Not all personal artistic crusades are highfalutin: Early in Ass Backwards, there’s a shot of a bare-assed Casey Wilson and June Diane Raphael urinating on a sidewalk. Yet Ass Backwards is a deeply personal film that the writer-stars struggled mightily to make; roughly eight years elapsed between writing the script and releasing the film, including an unexpected two-year hiatus during filming when one of their financiers defaulted. Longtime friends and writing/performing partners Wilson and Raphael did a little bit of everything to make Ass Backwards a reality, from calling in every favor they had to making food for craft services. The experience gave the two of them plenty to talk about in therapy and tested the strength of their personal and professional relationship. That’s a steep price for a comedy in the vein of Dumb And Dumber; in the movie, Wilson and Raphael play two delusional best friends who behave as if their lives are smashing successes, but who secretly blame their misfortunes on losing a beauty pageant as children. To redeem themselves, they travel back to their hometown to compete in a special anniversary pageant, encountering Vincent D’Onofrio, a drug addict, a lesbian commune, and more along the way. That it all came together is sort of miraculous, as they told The A.V. Club before the film premiered in theaters. (It’s been on VOD for the past month.)
The A.V. Club: You’ve written other things together, but what about this one made you push to see it through by any means necessary?
Casey Wilson: We wrote the movie Bride Wars that we really loved, but was definitely a studio comedy and it didn’t star our two mugs. Our dream since we met at NYU and started performing together, and after that experience, we wanted to write something that was totally ours, without the hand of a studio in it, something we could star in together for fun, basically, and that’s what it’s been.
June Diane Raphael: We’ve definitely written pilots and screenplays for studios that have never been shot, and I think after having written for the studio world for a while, we were just really committed to doing our own thing, not getting noted to death—even though sometimes those notes are really good and helpful. We just wanted a script we could do from beginning to end that was just our voice, and the cool thing about this movie—or not—is that it’s totally our vision, without any interference, aside from just financial issues and compromises, so that was just a great experience for us. We’ve obviously been able to do that before at Upright Citizens Brigade or our live shows, but we’ve never been able to take it to a bigger audience that way. It’s been really awesome to be able to do that, and it’s also caused its own set of nightmares, which are different than the nightmares you experience on a studio or network level, but no less painful.
AVC: When you guys were like, “We want this to be our thing,” were you thinking during all the headaches, “Well, mission accomplished”?
JDR: It was our thing, all right. I didn’t know I would be personally wrangling extras or cooking food for craft services.
CW: Yeah. It was that down and dirty—going out and buying cigarettes for crew members and fashioning my own wig.
JDR: At several points during this movie we were so frantic because it was really a battle against time.
CW: And money.
JDR: And money, too. Because you don’t have the luxury to just shoot and shoot and shoot, and so there were literally scenes where it was like, “We have 10 minutes to get this,” and Casey and I would be turning to each other like, “Does my makeup look okay?” [Laughs.] And I’ve literally never turned away a touch-up in my life.
CW: By the end of it, we were lifting dirty curtains off the ground and wiping our sweat away. It was not a glamour project.
JDR: [Laughs.] It was pretty crazy in that sense. We were like, “If our vanity is out the window, we know we’re pressed for time.”
AVC: When did the whole process start?
CW: 2006, we finished the script, so I guess 2005?
AVC: Then you shot most of it, and that’s when the shutdown happened?
CW: Well basically, from 2006 to 2009, we looked for financing, then we shot in 2010, and then we shut down after 20 days of shooting with five more to go. We shut down for two years, and we were told when movies shut down, they don’t come back up. We were just… To be honest, we were devastated because but we’d come so far, we finished three-quarters of the movie, and it just shut down so abruptly—like we came to set one day, and we were done. The money had run out, and it was a shock. With the help of our producer, we’d cobbled together the financing, and we were much more involved in the producing because we had to be. Independent filmmaking is no joke. So we finished last summer, it got into Sundance this year, and now it’s coming out.
AVC: On Nerdist, you talked about trying to track people down by dress color or something.
CW: Well, like I was telling you, we stopped in the middle of a $75,000 day, which was like a pageant scene at the end, and we had tons of extras and a bunch of them were pageant girls that were very much featured. We shot half of the big set piece, so we had to match those girls and definitely match their dresses. When the film got shut down, it’s not like we had paperwork. The paperwork got thrown up into the sky because I think people thought the film was done. So through Facebook, we tracked one girl, who tracked more girls, and we just got ourselves immersed in the pageant circuit. We were asking them, “Can you be there on Monday?” And they’d say “no,” and June would say, “Can your dress be there?” [Laughs.] “Can someone borrow your dress? Can someone ship your dress?” One girl said she couldn’t be there, but her twin sister could. It was just wild and, not to be dark, but one girl had passed away, so we were facing some major challenges in that sense, which is horrible. It was just quite a process in the end, and it cuts together great, but, really, we were on ground. I remember a Google doc that was going back and forth with just update of titles like “Pageant Girls.” [Laughs.]
