When you see the violent action thriller BLACK ROCK, some of you may have a tough time believing it was made by a woman, let alone the woman who directed the emotionally charged, improvised marriage drama THE FREEBIE. But Katie Aselton is no ordinary woman. She's a working actress who has joined an elite but growing club of women who have gotten tired of sitting around waiting for casting directors to come to them or only see them in a limited capacity, and has taken things in her own hands by writing and/or directing in films that they also star in.
But BLACK ROCK is something entirely different. It's a tense, action-tinged tale of three female friends (Aselton, Lake Bell, and Kate Bosworth) who get together to bond on a small island off the coast of Maine. They think they're alone on the island until they stumble upon there military vets recently returned from the Middle East and having trouble readjusting to life back home. And that's as specific as I want to get about the horrible things that happen to these women. For a scene in which two of the women fall into near-freezing water and have to strip completely naked to take advantage of body heat, Aselton is put through the unenviable task of being huddled nude with Bell.
The film reminds me of the rape-revenge works of the late 1970s and early 1980s that would often make the grindhouse circuit or play drive-ins. Even more surprising is that the film was written by Aselton's husband, filmmaker and actor Mark Duplass. The two are probably best know for starring together (although not as a couple) on FX's "The League," whose next season kicks off on the new FXX channel in the fall.
In the mean time, check out Aselton's extraordinary, blood-soaking BLACK ROCK, and please enjoy my chat with her (which includes quite a few spoilers, so be warned), which took place as she was running errands in Los Angeles; it was kind of hilarious, actually…
Katie Aselton: Hey, Steve. How are you?
Capone: Hey, good. It’s good to talk to you again.
KA: It’s good to talk to you. How’s it going?
Capone: Good. We actually played your film at our Chicago Critics Film Festival last month.
KA: Oh, that’s right. I knew that. I wanted to be there.
Capone: That would have been great. You retweeted my thoughts on the film being great and disturbing. So thank you for that. I think that’s the first time I’ve ever thanked anyone for doing that.
KA: Well I think this is actually the first time I’ve gotten to thank someone, a total stranger, for saying something really nice, which I needed and appreciated. [laughs]
Capone: The first thing that really kind of threw me about the film was I could never have guess that you would direct a film like this or that Mark would have written a film like this.
KA: Why is that?
Capone: Because it’s so completely different than anything I’ve seen you do before. Was that the goal, to do something that was out of your comfort zone as both a filmmaker and an actor?
KA: It was certainly the goal as an actor, because it’s frustrating when you keep getting seen in the same light, and you want to break out of that and do something different. As far as a filmmaker, I’m still learning my voice and figuring out what stories I want to tell, and this is a kind of movie that I really love, very naturalistic, simple stories that are tense and suspenseful and thrilling. Those were really interesting to me. So why not tell that story?
Capone: It does have a very specific tone and it’s one that I haven’t really seen done much lately. Its’ sort of right out of a certain kind of film that used to get made in the late '70s and early '80s. Except for the cellphones not working, it’s kind of a timeless story and could take place at any time in the last 40 years.
KA: Totally, which is so frustrating, because cell phones I think have really ruined a lot of movies. You have to acknowledge them. It’s so frustrating and there are only so many ways to deal with that issue.
Capone: It’s funny when filmmakers don’t address it. It almost sticks out now, and you’re right, it not only dates the film, but…
KA: It stinks. You don’t want to have to address it. I get why people don’t do it. As an audience member, it’s frustrating when they don’t do it, but I understand why they don’t do it. It’s like a sick Catch-22 and it bums me out.
Capone: Were there particular films that you and/or Mark were using as your touchstones for this film?
KA: Oh, absolutely. I would say, quite obviously, DELIVERANCE is a massive influence on this movie. Really I feel, like you said, they don’t make character-driven thrillers anymore. There are all kinds of devices that people use, and I get why audiences like that. In the way that THE FREEBIE was a simple story, I wanted this to be a simple thriller. Does that make sense?
Capone: Absolutely. I felt like I should have been watching it in a drive in; that’s what it felt like.
KA: That’s awesome. If we could ever make that happen, I would do that in a heartbeat.
Capone: I do know people that own drive ins outside of Chicago, but I will have to bring that up.
KA: We need to make this happen.
Capone: I also love, and I’m not going to give anything away here, that when the story is done the movie is done; you just stop it.
