Significant Other is a film about a couple on a camping trip with a secret sci-fi twist. But in making it, the directors discovered a lot about who is considered a likable protagonist and the choices expected of them.
From Dusk Till Dawn is a film about some bank robbers who kidnap a pastor and his family. Then about half an hour into it, you realize you’re watching a completely different movie altogether.
Significant Other is a very different film from From Dusk Till Dawn, but it’s one that will similarly surprise audiences.
“When somebody asks us what the movie’s about, we just tell them it’s about a couple that goes camping in the woods, and something bad happens to them,” says Robert Olsen, who directed alongside Dan Berk. “It is one of those films where there’s just this pivot in it where you have two almost different types of movie.”
It is a movie that deliberately sets out to surprise.
“We always wanted the shape of it to be just a classic rollercoaster where it’s clicking up, clicking up, and then at the midpoint, you’re just like, ‘Okay, here we go,’” Berk agrees.
It makes Significant Other a difficult film to write about without giving anything away, but there are clues out there for the audience to follow. The first of which is the title, which tells us this is a movie about a relationship. But there’s more to it than that.
“I think the term ‘significant other’ when you view it through just the normal lens, it brings to mind somebody that you’re in love with or whatever,” Olsen says. “And yet, at the same time, it implies that you’re not married. Not all the time, but that’s part of it. But when you view that title through a sci-fi lens, it puts something else into your head.”
The real clue, Olsen says, is not just the title but the font.
“If you see the title just typed in an article, it’s a little different than when you see it on the poster,” he says. “When it’s in a sci-fi font, all of a sudden the idea of ‘significant other’ has an eerie connotation.”
The poster and publicity bring to mind extremely low-fi, almost Blair Witch Project-style horror, but there’s more than that.
“Obviously, we’re putting forth this image of austerity and that ominous, eerie vibe, which is all accurate,” Berk says. “But the film is also really fun.”
A Decent Proposal?
Significant Other is about a couple, Ruth (Maika Monroe) and Harry (Jake Lacy), going camping and their relationship. Except really, it’s about something else. Except it really is about a couple in the woods and their relationship. A lot happens in Significant Other, but one of the key scenes of the film is the marriage proposal glimpsed in the trailer. For the directors, it was always intended to be a scary and unnerving scene.
“We always looked at it as, here is this woman being proposed to on the edge of a cliff in the middle of the woods,” Olsen points out. “What kind of maniac would do that? But so many people read it as, what kind of maniac would say no to a perfectly nice, handsome man proposing to them?”
Ruth loves Harry, and Harry does seem like a nice enough guy, but she simply doesn’t want to get married. This is the idea that Olsen and Berk got the most pushback on.
“We had a lot of people tell us, ‘We need to make him much more of an asshole to make that decision [to turn down the proposal] make sense,’” Berk recalls.
This response led Olsen and Berk to lean further into the theme of what choices you are “allowed” to make in a relationship and still be considered likable.
“That was when we were like, ‘This is a really interesting kernel to explore,’” Berk asks.
Over the course of the film, that conflict is played out across a different stage, but it’s a theme that stays close to the core of the story, and it’s about more than marriage proposals.
“We started this not just with the marriage thing. It’s really just about living….can you live a life outside the rails that society sets for you?” Berk says.
Throughout the film, the audience discovers there is far more going on than a relationship spat on a camping trip, and it goes to a lot of surprising places.
“I think there’s a lot of people who are going to be pleasantly surprised with the audacity of what happens later on,” Olsen hints.
Whose Film Is It Anyway?
“We’re playing with the idea of who the bad guy is,” Olsen says.
In doing so, Significant Other breaks quite a few textbook filmmaking rules.
“There’s obviously a very tried and true formula with most studio releases that you’re going to relate to this person,” Berk says.
While some people who read the script or saw the film are unsettled by the choices Olsen and Berk make, the directors noticed definite patterns in who did and did not connect with the story.
“The gender of whatever executive you’re talking to would make a big difference here,” Olsen points out.
“A lot of people have come up to us, mostly women but some men too, after watching the movie or after reading the script and being like, ‘Thank you. I feel seen by this,’” Berk adds.
Olsen and Berk are almost as surprised as the audience at the places the movie goes, given that it started as a lockdown-era script designed to be filmed on a shoestring budget.
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“When we initially conceived the concept, we were just going to go and make it as a no-budget movie,” Berk says. “Our agents convinced us to pitch it around and try to do it as a real movie. Paramount was the partner that we ended up going with, and the rest is history.”
Both directors felt a sense of relief at getting to film in the great outdoors.
“We both had an amazing time being in Portland, Oregon, the film community there, how talented all of the craftspeople that worked on this movie were, and what a joy it was to be out there in the wilderness,” Olsen says. “Especially after however many years we all sat in our apartments, there was something about getting out, not just outside, but to the most gorgeous wilderness that we have. We finished a day under schedule. That never happens.”
But as Ruth and Harry quickly discover, there is a lot more to Significant Other than a pleasant trip to the woods.