Still from "The Pretty One"
Still from "The Pretty One"

Being a sister is hard, but being the sister of your dead twin is way harder. That's the sad predicament socially awkward Laurel (Zoe Kazan) finds herself in, but she's so fed up with being unnoticed and unappreciated she decides to impersonate her late sister Audrey -- "the pretty one." 

Jenee LaMarque makes her directing debut in The Pretty One, a pleasantly quirky dramedy along the lines of Little Miss Sunshine and Lars and the Real Girl -- as much a sweet tale about learning to love oneself as a meditation on the malleability of femininity. After her script landed on the 2011 Black List, LaMarque had the momentum to enlist top talent like Kazan (who's wonderful here) and New Girl's Jake Johnson, who plays her love interest -- but only knows Laurel as Audrey. The Pretty One opens February 7 in limited release. 

Below, LaMarque talks about how her childhood obsession with twins led to this story, how fellow director Katie Aselton inspired her to go behind the camera, and why showing Jake Johnson's belly button was a feminist act. 

How did you come up with the story?

The beginning of the story came from when I wrote the first act of a really, really bad screenplay in which there was a character who was younger, like 14 years old, who had an identical twin sister who died the year before. I was in a screenwriting class at the time, and they said, "Even if you've written something you really hate maybe pick the one element from it that you feel is the strongest and means the most to you and maybe you can build a story around that." I remember hearing that and that was kind of the seed of this story -- the story of someone losing their twin and then I thought, if I'm going to do that, it can't be a heavy melodrama, or super sad thing; it needs to represent my sense of humor which is more perverse and dark. That's how the beginning of the story came from that sort of synthesis.

Was the tone hard to pin down?

Yeah, for sure. That was the big challenge of writing the script. It was less of a challenge once we were actually making the film -- more of a challenge during the writing process. Sometimes the script would veer too far, playing the comedy too hard, and so you'd have to pull it back and make it feel a little bit more real. That was a process of getting feedback and trying to get it right so I felt like it was of one mind, and cohesive in terms of the comedy of the film. That took a lot of back and forth.

How would you describe the tone of the end result?

I guess I would describe it as a dark comedy. You also could describe it as a drama with comedic elements. I don't know which one to put forward. I think it's in the vein of something like Lars and the Real Girl or Little Miss Sunshine. Those movies are amazing -- and I'm not saying that our movie is as good as those movies – but I think it's in that sort of tonal universe.

It definitely has that Fox Searchlight feel.


What's your fascination with twins?

I've always been interested in and obsessed with twins -- my whole life. Growing up there were twins in my class, and I felt like everyone treated them like they were these magical people. Everyone had their favorite one, or the one who was prettier than the other. I was a very lonely kid so I felt like "If I only had a twin I wouldn't be so lonely anymore. These girls are so popular and everyone treats them like they're these special people." So I was always interested in them, and my favorite book from childhood is called Jacob Have I Loved. [The book is] about twins -- they're not identical -- but it's about the dynamic, and similar to The Pretty One, there's one who's a tomboy and rough and tumble, and then there's the one who's talented and a fabulous singer. [They're both] coming of age stories. I loved Sweet Valley High growing up. I was always just been very interested in twins.

Did you like Elizabeth or Jessica?

I identified more with Jessica. She's the bad girl. I don't know if I was the bad girl but I wanted to be the bad girl.

I always felt like I knew I was an Elizabeth, but I wanted to be a Jessica.

Ha. Yes. That's kind of how I felt. For sure. "I don't think I'm this person, but I want to be." I feel like twinship and female twinship is a vehicle for what I think are important issues about what it means to be a woman, where you fit on the spectrum of femininity, and the choices that you make as a woman – how you represent yourself. [In The Pretty One,] there are two identical people, and one chooses to represent themselves in this way that's overtly conventionally beautiful and the other one is not making those decisions and is being regarded as "the ugly one" even though they're identical. I'm really interested in that -- in what it means to be a woman, and how [your] aesthetic choices determine how the world sees you, and where do you fit into it -- how do you feel [about these choices that you're making]. I'm interested in that topic as well, so twins are a vehicle for exploring that aspect of being a woman.

What was it like to make the 2011 Black List? 

