The Key to Natural Selection


Everybody always wants everything to be perfect. You ever notice that? The perfect budget, the perfect cast, the perfect shooting schedule, the perfect location. It took me six long years to get Natural Selection made, and most of that time was spent obsessing over getting things perfect rather than making do with what I had. I could have waited forever if at some point I didn’t say to myself—‘Hey, asshole, nothing’s ever going to be perfect, and if you wait too long to make this thing, every feeling that inspired you to write it in the first place will be nothing but a memory.’ So I sat down with my producers one day and broke the news to them. Two million dollars is a bloated budget, I said. Let’s make this thing for what we’ve got: $150,000. (In full disclosure, we didn’t even have that yet.) After some drinking and some arguing and some more drinking, I finally pummeled them into submission. They agreed with me: Nobody in Hollywood was going to give a bunch of jackasses like us money to make a coming-of-age movie about a woman in her 40s that didn’t star one of the cast members of “Friends.”

So we decided on the spot to make our movie, come hell or high water, in three months. And that’s when everything started falling apart. Due to the revised budget, every actor we had initially cast dropped out of the project. With a month before we were due to go down to Texas for pre-production, I frantically scrambled with my casting directors to re-cast the entire film. I met with a ton of great actresses, but none of them quite fit the bill. By this point, I had gone from smoking a few cigarettes to a pack a day. I was mainlining coffee. My girlfriend broke up with me. I begged her back, and the next day she broke up with me again. I was losing my mind. And then my casting directors had the nerve to suggest that I sit down to lunch with a comedienne named Rachael Harris. The nerve, I thought. The main character in my script is a vulnerable conservative Christian housewife based on my own mother, and they have the gonads to suggest I entertain casting Ed Helms’ ice-queen girlfriend from The Hangover? I was livid. But, thankfully, I am also a coward, and I didn’t have the nerve to tell them to fuck off. So I took the meeting.

Almost immediately, Rachael caught me off-guard. She was vulnerable but strong, she knew the script backwards and forwards, she opened up about life on her own after her divorce and she almost made me cry. And so, after a great audition, I cast her. And lo and behold, two days before I was supposed to leave for Texas, I found the perfect guy to play opposite her: Matt O’Leary. Sure, because of our revised shooting schedule and lack of funds, we would have no rehearsal. Sure, we had no time to audition anyone else for the supporting roles and would have to cast them based totally on recommendations. But I had my Linda and I had my Raymond. I decided to cut down on the cigarettes.

Two days later, while in Texas, we were informed by Rachael’s agents that she would regrettably not be able to do the movie because of personal reasons. I immediately upped to a pack and a half a day. I even started dipping in between cigarettes (a habit left over from growing up in Texas). I was so jacked up on caffeine and tobacco that blood was coming out of my ears. After some deliberation, we made the decision to go with our second choice for the role, a brilliant dramatic actress who proceeded to rake me over the coals for choosing Rachael over her. I had to fly back to L.A. to meet with said actress and beg her to do the movie. “I just think it’s interesting that you chose Rachael over me,” she said. “I mean, she’s very funny—I just thought you took this movie seriously.” Ouch. It was a painful meeting—two hours of patching up someone’s incredibly wounded ego, while all the time knowing in my gut that this was not good for the film.

I flew back to Texas and made the decision to go back to Rachael, but everyone around me—my producers, my casting directors, my agent and manager—told me no. “You don’t go back to an actress after she’s passed on the project,” they said. “It’s not the way things are done, just forget about it.” We had one more week until production, and I had to make a decision. So I went to my producers and I told them what I knew in my gut: That Rachael Harris was the only actress for this role, and screw convention and screw what everyone is advising us—I wanted to roll the dice and see if we could get her back. So we told our second choice actress, who was giving us an ultimatum at that point, that we weren’t going with her. And that night, with my producers huddled over my shoulder, I spent three hours crafting the perfect Facebook message to Rachael, explaining that, even though sending her a message like this was against protocol (yes, I actually used the word “protocol”), I would do anything to have her in the movie. Then I hit send and smoked and smoked and smoked…

An hour later, I got a short message back from Rachael—”Was hoping you would contact me. I’d love to do it, could you push a week?” Turned out her brother, who had cancer, was visiting her with his kids the week we were supposed to start, and that’s the reason she had to pass. Funny how people can make the easiest situations seem like unsolvable clusterfucks when “protocol” is brought into the conversation. I said yes, I would push a week, as long as it was all right with my crew who were, needless to say, not being paid very much.

And the rest is history. We shot the movie in 18 days, and nothing was perfect. There was no time to lavish on scenes or egos. The crew almost mutinied twice. We had no choice but to shoot one of the most pivotal scenes of the movie through a huge parade that we found out was going through our location the night before. I got into screaming matches with the producers, the producers got into screaming matches with the DP, Rachael screamed at me, Matt screamed at Rachael, Matt and Rachael screamed at the producers and on and on. But through it, all we stuck together, precisely because we knew that nothing was perfect—we were on nobody’s list of indie films to watch out for, we had no budget, no stars, no catering and no goddamn time. All we had was each other. And that’s the way indie films should be. The studios have all the time and the money in the world to make things perfect, but the accidents and the things you didn’t plan for are what makes a film, a script or a performance come alive.

I’m still waiting for everything to be perfect. I want the trailer to be perfect, the poster to be perfect, the reviews to be perfect. But I’m a little older and about 15% wiser now. Perfectionism is a good thing; it can drive you to make something better than your means. But it can also be the enemy of productivity and true discovery, which is really what’s important. Also, smoking is not good for you.

Natural Selection, written and directed by Robbie Pickering and starring Rachael Harris and Matt O’Leary, opens in Philadelphia’s Ritz and the Bourse theater and New York City’s Angelika Film Center today, March 16th. To find out more about the film, and for more information on future screenings, visit www.naturalselectionthemovie.com.

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