Scientific research wouldn't necessarily suggest the basis for a love story to many people. But exploring the question of whether love is magical chemistry or just basic biochemistry was an idea that caught the fancy of the makers of the indie film Dopamine.
"It's geeky, I know," co-writer and director Mark Decena says sheepishly. "That dialectic of two opposing views of what love [is] -- that conflict -- I just felt there could be a story in that."
So did the Sundance Film Institute, which invited Decena and co-writer Timothy Breitenbach to work on the script at its screenwriting lab. The result was their debut feature, which opens tomorrow in Baltimore, Washington and eight other cities as part of the Sundance Film Series.
Dopamine takes its name from one of the chemicals the body produces that creates a "natural high" while falling in love. Its centers on the struggle of software designer Rand (John Livingston, The Net and EdTV) to figure out whether he really believes that ultra-rational scientific take on things once he finds himself starting to fall for Sarah, a kindergarten teacher (Sabrina Lloyd, Sports Night and Ed) who has the opposite view.
"Their lives are kind of frozen with their views of love -- or rather their loss of love, I should say -- and it's about them getting rid of that baggage," the director says.
Decena's own process of falling in love with his infant son played a large part in prompting the idea for the movie.
"I just remember the exact moment that I fell in love with him: when he smiled at me," he says. "It just reminded me very much of when I fell in love with my wife, Liz, many years before -- the same sleeplessness, giddiness, can't think about anything else."
Around the same time, he was reading about researchers' success in explaining the biochemistry of love and something clicked.
"They were attributing what chemical reactions happen with love. And I felt those -- I knew that when it was happening. And it triggered this character idea that there's somebody who could be this obsessed with where emotions come from," he says.
On the opposite end of Dopamine's emotional spectrum from the overly analytical Rand is Sarah, for whom Decena says Lloyd was the perfect choice.
"We didn't have her read from the script but just talked to her and interviewed her in character for a while," he says, adding that she created her own back story and impressed him by how she stepped right into the character's skin. "It was really mind-blowing. [Sarah] was there, and she was sitting in Sabrina's living room."
Lloyd, in turn, says she was drawn to playing the role both because of an instant rapport with Decena and the chance to portray a woman acting on motivations that aren't fully understood at first by either the other characters or the audience.
"I thought it was interesting to bring that to life and tell why people do certain things -- why people have reactions, why people have addictions -- because there's a lot of things from their pasts probably that are driving them," the actress says.
According to Lloyd, working on the film with Decena was a blast and a terrific creative experience, though she and Livingston did have one particularly uncomfortable moment soon after they met. She says the director decided that the best way to get his stars to start relating to each other as a couple was to have them slow dance during improvisation in character.
"It was awkward," she says, laughing. "Very, very awkward!"
While Decena might joke that his movie's premise is geeky, he has no complaints about its scientific roots. Dopamine won the $20,000 Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Feature Film Prize for outstanding independent films featuring science and technology at this year's Sundance Film Festival.
However, the message he wants people to take away is that while there are neurological, biochemical processes in the mix, that it doesn't make love any less real. Science doesn't trump emotion -- it just eggs it along.
"I think that we're at a point in our society right now that we have so much information about everything that we can overanalyze stuff to death and paralyze ourselves," the director says. "I think there is a point where you need to believe and just let go of some of that stuff -- just believe in love."
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