The Pretty One is director Jenée Lamarque’s feature debut, a heartfelt comedy about loss, identity, and the things that make us unique. Featuring a memorable dual performance by Zoe Kazan, the film twists and turns as wallflower Laurel gets the opportunity to live the life of her charismatic twin Audrey. Bringing this unusually moving and surprisingly buoyant story to life was a matter both of great passion and great technical precision on the part of the filmmakers.
“It’s an extremely personal film,” says Jenée Lamarque, who was inspired by the stories of twins who had survived the loss of a twin sibling. Even though she herself is not a twin, Lamarque could see that the story of Laurel’s journey had broad appeal. “Women in general struggle a lot with the question of ‘Where do you fit in on the spectrum of femininity? Who are you? I feel like I have a little Audrey and a little Laurel in me – part of me feels insecure, scared to take a chance, and there’s another side that is bold and brave.”
Lamarque fashioned a script that made Laurel’s seemingly farfetched scheme to pass herself off as Audrey not only plausible, but necessary, not only for Laurel to emerge and blossom as a human being, but also for her and her family to begin the process of properly mourning the devastating loss of her sister. Producer Steven Berger, who had produced Lamarque’s 2012 Sundance Film Festival short “Spoonful,” came aboard early. Veteran producer and executive Robin Schorr first made contact with Lamarque through an American Film Institute-sponsored pitch festival. “I sent her company the script and we had a great meeting,” remembers Lamarque, who was thrilled just to get feedback from Schorr, whose track record includes shepherding projects such as “The Sixth Sense” and “Jerry Maguire” to production. “Two days later, she called me and said she wanted to executive produce the film. That was kind of the best day ever.” With Schorr on board – eventually her participation warranted her receiving full producer credit – the project quickly went from fascinating script to a green light.
One of Schorr’s first recommendations was casting director Mary Vernieu (“Silver Linings Playbook,” “The Perks of Being a Wallflower”) to identify the right actress to play the dual roles of Audrey and Laurel. “We needed to find someone who really understood the tone of the film,” says Larmarque. “We wanted to find someone who is a great actress that has classical training and background, but also has training in comedy and understands comic timing, and those two things don’t always go hand in hand.” The filmmakers met with several promising actresses who seemed to favor one skill or character over the other. “We were about to cast someone we weren’t quite 100% on, and we thought we should do one more session.” New York-based Zoe Kazan happened to be in Los Angeles at that time and immediately impressed Lamarque. “As soon as she started I was laughing hysterically,” the director remembers. “We had the same sense of humor. I turned to Steven and it was completely unspoken, we both thought ‘there’s our girl.’”
Like Lamarque, Zoe Kazan saw the story as one that offered up Audrey and Laurel as representative of struggles that are universal. “These two characters are two sides of one coin,” Kazan explains. “They are both aspects of my personality, I’ve been through it on both sides – feeling less than, then feeling good about yourself. This is a story about where you get your self-esteem, whether it is ‘good’ self-esteem or ‘bad’ self-esteem.”
With Kazan in place, the filmmakers turned to finding the right actors to play the characters most affected by Laurel’s ruse. Basel is Audrey’s neighbor (and tenant, since she owns both units in the townhouse they share); a free-spirited book collector with a biting sense of humor, he’s someone that ambitious and fashionable Audrey could barely tolerate, but is just the sort of playful companion who can get Laurel out of her shell. Lamarque confesses that the way in which actor Jake Johnson (“Safety Not Guaranteed”) was cast was motivated by a highly unusual event. “I had a dream that I cast him,” she says with a laugh. “In this dream, I was a barista and I served him, but I didn’t know his name! I remember thinking in the dream ‘I have to cast this guy!’” Fortunately, her waking self was able to recall Johnson’s name, and he proved to be a very fortuitous (if subconscious)
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choice. “Zoe and Jake became fast friends,” says Lamarque. “He’s one of the funniest people I’ve ever met, and instantly had everyone on the set in love with him, he’s so easy-going and down to earth.”
Another key part is that of Frank, Audrey and Laurel’s widowed father. Although Frank does require a little care and attention, it’s clear at the beginning of the film that Laurel is using him as an excuse to remain housebound. In fact, Frank has a new girlfriend and his health is improving: but as the strong, silent type, Frank can’t admit that his connection to Laurel is precious, especially now that Audrey has moved away. Laurel is then in the unique position of watching her father mourn her own death, an action that has a profound impact on Laurel’s continued decision to live her life as Audrey.
Lamarque is very pleased that they found veteran character actor John Carroll Lynch to take on the part of Frank. A veteran of nearly 100 films and television shows (and a very distinguished stage career, including a stint at the prestigious Guthrie Theatre in Minnesota), Lynch is a familiar face and known for his intense commitment to his characters. “He’s a deep actor and deep human being,” says Lamarque. “He was in character on set and not even aware of doing it – he kept apologizing for me for being so gruff, so much like Frank. But it’s because he cares so deeply, and that was refreshing and inspiring. He’s also funny and magnanimous, very respectful of the script and the process.” In particular, Lamarque says that one of the most memorable moments of the film come when Frank makes a gesture towards his surviving daughter that is fraught with terror, anger, and heartbreak, picking her up in a powerful but frightening embrace. “He had this idea to pick her up and he practiced on the body double, and my heart stopped,” recalls the director, a moment that he recreated effectively moments later with Kazan as the cameras were rolling.
Lamarque’s remark about Kazan’s body double reminds the viewer that the process of shooting “twins” is a complex one, and she credits the extraordinary effort of the unseen double, Katherine Macanufo, in helping Zoe Kazan execute both performances as Audrey and Laurel. “During the scenes where the twins are having a conversation, Zoe would always act with Katherine. We had about a week of rehearsal before shooting where they worked together, so that the audience could feel that connection across the split screen. Zoe would act as one character first, then come back and replicate what Katherine had done, and vice-versa.”
As for the on-screen appearance of Audrey and Laurel talking to each other – essentially Kazan talking to herself in two conversations filmed separately – the process was accomplished by using the same basic technique that made Georges Melies the first magician of cinema over 100 years ago, and that has been used by great filmmakers from Buster Keaton to David Cronenberg. “We locked off the camera and shot plates,” says Lamarque, referring to a process whereby half of the camera lens is blocked the first time through and the opposite side blocked the second time. “We cheated some over-the-shoulder shots with the body double, who was the exact same size. It’s a very laborious process – it takes about three times the amount of effort and time as it would to do the same shot with two actors. And there is a lot of mathematics and calculus involved!”
Shooting in Los Angeles in Ventura County, The Pretty One visually matches the duality of Laurel and Audrey in its production design (Anne Costa) and cinematography (Polly Morgan). From the side-by-side townhomes that bring Laurel and Basel to a shared space, to the subtle reflections in color between the twins’ rural hometown and Audrey’s hipster neighborhood, the film tells its story as much with pictures as words. Ultimately, Lamarque could not be prouder of her first effort. “One of the things that is most meaningful for me is when people say that they really connected with something in the film, and that they take the time to say how it affected them. I had a twin come say at a Q+A, ‘I feel every scene as an identical twin’ after watching the movie.”