The definition of spoiler used to be pretty black-and-white. Back in the summer of 1980, was it a spoiler telling someone Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker’s father? Without a doubt. How about telling someone Bruce Willis is actually a ghost in the 1999 film The Sixth Sense? Absolutely. Or what about in 2001 how Captain Leo Davidson discovers the Apes inexplicably took over the Earth in Tim Burton’s remake of Planet of the Apes? Nobody probably cared in that case, but the point stands.
Lately, for some, the definition of “spoiler” has altered, mainly because people have been growing increasingly spoiler sensitive over the past few years. Some people actively seek out spoilers before they see a film or a television episode, but for others the mere mention of a relatively small plot detail can be enough to send them into a rage. The most recent film to dredge up new debate on the topic is The One I Love, a new sci-fi drama starring Mark Duplass and Elizabeth Moss. The two actors play a couple, Ethan and Sophie, who have been having some relationship issues. Their marriage counselor, played by Ted Danson, suggests a getaway. He tells them of a beautiful retreat that’s helped rekindle various other marriages. Ethan and Sophie agree to go.
This all happens in the first 14 minutes. At the 15 minute mark, something strange happens. Some consider saying even that much to be a spoiler, let alone actually identifying what the strange thing is, but here’s the issue at hand: That “thing” is the set up of the movie. In fact, it is the movie.
However, executive-producer/actor Mark Duplass and director Charlie McDowell believe that the less people know going in, the more they’ll end up liking the movie. That’s fair. I viewed the film without knowing what happens, but if I did know what takes place when the first act shifts into the second, would it have hindered my enjoyment? Probably not. I also wouldn’t shout from the rooftops, “Spoiler alert!” if someone had told me. It’d be the equivalent of hiding the fact that Benjamin Button ages in reverse in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button ‐ and instead insisting people only know that it’s a love story before taking their seats.
The filmmakers behind The One I Love may not want people to know what their movie is about, but they didn’t always feel that way.
“We went to Sundance and after we screened it [we guessed] people would know about it,” McDowell recalls, while discussing his feature debut. “We thought after that, we’d just let people know. After the first review came out, it said they really liked the movie and didn’t want to say what it’s about. We saw it on social media. We saw it as an interesting way to market the movie. For us, we have this twist or reveal that happens at minute 15, so there’s not a whole lot to talk about, but there is an interesting character study going on in this movie. We hope that’s what people connect to.”
Take a look at this trailer to get a sense of what McDowell is talking about:
This type of tease certainly makes The One I Love standout. Most trailers show us too much, so it’s always refreshing to see a trailer that only conveys atmosphere, conflict and character. Of course, some people want to know exactly what they’re in for. Remember the fantastic trailers for Ridley Scott’s The Counselor? People felt cheated they weren’t explicitly told what it was about, and that may have hurt the film at the box office.
The One I Love may help answer an important question about movie marketing: do people really want to know what they’re paying for? Director Robert Zemeckis certainly thinks so. “We know from studying the marketing of movies, people really want to know exactly every thing that they are going to see before they go see the movie,” Zemeckis once famously said. “It’s just one of those things. To me, being a movie lover and film student and a film scholar and a director, I don’t. What I relate it to is McDonald’s. The reason McDonald’s is a tremendous success is that you don’t have any surprises. You know exactly what it is going to taste like. Everybody knows the menu.”
But when you cater to people who thrive on McDonalds, you get bullshit like this:
Duplass and McDowell don’t want to work at McDonalds, though. When it comes to the marketing, they couldn’t feel more different, at least when it comes to The One I Love. “We designed a poster and trailer that felt respectful to the plot spoilers, but if you look closely enough, there are some clues,” says Duplass. “It’s led to people guessing what the twist is, which is its own fun game. In some ways, I think we’ll live or die by the fact we kept this information back, but a part of our campaign is we quietly put the film on some VOD platforms a few weeks ago. We’re hoping word-of-mouth quietly builds and informs our theatrical release.” Not saying what a film is about is certainly one way to pique someone’s interest.
Seven months after the Sundance premiere the filmmakers are shocked more people don’t know what the marketing is hiding. “Quite frankly, we thought no one would respect that spoiler and would be the one to take the opportunity to spoil it,” Duplass adds. “Everyone has been really good about appreciating the experience of going in cold. They’re helping us to protect that.”
Some of those critics were actually asked not to write about it by the film’s publicists. If they hadn’t been told it was being considered a “spoiler,” it seems likely that more people would have written it up casually in the synopsis.
As for Duplass and McDowell, they’re protecting the reveal to the point where they won’t even discuss it in interviews. That’s fine, but hopefully they’ll be open to speaking about it in the near future because 1) it greatly shapes what the film is about and 2) raises questions that would be interesting to discuss.
The questions they’d rather focus on are about relationships. The conflict of the film is reminiscent of an old Chris Rock joke: when you’re on a first date, you’re not you, you’re the ambassador for you. The One I Love is about what happens when that ambassador is gone. All that’s left is who you really are, and that leads to certain problems. “The themes emerged secondhand from that initial story element, which was this stupid thing we all do: when we first meet someone we sort of exposit ourselves as the more emotionally evolved, fun loving and mature people than we are,” explains Duplass. “A couple of months into things it’s discovered you’re not completely who you said you were. How did you reconcile that? To a larger extent, do you pickup and run or go to work? That was a fun thing for us to explore through this crazy plot device.”
The best science-fiction generally has audiences leaving the theater asking what makes us tick. That’s what the folks behind The One I Love want to ask with their plot device. By not revealing that device, will it hurt the film? Benefit the film? Or have no impact whatsoever? We’ll find out soon enough.
The One I Love is now on VOD and playing limited release.