By way of full disclosure, I’ll admit that I’m a sucker for a girl who starts off a conversation with, “So you live in Midcoast Maine in the summer? I used to rake blueberries not far from there.”
But the real reason Katie Aselton won me over when we met for a drink near her Los Feliz home had more to do with her pure, unabashed, unaffected enthusiasm for indie moviemaking.
How appropriate, then, that the name “Katie” should mean “pure,” because Aselton not only makes no effort to obscure the fact that she is flat-out ambitious, she also still manages to come off just as down-to-earth as you’d expect a blueberry-raking daughter of tiny Milbridge, Maine to be. What’s more, if I were a betting man, I’d wager that her straightforward style won’t change much—even after she’s in full glare of the fame that’s coming her way about 15 minutes from now.
The wife of writer-director-actor Mark Duplass (Cyrus, Baghead), Aselton is part of a highly successful little moviemaking troupe that includes the much-lauded partnership of Mark and his brother, Jay, as well as regulars such as DP Ben Kasulke, editor Nat Sanders and writer-director-actor Lynn Shelton.
Previously “only” an actor (with a couple of forays into co-producing her husband’s films), Aselton conceived her new project, The Freebie, as an acting showcase. She came up with the high-concept idea of a bored young husband and wife who agree to “take a night off from their marriage” and, after outlining the scenes (and evidently watching her husband for several years and saying to herself, ‘That doesn’t look so tough!’), decided she could and would direct it, too.
Background • “I first came to L.A. to do a 10-minute news program. I was a student anchor when I was 19. I guess I always wanted to be an actor—I just did journalism as a way to be taken seriously. I was out here in L.A. when I met Mark, who was living in New York. He came to visit and I kissed him. I guess he decided I was such a good kisser he’d have to move here. We got married after The Puffy Chair came out.”
The Freebie • “The Freebie came from a six-page outline. I know how to work that way from working on Mark’s movies. Improv is a different skill set; to do improv you’re taking a concept and interpreting it, digesting it, spitting it back out with your own life, stuff and words.”
The Writing • “The Freebie was improvisational because I’m not a writer. The concept is so clear that I thought we didn’t need a script. The way it worked was every scene in the movie is a paragraph in the ‘script.’”
The Acting • “They say ‘it’s all in the acting’ and it’s true. The make-or-break casting decision was who would play my husband. I initially cast another actor, but there was zero chemistry. After three days I had to let him go. It was tough because he was a ‘marketable’ name. He took it very personally, but he was just never comfortable with the improv. With Dax [Shepard, improv vet of “Punked” fame], it was the opposite. We felt very comfortable from the beginning.
“Dax really breathed life into his character and I never once needed to give him lines. It was always exciting to see what he’d bring to the situation. One of the toughest scenes we did, I’d met him just a couple of hours before. His… ‘humanity’ is touching and humorous. He balanced out my dramatic sensibility and made it lighter. I never pushed for humor in a situation. I always trust that the audience will connect with the baseline of reality… I played with the idea of a very collaborative, old-school, John Cassavetes-style shoot. But ultimately I thought the best thing I could do as a director is bring great people in to work with me. I knew that my DPs and editor both work in this style extremely well.”
The Shoot • “We shot The Freebie in 11 10-hour days in April of 2009. We had six people in our crew. It was pretty painless—at least it felt that way to me. There were no rehearsals; rehearsals were the first three takes. I met my DP, Ben Kasulke, while Mark was shooting Humpday. We used two Sony PMW-EX3 cameras and some really gorgeous filters. Ben is incredibly sensitive; he’s just a great storyteller. Vibe-wise, he and the other camera operator, Hillary Spera, were on the same page; it was almost choreographed. Every day before we started we’d talk about what we had and what we needed. Nat, the editor, was usually on set. Many people multitasked on this film. The producer cooked and location scouted.”
The Structure • “We paid everybody with a piece of the movie. Dax got a big chunk of points, Mark and I got a chunk and about 60 percent was divided up amongst the crew, with some folks getting a bit more than others. There was always a mutual respect.”
The Plan and What’s Next • “We got a big bounce out of Sundance. We’re playing the Angelika in New York, then we’ll go to six or eight cities after that. With my acting, I’m shooting season two of The League (in which she co-stars with husband Mark, Thursday nights on FX) now. It was created by [former “Seinfeld” writer-producer] Jeff Schaffer and his brother, Jackie, and it’s all improv. We’ll shoot all summer, and then I’ll get an acting gig in the fall and maybe shoot another film in the spring.”
Some people make it sound so easy, don’t they? Maybe when you’re as purely focused as Katie Aselton… it is. MM