Clea DuVall’s Short Attention-Span Guide to Her Formative Moviegoing Experiences

The actress turned writer-director, whose debut feature The Intervention hits theaters Friday, shares pivotal moments from her cinematic past.

I love watching movies. The only issue, I have no attention span. I don’t know what happened. Maybe it has deteriorated over time. Maybe it has always been this way. Perhaps if I had paid closer attention, I would be able to say when it went south. If I try to watch a movie at home, forget it. Within 10 minutes, I’m looking up the life span of indoor vs. outdoor cats, or the length of the largest great white shark on record (I look this up a lot – 21 feet). But the experience of going to the theater feels magical. I am instantly transported into another world as soon as the lights go down, and the outside world just has to wait.

I went to the movies for the first time at age 2. My father took me to see The Empire Strikes Back at the Egyptian Theater on Hollywood Blvd. I’ll admit I was a little wary of the whole thing. A giant dark room filled with a bunch of strangers seemed suspect, but after some negotiating, I agreed to stay. The compromise was that we sat under a recessed light in the back corner of the theater. One of my earliest memories is of looking up at that light and mustering the courage to stay put. As soon as the movie began, all my anxieties disappeared. My father said I didn’t move for the entire film, and when it was over, I turned to him and asked if we could watch it again. I still feel that way when I see a film that I connect with. I want to stay in that world, with those characters, for as long as I can. I always feel a little sad to leave.

Going to the movies as a kid played a large role in shaping who I am. It contributed to my love of film, and my fierce desire to be a part of it. I saw hundreds of movies in my childhood, and the ones below represent a very small fraction of the films I saw before age 18. It is not the fanciest group of films, but the experience of watching them stayed with me long after the lights came back up.


Beetlejuice. 1988. Universal Theaters
I saw Beetlejuice in the theater at least eight times. I was obsessed with the strange and unusual world Tim Burton created (I myself was strange and unusual). This was the first movie I can remember seeing that represented a girl who felt “other.” I was so used to seeing traditionally beautiful girls in movies having experiences that were nothing like mine, and it made me feel like there was something I was missing. Lydia Deetz made me feel less alone. The humor in the film was also part of what kept me going back. From Catherine O’Hara to Michael Keaton, this was one of the funniest casts of actors I had seen. I memorized not only their lines, but their facial expressions. It was as if I was trying to dissect it to figure exactly where the funny came from. Spoiler alert: it came from everywhere.


The Silence of the Lambs. 1991. Hotel On-Demand
OK, so I didn’t see this movie in the theater. My dad wouldn’t let me, which I did not understand. This was the man who watched Angel Heart and Fatal Attraction in front of me. Go figure. Eventually he wanted to see The Silence of the Lambs, so we watched it in a hotel room. This was the first time I cared about acting. Jodie Foster’s portrayal of Clarice Starling was strong and intelligent, but also sensitive and vulnerable. Her journey was not about being a wife, girlfriend or mother, she was her own person, and that was something as a young girl I really needed to see. For me, this is a perfect movie. Any time it is on, I will sit down and watch it all the way to the end. I stop breathing as soon as the lights in the basement go out and the night-vision goggles turn on.


Poison Ivy. 1992. Vine Theatre
Listen, I know it’s not a masterpiece, but the experience of going to see this movie was a big one for me. I had longstanding and very confusing feelings for both Drew Barrymore and Sara Gilbert. When I read about this movie and learned that they kissed, well, obviously I was going to see it. I convinced my mom to drop me off at the Vine Theatre one night. I wouldn’t go there alone now as an adult in the middle of the day, so I don’t know what my mom was thinking dropping off her 14-year-old there by herself after dark. I remember the terror I felt walking into the theater. The audience was made up of a dozen middle-aged men and me. They were all … busy with themselves (if you know what I mean), but I didn’t care. I was going to see that kiss. There were a lot of things about that movie that definitely did not resonate with me, but the things that did really did. This movie further complicated my already complex feelings, but it was my first glimpse into something inside of myself that eventually made a lot of sense.


True Romance. 1993. Burbank AMC
I was on the cusp of 16 when this movie came out, so I had to sneak in. That only added to the appeal. The combination of intense sexuality and brutal violence was unsettling for me, mainly because it was the most romantic thing I had ever seen. The filmmaking, the script and the acting blew my mind, but those were all secondary to what impacted me the most. It was the love story that really pulled me in. Watching that movie was the first time I really got a sense of what adult sexuality could look like, and I was very, very into it. I also left with a debilitating crush on Patricia Arquette. That could have had something to do with it.


Heavenly Creatures. 1994. Sunset 5
I used to work at Buzz Coffee (now Starbucks) on Sunset Blvd, downstairs from the Sunset 5 (now Sundance Cinemas). I had a deal worked out with the employees at the theater – free movies for free coffee. At the end of my marathon shifts, I would go upstairs and watch whatever they were playing. I had no idea what I was in for when I sat down to watch Heavenly Creatures for the first time. This movie had an enormous impact on me creatively. It was the first time I saw girls my own age delivering performances of that caliber. The bar was raised so high after watching Melanie Lynskey and Kate Winslet that even now when I look up I can still see it. I was mesmerized by Peter Jackson’s storytelling, by the magical fantasy he created, and the relationship between those two girls that I could more than relate to (except for the murdering).

Side note: Several months later, I was working at Buzz on a very slow weekday afternoon. A girl my age came in. I quickly recognized her as Melanie Lynskey. I told her how much I loved her performance in Heavenly Creatures, then gave her a free cup of coffee. We both remember this – me, because it was the first time I had met an actress my own age who inspired me to be better, and her, because it was the first time anyone had given her something for free. Twenty-two years later, Melanie is my best friend, and the star of my directorial debut. She is a constant source of inspiration, both personally and professionally. I wrote The Intervention for her because I think she is one of the most gifted actors of my generation, and watching her performance come to life only deepened my admiration.

The list of film experiences I have had as an adult would be impossible to tackle. When I see a great movie in the theater, I am in awe. It is one of the few places where I feel totally present. I am grateful for the growing number of outlets that give filmmakers (myself included) the opportunity to have their work seen by as many people as possible. This makes room for so many more stories to be told, and I am very excited about that, but there is the nostalgic part of me that misses the days when movie theaters were the only game in town. I’ve heard people say that some day no one will go to the movies. I hope that’s not true. I don’t think it is. The experience of sitting in a theater and watching a beautiful film can never be replaced. But since there are so many movies I can only see at home, I guess I need to work a little harder on my focus, and leave the Googling for another time. After all, I doubt those sharks are getting any bigger.

Clea DuVall was born and raised in Los Angeles, California. She began working as an actor at 18, and quickly became a fixture in both TV and film. Some of her credits include the Academy Award-winning Argo, 21 Grams , Girl Interrupted, Better Call Saul, and American Horror Story: Asylum.  Over the past 10 years, she has been honing that craft of writing, with direction and guidance from the immensely talented pool of writers and directors she has had the pleasure and privilege of working with. The Intervention, her first feature as writer-director, is released theatrically on August 26.