiful. When you value the way you look you are not vain or superficial. I am not talking about people who take a million selfies and get Botox and things like that. I mean when you look in the mirror and feel proud of yourself and happy about the fact that you got up that morning and you chose to put something nice on your body and enjoy the world. I think that should not be sidelined as being feminine or vain, but embracing your femininity or your prettiness can be virtue.
Vents. Is it harder to play a character like Audrey who has so much of an arc, we learn more about her as the film goes on?
Jenée. We have talked about the process of discovering Audrey that came about through our collaboration. I am going to let Zoe talk about it.
Zoe. As we went on, we learned a lot more about her. She is much more than the character on the page. I think that was partially because she was a very confident girl and I just wasn’t that girl growing up. I am really confident and outspoken in lot of ways but I was never a mean girl. I just never thought about myself that way, and she clearly did. She clearly ran things. She made sure she was popular. Her values were different than mine. So I was trying to figure out where does she live in me—what version of me is that person? Doing that, I think I discovered a lot about who that person would be for me and actually learned a lot about that girl. And playing her -- I loved it. Her energy was clear and direct. There was no bullshit she was really into her body and into her sexuality. I loved doing that.
Laurel was a bit of drag – she was so inhibited, so closed off, so sad. Later (after the accident and Laurel assumed Audrey’s identity) it was easier because for me to get in touch because I was thinking about Audrey the way Laurel was thinking about Audrey.
Jenée. What we discovered together about Audrey is that she was a very flawed person. She is not a perfect person. She has trouble having intimate relationships. She only dates marred me, her father and she don’t speak; she ran away when her mother died. She has the elements of power in life, but she has this pain that she hides it away from the world. She has this façade that protects her; her prettiness protects her from her pain. The world discovered that.
Zoe. I have to say, Francis Shaw, the woman who plays my best friend, also helped us find this character. Working with her helped me understand who Audrey was in the world.
Vents. What was it like to work with Jake Johnson? Do you have any special memories.
Jenée. There was a scene where they are about to go on a date to get books and came back and she was in bed – it’s a montage in the film - and he is waking her up and in between shots he was doing weird dances and he would call himself the gorilla (Zoe: the Silverback). Alright, the Silverback. He was like scooting along and everyone was laughing we couldn’t keep going. He did things like that a lot, but I remember that little dance he was doing
Zoe. This may not be my favorite memory with Jake but there was this pool scene, and the water was really cold, much colder than it was supposed to be, and there were two scenes in this pool. And we shot the first one and I was like, I am this hypothermic person, I am never warm - I am cold right now - and being in water in the cold, I couldn’t stop shaking – I couldn’t act. My teeth were chattering, my lips were blue and Jenée said we have to move you out of the pool, but leave Jake in the pool so we could do the shot. So in the second pool scene I was sitting on the edge of the pool kissing him and every time we kissed I felt how his lips were cold. At that point I had so much love for him for taking one for the team. He did so that without drama. I felt so bad because I my body was failing and there he was.
Jenée. He was in the pool while you were in your towel. He saved the day.
Vents. Is this a good date movie.
Jenée and Zoe. It’s a great date movie!
Jenée. There is an authenticity to their relationship and fun and great chemistry. Even though it deals with heavy topics, it is a crowd pleaser. It is something that speaks to when you are starting a relationship with a person and you really gel with them you are playing with them and I think this film captures that playful fun.
Zoe: I have some young cousins who are in their teens, I think they would love this movie and get one thing out it – because it is about transformation and what it feels like for that age group. And my parents would love this movie – maybe I am wrong – but it is about a very specific time, lightness and darkness together . I was surprised when I saw it, that the reactions were all across the board the terms of age.
Vents. Yep, it’s a good date film. Thank you.
The Pretty One opened Feb 7 in New York City and Portland and will open March 14, and the Sundance Sunset Cinema in LA and in Irvine at Town Center.