Felicity Jones and Anton Yelchin of "Like Crazy." (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles…)
Fittingly, it began with a date.
Last year, Anton Yelchin, 21 and coming off his performance as Chekov in the film "Star Trek," was sitting nervously in the bar of a Mexican restaurant in Los Angeles, waiting for a woman five years his senior. On a flight from London, his dinner companion, the British actress Felicity Jones, was also trying to squelch the butterflies. "I remember thinking, 'I just hope he's a good guy,'" she recalled.
The two were indeed rendezvousing to see whether they'd make a good couple — only not in real life. Yelchin and Jones had been offered the lead roles in a romantic drama called "Like Crazy," and they needed to get acquainted — fast. Barring a hitch, they'd be spending the next few months together as a love-bitten young couple. And they'd do it without a script.
So how did they get through their awkward encounter?
"Three tequilas," Jones said, giggling. Yelchin nodded slowly, a smirk on his face.
Those tentative, tipsy first steps soon turned into an exhaustive rehearsal session, an unconventional movie shoot and, now, an improbable turn in the Hollywood limelight. Made far outside the studio system for $250,000 by a scrappy production company called Crispy Films and directed by a largely unknown filmmaker, Drake Doremus, then 27, "Like Crazy" became an unexpected sensation at this year's Sundance Film Festival. Screenings brought tears to the eyes of otherwise jaded festivalgoers, the movie won Sundance's top prize, and distributors went gaga for it. Paramount Pictures and the production company Indian Paintbrush offered the winning bid, shelling out an estimated $4 million for the right to release it. Paramount is opening the film in Los Angeles and New York on Friday.
Those Utah audiences may have been on to something. Big-screen relationship stories run the gamut from the heartwrenching breakup film ("Blue Valentine") to the sappy fairy tale ("Valentine's Day"). "Like Crazy" carves out a subtle place between those heavily weighted poles. A tone poem as much as a conventional dialogue-driven piece, the film portrays romance with meaningful glances and shy smiles more than with hyper-verbal expressions of love. Even tension comes less in the form of argument as quiet chasms of disagreement.
"When we were first shooting, our first instinct was to talk as much as possible," Yelchin said. "And then by the end of the process we realized it's all about silence."
The plot for "Like Crazy" is straightforward. After meeting in an undergraduate English class, the literary-minded Brit Anna (Jones) and the gentle American furniture builder Jacob (Yelchin) embark on a tender romance that sends them over the moon. But after Anna impulsively decides to overstay her visa to spend the summer with her new love, she is plunged into a legal quagmire that keeps the couple an ocean apart for much of the next few years. As they try to resolve the visa issue, the pair tangle with more emotionally charged subjects, at first clinging to their idealism but eventually entering relationships with other people (played by Charlie Bewley and Jennifer Lawrence).
In real life, Yelchin and Jones are a lot more outgoing than the emo characters they portray. In a conversation at the Toronto International Film Festival last month and in separate interviews last week, she giggled a lot, and he peppered his answers with wisecracks. The Russian-born, L.A.-raised Yelchin is used to the spotlight: He's had meaty on-screen roles since his teenage years, coming to prominence in the 2006 Nick Cassavetes drama "Alpha Dog" and starring recently in big Hollywood productions such as "Terminator Salvation," "The Beaver" and of course aboard the U.S.S. Enterprise. The London-based Jones has mostly toiled in television and film across the pond, particularly in period pieces such as "Chéri" and "Brideshead Revisited."
After the evening with their pal Jose Cuervo, Yelchin and Jones began driving around L.A., visiting Barnes & Noble and getting to know each other. Then they started rehearsing — a grueling week in which they spent all day and often all night conversing with each other and Doremus about Anna and Jacob's relationship. They filmed the movie in and around Los Angeles, mostly in sequence, a rarity that allowed for their off-screen relationship to evolve in step with their on-screen one. (They are not, it should be said, romantically involved in real life.)
Little was put down on paper; instead, Doremus would offer only general guidance about the emotional beats he wanted. Then he might, for instance, set them loose in Santa Monica with a camera trailing behind them, and they would run on the beach or pop into a candy store or do other things people do when they're falling in love.