On my last day in Park City, Utah, walking down Main Street to meet Katie Aselton, writer/director/star of the low-budget The Freebie, was a perfect way to cap off a mad-dash time at Sundance. The sun was beaming bright, the streets were deserted, and cars weren’t bumper-to-bumper early Wednesday morning as we met at the Main Street Pizza & Noodle restaurant, where Aselton walked in smiling as she sat down with a coffee in hand and explained that she was on about four hours of sleep but had been ecstatic since the premiere of the film a few days earlier. The Freebie had plenty of buzz after its premiere and shortly after Sundance was over, the film got picked up by Phase 4 Films, a Toronto-based distribution company that is planning on releasing the film this summer.
While this is Aselton’s first directional effort, many people recognize her from The Puffy Chair and the current FX comedy series The League (the second season starts in fall 2010); and she was in another film at Sundance, Cyrus (opening July 7), which was co-written and co-directed by her husband Mark Duplass along with his brother Jay. She can also be heard in the low-budget film Easier With Practice, a film she never appears in though her voice is prominent throughout. That film was recently nominated for two Independent Spirit Awards and will be available on DVD on April 6.
In The Freebie, Aselton plays Annie, who is married to Darren (Dax Shepard). They’ve been married for a few years, but the passion in their marriage has sunk to a new low (they can’t remember the last time they had sex). When they go to a dinner party with friends and discuss their marriage and love life, what follows is a decision that they both agree on to spark their love life: The Freebie, a one-night stand with a stranger, no strings attached and no questions asked. As the day gets closer and closer, both Annie and Darren are unsure if this is the right move for them and what consequences lie ahead by this unconventional way to fix a sexless marriage.
Congratulations on your world premiere screening on Sunday.
That was a good screening, wasn’t it? I was terrified. I don’t know if you could tell by my intro. My agent was like, “Your voice didn’t even come out of your mouth.”
But you must have been so excited.
It was incredible.
Being an actress, this must have been a completely different experience—presenting this as the creator and director of The Freebie, and not just being the actress in someone else’s film.
Well, it all came from here [puts hand over heart], and a year later, here we are. That is really bizarre to me. So it was about a year ago, in April 2009, that we started putting it together.
So you originally had a six-page treatment to work with, and you said at the Q&A on Sunday that filming took 11 days. How many hours a day did you spend shooting?
There weren’t actually long days. I think our longest day was maybe a little over 12 hours, but only because we had to get the dawn walking-over-the bridge shot. Nothing was a killer day. The scene that took the longest to shoot was the conversation in bed—that was all done in one night.
That is such a great scene too.
I really wanted to get as much of that as we could because that is the pivotal moment where you need to hook the audience. So I wanted to make sure that we were able to make it authentic and believable. I wanted the audience to really still like the couple and root for them.
Well you did a great job conveying their marital situation in that one scene, but I did wonder after watching that scene, why didn’t they just go to a therapist?
Well, if they went to a therapist, it would have been a really short movie. But also, I think this couple felt they were beyond that. They really believed in their evolved state of communication and sort of felt like they were superior to the other couples at the initial dinner party where they have an incredibly special connection that no one can compete with. And I feel like they’re beyond therapy—they don’t need it because they are so honest and there is an arrogance to them. So yes, while they should have gone to therapy, they did not, and by that, I had a movie.
The idea for this movie came up in a conversation about this couple who explore an extramartial evening with someone else. Did you ever just want to be the writer/director and have someone else play the part you played?
No, the whole reason I started thinking about an idea was so I could get myself a job as an actor because no one else was going to give me a job.
Right after I was done with The Puffy Chair, I was pregnant. So there is no working because God forbid someone had to insure a pregnant girl. So by not working for about a year, I wanted to get back to work, but I was out of the loop for so long and other people come up from out of the woodwork. So I needed to put myself back into the loop, and being married to Mark I really didn’t have an excuse and he wouldn’t shut up about me making a movie.
So it was probably the wise thing to do then, making The Freebie?
Looking back on it now, it was the wise thing. But it was really scary at the time, because I don’t really fancy myself a writer. So it was terrifying to think of an idea that works over the course of an 80-100 minute movie and has the arc and the dynamics that I wanted to work with. Also, I think I grew up on too many big studio romantic comedies to think of a good original idea, which was very intimidating. So I would start thinking about an idea and go, “Maybe I should be a hooker and then a really handsome wealthy business man comes and picks me up and it’s a Cinderella story—oh wait, no, that’s Pretty Woman. Or maybe, a guy loses his wife and he goes on a radio show and I hear him and I fall madly in love with as I travel across the country, oh no, that’s Sleepless in Seattle.” So there are a lot of conversions like that and Mark would be like, that idea sounds just like this other movie.