KA: Yeah, totally. What else would you need to know?
Capone: Exactly, but anybody else would have tacked on like 10 minutes of winddown, but you just end the movie.
KA: We shot it. We certainly shot ten minutes of winddown, but then when you see it, it all just seems unnecessary.
Capone: The ending is so jarring, but it’s completely effective, and we just sit in our seats for a few seconds and just go “Whoa, that was the story. That was all we needed there.”
KA: And that’s exactly what we found in the edit room, like “Okay, we can go on and say more, but do you have to? There’s nothing more to say.” You see in that image that, one, they're okay and off the island, and two, they're never going to be the same again for better or for worse. I think mostly for the better. I think with this experience, as traumatic and horrendous as it is, has strengthened them, and they have found their inner strength and that’s kind of neat, if you’re going to look for a positive.
Capone: I think it’s kind of fascinating that you have these two female characters that hate each other when it starts out, but they're the ones who have to overcome that. I feel like if the story were about two men in a similar circumstance, that they might not have gotten past that. They might have found a way to keep hating each other.
KA: That’s the thing too, because these two characters I think hated each other so much because they loved each other so much. Do you know what I mean? So when the shit really hits the fan, all the stupid trite dramatics fall away, because nothing matters. “That doesn’t matter. It’s ridiculous. It’s in the past. It’s done.” All they have is each other at that point, and I don’t know, maybe men just don’t do that. Maybe women are just so evolved [laughs].
Capone: You’re probably right.
KA: I don’t know. I think that’s what people always want me to say in these interviews.
Capone: Compared to THE FREEBIE, this feels very traditionally scripted. Can you compare the experiences in shooting?
KA: Well honestly it was scripted. FREEBIE came from a six-page outline, which served the story in a lot of ways. I think it was nice to see this couple say things that surprised each other, and it felt very raw and very real and it really served the characters and the story. There’s a lot more going on here. A lot of things needed to be fully structured in there, especially when you’re dealing with stunts and safety and racing around an island. There’s logistics, there’s plot issues; you’re all over the place, so it was fully scripted.
That being said, we definitely opened scenes up and explored and cut loose and played around, which was great. As a filmmaker it makes it easier for me to find these really nice naturalistic moments; as an actor, improvisation is always a collaboration. It’s always getting to take on more responsibility and dig in and put more of yourself into a scene. I think that’s really fun too, so I like to work that way. I’ve done all of it, fully scripted, word for word, fully improvised with no script at all. I like it all. I think in developing my style, I like working with a script and then loosening the script from there.
Capone: I'd imagine a more scripted scenario is easier to edit.
KA: Yes, very much so. Yeah, we knew exactly where the story was going and what we were doing. With THE FREEBIE it was like… do you remember those “Pick your own ending books” when we were kids?
Capone: Sure. I think they still have them.
KA: That’s what THE FREEBIE was. I mean first off, awesome books and I still can’t figure out how the hell they write them, but super fun for a 10-year-old kid to be reading a book like that; it’s like you’ve got 10 books in one book. That’s what THE FREEBIE was; we kept on having a disjointed structure and going back and forth in time, we really could have done whatever we wanted to. It was wild.
With BLACK ROCK, we knew exactly where it was going, exactly what was happening, the plot was very laid out and the structure was much more strict in a lot of ways. But that was great. I loved it. I’m a Libra, so I have a hard time making decisions. I still look at FREEBIE and I’m like “I just wish maybe we had done this.” With this it was like, “No, that’s what the scene had to be.” It could have been anything. It was fun and almost too much freedom. It was overwhelming at times.
Capone: What it was like for you just working with the blood and guts of this movie and using all of those practical effects?
KA: The first two days it was awesome. By the end, I was like, “If I taste one more drop of fake blood, I am going to vomit.”
Capone: You’re pretty much covered in it by the end.
KA: Oh, I was completely covered. At the end, at one point I like lean on Lake, and all of her hair sticks to all of my fake blood on my face. It is disgusting. My clothes were caked and dried with it, and it would rip out any tiny little peach-fuzzy hair you had. It was just yucky. That’s my technical term for it.
Capone: It didn’t look really comfortable in that last shot either.
KA: Everyone is like, “Oh your face, the expression on your eyes,” and I’m like “I think my skin just solidified in that expression. I don’t think I could have made another expression if I had tried.”
Capone: Did you know Kate and Lake before this film, either professionally or socially?
KA: Well, Lake was on "The League," but I did not work with her on "The League." I don’t think I was in that episode. I definitely wasn’t in the scene, if I was in the episode. But I knew her socially. We were friends and shared mutual friends, but I certainly did not know her as well as I know her now. Now we are bonded to like Level 10 friends. And I did not know Kate, but she knew Lake in the same way I did. She knew her from parties and work stuff, but they had never worked together, they liked each other, they always wanted to do something. They're always very social, and Lake was like “You should talk to Kate about this,” and I was like, “She would never do this.” But she read the script and she loved it. The second I sat down with her… Have you ever met her?
Capone: I’ve just interviewed her on Skype once. That’s it.
KA: She is like the nicest. She’s got this crazy, sweet energy and is all laughter. Clearly, I have discovered the type of woman that I love and it’s the women--well I don’t only love pretty women--who is stunningly beautiful, but a total goober on the inside. Then it just balances out all of that pretty. Someone who is pretty and a jerk, I’m like, “There’s no win there. It’s all too much for me, and I don’t need it.” But when they're as beautiful as Kate and Lake are, they need to be balanced out with serious dork factor, and both girls have that. They are goofy and funny, and we just had a silly good time together.
Capone: I know this has come up probably in every single interview, but the body-warming scene is pretty memorable. But it reminded me of the old rule I've always heard about making horror films that if you include nudity and lots of blood, someone will pick it up for distribution.
KA: [laughs] I don’t know if that’s the reason why people put in nudity, but I definitely think that’s part of the genre, and in us doing it, it was definitely a very conscious nod of like, “Okay, I’ll put some boobs in there. I’m going to do it the way I want to do it, and it’s going to be totally non-sexual and like a survival tactic, but sure, I’ll follow your rules.”
Capone: It’s really moving the way you do it, and considering the history of these two characters, it was a really desperate moment, and it looked really, painfully cold.
KA: You know why? It was super cold.
Capone: I bet.
KA: I love that scene. It’s my favorite scene. At first, you’re like, "Oh, cool. These chicks are going to take their clothes off, and then before you know it you totally forget that they are naked, which is so cool.
Capone: Did you and Lake have to talk about how that scene was going to progress, and how far you would take it.
KA: Yes, legally, I had to talk to Lake about it and have her sign off on how naked we were going to get, and it’s weird, because I was expecting her to be like “I’ll do boobs, but I wont go whole hog.” So I was like, “It’s written that we are naked naked, like fully naked. How cool are you with this?” She was like “Well, you’re right next to me, so if we are doing this, we’re doing this, and I’m ready.” I was like “Oh, okay. Great.” It was one of those “Shit, I’m getting naked.” I’ve never even done partial nudity; I’m going straight from nothing to everything, “Okay!”
Then I had the realization like three days before we shot it, I saw Lake walk across the room and I was like “Oh shit, I have to get naked next to Lake Bell! What woman in her right mind casts Lake Bell as the girl she has to get naked to? I’m going to look like a 12-year-old boy.” So that happened. But yeah, there was a conversation.
It’s not like I’m dying to take my clothes off in a movie, but for the right reasons, in the right context I loved the way these girls had to be naked. I loved that this was a turning point where they get totally animalistic and primal, and this is where they start to really fight to live, and I loved that. They really strip away, metaphorically, all of their shit and get down to the bare bones and basics of survival. I like that; I like that a lot. So I guess if you’re going to get naked, that’s how you should do it. And Lake felt the same way, like “I’m not going to do it in a gratuitous stupid way, but this is really the right way to do it.”
Capone: You mentioned earlier that part of the reason you did this was that you aren’t getting offered parts like this…
KA: Yes, surprisingly enough, I wasn’t getting offers to take my clothes off! [laughs]
Capone: Oh, well, that’s not what I was going to ask, but that’s an interesting offshoot of this. I’ve talked to enough female directors and writers like Brit Marling and Julie Delpy--there’s a whole list of them now--that for similar reasons they have written or directed their own movies. This seems like a growing trend. Is this something you’re seeing a lot more of?
KA: Absolutely and I think it's easier to do them. I think technology has made filmmaking very accessible and cost effective. You don’t have to spend $500,000, which used to be a low-budget movie, because you’re shooting on film and what not. Now you have a camera that costs nothing. You can get a camera for like $2,000 and shoot a beautiful-looking movie, and you can do it without a focus puller, with a bare- bones crew, and as long as you’re telling a simple enough story that that works for, like Brit and like Julie, Amy Seimetz too, you have got a movie. So as long as you’ve got a story to tell, that’s really what it boils down to.
