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Interview: Talking ‘Language Lessons’ with Natalie Morales

This time last year, Natalie Morales was known for their acting roles in films like Battle of the Sexes, and TV series including Parks and Recreation and Santa Clarita Diet. What a difference a year makes. Having previously directed various shorts, music videos, and TV episodes, Morales made the next step to directing their first feature film for release in 2021. That’s not all. 

While the initial plan was for their first film to be the Hulu teen comedy Plan B, COVID shut down production right before shooting was about to begin. Spending time at home writing, Morales was contacted by Mark Duplass, for whom Morales had previously directed some episodes of his HBO anthology series Room 104, and acted in a separate episode as well. Duplass had an idea for a story, and wanted the two to collaborate on it. 

The duo hit the ground running, and within no time, Language Lessons was finished shooting. The story of a Spanish teacher (Morales) and her new student (Duplass) striking up an unexpected friendship, the movie premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival this year to massive critical success. That was followed by an acclaimed bow at SXSW, where it won a Narrative Spotlight Audience Award (our review from that festival). 

Soon after Language Lessons began receiving incredibly positive word, Plan B was finally released and found the same reception (our review). With no feature directing credits to their name this time one year ago, Morales now finds themselves with two big hits. I spoke with them earlier this year for the release of Plan B, and it was great to get to catch up with them now as Language Lessons is available in select theaters, and coming soon to digital. 

The last time we chatted was before Plan B released, so this time around we got to discuss the incredible year Morales has had after seeing the response to both of their films. From there we dug into Language Lessons, and the making of this truly wonderful gem of a picture. Be sure to also check out our recent interview with Mark Duplass for the film. 

Mitchell Beaupre: Since the last time we spoke, your first two directed features have come out, and they’ve each received immense praise. What’s this year been like for you to see that kind of response to not one, but two films of yours? 

Natalie Morales: It’s very surreal. Last year, before I made these, no one thought of me as a director. No one took me seriously as a director, even though I’ve been directing for a long time. It feels like a dream in a lot of ways. I didn’t necessarily intend to make two movies, it’s just kind of what happened, and I’m very grateful for it. I’m glad I was able to pull it off in some way. It’s so overwhelming and surreal, but it’s also somewhat affirming. I’ve been working at this for so long, so to have people that don’t know me and don’t love me and aren’t biased say that they liked my thing? It’s really cool. 

MB: As you mentioned, these are your first two directed features, but you’ve been doing this for a while, directing shorts and episodes of television. Was directing something that was always a goal for you? 

NM: Yes and no. I guess it depends when you start counting “always”. I don’t think I even considered it to be an option for me at one point. I had directed theater and sketch stuff, but at the beginning of my career I didn’t even consider that I would be allowed to do this. The directors that I knew, and had heard of, that were being given jobs, were people who looked and sounded nothing like me, and didn’t have my background or my story at all. Not only just being a woman, but being someone who didn’t go to film school, and didn’t have the connections and the family history, and wasn’t a straight white man. I truly didn’t even consider it because I didn’t think of it as something I would be able to do.

So, then I started writing a lot, and when I was looking for directors to direct things that I wrote I met a few people who got it, but maybe didn’t get it all the way. That’s when I thought that maybe I can direct them instead. I started directing a lot of music videos so that I could get practice. Then I started doing sketches for Funny or Die. Honestly, the more I acted, and the more directors I worked with – I got to work with a lot of great directors, but I also worked with some not great ones, and you learn a lot. I’ve always paid attention to everything around me, in all aspects of how to make TV and movies, but when I took an interest in directing I started to wonder if I could do what these guys were doing. Oftentimes, the answer was yes. When the answer was no, I would ask questions and learn. 

2020 had a lot to do with me making this progress as well, as it allowed me to realize that my own ideas, my own experiences, and my own opinions were just as valid as anybody else’s, and just as necessary to be seen as anybody else’s. That they’re maybe even somewhat more in demand at the moment, because my perspective, and my view on things has not been seen for so long. The people that relate to my perspective have not had anything for a long time. Things have always been done a certain way, but that doesn’t mean they need to continue being done this way. That doesn’t mean that my way of doing things, even though it might be different, or my way of seeing things might be different, that doesn’t mean someone won’t relate to it, or be excited by it. When I realized that was when I started to say “let me kick these doors open”. 

