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Daryl Wein and Zoe Lister-Jones are sitting in a location van, en route to Central Park for a shoot, the easy rapport between them obvious. Asked how they met, Wein deadpans that they “were both strippers. We met doing erotic dance.” Lister-Jones then picks up on the joke. “We funded our movie fully in cash. We paid for it in…” “Singles,” Wein finishes her thought.
The film under discussion, “Breaking Upwards,” opens in New York on April 2 through the IFC Center. It is the first independent project together for the filmmakers-actors, whose personal history preceded their professional one. They met as students at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, and quickly became a couple. “Breaking Upwards” is based in part on their real-life relationship — the part in which they got a little bored with each other, and so decided to switch from an exclusive relationship to an “open” one. The project blurs the lines between fiction and reality. Wein, 26, and Lister-Jones, 27, portray themselves by name, while stressing that the story line is fictionalized, in a Woody Allen-esque plot alongside Julie White, Olivia Thirlby and Andrea Martin. The film made its debut at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, last year and has received rave reviews and awards on the indie circuit.
“I think that [filmmakers] are growing tired of formula [in films] and are trying to go against the norms,” says Wein, noting such films as “500 Days of Summer” and “Paper Heart.” “Instead of having the fairy tale where the couple leaps into each others’ arms and gets back together, we are just trying to portray a reality that is more relatable,” he adds.
The idea for “Breaking Upwards” began in 2006 when, after two years together, Lister-Jones proposed the two try a “days on/days off” plan. The idea was that while “on,” she and Wein would act like a conventional couple, but during days “off” they would be free to date and sleep with other people. When he agreed, the two embarked on a year of “don’t ask, don’t tell.”
“We were in very different places,” says Lister-Jones, whose credits include “State of Play” and this summer’s “Salt.” “I started working pretty quickly once I graduated [in 2004]. I think it’s confusing as a young actress to be in these exciting situations with all these new people. I didn’t want to feel tied down. Daryl, at the time, was in panic mode because he was trying to figure out his place in the world and his career path.”
Not surprisingly, the pair was met with the incredulity of family and friends, and fielded frequent comments like “You’re crazy” and “This is never going to work.” “It was definitely taboo, I think, but instinctually the human species is not meant to be with only one person sexually,” says Wein. That said, he does acknowledge the nerve-wracking nature of their agreement: “There was definitely a tinge of anxiety. You weren’t sure if you were going to run into the other person with someone else, and it’s emotionally overwhelming to deal with more than one person.”
And to keep behind the wall of “don’t ask,” Wein began documenting the conversations and fights that resulted from their new relationship status, and these “journaling” exercises led to the first draft of the script. “At some point, I was like, ‘This would be a hysterical movie,’” says Wein, who previously directed the independent films “Sex Positive” and “Unlocked.”
Lister-Jones was less than thrilled, and removed herself from the project while continuing in the “on” and “off.” Wein continued to work on the screenplay with friend and co-writer Peter Duchan. A year later, Lister-Jones had apparently had her fill of freedom. She suggested reverting back to their monogamous state, and rejoined the film project. On a budget of $15,000, the couple cowrote (with Duchan) and coproduced the movie; Wein directed it and Lister-Jones catered meals on various shooting days. “It’s a real mom-and-pop shop,” she says.
Staying true to their own characterizations, the stars wore their everyday clothes, a mix of thrift-store pieces and stylish Opening Ceremony finds. Says Wein, “Wearing our own clothes added to the authenticity that we were going for.”
But despite the fact that the actors play themselves in the film, Wein contends that “Breaking Upwards” is a dramatized version of their relationship: “The details and descriptions are very fictional compared to what really happened. [Our story] just set up the broad strokes.”
Still, the art-imitating-life plotline is certainly cause for intrigue. Viewers on the festival circuit have bombarded Wein and Lister-Jones with personal questions ranging from whether their co-stars were their actual lovers to what their sex life is like now. “Even though we’ve made a film about our relationship and talk about it incessantly, there are still painful elements that we don’t feel like rehashing all the time,” says Lister-Jones.
Wein is more accepting of the curiosity. “Sometimes it is a little too personal,” he says. “But we brought it onto ourselves, so we can’t really get mad.”