Five years ago, Katie Aselton appeared in the Duplass Brothers’ debut feature The Puffy Chair, a film that kicked off the DIY “Mumblecore” movement, paving the way for a number of indie filmmakers doing their own thing and a few burgeoning careers for some of the actors involved. Last year, Aselton decided to make The Freebie her directorial debut, a movie in which she stars with actor Dax Shepard as a married couple who decide the only way to improve their sex life is to allow their spouses a “freebie”one night to sleep once with anyone they wanted.
Produced by her husband Mark Duplass, who we’ve spoken to a few times this past year both before the Sundance Film Festival and then for his new movie with brother Jay, Cyrus, Aselton uses a similar approach to filmmaking as Lynn Shelton did with Humpday, shooting long improvised takes then pulling together the best moments in editing. Despite using similar methodology and having a similar true-to-life mix of humor and poignancy, The Freebie shows Aselton to be a filmmaker with her own voice, one who was able to bring out a very different side of Dax Shepard than we’ve seen in his previous comedies.
ComingSoon.net got on the phone to talk to the delightfully enthusiastic Ms. Aselton, joined shortly after by her co-star in the movie.
ComingSoon.net: Had you always wanted to direct a movie?
Katie Aselton: No, I’m an actor and I needed a job, and I wasn’t getting one, and it was before this TV show I started on. When you’re married to Mark Duplass, you don’t have much of an excuse to not make a movie if you have an idea, so it was just sort of waiting for the idea to come and when the idea came, it sort of all fell into line very quickly after that.
CS: Did you throw the idea Mark’s way before you started writing?
Aselton: Yeah, I mean it’s what you do when you’re married to someone and it was more just like there were a couple months of me pitching a movie bout me not having a job and wanting to be working and missing doing what I do, and was him saying, “Why don’t you just make something? You’ve seen us do it enough times.” He was encouraging me to make something and I was being very stubborn, saying “No, I don’t have any original ideas” until one day I did have an original idea, and he just encouraged me to go for it. What I ended up doing was just sort of surrounding myself with people who weren’t going to let me fall on my ass, which was probably the best thing I could have done as a first-time filmmaker. That included Mark and it also included Ben Kasulke and Nat Sanders, and in the end, it included Dax, and they were all people who sort of jumped on board and were working for the greater common cause of the movie.
CS: When I spoke to Mark in January, I think he mentioned you and Dax actually live in the same neighborhood. Is that right?
Aselton: Yeah, yeah…
Dax Shepard: Now, we’re even closer, but then, we were probably two miles away but what is silly is that I was pretty unfamiliar with their little enclave though I was so close, so it was kind of a fun introduction to Silverlake for me.
Aselton: It was a crash course in hipsterdom.
CS: You didn’t know anything about the whole “Mumblecore” thing or what that entailed and how they made their movies at all?
Shepard: No, no, I knew about that because I was a huge fan of “Puffy Chair,” which is how I even met these guys.
CS: Kate, did you approach Dax about this or did he mention he was interested in doing something?
Aselton: No, honestly, Dax came to us by a crazy freak chance. There was another actor that had been cast in the role, and it wasn’t really working out, because as you know, it’s a fully improvised movie and a lot of responsibility is placed on whatever actor is in that role to really breathe a whole lot of life into it and so much of it is based on chemistry. So when that wasn’t working out, and I let him go, we all sort of looked at each other and it was like, “What are we going to do? I can’t cast Mark because that would be a sequel to ‘Puffy Chair'” and beyond that, we sort of have in our group of close actor friends, we have a whole lot of supporting actors and goofy sidekicks but no real leading guys. It was our DP Ben Kasulke, who was just a massive huge fan of Dax and has quoted him since the day I met Ben, he said, “Didn’t Mark take a meeting with Dax like a year ago?” Mark and Dax did strike up this little friendship over just a random general meeting and Mark called him out of the blue and said, “Dax, my wife is making this movie. We’d need you to start tomorrow. It’s only 11 days, are you interested?” and Dax said “Yes” and he can probably speak more to that, but that’s how quickly that came about. I did not meet Dax until the day we started shooting with him.
CS: Dax, what did Kate tell you about the project and what was involved? I assume you’ve done improv before but how was it doing that for an entire movie in just 11 days?
Shepard: When Mark first called, he said, “We’re making this thing and you’d start tomorrow. Let me send over the outline and tell me if you’re interested. It’s definitely more of a drama then a comedy,” and I said, “Well, I’m interested, I’ll be there,” and he said, “I’ll send the outline” and I said, “That’s okay, I’ll be there.” Just because I’m such a huge fan of his, and now of course Katie. At that point, I was such a huge fan of Mark’s that I would have done a pizza commercial if he was involved somehow.
Aselton: (laughs) I should cut “The Freebie” footage together and make a pizza commercial out of it.
CS: That would be a really interesting pizza commercial, that for sure.
