We chatted to writer-director Riley Stearns about his new film ‘Dual’ starring Karen Gillan and Aaron Paul, released in theatres on April 15.
Dual follows Sarah (Karen Gillan), a woman living in the near future who becomes terminally ill. Using technology available to her, Sarah makes a copy of herself to help her loved ones grieve after she dies. Unfortunately, when things go awry, there’s only enough room for one of them.
In this interview with Riley, we discuss his process behind making Dual, unconventional casting, balancing the story and much more.
As both the Writer and Director of Dual, what made this a story you wanted to tell?
Riley Stearns: The simple answer is that initially, I wanted to have an actor perform opposite themselves. The idea came to me pretty early on. In an alternate reality, if you’re going to die, you have the opportunity to have yourself cloned. Then, your family wouldn’t have an issue.
I knew that wasn’t enough. I knew there had to be something else there, to make it a path for me to go down. One day I asked the question, “What would happen if you went into remission?” Well, of course, the obvious answer was immediately that you’d have to duel your clone to the death. That’s what changed the movie.
You assembled a talented cast, including Karen Gillan and Aaron Paul to play lead roles. These are very different from their usual parts. What convinced you that these were the right people for the parts you’d written?
Riley Stearns: Well, exactly the reason you mentioned, it’s not expected. It’s too often that we see the same people do the same things. I don’t want to say necessarily that it would be a form of typecasting. I like that Karen is not maybe the obvious choice. She has done movies that are a little big bigger or broader, like Jumanji, Guardians or even Doctor Who.
Aaron’s cool, he came in. I’ve known him for years now. Like you said, this is not a usual role for an Aaron Paul-type of film. For him to come in and immediately get the tone and dialogue. Both he and Karen had seen my previous films. That made it a little easier. It’s not necessarily the comfort zone you’d imagine Aaron Paul would like to live in. He just went for it.
Dual as a title is a very clever play on words. On one hand, meaning two parts while also sounding like ‘Duel’, another key component of the story. Did you prioritise Sarah having to live with another version of herself or the fight to the death?
Riley Stearns: The movie is described as this ‘fight to the death’ thing. I felt that was the obvious path to get people in. The movie’s more about discovering who you are. Taking life and saying, “I’m going to make my own choices. I’m going to try to better myself” and less about the fighting of it all.
Obviously, there’s fighting and training in the movie. There are conversations about life and death. At the end of the day, it’s more about the people than the act.
Karen and I had many conversations about Sarah’s Double. We never wanted her to feel like a villain. She’s her own person and she may be different. We maybe like Sarah more and relate to her more. It doesn’t make Sarah’s Double a bad person. I think she’s just different.
Slight spoiler: You actually make a brief cameo in the film, very Hitchcockian. Did you intend to put yourself in the script? How did that come together?
Riley Stearns: Absolutely not [intend to]. For eagle-eyed listeners, I made two cameos. I’m in the Drive-Thru scene, reading the lines to Karen. The sound people said, “You’re never going to get it to sound as real as you just did.” You may as well just use it. They used my voice there too.
The actual video cameo was not on purpose. We shot in Finland during COVID. Bringing other actors in was not going to happen. It was too expensive and too hard to get people during the quarantine. We were stuck with the very limited resource of people living in Finland who are actors. We didn’t want the entire movie to have only Finnish accents.
So, we found an American actor who was going to be that character. On the day of the shoot, he had a sore throat. When we found that out, I said, “I guess I’m in the movie now.” I already in my head knew I needed an American accent there. Not by design, I had to be in the movie.
Ultimately, what do you hope audiences take away from watching Dual?
Riley Stearns: I’m not one to tell people what to think. I don’t think it’s a message movie or I’m trying to teach any lessons. Other than wanting [the audience] to enjoy the film, laugh and feel something. I do think we are all guilty of falling out of step with who we want to be. Sitting back and saying, “Well, this is enough.”
I like that I am trying to be better about who I am and who I want to be in life. Not being cheesy – just be yourself and don’t just accept life for what it is. Make it the life you want it to be. Again, very cheesy answer, but it’s the truth.
What do you hope to accomplish with the rest of 2022 – whether projects or personal achievements?
Riley Stearns: Great question. I’d love to figure out and hopefully write the fourth feature. This is my third one, Dual. Outside of movies, I train in Jiu-Jitsu. I’ve been doing that for 9 years now. It’s my favourite thing in the world. Before I get my black belt, I’d love to do one more competition.
Do a little better this time at Worlds – I compete every year. I would love to compete at Brown Belt one more time and maybe podium. I haven’t been podium since I was a Purple Belt in 2019. Very specific goal, but I would love to do well in Jiu-Jitsu.