How did you meet Mark?
I met him on New Year’s Eve, through a friend of a friend and I kissed him and it was all done after that. I was living in Los Angeles and he was living in New York so we did the whole long-distance relationship for about a year. Then I moved to New York and I went to theater school while he was living in Austin, Texas recording an album with his band Volcano, I’m Still Excited!! So after that, Mark moved back to New York, we dated a year and then we made The Puffy Chair. We took The Puffy Chair to Sundance, and shortly after that we moved to Los Angeles and got married. We have a baby; her name is Ora, and she’s an awesome baby.
You mentioned at the screening that Dax started working on the film about 12 hours before his first scene? Did you have someone else in mind for the role before hiring him?
He is an incredibly talented comic, but I’m really excited about his work in The Freebie because I feel like he shows [another] side of himself; people who have seen him in other films will see a different side to him as an actor. It was amazing that he allowed me to shoot that, because he didn’t really know me prior. I did have someone else in his role and we shot for three days and it wasn’t working. I think that this style isn’t necessarily for everyone even if they think it is for them…I mean, I would love to do Shakespeare on stage, but I’m not a Shakespearian actor. I think this style can be appealing to people who have been locked into one type of acting for a really long time, but then once you get thrown into it, it can be a bit scary. So it didn’t work out and he wasn’t having much fun and neither was I—and no one is making any money, so you have to be having fun. Dax was suggested to me by our director of photography Ben Kasulke, who then asked Mark to see if he might be available. It was funny, though—Ben was quoting Idiocracy even before Dax’s name had been mentioned. Mark called Dax and he agreed. He didn’t read the treatment before he showed up, and it was great. He was a huge fan of The Puffy Chair and knew me from that film, and knew that this film was going to be similar to The Puffy Chair because I don’t know how to do anything else, since this is all I’ve done. The Puffy Chair had a script, but Dax is an improv guy and I knew he could do it. But I was also ready to completely give it up and be like, “Hey, this might be a screwball comedy” and I would be fine with that just as long as we’re having a good time.
This is a short film, clocking in around 80 minutes, but what was roughly your first cut run time? I imagine there were scenes that were either trimmed or altogether cut.
Well, the first cut wasn’t much longer than around 90 minutes. We mainly cut more of the conversational scenes and wanted [to get to] the idea of “the freebie” much quicker. With films these days, you need to get to your hook within the first 15 minutes, and that is right around when our hook is. But the name of the movie is The Freebie, so I think people will know what they are getting themselves into. And to be honest, I really didn’t want to spoon-feed the story and I really wanted audiences to get to know and like Annie and Darren so you would go on this ridiculous journey with them and be excited about them.
Now that the film has screened and people are coming up to you to talk about the film, what are some questions that are surprising you?
When we decided on the final structure and leaving it ambiguous at the end, I was really excited about it because my idea with the ending was the audience should be left with Annie and Darren and let them decide for themselves. And every Hollywood ending gives you all the information and then what do you walk away with? All the information and then it’s over. But if you’re left wondering…I just like that idea and I didn’t realize it would spark so many different conversations. I thought everyone would just agree on what happened, but they don’t and it’s awesome. It sounds like there are three major theories on how it goes down, and I think it’s really indicative of where people are in their own lives—that’s just my opinion. So I never really expected it would get these very strong reactions. After our first test screening when we decided on that ending it was a bunch of filmmaker friends and they stayed for hours talking about it. I was waiting on critiques about what to change and what to cut and they were like, sure, take a little bit out of the dinner scene or take a little bit from this scene, but seriously, they wanted to know from me, “What do you think happened?” That was so exciting to me, because I had made a movie that people can talk about. I feel like that doesn’t happen that often, and I love that. That was the biggest surprise for me—and just how amazingly open and vulnerable Dax was during the entire film. He was really wonderful and he surprised me a lot, which was nice.
After finishing your first film now, would you consider making another film?
Absolutely. I think it would have to be a story I could tell, since I’ve only made one movie. But I was able to make the first one because I had a lot of help around me and definitely going into it I really wanted to make a considered effort to make it a collaboration, which is why I surrounded myself with awesome filmmakers and storytellers. I think there is something nice about that, especially when you put responsibility on everyone’s shoulders because they are all more invested than they might be if they were just showing up for a job. They are each playing a part and they get larger points on the back end [a greater share of eventual profits] than they normally would and they all get to tell a story too, which is cool. Sometimes people just get hired and do their thing and go home, and then they are done. But if you can ask a cinematographer to really put a stamp on a scene and help tell the story making his own choices, that’s really nice. Or if you ask a composer to help with the music and not impose a ton of your own ideas on it, that works too.