A pandemic's approach to character building (real or fictional) is hardly uniform. How could it be? You are trapped with you—that and whatever insecurities wriggle out, bounce off the walls and land at your feet.
That's the narrative paradox of Portland director Jon Garcia's Love in Dangerous Times, a socially distant romance set mostly on screens. In spring 2020, Portlanders Jason and Sorrell are going literally nowhere, while also wildly revising their visible outlooks and identities. March's COVID-19 doubts become April's crippling fears, which then become May's calculated risks. The same is true on their video dates: Last night's spark is today's overreach.
"Depending on the input at a given moment, our beliefs are going to get shook," says co-writer Ian Stout, who plays Jason, a playwright cooped up in his Pearl District studio apartment.
Even the artists behind Love in Dangerous Times say the past eight months have imparted sometimes divergent lessons. Stout is taking more risks with his creativity; he jokes the pandemic is a great excuse should a project fail. Garcia, by contrast, is trying to put family ahead of work for now, after averaging about one feature film a year since 2012 (The Falls trilogy, Tandem Hearts and others). And Tiffany Groben, who plays Sorrell, is working on the perpetual mission of self-love.
"Trying so hard is not always necessary," Groben says. "Lead with your heart and know the right people will stick around for that."
These morals more or less compose the main themes of Love in Dangerous Times, though all involved are aware that making a COVID-19 movie directly after the virus's onset was, you know, a real choice.
"There are some times where I ask myself, do people need a reminder of what they're going through on a regular basis?" Garcia says. "That's valid. But there is a feeling of catharsis seeing other people being weirdos in their apartments, dancing for nobody."
Love in Dangerous Times opposes escapism in a couple senses, electing instead to explore the eeriness of single lockdown life. Physically, that manifests in some irreplaceable scenes of a deserted downtown Portland circa April. At one point, Jason even lies down smack in the middle of Southwest 3rd Avenue and Salmon Street.
"Cinematically thinking, whenever you see something outside the norm, or a once-in-a-lifetime moment, that jumps out as production value," Stout says.
On an emotional level, the film seems to invite discomfort, and "awkward" doesn't do justice to dating-app courtship, especially when Jason and Sorrell know they're being awkward, call it out by name, and heighten the tension all the more. "No, sorry, I just…" becomes a favorite refrain. Cringing is allowed, but don't look away. Garcia says investment in Jason and Sorrell's relationship is a barometer for the whole film's success.
"If we could create a situation where the two of them could connect in a way the audience could sense it, we've done our job," he says. "As cheesy as it sounds, love knows no bounds."
In some ways, Love in Dangerous Times is already a period piece. There's a verve, an inspiration to its "buddy for the apocalypse" search that feels distinctly First Wave, shall we say. But as epidemiological history repeats itself this winter, the artists wouldn't change a thing. Anecdotally at least, Stout calls this month's situation "cookie cutter."
"My friends and I are having the same conversations," he says, "the same meltdowns, the same 'How dare they?,' the same 'This sucks,' the same 'Why aren't enough people taking this seriously?'"
Though Love in Dangerous Times concludes its real-time COVID documenting around early May, one prophetic insight lurks within a scene of idle iPad scrolling. "President Has the Virus" reads a once-fictional headline. Garcia says graphic designer Jamie Daniels was mostly just amused at the idea, but it's still quite the Easter egg.
"Maybe we were betting on it," Stout says. "Maybe we were hoping for it. Either way, it made it in there."
SEE IT: Love in Dangerous Times streams on Apple TV, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube.