An Interview with Aubrey Plaza
The Little Hours expands into more theaters this weekend, including those in the Seattle area. I had a chance to sit down for a discussion with star and producer Aubrey Plaza (“Parks and Recreation”) and writer/director Jeff Baena. I didn’t like the movie, but it was interesting to find out if Plaza is really as sarcastic as she is on the screen (the answer is yes) and how Jeff brought so many recognizable stars together to make this independent film.
How do you sell a raunchy period piece to a studio in 2016?
Jeff: I’d say the main trick is don’t do it with a studio. This is an independent film, so we did it with equity money as opposed to going through a studio. You have a lot more latitude and leverage to make a movie that you want as opposed to something that’s watered down by committee. At the same time, this film was relatively inexpensive, considering the fact that we’re shooting in Italy for Italy and we had a mostly American crew and an entirely American cast. I wouldn’t say the majority of it, but a heavy percentage of our budget went to travel and lodging…logistics stuff. I would say, if you look at what’s going on in the film landscape with studio films, obviously they’re not taking as many risks as they were 5 years ago. It’s primarily reboots and remakes and your straight up science fiction or action or superhero movies, so the challenge is to make movies in that landscape without pandering and trying to have a unique vision and voice.
Aubrey: I would also add that the financiers, the people that made our movie, have worked with Jeff before, so I don’t think just anyone could make them feel like they were going to pull it off. Because they know Jeff and they’ve worked with him, they knew that he was going to pull it off.
Jeff: Cast helped, too. One of the investors is from Tuscany, she had been asking the investor group to shoot in this rural area of Tuscany that we did shoot in because she had access to all these medieval villages, and they kept rebuffing her because why would they need that? That doesn’t make any sense. So when this idea popped back up, and I mentioned it to my producer, she was like, “You won’t believe this, but this woman’s been asking us to shoot in this village for years and you’re actually proposing that.” It was a really good fit.
When the idea of making The Little Hours popped into your head, did you bounce ideas off each other?
Jeff: I don’t really bounce ideas off anyone, honestly. It’s not by choice, I’ve sort of created this insulated space. When I first came up, I co-wrote with somebody, so I was so used to bouncing ideas off of so I have that inner dialogue happening as opposed to externalizing. With Aubrey, it’s more about her character and what she’s going through and instead of the movie itself. But we don’t really collaborate in terms of co-writing stuff as of now.
Aubrey: But who knows. (laughs)
You have both worked with several of the cast members before. As you wrote the film, did you have most of them in mind, or do you retrofit them?
Jeff: The way this movie came about, it was a lightning storm. It happened real fast, between me telling my producer that I had this idea from when I was in college that I thought would be kind of fun to shoot in Tuscany, to then scouting it a couple months later, to then shooting it a couple months after that. We didn’t really have an opportunity to just develop it for two years, so pretty much the people that you see that are in it are the people it was intended to be for. Plus this movie was almost 100% improvised. The story itself isn’t but the dialogue is, so I knew the kind of people that I had to assemble to pull off something as ambitious as that without it going off the rails. People who had familiarity with improv, but with proper structure and understanding of how that fits into the bigger picture. So with the exceptions of Kate Micucci and Fred Armisen, I had in some capacity worked with everyone before, so I trusted them and knew what they were capable of. I just put my faith in the process that they would be able to deliver, which they did.
Aubrey, you have this very distinctive, sarcastic deadpan to a lot of the characters that you play. First of all, what about The Little Hours titillated your comedic sensibilities and drew you in not only as an actor but as a producer?
Aubrey: I came on as a producer because Jeff and I have worked together, I’ve worked with him on all of his movies and I helped assemble the cast and I helped do other things, so it was a natural next role for me to take on. I think this kind of movie is right up my alley. I love any movie that takes a major risk and does something that you’ve never seen before. It being my first producing credit is really perfect for me and special because it’s exactly the kind of movie that I want out there and would want other people to make. Not just because of the comedy style, but just the idea of it and the fact that a bunch of money and fun went into making something so insane.
Is the deadpan you’re known for how you are in real life?
Aubrey: In terms of my comedy style in real life, I don’t know. I don’t think about projects like, “Oh, I’m really going to get my deadpan on in this one.” When you’re an actor and you take on a part, you only have yourself to draw on. My rhythms and the way I think, all that comes into play when I’m creating any character, but I would hope that they’re always different and it’s not a distracting thing.
[Author’s note: Yes, she is about what you’d expect in real life]
What was the biggest unexpected challenge or obstacle you faced during the making of the movie?
Aubrey: I would say just getting that donkey to do anything. Stubborn donkey, pregnant donkey.
Did you choose an impregnated donkey?
Jeff: They didn’t bring out a lineup of donkeys. We were in rural Tuscany, so it was slim pickings. Rural sounds like it should be tons of donkeys, it’s not like they have a lot of film stuff going on there, it’s not like there’s a ton of picture donkeys. So we dealt with what we could and we got the best one we could get. We had a turtle that was super professional.
Aubrey: That turtle was an amazing actor.
You could do a lot of merchandising with that donkey.
Jeff: Yeah, we’re trying. Supposedly the donkey’s baby was going to be named Aubrey. So two months after we left, baby Aubrey was probably born.
Special thanks to Matt Oakes of Silver Screen Riot for providing the transcript and asking some (but not all) of the smarter questions.