A whole crop of new festival favorites are emerging in Toronto this week, but hitting theaters in limited release this Friday is one of the best films from another major festival this year. Katie Aselton's The Freebie debuted at Sundance in January and dazzled me; the low-key story about a couple who decide to take a night "off" from their marriage exposes all kinds of hard truths about long-term relationships and trust while also managing to be a pretty funny comedy and reveal a remarkable performance from Dax Shepard, the actor previously known for stuff like Employee of the Month. Aselton made her directorial debut with the film and also starred in it, which meant she was pretty much at the head of the class in terms of Sundance overachievers.
Nearly 9 months after I first caught the film I got on the phone with Aselton, a bubbly and totally open interview who I really, really need to chat with in person next time. I talked to her about the many, many challenges of directing herself in a film-- from not looking at yourself on monitors on the set to firing her lead actor after just two days of filming-- and what it means to be a female director in an industry with so few of them. The Freebie opens limited this Friday, and it's one hell of a tiny movie that's worth your time. Check out what Aselton had to say about it below.
At the Q&A at the Sundance screening, people were so shocked that you improved the whole thing. And I thought people were aware of that by now, but apparently they can be surprised?
Yeah, and this one was a little more improvised than, say, Mark and Jay's movies. Mark and Jay work from a very specific script, and this was a six-page outline. But the thing about the movie is it's such a simple concept. There's not a lot of subplot, or even subtext. We're literally just watching this couple have this experience. It's a little window into their world. It's not like it's rocket science. The themes all seemed very clear in my head, and when everyone else came on board, it was very easy for us to be on the same page and be telling the same story, because it was a simple story to tell. I don't think you could do that with most other concepts. My way of giving it some kind of hook was playing with the linear aspect of it.
Did you always have it non-linear with the flashbacks?
I actually had it way less linear than that. It was much more all over the place. But because it's such a short movie it was harder to keep up with.
When a lot of people make their first movie they try to make it really big and about everything. And you did kind of the opposite.
Yeah, I don't think I had the skill to make a movie about everything. I sort of worked with the skills et that I had, an I kept it very simple and wasn't going to pretend that I knew more than I did. I was very honest with all of my shortcomings.
What kind of filmmaking experience did you have before this? Had you made shorts or anything?
Here's the thing. While I hadn't actually directed a movie or written a movie, I had been with Mark and Jay since the beginning. Mark and I were dating when they made This Is John, which was their very first short at Sundance. Then I made Scrapple with them, and I co-produced The Puffy Chair and was so much a part of that production and process. I was very aware of what it took to make a movie, and at the same time, what it doesn't take to make a small movie like this. How you can cut corners and how simple you can make it if you're surrounding yourself with a good, tight group of talented people who aren't expecting a massive production.
There's so much organization required on a normal movie, but for something like this when you're working from an outline, you have to ask a lot of people, asking them to just stick around until it's done.
It does, but it's easier when there's only six or eight people. They all knew what they were getting into. The only person who had never really worked that way was Dax, and he was just game. Beyond that, everyone had worked in this formula. It seems like you would be like, oh, we need a schedule. But that's so much more confining than just being, OK, here's our schedule. You're not dealing with the specifics. Everything is sort of a casual conversation versus a very detailed, specific call time.
It seems like it would be hard as a director to know when you're done.
That was kind of interesting. We had some long takes while we were doing this, and part of this is because I did it first as an actor. If you're in an improvised scene as an actor and it's working, and you guys are there just going back and forth, you don't want to just stop. But at the same time as a filmmaker you don't want it to stop either. While the moment that you were looking for you may have already gotten, what you're gaining by continuing the scene is a depth to the scene and what you're going to shoot beyond that. You're filing it out and breathing some life into it. You may not use it, but you're informing so much.
As an actor you have to get over the awkwardness of seeing yourself on camera, but how does it work when you're the director and have to watch all of that footage?
We had no playback. I did not have a monitor on set, because I am that vain. It was me sitting down with Ben [Kasulke] and Hilary [Spera], who was our second shooter, and discussing what the look was and how I wanted the scene to feel. Then saying, look, I'm putting the ball in your hands, and you're going to take it and run with it. I think that would be the scary thing, and I don't trust myself enough yet to be able to handle that responsibility.
Just being in the movie would make that difficult.
Even just being an actor on set, if you walk over and see playback, it's like "Ooh, I look ugly when I say that!" And I had too many other things to think about to even go there with this.
How challenging was it for Dax coming into this movie not having made a movie like this before, and having to learn the ropes. Did you have to help him out?
No, no, no. Because Dax started out on Punk'd, which is a completely improvised show. While yes, it's crazy kooky comedy, it's the same type of ideas. Let's be emotionally honest and just throw it out there, no holds barred. Whether it's being totally ridiculous comedy on Punk'd or doing what he does on The Freebie, it's the same thing. He's an incredibly strong improvisational actor, and he literally could improvise circles around me.
And he came on board right before shooting started right?
I'm not even kidding you when I say he came on at the 11th hour. We filmed three days with another actor. That didn't work. Ben Veselke was like, doesn't your husband know Dax? Mark had taken a meeting with him and they had gone for waffles a couple of times-- something totally random like that. They certainly weren't, like, friend-friends. I had never met him, so they weren't that close. Mark called him up, very sheepish, like "Hey buddy. Um, so, wondering if you would be interested-- my wife is shooting a movie, she just lost her lead actor, and wondering if you would be interested?" And Dax was like, "Yup." And he showed up the next day. That whole night I was so relieved because our massive problem of not having an actor was solved. But I only knew Dax from like Baby Mama and Without a Paddle. I was like [convincing herself], "OK, OK, I'll wrap my head around it. Maybe it'll be a comedy! Maybe it'll be a really broad comedy. Huh."
Firing an actor after three days is a huge decision to make, especially on your first movie.
It did not feel like a hard decision. The guy was kind of a jerk. Honestly, I don't hold a grudge with him at all, because I think it came out of not being comfortable working the way we were working. I think it was a deer-in-headlights kind of thing. The other thing is he was a real sourpuss. When you are working on something and no one is making any money right away and you're working long hours and you're eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich that you had to make, sitting on a n apple box, you'd better be having a great flipping time. That's not to say it should be easy or you should be laughing the whole time, but it should be an enriching experience. You should feel like you're getting something really positive out of it.
You're a female director in a world where there aren't many. Do you think about that often? Do you feel like you're leading a charge of some sort?
I have a very simple view of it, and I will probably get lambasted for this. If you're a woman, just make a freaking good movie. I don't believe in the women who say it's too hard, I'm getting shot down. I've gotten the best response post-Sundance because everyone wants to support a female filmmaker because there's not enough of them. Then I just want to turn to the women and be like, "Alright, they're ready. Stand up and make a good movie, because that's what it takes." I think the world is ready. In my experience, anyway, and in every door that's been opened to me, most of them come with the caveat that "We're so excited to work with a female director." I don't feel like there's a glass ceiling at all. I feel like I'm on an elevator and have been given a ride up.