MB: It makes sense that Language Lessons is a collaboration between you and Mark. It seems like him and his brother Jay have made their own sort of space in the industry, making truly independent films, and that they’ve also used their privilege to open that space to other people now. What was the genesis for you and Mark to decide to work together on this? 

NM: I had known Mark socially a bit. Then, because I think he had seen a music video that I did for Andrew Bird, he asked me to direct Room 104. Both episodes I directed of that show were ones that he had written. He wasn’t there when I was filming them, but he really liked how they came out, so I think he had kept me in mind as a collaborator. I wanted to work with him, and I really liked him as a person and as an artist. I wanted to work with both Jay and Mark. I had actually auditioned for Togetherness back in the day. 

When lockdown started, I was in Syracuse getting ready to shoot Plan B, and then everything got shut down. I was just at home then, writing, and Mark called me and said that he had been taking online Spanish classes, and he had this seed of an idea. So, he asked me if I speak Spanish, and if I wanted to come up with whatever this was going to be together. From the time that he called me to the time we finished shooting, it was about four weeks. Then, while I was editing that’s when Plan B came back up and started shooting, so sometimes I’d be shooting Plan B during the week and then doing reshoots for Language Lessons on the weekend. It was crazy, but it was all worth it, I think. 

MB: What was the shooting process like for Language Lessons? Acting is so much about reacting to your scene partner, but here you’re opposite one another over screens. 

NM: We shot the entire thing on webcams that we attached to these computers we had. We rigged the laptops with mics and a little bit of light, and other small things in order to be able to remotely control them. So, we essentially shot the whole thing seeing each other over Zoom. We were working with each other, and then simultaneously shooting it on our own different webcams so that the picture would be a little bit better than the laptop was. We had both of the Zoom files, and then also the webcam file. 

MB: While the idea for the movie came up during COVID lockdown, and that certainly had an impact on how the story developed, you made the choice to never mention the pandemic in the text of the film. Rather, it focuses on the nature of connection, which is a timeless concept. Was that something very much in the forefront of your mind, the idea of connection itself, as opposed to how any of it specifically related to this moment in time with COVID? 

NM: For me, it definitely was. It was a really interesting writing process. It was so fast, the way we started, and all he had to start with was a teacher and her student, and liking that idea. I suggested we go our separate ways, and write biographies for these people without consulting each other, and see what we want to bring to the table. So, we did that, and then we figured out how to collide the two people we came up with. The point from the very beginning was about how you can connect to someone, even if they’re not in your same country or class or culture. How that sometimes doesn’t even matter. Then we started digging into the assumptions we make about people, and how the things we think about people are not usually right. Interestingly, I’d say that meeting someone through Zoom can garner more information about the person, because you can see the background of their house or wherever they’re talking to you from. 

MB: Could you tell me more about the ways in which you wanted to draw out those observations on the assumptions we make about people? The film challenges that idea in really interesting ways. 

NM: The more we’ve been on Zoom having meetings, the more I was realizing that I’m looking at these people’s backgrounds, at their bookshelves, seeing their dog run through the background, and realizing at the corner of my own screen that the mess I thought was out of frame is actually there for them to see. We’ve become sort of forced to present this version of ourselves – what we try to present, combined with the things that we didn’t even notice, and I think that’s really interesting. 

This sounds so whatever, but I think people are very interesting. We make assumptions about people all of the time, and I need to constantly remind myself to not write off someone just because of an assumption I’ve made about them. I try to dig deeper, because every single person is going through something. I don’t know you very well, but I’m sure you have all sorts of crap going on, and you just got on the phone today and you’re doing your job, and then you’ll have to deal with something else later. If you don’t really give yourself time to think about that, then all of this is just a phone call in the middle of the day, right? There’s so much more to that, I think. I wanted to highlight that in the movie, and use it to also bring in these issues of race and wealth, because all of that influences our perception and what we think about people. 

MB: While the film isn’t explicitly about those ideas of class and race, it does bring into the picture this idea of how Mark’s character holds his privilege in ways he knows and ways he doesn’t. What motivated you to incorporate that discussion into the development of this relationship? 

