This year, actor Natalie Morales made her directorial debut—two times over. With her high-school comedy Plan B released in the spring and Language Lessons, her film about a friendship formed through online Spanish classes, out Sept. 10, Natalie has kept busy during lockdown, to say the least. “In no way did I intend to make two movies in one year. I don’t suggest it to anybody,” she says. “It’s very rewarding, but it was a lot of work.” 

Growing up, a career in film was the furthest thing from Natalie’s mind. “First of all, there wasn’t anyone like me on TV and in movies, especially not directing. And I didn’t even know even the first steps to do something like that.” She wanted to be an astronaut, then a lawyer. The summer before entering high school, she decided to take summer classes to get to know other students. There was room left in the drama class, so that’s where she ended up—and she never turned back.

“We made a movie that summer, and that movie will never see the light of day,” she says. “I was so incredibly bad. The perfectionist in me was like, ‘I think I can get this right if I keep trying.’ And that’s basically what I did all the way up until right now.” She started directing theater and writing sketches in college. “It took me a long time to understand that nobody had to give me permission to do these things and that I could just do them if I wanted to do them.” Which is how a global pandemic and widespread lockdown also became a time of creative firsts.

A concept created in lockdown

The idea of directing a feature had been on Natalie’s mind for some time as an opportunity to do the things she knew she and her friends in the industry were capable of. After writing her first film, she thought, “Well, no one’s going to let me direct this feature if I don’t have some stuff under my belt.” She started directing music videos and Funny or Die videos and, after Mark Duplass saw her work, he gave her an opportunity to direct an episode of his show, Room 104.

“That was a major turning point for me. That’s what got me into the Directors Guild,” she says. Natalie started getting considered for more projects when Plan B came along—and then the world shut down right before shooting was slated to begin. (It would pick back up once Natalie was in the editing and reshoots stage of Language Lessons.)

A couple months into the pandemic, in May 2020, Mark approached Natalie with what he thought was a potential idea for a film they could make in lockdown. By that point, Mark says, “my wife, my two daughters and I are wolf-packing it up. We’re watching movies together, having themed dinners, everybody’s exercising and getting the endorphins going. We’re on our best behavior. But I’m itching to make something.”

He had begun taking online conversational Spanish classes through an institute in Guatemala, and thought it could make for an interesting story. “I’m really into collaborating deeply with people lately that are different from me and make my art different than it used to be.” He found that in Natalie. 

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“I have a huge work and platonic crush on Natalie and have for years. We see the world in a very similar way. We look at the darkness with a sense of humor and we look at the lightness with a sense of gravity.” —Mark Duplass

Collaborating on projects in a two-hander way or improvising scenes based on chemistry is familiar ground for Mark. “The way that I normally connect and make new friends and new relationships is through making art. I was really craving that,” he says. With Plan B also in the works, Mark wasn’t sure Natalie would be open to taking on a smaller project like this one. But when he called her, “she had the same sense of enthusiasm that I did and was feeling frustrated with the lack of being able to make stuff. She had the recklessness like I do, creatively, where she can jump into something with a blind confidence and just say, ‘Let’s try it. If it doesn’t work out, we’ll scrap it.’ And not a lot of people share that.”

“It was kind of experimental, seeing what we could do and get away with,” Natalie says of embarking on the video chat-based project, “and it turned into a real thing.” In Language Lessons, Natalie, a native Spanish speaker, plays Cariño, who becomes more than just a virtual Spanish teacher when tragedy strikes in the life of her student Adam (played by Mark).

Duplass and Morales, co-stars, co-writers and co-executive producers.

Spanish—and filmmaking—lessons

Mark’s initial idea for the film came from his own Spanish lessons, which meant he’d be putting his education to use as the character of Adam. “Mark’s Spanish was about 80% as good as Adam’s Spanish needed to be,” Mark says. Throughout the process, he welcomed mistakes that felt funny and genuine. 

Natalie says the film ended up being about “50-50” script versus improvisation. The team knew the marks they wanted to hit and jokes they wanted to make, but “we also did want to keep it as conversational as possible so that it felt real and organic.”

Ultimately, the film ended up being a lesson in more than just Spanish. “I look at every opportunity that I have in this business that I never thought I would get to be a part of as a learning experience,” Natalie says. “It’s not only what I learn about this business, but also what I learn about other people and what I learn about audiences and perception and how to tell a story in a way that connects with people.”

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“The biggest lesson that I learned—and this is as much due to directing two movies in one year as it is to the actual pandemic itself—is that I just had to stop wasting time doubting myself or having imposter syndrome and just do it. I had to learn that my stories and my experiences and my thoughts and my opinions are just as valid as some guy who went to film school, and perhaps slightly more necessary because they haven’t really been seen as often.” —Natalie Morales

Filming during lockdown turned out to be a lesson for everyone. “We were trying to figure out everything about it, every step of the way,” Natalie says. “We all did our own things: I did my own hair, makeup, set design, costumes, lighting, grip, everything.”

“This entire filmmaking apparatus was something we had to sort of invent because we couldn’t have any crews near us,” Mark adds. “We made up this whole filmmaking system where we attached our laptops to big Ikea cutting boards, and then attached these HD webcams and sound gear. Our DP was looking at us remotely, but had to tell us how to light ourselves.”

It’s a departure from Mark’s latest Apple TV+ project, The Morning Show, “where you’re pampered and taken care of, and it’s the biggest-bucks thing you can imagine. This is such a return to where I came from, and honestly, more of who I am at my core.” Natalie feels similarly: “I had started by doing things that way, just grabbing a camera and my friends and seeing what happened.”

What results is a story about connection, shot in a grand total of four or five days. “I think something that we’ve all been accustomed to in the last year are these video meetings and what we assume about the people on the other side of them, whether we know them or not,” Natalie says. “It feels like, because we get a peek into their homes or at their faces, we know what’s going on with them, but we don’t. People are entire universes to themselves. And to remind yourself that people are more than meets the eye, especially in a digital landscape, is important.”

Plus: Check out Morales' and Duplass' lists of five films films that influenced them — here and here.