Aselton: (laughs) No, but it really did just happen that fast and I dunno, it sounds so crazy to say but it’s like a testament to fate and destiny, and I don’t know how it all fell into place. Honestly, if Dax didn’t say “yes”, we would have had to stop and just say, “Alright, we need to regroup and spend a couple days to figure this out and do a casting.” It couldn’t have worked out better in my mind. I really couldn’t imagine the movie in a better place with a better actor.
CS: How did Mark feel about Dax playing your husband and having scenes where the two of you have to be so close?
Aselton: I’m an actor and he’s an actor and he understands that.
Shepard: He said he has been using it as fodder thought when you two are intimate. He told me, I don’t know if he shared that with you.
Aselton: (laughs) It works for him a little bit?
Shepard: Yeah. (laughs)
Aselton: (laughs) No, but it’s just part of what we do.
CS: Making this movie might have been your own freebie in the marriage.
Aselton: Yeah, I picked Dax. I had a freebie but then I fired him and I picked Dax.
CS: I was wondering about the bartender your character hooks up with, who looks a bit like Mark. Was Mark going to originally play that role or was that just a Freudian thing that your “freebie” actually looked like your husband?
Aselton: No, it was Ross Partridge, who was in “Baghead,” which may be why he looked familiar.
CS: How involved did you want Mark to be in the making of the movie and how involved was he able to be once you started shooting?
Aselton: He was around. We shot in my house. He was there for a lot of it, and he wasn’t there for a lot of it. Some of the more emotional scenes where I really needed some serious director, he definitely was around to help with that, but he was also in the middle of post-production on “Cyrus” so he was busy as well. They had just wrapped “Cyrus” when we started shooting.
CS: Dax, once you knew the basic structure of the movie, was it just a matter of trying a lot of different things on set and then Katie had to figure out what would work? How did you approach it compared to other movies you’ve done?
Shepard: Because there would be one objective for the scene we were about to shoot. It was like, “Let’s outline the plan of that scene. So okay, how do we get there?” And then we’d have to sit down and the first hour or two of each shoot day was just discussing our way into this scene and how to get what we needed. Once that was decided, we would then just kind of throw that away and have these long 45-minute takes and often times, we’d get a lot of gold in there and we’d also get a lot of rubbish, and then we’d say, “Oh, I like this, that was great, we should do that again.” And then, we’d do another super-long take and try to keep the things that had worked on the previous one, but it was a really liberating acting experience, because the takes were so long and there was no pressure to make it funny or make it anything. We had the freedom to let the scene be whatever it was gonna be, and because we’d shoot for so long, you would legitimately forget that you were shooting, especially in the dinner party scene at the beginning. There were a couple different times during those hour-long takes where I would catch the camera out of the corner of my eye and be like, “Oh, that’s right, we’re making a movie!” It just felt like a dinner party.
Aselton: (laughs) But I also felt like maybe because I am an actor first and foremost, you don’t want to cut in the middle of some of those scenes. Like where a director would be sitting behind a monitor being like, “Okay, we got what we need there.” It’s so neat to be able to let a moment breathe and really be able to find the moments organically as characters, and then sort of approach it as a director after that, and then be like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, I think we found it” in that really long take and then we would go back through stuff to do that would inform future takes.
CS: I was going to ask about acting and directing at the same time, which I’m sure is something actors who direct are asked all the time. You’re in many scenes and in some you’re just directing Dax or someone else. How was it as a first-time director to be acting at the same time? Did you have to switch heads a lot on set?
Aselton: No, because like I said, once we were on set, I let everyone else do their jobs that I knew they could do really well, and so there wasn’t a lot of micromanaging a whole lot, and I’d let my DP, who was also the camera operator, call “Action!” and I would let it run until I felt I was ready to stop or someone had a technical reason why we should stop. They could stop the take at any time.
CS: After 11 days, how much footage did you end up with that you had to go through later?
Aselton: There was a lot. I don’t remember what our ratio, but it was kind of through the roof, and our editor said it was like editing a documentary.
CS: I’ve talked to Mark and Lynn Shelton, director of “Humpday,” and they work in different ways, but did you have any sort of lines written that you wanted to make sure got in there?
Aselton: Truth be told, it was a six-page outline that we worked from, but within that outline, every scene was a paragraph, and there were definitely for certain scenes, very particular lines or information that we felt needed to be given to the audience. It was all really important stuff, so those were things where we were like, “Okay, let’s make sure that information gets out in the scene.” But the dialogue was very rarely ever scripted. It was probably just a line or two in there.
CS: I’m not married myself, but I assume most married people would see this movie and think that it was a really bad idea to do what your characters do because it does seem to be asking for trouble. Can you talk about why you think your characters decided to go through with this experiment and how did they not see it was a bad idea?