NM: A lot of that was Mark’s idea. He had written this character of Adam to have been previously poor, and newly rich. It also was kind of inevitable when you compared what Mark’s house looks like to what my background was, and so we decided to dig into this and use it because it was such an obvious thing that’s right there. I’ve noticed in my life many people who are very well-intentioned don’t realize their privilege. They don’t quite understand when they are coming at me, or people like me, or people who are different than them, from a place of thinking that they know better than you about your own life. They’re just trying to help, but they don’t realize that. I was excited to explore that, and to directly say in the movie that Mark’s character is doing this white savior kind of thing. I really liked being able to talk about those things in the movie itself, rather than it being spoken about only when people talked about the movie. I like talking about those things that are hard to talk about. It’s very human. 

MB: Filming the movie the way you did was of course a practical decision, but developing this relationship through screens also forces you to focus exclusively on the words being said, that communication being built between the two of them. Did you find that to be beneficial in cutting out all of the extra stuff to focus squarely on these two people and how they are interacting with one another? 

NM: Mark and I have this in common, where we almost enjoy limitations because they make you get more creative in certain aspects. They bring out things that you didn’t think you could find somewhere else. This way of shooting literally makes you stare at someone’s face, directly, whereas if we were shooting a regular movie, even if it was a two-hander, it would be totally different. Not only because we’re acting right at each other’s faces, but also for the viewer watching it because they’re seeing these people dead-on most of the time. There’s nowhere to hide, there’s nothing you can do with that in the edit, there’s no other shots to cut to. It becomes difficult, but in that difficulty you find a lot of really interesting things. 

MB: Is that intimidating as an actor? To not have anywhere to hide? 

NM: It wasn’t intimidating as an actor as much as it was intimidating as a director. There wasn’t anything to cut to. That’s when it was hard, because you’re trying to make something as dynamic and interesting as possible, and you only have these two shots. Our editor, Aleshka Ferrero, and I developed these ways to make the audience focus on what we wanted them to focus on, whether by making one person big and one small, when to have an audio or video glitch, and other tiny tricks to edit the movie and use different things and cut things out. It was very intimidating and difficult to do, but it was also kind of a fun puzzle. 

MB: Something that you wisely made sure we didn’t pay any attention to was the prospect of this movie being a romance, which you kind of cut out of the equation immediately. Was that crucial for you and Mark from the beginning of the process, to make this a story about the development of a platonic friendship, instead of a romance? 

NM: Yeah, that was very intentional from the beginning. What we didn’t notice until after we made it, though, was that there aren’t a lot of movies like that with a male/female friendship, and specifically with a gay man and a woman. Which is such a common and big relationship for many people. There’s a very strong bond between a gay man and a female friend. I have that in my life, and many people I know have that, and I’ve never really seen that in a movie other than in side characters. So, yes it was very intentional to have it be about that. It was not so intentional to have it be one of the only movies about that. 

MB: Without giving anything away, you have a scene in the film where you are under the influence. Drunk acting is a very tricky art to pull off, as some actors will try and lean too hard into it, but I thought you did wonderfully. Do you have a trick for acting drunk on film?

NM: Wow, well thank you for that. I’m also hyper-aware of drunk acting and how terrible it can be. To be honest, the real trick is that I had one beer. I knew that wouldn’t make me drunk, but it would make me feel a certain way. I would have the taste of beer in my mouth, and it would remind me of what it felt like. I let myself be as loose as possible without acting drunk, if that makes any sense. I think the thing that people try and do when they’re actually drunk is try to act like they’re not drunk. I didn’t want to be drunk, of course, because I was directing, acting, and writing because the scene was improvised. 

MB: Oh, really? 

NM: We knew what information we wanted to get out. We knew what beats we wanted to hit, where we wanted it to start and where to end. And we had practiced the songs. Everything else was improvised though, because we wanted it to be as loose as possible. Most of the script was like that because we wanted it to feel conversational. There were some scenes that were fully written out, but not many. Mark described it really well the other day, by saying that when you’re directing and writing and improvising, you’re like a hapless passenger on the bus while also driving the bus. Because you have to be able to move the scene forward, not acting like you are moving the scene forward. 

MB: I’ve got to wrap in a minute, so I’d love to end by asking about some of your upcoming projects. I know you’ve got some acting work coming up, including one directed by David Wain. Do you know what’s next for you on the directing front? 

NM: I don’t. There are a lot of things in the air. Actually, I do know one thing. I’m supposed to direct an episode of TV that I’m very excited about, but I can’t tell you what it is. Beyond that, on the movie front there’s a lot of things in the air that are also very exciting, but I don’t know yet which one is going to happen next. 

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Written by Mitchell Beaupre

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