Charlie McDowell is Hollywood royalty. He’s the son of Mary Steenburgen and Malcolm McDowell. (The two were married before she wed Ted Danson.) But he’s no rich kid, cashing in on his parents’ success. He’s worked hard, and he’s co-written and directed two films that show he has a real, uncompromising voice. “The One I Love,” starring Elisabeth Moss and Mark Duplass, is a brutally honest (though funny) look at relationships. McDowell’s latest film, “The Discovery,” is about death.
Robert Redford plays a physicist who claims he’s scientifically proven the existence of an afterlife. This has caused an alarming amount of the global population to kill themselves, expecting to wind up in a better place. It’s not a huge sci-fi film; it’s character-driven, set largely at the doctor’s remote clinic, where he deals with family members (Jason Segel, Jesse Plemons), staff (Riley Keough) and a mysterious woman (Rooney Mara, also McDowell’s girlfriend).
Both these films are incredibly dark, tackling subjects few like to talk about honestly.
That’s the sandbox me and Justin [Lader], my writing partner, like to play in. We like forcing you to think and feel in ways that you might not be super comfortable doing. The hope is the audience is asking these questions, too — that we all think about these things regardless of where you come from or what the makeup of who you are is. They’re ideas we constantly think about.
They’re also — this even moreso — sci-fi films done on the cheap, but not in a way that looks cheap. It’s just actors and practical locations, not huge sets and big special effects.
We obviously look up to someone like Christopher Nolan, who’s doing it on such a big scale and makes such good movies. But what’s exciting for us taking similar ideas but doing it in a purely character-driven way. Everything is about the characters. The story unfolds that way; it’s less about, “Let’s use these effects” or “Let’s do a huge set piece here.” We don’t think that way, because we’re playing on a much smaller scale. But it’s a cool scale to be playing on. Not a lot of people doing it, and there’s a reason for that. [Laughs] But for us we make the films that we would want to see.
“The Discovery” is more ambitious in scale than “The One I Love.” That had only two actors. Here you have a bunch, and one of them is Robert Redford.
It’s absurd to have this cast on my second film. I tried not to think about anything other than telling the story in an authentic, real way. I honestly didn’t treat Redford any differently than anyone else, even though he’s such a god-like figure to me. It would have been a disservice to him if I thought about that too much.
You’ve also given him a rare less-than-noble role. His character is kind of unstable, unpredictable, maybe even dangerous.
There were two reasons I wanted Redford. One was the movie opens with his character explaining that he’s proven the existence of the afterlife. We need to hear it from someone and believe what they’re saying. There are very few actors on the planet who when they say, “The afterlife exists and I have proven it,” you believe it. Redford is definitely one of those people. He needed to feel larger than life and very commanding for us to believe it. But then also the character is much more complicated than that behind the veil. I thought it would be really interesting to see darker sides to Redford’s performance.
There’s a scary moment in the film where he puts Riley Keough’s character [who works at the clinic] on a stage in front of all these people. He intimidates her and she starts to cry. And Redford leans in and wipes a tear from her cheek, then hands her the mike to keep speaking. I remember being at the monitor, thinking, ‘Oh my god, that is cold.’ It almost scared me. I went up afterwards and said, “Bob that was dark, man.” He was like, “I know! Was it too much?” I said, “No, that was great!” And then I went up to Riley and said, “Are you OK?” And she said, “When he wiped the tear off I freaked out.” That was never scripted. It shows that Bob at 80 years old is still trying new things.
You also get to direct your mom, however briefly.
She came in for one day. For some reason she was freaked out. She wanted to memorize every line and be really prepared. She did it and she was amazing. I just try to focus on my job and then later think about what just happened. That’s how it was with Redford. The same with my mom. I had to tell myself, ‘OK, you can’t get too into the idea that you’re directing your mom. This is the actress that’s doing this scene.’ But I did call her “mom” when I went up to give her direction. It would have been very weird to call her “Mary.” It was totally my mom right there.