Shepard: Well, hm… for me, the thing that I was able to make sense of this. I was able to interpret this and make it seem real to me… I couldn’t relate necessarily to saying, “Oh alright, on this night, you get to do this and I get to do that,” but I could relate to that feeling of being the cool couple in the crowd, and I’m not talking about my public relationship or anything, but I’ve had the experience in my life where I felt like my girlfriend and I were the evolved couple, the one that was really adventurous and good communicators, and didn’t have a lot of hang-ups. For me, I look at what they did as more of a test to this theory they had about themselves. That they were very advanced and evolved and open-minded. That’s why they did what they did.
Aselton: I really believe they talk themselves into believing that they were doing this for the betterment of their relationship. They were doing it to bring themselves back together again, yet while it may seem like a bad idea, when you’re having those middle of the night conversations, you can talk yourself into anything. That’s not necessarily justifying it, I just think that when you’re doing something to save your marriage and the person you love across from you is seemingly excited, you just have want to jump on that excitement train.
Shepard: Yeah, I could relate to the cockiness of the relationship, where they thought, “Well, even if it goes bad, big deal. We just come talk about it and get past it in a couple days.” I can also relate to that kind of arrogance in thinking you can get through it.
Aselton: Yeah, and he threw out the worst case scenario that doesn’t seem so bad, so they go for it.
CS: One of the things about the movie is that it gets very dark at the end and anyone who sees it for Dax might think it’s a comedy, but it’s different since it takes a really dark and dramatic turn. Can you talk about how you managed that tonal change? I assume you did try to shoot in order more or less?
Shepard: We did shoot in order, yes.
Aselton: Yes, we shot everything in sequence. It’s a dark situation. You’re watching a marriage sort of unravel. You could sort of try and mop it up and tie it up and make it pretty, but I think what I was trying to go for as a filmmaker was trying to keep it as emotionally honest as possible and when someone’s heartbroken, it gets dark.
CS: It’s also left open-ended, which is good for allowing moviegoers to discuss and make up their own mind what happens next, but it can also annoy some people. Was it a tough decision to leave it like that or was that always how it was going to end? (Possible spoilers in the next response!)
Aselton: We shot what actually does happen to each character and it was shot, but the outline always had the two characters not really knowing exactly what happens. In the editing process, I really liked the idea of putting the audience in the two characters’ places, of having to trust than not really know, and that’s not just saying that this marriage will end. The fact of the matter is that this couple really does love each other, and they were living in this really weird stupid bubble that wasn’t very honest and wasn’t very open and maybe this is exactly what the couple needed was to blow the lid off their relationship a little bit and maybe this is the catalyst. And maybe not. Maybe it’s all over when the sun comes up, and that’s the end of their marriage, but it was just a little window into their world.
Shepard: It’s certainly a lot more fun watching that–not that it’s fun–but it’s a lot more intriguing watching that kitchen argument not knowing.
CS: I was curious whether the movie changed since Sundance because apparently I made up my own ending, because when I saw the movie again, I thought I remembered more stuff happening after the argument. I must have just made it up in my mind.
Aselton: Maybe, maybe. (laughs)
Shepard: It’s funny how definitive people’s opinions are on what happened. When we were taking questions in Sundance, typically women would start by going, “Okay, well he did it and she didn’t, so my question is…” or if it was a man, he’d go, “Well, she definitely did it so why didn’t you do this?”
Aselton: It’s really funny. It’s like a weird psychology class afterwards when you’re listening to the audience discussions.
CS: I can definitely see that being the case. Dax, having done this movie, are you up for doing more independent movies or things like this?
Shepard: Well, I’d want to do every movie that Katie does in the future and I want to be in all of Mark’s movies, but I don’t have an across-the-board goal to be in independent movies per se, but I always have the goal of working with people whose movies I love so in that respect, yeah.
Aselton: I’ll do that, too! (laughs)
CS: There we go, I have it on tape, so all you need is to put that in writing and it’s all set.
Aselton: No contract, we never had a contract.
CS: Now that you’re busy with the TV show, do you already have more ideas for other movies?
Aselton: No, I just really want to do more of this. I think what’s so interesting is that I never had the opportunity and I never really thought that would come of this. I thought this would lead to more acting jobs, and surprisingly enough, it has led me to more directing possibilities, which is so exciting.
CS: Have you talked with Mark about doing another movie together, either directing or writing for each other?
Aselton: Yeah, we have actually talked about him maybe writing something for me to direct, because I really hate writing, but I love the idea of making another movie. I feel like I like my voice, and I like what I have to say and I like being able to use it in this way, and it’s a skill that I want to hone more and I clearly have a lot more to learn, and I’m excited to work with people like Dax who are so amazing to work with and open and excited to come to work every day and play and try different things. What I love about being an actor is getting to be creative and collaborative and that’s what filmmaking can do, which is great.
The Freebie opens today in New York City and in Los Angeles on October 1.