Capone: And Lake just directed a movie too, right?
KA: Yeah, she did. She directed a great movie [called IN A WORLD…]. So it’s not quite as simple as “Well, if you’re not getting the roles, then just go out and make your own.” You still have to have a really good story, but certainly if you have the ability to come up with a story and tell a story, then there are no reasons why… The way Brit does it, where you start collaborating with really talented people and get it done.
Capone: As a huge fan of "The League"--I’ve seen every episode; it’s the greatest, funniest show…
KA: Oh boy.
Capone: It’s coming back on this new network, right? This new old network?
KA: Yeah, it’s a new FX network, FXX? FX Squared? F Double X? Double X F? Yes, FXX, and I’m kind of excited about it. I think it’s kind of a cool thing; we’re anchoring a new network.
Capone: Have you started shooting those?
KA: We start in a month or two.
Capone: And it’s still supposed to start up in September like it usually does?
KA: Yes. Everything is going to be exactly the same, just that we're going to be on FXX.
Capone: Do you have any clue about anything that's going to happen? Or is it the same foolishness?
KA: I’m assuming it’s the same foolishness on a different day. They don’t tell me anything, because they know I keep no secrets.
Capone: I wish you guys would actually come to Chicago. It’s so frustrating to see those establishing shots of the skyline, but know that you aren't shooting here.
KA: We did, one time. We did a live show at the House of Blues. It was awesome.
Capone: But not for actual shooting, but you came here to perform.
KA: Not for shooting. Yeah, we did like a live comedy show. It was so fun.
Capone: How the hell did I miss that? I can’t believe I didn’t see that.
KA: I know, I’m mad at you, still.
Capone: I can’t believe it. I know you guys did something at SXSW a couple of years ago.
KA: Yeah, it was similar to that. They’ve really refined their live show, and it incorporates their stand up, and then they do some show-related stuff. It’s a very fun night. If we ever come back to Chicago again, you should absolutely check it out.
Capone: I will. So last question I’ll ask you, are there any other genres you’re looking at turning on its head in terms of directing?
KA: I’ll do a sci-fi period piece next.
Capone: After seeing Mark in SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED, I can believe you could tackle sci-fi from a totally peripheral, askew angle.
KA: Well, Mark kind of did it with SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED, didn’t he?
Capone: Yes, but there are so many non-traditional ways to do something like that, it wouldn’t surprise me if you weren’t kidding.
KA: Well, we’ll see.
Capone: That would be good. So nothing on the burners now?
KA: Lots of things percolating. Lots of stuff that was on my computer that my one-year-old spilled coffee all over today [laughs]. We’ll see what I can recover.
Capone: Oh no. So making BLACK ROCK, did it have the desired impact that you wanted it to have, n terms of opening people’s eyes up to your abilities and your range?
KA: It will be interesting to see. I think people will wait and see how it does in theaters. I think people are very careful now, but it does certainly. The only reactions I’ve gotten so far are like “Jesus, Katie, I didn’t know you had that in you.” “Yeah, I do.”
Capone: I meant to ask you about the reactions, because they are kind of all over the place. Some people are saying this is a great feminist statement. Some people were saying it’s closer to exploitation; others were talking about the portrayal of veterans in the film. Were you anticipating that kind of reaction?
KA: You know what? People are taking about it, and that’s awesome. People are talking about it, and I will take it. I am very comfortable with the movie that we made. I’m very comfortable in the way that we made it. Before people see it, it is sort of a jarring idea, but my Second AD was a disabled vet who we worked very closely with him in developing those characters and that storyline, and he totally signed off on it as being a very respectable way of doing it, so that’s great.
“Is it exploitation?” I don’t know. I was in it and I don’t feel exploited. Lake was in it, and she doesn’t feel exploited. So if we are not screaming “exploitation,” I don’t think anyone else really can. If people want to come at me, please do. It’s great, just do it loudly and keep talking about it.
Capone: Katie, thank you so much for taking all of this time to talk.
KA: Thank you for running errands with me; I appreciate it.
Capone: Anytime. It was good to talk to you again. Any time a movie shakes me up like that, I’m all for it.