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Interview: Director Mark Decena and actress Sabrina Lybel of Dopamine

By Jonathan Groce | October 10, 2003

For all those Hopkins students who over-analyze their romantic trysts, Dopamine tells the story of a computer animator, Rand (John Livingston) who suddenly finds himself questioning the nature of love after he becomes involved with Sarah (Sabrina Lloyd), a school teacher in the classroom in which his artificially intelligent, voice-respondent software creature is tested among young children.

The film opens in limited release on Oct. 10 as part of the Sundance Film Series at Loews Theatre at White Marsh

The News-Letter caught up with first-time director/co-writer Mark Decena and Sabrina Lloyd (Aaron Sorkin's short-lived series Sports Night) for a chat about the film, the origins of love and sexual relationships and the screenwriting process.

News-Letter: Tell us about the origins and inspirations of the feature script for Dopamine.

Mark Decena: First of all, I consider myself a deconstructivist geek, and I am fascinated by the why and the how of human nature, of relationships. The human genome is so complex and fragile, that questions of why and how cannot escape me. Is there a physiological component to emotion? I have been married to my wife, Liz, for many years, but something interesting happened after the birth of my first child. There is a moment, for men, when you first fall in love with your child that is not the same immediate connection mothers have. That led me to think about physiological reactions and what their purposes are, and the possibility of characters. Characters who deal with the phenomenon of love and question their purpose. [On] one side, there is the notion that love is purely chemical and can be analyzed and overanalyzed. On the other side, there is a belief that love is magical and emotional, not based on scientific rationale.

N-L: This script was selected for the 1998 Sundance Institute Screenwriters Lab. What experiences and opportunities arose from the workshops?

MD: Taking these ideas with my co-writer Tim Breitbach, we developed characters from both ideological camps. The script was selected for Sundance and we quickly found out that the Sundance people are very supportive, but they're also very tough. They basically told us that we should not tell the story because we want to be screenwriters. We have to tell the story because we need to tell the story. I remember Peter Hedges told me that a story is a dark tunnel and the writer cannot be afraid of where you're going to come out.

N-L: How long did the film take to complete?

MD: Well, we started in 1998, but the script and pre-production took about three and a half years due to other commitments. Finally, and it sounds clich??d, but 9/11 was a wakeup call to make the film and tell our story. The film took 25 days to shoot, what a whirlwind!

N-L: Sabrina, what attracted you to the Dopamine project?

Sabrina Lloyd: The script really touched me. As an actor, you read so many scripts, and some you say yes to while many you say no. But, with this script, I really wanted to tell this girl's story.

N-L: Coming off of Sports Night, which was so skillfully crafted in an unnatural use of language, your character in Dopamine, Sarah, is not as precisely wound together as Natalie. What nuances did you employ in the creation of Sarah after such an iconic role?

SL: Well, it more just kind of happened. I did a lot of research on adoption. With Sports Night, Aaron Sorkin wrote those words, and you couldn't play around with anything because everything was just there, which is great, But with this one, I got to explore around a bit more and find it for myself.

N-L: As a first-time feature director, what difficulties did you encounter in the production of your script? Do you find yourself juggling too many hats as director and co-writer?

MD: I decided to focus on one thing -- the actors. Since we shot with Panasonic 24P video, the actors had more opportunity to work with the material. Essentially, I let people do their jobs and let the actors and the crew find the scene on the set, all of which made things less difficult. One interesting thing, when you write a script, people actually read it! The art department would come up to me and ask a very specific question, and I would forget my own details.

N-L: Sabrina, how do you take direction from a first-time director?

SL: You just need to trust your instincts. I met Mark, and instantly I just knew I could put my complete trust in him.

N-L: Do you believe that love is purely a chemical reaction? Are all relationships purely biologically motivated?

MD: Love involves chemical reactions, no question, but I certainly want to belief that it exists beyond that. However, I don't want to find out the reason for love. If a scientist could prove either way, I would not want to hear the explanation because I want to keep that belief alive.

SL: I ask myself those questions everyday. I think we can choose who we love, but we also can't choose love, as paradoxical as that sounds. Love is beyond our control. I also think there are different kinds of love, physical and emotional relationships,

N-L: At one point, Rand (John Livingston) cracks when Sarah hands him the talking stick about a "generation of emasculated males who get their permission to talk about their feelings." Is there any truth to that joke?

MD: (Laughs) Yes, I think there is some truth to that line. Men are traditionally not supposed to talk about their emotions, and they have to get over it.

N-L: What was it like working with John Livingston (younger brother of Office Space's Ron)?

SL: Really wonderful. We shared this amazing openness, creativity. I think we made it very safe for each other as actors, finding the characters.

MD: John is very analytical, while Sabrina is much more emotional and intuitive. It was gratifying to see life unfold for the characters I created in these talented actors.

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