A love of music on and off the screen helped bring together director Drake Doremus and actor Guy Pearce.
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18 Jun 2013 - 2:44 PM  UPDATED 18 Jun 2013 - 2:44 PM

Drake Doremus's 2011 Sundance Grand Jury Prizewinner Like Crazy was a hard act to follow. One of the most heart-wrenching of love stories, the film launched British rose Felicity Jones onto the international stage and showed that former child star and Russian-born American Anton Yelchin (Chekov in Star Trek) could do romance. Given that Doremus's approach is improvisational, his actors have to be smart and able to think on their feet. So who could possibly fill the over-achieving, fast-talking Yelchin's shoes in his follow-up?

Knowing Guy was a musician, though, was really exciting because he wasn’t starting from scratch

Since it was titled Breathe In, perhaps a more introspective actor would fit the bill. After quite a bit of convincing, our own Guy Pearce was up for the challenge. The role required an attractive actor of a certain age and 45-year-old Pearce may be spawning grey flecks in his hair and beard, but he remains boyishly handsome.

“I met with a bunch of actors for this part,” recalls Doremus (pictured), 30, “and after meeting with Guy I knew in the first 10 minutes that he had it in him to play Keith. It took some convincing on his behalf because I think at first he was a little nervous about improvising in a foreign dialect and learning to play the cello, but he did all of that so beautifully. It's a very brave performance and he brings a deep vulnerability to his character.”

As with Like Crazy, Jones is a British exchange student who comes to America. This time she plays Sophie, a 19-year-old studying music. She is living with high school music teacher Keith Reynolds (Pearce), his wife Megan (Amy Ryan) and their 17-year-old daughter, Lauren (Mackenzie David), in a beautiful home in leafy upstate New York. Initially Keith, aware of the potential repercussions, resists Sophie's advances, though ultimately he cannot help release his pent-up emotions as she suggests. Will the family's seeming idyll be shattered as the result of the affair?

“I really wanted to make something highly romantic that was blossoming inside this very dangerous situation,” Doremus explains of the film, which as with Like Crazy, he co-wrote with Ben York Jones.

A Place in the Sun was a very inspirational movie to me and it was fascinating to try and do something much darker and have something really beautiful and pure operating in this really dangerous context. Breathe In also came from my wanting to stretch and try something more restrained. I wanted to work with Felicity again and we wanted to write something where our composer Dustin O'Halloran could essentially be another character in the movie, so that the movie almost has the feeling of an opera or a musical.”

It of course helped that the two lovers are musicians and that Keith is a little tormented by his past. A failed rocker who teaches piano to support his family, Keith now occasionally subs as a cellist for a New York City symphony orchestra.

“I'm a musician but I've never played the cello,” Pearce admits. “The most difficult thing about the cello is not the fingering or the bowing; it's doing the two at same time. It's kind of like rubbing your belly and patting your head at the same time.”

“At least we changed it from the violin, which would have been difficult,” Doremus explains. “Knowing Guy was a musician, though, was really exciting because he wasn't starting from scratch. When we started talking about his past as a musician he was talking about his band The Unconscious Brothers. I looked up pictures of the band and asked if he minded if we used that in movie—and he said yes.”

O'Halloran, who had also worked on Like Crazy, was on the production from the beginning. “This was an unusual film,” he says, “because usually a composer will come in at the end and I really started when Drake sent me the script. So we immediately started selecting songs that would be performed in the film that meld into the soundtrack. Since Drake and I had worked together on Like Crazy, we had a language we'd been learning to speak together. Overall, our biggest intent was to find the emotional tone of the film and that's something that was at least partly instinctual.”

When he presented Breathe In at its Sundance world premiere, Doremus joked that, “This movie is kind of an amalgamation of a bunch of affairs I've had over the past 10 years.” He was referring to the fact that Like Crazy had been based on his passionate long-distance romance with an Austrian woman. Yet here he was really delving into more uncharted territory. With Jones and Pearce, he says their chemistry had to be palpable.

“Felicity and Guy spent a lot of time together,” he explains. “They became friends and kept digging deeper and exploring the characters over a lot of conversations. At the end of the day, it was about pushing it to be as uncomfortable as possible. Then when we knew we'd reached something that felt really uncomfortable, we knew we had something that was honest.”

Doremus had Pearce and Ryan get to know each other over the internet. Gradually, they developed the kind of lived-in relationship they bring to the film.

“After the thirtieth email, it was like 'Dear Hubby',” Ryan recalls. “We had to develop the characters' backgrounds, how they met and who they are.”

“They are a married couple who used to live in the city and they led a very particular life,” Pearce explains. “At a certain point in knowing they were going to have a child, they moved to a more secure environment.”

“They have a pretty happy marriage,” says Ryan, “yet they don't realise that other passions have been lying dormant. So it's this complex story of an outside force who disrupts their world. But maybe it's a good thing that those questions have erupted. My character is a woman who likes to be in control; she likes to be top dog and have things in place. So when the family dynamic is shifted, stuff doesn't sit very well with her. I think she'd rather keep a picture perfect family rather than ask herself if she's happy.”

The strong, deep-voiced and immensely talented Ryan (who had been Oscar-nominated for her performance as the mother of the missing girl in Gone Baby Gone) had been part of another sparring couple, with Dominic West in the HBO series The Wire where she was unforgettable as a savvy cop, Officer Beatrice 'Beadie' Russell.

“Yeah, oh my God,” Ryan chortles. “Beadie had a far bigger job keeping him in check! But that's another story.”

Breathe In screened at the 2013 Sydney Film Festival and will open the Edinburgh International Film Festival tomorrow.