it's complicated

Why Did Lake Bell Make a Defense-of-Marriage Movie?

Ed Helms and Lake Bell. Photo: Courtesy of The Film Arcade

Welcome to It’s Complicated, a week of stories on the sometimes frustrating, sometimes confusing, always engrossing subject of modern relationships.

Mild spoilers for the ending of I Do … Until I Don’t below.

I Do … Until I Don’t, the second feature from comedian and In a World auteur Lake Bell, opens with documentary filmmaker Vivian Prudeck (Dolly Wells) explaining why she thinks marriage is a defunct institution. “Betrothed is a word from the 1500s. I mean, the bloody Ming Dynasty was still around. Our problem is that we live too long,” she narrates in wry deadpan. Her proposition: Reimagine marriage as a seven-year contract, with option to renew. “Now we insist on doing Pilates-colonic retreats and vitamin drips, convicting ourselves to a dreadfully long existence with one partner for half a bloody century. What do we do? Collectively as a species, die younger? Or, a far less painful fate: rethink the system.”

For jaded millennial viewers like myself, skeptical of traditional monogamy and sick of being spoon-fed happy endings by saccharine romantic comedies, Vivian actually presents a pretty compelling thesis — one that I Do … Until I Don’t works to gradually dismantle over the course of its hour- -and-45-minute run time. Vivian ends up recruiting three Floridian couples for a documentary designed to prove that marriage is a sham: stalled, sexually frustrated 30-somethings Alice (Bell) and Noah (Ed Helms); perpetually bickering older couple Harvey (Paul Reiser) and Cybil (Mary Steenburgen); and bohemian free spirits Fanny (Amber Heard) and Zander (Wyatt Cenac), each with their own unique set of problems. Yet by the end of the movie, it’s Vivian’s skeptical worldview (and her questionable journalistic ethics) that falls apart. What starts out looking like a jaded anti-rom-com actually has a deeply sentimental core, and a message that seems to affirm the possibility of lasting love.

It’s an unexpectedly Apatowian ending — an endorsement of family and commitment over separation and fresh starts — yet one that Bell actually considers to be the more radical stance in our jaded, commitment-phobic era. “In the Tinder generation, you’re just a quick swipe away from someone, so it feels like you can dispose of someone really quickly,” says Bell. “The more provocative relationship in this day and age is to commit without waver.”

We talked to Bell about why she chose to make a movie defending matrimony, how her own marriage — to tattoo artist Scott Campbell, back in 2013 — helped her believe in love, and whether she believes open relationships can ever truly work. I Do … Until I Don’t is out September 1.

Why did you decide to make a film that is ultimately such an endorsement of traditional marriage?
I started writing this movie probably nine years ago, and at that juncture in my life I was pretty entrenched in a cynical, somewhat jaded position towards the institution. [I was] feeling it was archaic and thinking, “What are we all doing at this point? That’s a tall ask of ‘Till death do us part.’ We live to be 90 years old these days.” I think that as an unromantic [person], I deep down wanted to be proved wrong. I had a fantasy and a hope that maybe my cynical views would be challenged one day. Lo and behold, enter Scott Campbell. I met him while I was writing this movie and he has been deeply inspiring and fearless when it comes to committing and loving wholeheartedly. In a way, he’s taught me that the braver path is to go all-in. To bail when the going gets rough is a road to never really evolving. If no one’s going to call you out on your shit then how are you going to know what your shit is?

It really came from a place of my own inspiration in my life and feeling that in a sea of newsworthy tension and darkness and angst and worry, I really wanted to put something out there that was kind-spirited. In general I want to do that. This movie is about respecting what it means to have a partner — the privilege to evolve and grow with someone and to have a witness in life, a shared experience with someone. To have that hopeful message is almost provocative in this day and age, and slightly more refreshing for me personally. That’s the kind of movie I felt excited to put out in the universe.

When you started writing the movie you weren’t in a long-term relationship, is that right?
Yes, that’s correct.

Did you always envision the movie having a happy ending, or did that start to change as your own relationship started to change?
I always wanted it to have a happy ending, but I didn’t understand how that would function authentically until I met Scott. It was the hope. When I set 0ut to write I don’t overly plan, and certainly not [when it comes to] the ending. I like to parcel out and structurally give myself guidelines in the direction that I hope to get to. But I really did want [the film] to be a positive influence, because it was a fantasy for me. I wasn’t sure what that meant and what that felt like until I met Scott.

So this movie is an ode to love and your reaffirmed belief in it.
Yeah, and to be bold in committing. Instead of being like, “That’s a cop out, they just got married and settled.” There’s often a negative connotation to the concept [of lifelong commitment].