It was really, really exciting for me to be on the list with this project. It sort of gave us really great momentum. We started casting the film before we were mentioned on the list. It was the same time I had a short film at Sundance in 2012 so to have that happen at the same time – within a week of The Black List – I feel like having the short at Sundance and being on The Black List was really important in terms of giving us momentum. Attaching a great cast felt like it really helped with exposure and giving us some credibility. The Black List is a really big honor. As an aspiring screenwriting, that was a dream of mine. Having that happen was really amazing. I think it helped us a lot. 

How did you came to the decision to direct the movie yourself?

I went to AFI for screenwriting and while I was there I wrote a short film that is my favorite thing I've ever written, and someone I really respect directed it. It was a really personal story for me and it was really, really difficult for me to see someone else direct it because I felt like I knew what the story was, and what it should look like. My background is in acting before transitioning into screenwriting so I felt like I really knew how to communicate with actors. It was a realization that I felt like I was meant to be a director. I wasn't just going to be a screenwriter, not that anyone's just a screenwriter, but I felt like I also needed to see this particular project, which I had been writing, all the way to the end. I felt as personally connected to the script [of The Pretty One] as the short one, so I was like "I'm going to direct it."

At the same time I had a girlfriend named Katie Aselton who had directed her first feature that year and it went to Sundance. They had made it using a super micro budget. It's called The Freebie. My husband is a composer and he had done the music for the film, so we went to Sundance for the film and she sold it there. I was so inspired by her that I was going to make this film -- I was going to direct it myself even if it was on a really small, small budget. I resolved myself to do it then, and now here we are: we're talking about the film. It's really something. This journey is how I came to direct.

Do you have a favorite scene within the movie?

My favorite scene is what a lot of people's is, which is when Zoe [Kazan] and Jake [Johnson,] playing Lauren and Basel, are in the swimming pool and they're sort of discovering that they both like each other. It just feels real to me when I watch it and I'm really proud of their work in that scene. I feel like it's a culmination of a lot of the things Laurel is going through at that point.

I can picture that scene so readily. There's a quick shot of his belly button, which for some reason made him so vulnerable. And you see the relationship opening up. The belly button thing was really important to me.

Yeah, you know, and I felt like it's sort of a feminist thing. Usually in most movies you're seeing everything from a male point of view and that's definitely from her point of view -- a woman looking at a man and being attracted to him. It makes him vulnerable, too. Yeah, for sure.  I never thought of it that way but it totally does.

Can you talk about that wonderful funeral scene a little bit, when Laurel goes to her own funeral?

For me, that scene is all about "What is the worst possible thing that could happen if you went to your own funeral?" For me, the worst possible thing that could happen is for no one to give a shit about you. No one cared about you or your life at all. That would be horrible – horrific. That to me is what sort of launched her into the decision that she makes: to continue, or go along, with the decision that she's made [to take on her sister's identity.] In some ways she throws a tantrum a little bit at the end of it, an element where she's so upset that she lashes out. For me, when people get really angry and upset and they're put on the spot, they act out. That was a fun scene for me to write, because it's like, what would you say to those people that didn't care about you? I guess that's the spin on the scene -- what would be the worst thing that could possibly happen. And you know, her dad actually does care about her; he's just not the best at using his words to say what he needs to say. He's a little bit shocked and isn't a man of a lot of words. That's what went into writing it and [figuring out] how we justify this decision that she makes it, and to me, that was the way to do it, or part of the way.

Any advice to other filmmakers?

When I got into this, I had a clue of what I wanted to do and how I was going to do it, but I learned so much along the way. That's the important thing to know. You're going to learn: the only way you're going to learn how to make a feature is by making a feature so you kind of have to dive in head first. If you want to do it, if you have the love and desire to do it, be stronger than your fear to do it. Even though you're scared, do it. Just do it and jump in. For me, a lot of resolve to make it, even though there was no reason for anyone to believe I could do it, it's like, if you tell people you're going to do it, they just believe you. Then you do it, and you end up believing it.

That seems like the one type of instance where something like The Secret actually works. You just have to say, "This is what's happening" to make it happen.

Hahaha. Yeah, that sounded really cheesy for sure. My dad is a motivational speaker and as much as that was challenging for me growing up -- having that be part of my life -- I definitely took some of it in and some of it actually works.