Riley Stearns’ Deadpan Style Highlights “Dual”

By Vanessa Zimmer

Writer-director Riley Stearns is known for creating a world where everyone speaks in a deadpan cadence. And nowhere is that played to greater effect than in Dual, his dark sci-fi comedy premiering Saturday night at the Sundance Film Festival.

The dark side of the story emerges early on when Sarah (Karen Gillan) discovers that she has a rare stomach condition that is terminal. Her doctor gives her a pamphlet on Replacement, a cloning company that gives you a tube to spit in and provides your exact double within an hour. The idea is that the double spends the time you have left learning all about you and meeting your family and friends. In a commercial for Replacement, the narrator flatly states: “You might be dying, but don’t let that affect those you love.”

Sarah falls for the deal, only to find out that she has suddenly lapsed into remission. She is not going to die. Which means that Sarah and her clone will have to duel to the death. The government cannot allow two of the same person to exist at the same time, after all.

So Stearns’ story is out of the gate, sprinkled with his signature deadpan lines, like:

  • We need proof that you’re dying.”
  • “I really value your friendship. I’m going to miss you when you die.”
  • “I’m looking for an outfit to die in.”
  • “Life has thrown you a curveball… And you’re not even holding a bat.”

Scottish actress Karen Gillan played opposite herself in the roles of Sarah and Double Sarah, learning two sets of lines and reactions. But the most challenging task was adapting to the style and rhythm of Stearns’ script. “It’s really difficult to speak matter-of-fact,” she says in the Q&A following the film.

Stearns says his writing style demands that deadpan delivery. If you acted out his words, “It would be like putting icing on icing,” he said. “It would be too much… It just wouldn’t be funny.”

Stearns and cast members Gillan, Aaron Paul, and Beulah Koale exuded a close-knit vibe during the Q&A. Viewers remarked in the chat on a surprising dance scene in the film, when Sarah shows her combat trainer, played by Paul, some hip-hop moves. “I can’t tell you how terrified I was of doing that dance,” he said, as his friends dissolved in laughter.