You mentioned something before about it being trendy to dismiss marriage and commitment. I’m definitely seeing that now among my friends — there’s this sort of jaded attitude about it. We ran a piece on the Cut about a woman whose friends all said she was crazy to have a baby in her 20s, and she suggested that nowadays, at least in certain circles, it’s almost seen as more radical to follow that “traditional” path. Was your goal to make a commentary on our generation’s jaded approach to commitment and marriage and pregnancy?
Absolutely, yeah. I was one of those people. I used to view marriage as some kind of cop out or something, like people say, “Oh, you’re going to settle down,” and it was so negative sounding. Versus, “You’re going to be someone who’s brave as fuck. You’re going to jump in and trudge through the mud and scary messy business of what a committed relationship really is and vow to not bail when it gets ugly.” That’s real living. In the Tinder generation, you’re just a quick swipe away from someone, so it feels like you can dispose of someone really quickly. The more provocative relationship in this day and age is to commit without waver.

I guess the argument against that is a lot of people feel pressured to commit and thus stay in very unhappy relationships longer than they should — particularly women. They feel like they made a commitment, even though maybe they were very different people when they got together and it may not right for them anymore. Was there any thought to showing a couple that did break up?
Of course. I don’t think that every relationship needs to stay together or stay intact no matter what. Every relationship does deserve the effort. Effort in a relationship and the respect of that effort is something we have less patience for as a generation. I think that if you can put in the real dirty work to forge through the difficult times, either it doesn’t work or there is something very worthwhile on the other side of it.

The best relationship advice I’ve ever gotten is go to therapy, and not just couples’ therapy but therapy for yourself, in order to exist as a team and successfully function. I was a part of a divorce as a young child. I have seen it from the inside out. I have witnessed it among friends. I don’t think every relationship needs to end in a happy bow. You never know what the big, messy hard thing is going to be in your relationship; something will occur and you will have to get on the other side of it. Part of a great relationship is understanding fully that even as the terms are defined in a relationship, they will always change.

Fanny and Zander are initially in this seemingly Utopian open relationship, but then we find out out that they actually don’t want to sleep with other people after all. You don’t see that many depictions of nonmonogamous relationships onscreen, and I was kind of optimistic that we were going to see a functional version of that depicted the film. I’m wondering if you think that these sorts of relationships aren’t really viable.
I have many friends who are in open relationships, but even in the most secure and progressive relationships there are complications with that construct. They would admit that fully. That said, in this particular story, the message I was interested in portraying was the idea that all relationships change, not just monogamous ones. You can say, “We are in an open relationship and that is how we will function from now on.” But “from now on” is just until the terms change again. Part of a healthy relationship is being very open to new rules and new boundaries and new ways to guide the relationship. You have to be flexible and fluid, and that’s why communication is so important. If we become rigid it’s just not appropriate in any sort of committed, long-term relationship. You can’t be rigid.

Harvey and Cybil in particular seemed to have a compelling case for splitting up. There was obviously so much hostility and resentment that had built up between them over the years. What value did you seen in having them stay together, and what does their relationship represent in the context of this story?
Because relationships are so deeply about communication, I think Harvey and Cybil really represent the type of relationship where they are almost unaware of how deeply connected they are. The way they connect [is] in a more outwardly volatile way. Internally they care the most, probably. I do have family friends who I have known historically have been married for 50 years or something, but they are constantly arguing and cheeky with the way they interact. I think that is a certain type of relationship; that’s not my relationship. That’s not sustainable for me.

There is one line that got cut out where Cybil says, “My mom used to say that even though we argue all the time, at least we’re talking to each other.” Part of couples’ therapy is learning how to argue. You have to learn how to be good arguers and good communicators. Arguing is how some people communicate, but at least they’re talking about stuff and it’s on the table. Everybody’s very transparent about how they feel, which in a way makes me feel that they communicate in a way that is far better than people like Alice and Noah, who are entrenched in regression and suppression. They’ve become almost atrophied in their emotional responses.

Vivian actually seemed to have some pretty convincing views at the beginning, although she became pretty detestable as the film went on. Why did you position her as such a villain?
She’s sort of the Puck-like character, she’s the rabble-rouser. Her own heartbreak and desperation is what really inspires her need to prove this thesis. She needs to [make this film] in order to justify the wrongs in her previous marriage. She also provided me a mouthpiece to express one side of an argument that I have investigated myself and somewhat understand, which is that the institution does feel archaic if you look at it from certain angles. I have just seen the light a little bit about what marriage means to me right now. Sometimes I think of this movie as chapter one of a lifelong investigation of the subject.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Why Did Lake Bell Make a Defense-of-Marriage Movie?