The first article that appears when you google Charlie McDowell, whose directorial debut The One I Love opens August 15, is E! Online’s “Five Things to Know About Rooney Mara’s Boyfriend.” Aside from his popular Twitter feed “Dear Girls Above Me” (snarky one-liners based on his neighbors’ too-loud conversations), McDowell has had the fortune of being primarily known for his associations. He is the son of Malcolm McDowell, the British cult film star immortalized by A Clockwork Orange and actor Mary Steenburgen (Melvin and Howard). Oh, and his stepdad is Ted Danson.
The One I Love may finally earn him a spotlight of his own. A dark romantic comedy and sci-fi hybrid, it stars Elisabeth Moss and Mark Duplass as a dysfunctional couple on the brink of divorce. Following the advice of their peculiar therapist (Danson), the pair gives their relationship one last go, retreating to a seemingly ordinary country house where strange things start happening. “I would rather go down swinging than play it safe,” the filmmaker cryptically explains.
While it seems he was born into the trade, McDowell rebelled against his privilege by pursuing competitive surfing as a teenager. But as he started making underwater videos of his friends, he found himself shooting more and more scenes—one just before they went into the water, another in the beach parking lot afterward. “I sort of made my way to land,” he jokes, “and I realized I just understood it. I understood the way to tell a story visually.”
The budding director ditched the wet suit to study film, eventually becoming one of the American Film Institute’s youngest fellows. In 2008, he met screenwriter Justin Lader, and the two spent the next four years working on the movie Fighting Jacob, which attracted indie maverick Duplass’s interest. “Two weeks later, the film fell apart, and I called him up and said, ‘All right, so remember when you said we could make a movie?’ And he was like, ‘Yep! Let’s go make one,’” McDowell remembers. With Duplass as executive producer, a single shooting location in Ojai, Cal. and a dream cast, they completed the film in six months.
“I was lucky in that I’ve grown up with a lot of people in this industry,” he admits. He showed the initial cut of the film to Steven Soderbergh, Scott Frank and Lena Dunham, who gave him positive critical feedback. And while it remains to be seen how a wider audience will respond, he and Lader are already working on another script following in the same Charlie Kaufmanesque vein. With a notable difference: “There’s more than one location,” McDowell says, adding excitedly, “We’ll actually have to move our gear.”