AVC: You said that movies don’t come back up when they go down. How did this one restart?
CW: Honestly, our commitment to finding the money. The good news was that we had footage from the first leg of the shoot and an editor, our amazing editor Susan Littenberg, she helped us cut together the footage we did have, so I think we were really able to keep going, and we were eventually able to find the financing. We were turned down I don’t know how many times. We were in the position of, “We’re going to go start shooting next week!” and it would all fall apart, and it was a constant heartbreak.
JDR: Having at least seen the footage, we knew we were happy with it. We knew we had something we were really proud of and wanted to get out there. That was the only good thing: We felt really good about what we had. The other sort of weird positive that came out of it was, because we had footage, we were able to go back into our last days of shooting and patch up some holes that we hadn’t thought about in the plot, and [we made] some decisions that I think really helped the movie in the long run that wouldn’t have happened had we not shut down. Casey and I were in group therapy together [Laughs.] trying to figure out what the hell had happened, and it was certainly a very dark, two-year process and sheer will.
CW: The writing process, especially TV, the turnaround is so quick and you have your answers really quick. Even movies, like Bride Wars, was a three-year period, but you see the movie through at the premiere, and then you’re done. This was a seven-year gestation process, and there was something very crazy creatively about knowing you’re working on this thing that’s in such limbo. We set out to make the movie, and when we came back to New York, we had nothing to show, and creatively we had been putting all of our energy and spirit into it. I even think, for myself, I don’t know if we’d embark on a creative endeavor with as much of our hearts and soul into it, and I know that doesn’t sound like something you want to hear, but I don’t know if I want to do that again because it meant so much for us to finish, and that’s how it got finished, but I think, along the way, it was such a ride.
JDR: Yeah, a total ride.
AVC: It seems like even more of your heart would be into it because you put aspects of your own lives in this. On Comedy Bang! Bang!, you talked about details in the film that came from your lives together, like singing along to a skipping CD or sharing a bed while you lived together. Did it feel even more personal because of those aspects of it?
JDR: Yeah, we knew it was our singular voice, and the characters are not us—they’re heightened characters. That’s the other thing: We always wanted to do a movie with bigger characters and broader, Dumb And Dumber-type characters. Some of that sort of comedy is reserved for the men, and women don’t get to play in that space as much, so we really wanted to go for it. These characters are larger than life, in a way; they’re not the girls next door—they’re bigger—and we wanted them to be that way. So in that sense they’re both us and they’re not us at all, but there’s so much love in the movie, and our love for these characters and our own friendship is very much in the movie. Also our own working relationship has gone through some of its toughest times creatively in our lives to get to this together. Certainly, we were close before, but we became closer having gone through what was a true bottoming-out professionally.
CW: Well, I had already bottomed-out on SNL. But this was a second one, yes. [Laughs.]
AVC: Was this finished by the time you found out Happy Endings wasn’t coming back?
CW: Yes. I did one more season of Happy Endings, because we found out about that. Happy Endings was a great experience compared to this because it ran for three years, and people who were watching it really enjoyed it. This one, we couldn’t even get the eyeballs on it to decide if they like it or not. They can’t even see it!
AVC: Although the characters are these large, Dumb And Dumber types, they’re still bothered by this pageant experience from when they were kids. Why do you think certain childhood experiences can still bother you 20 or 25 years later, after you’ve moved on and built up a life?
CW: I think we were, and still are, in the psychoanalysis going through the process of writing this movie, and we needed it desperately when the movie didn’t go out. I think any type of trauma in childhood is going to come up, and I think that’s the larger concept of the movie. At one point, the tagline was “Feel the feelings,” and I think we say [in the movie], “We have to feel the feelings, even if they’re the big feelings.” These are girls that are just determined to not feel bad, and they’re in that death pact together to not feel anything, and I think a lot of people are like that. We were like that a bit, building each other up in all the wrong ways. There might not be a lot there, but I think, ultimately, these girls have had traumas, and we’ve certainly had things in our childhood that have to be addressed. I think once you go through them, you have to move on, and them going back and tackling this pageant is them feeling the feeling.
JDR: Yeah, I think it was definitely influenced by a time in our lives where we were just getting into therapy, and getting into really going back and seeing who we were back then really informs who we are now and going into those feelings big time. [Laughs.] So that was always a funny concept to us, like these girls who had never allowed themselves to do that, and I think there’s something specifically female about enabling or not being able to tell your girlfriends exactly what they are or not being able to judge them in any way, shape, or form. It’s coming from the fact that you love them, but it’s also an unwillingness to really tell them what they’re doing, be it with guys or—
CW: Because then you have to take a look at yourself.
JDR: Yeah. Because we’d seen a lot of that in our own friendships whether with each other or our girlfriends. I think that also inspired that idea of what happens when these girls have been doing this for 20 years? Where does that leave them? And it turns out not in a great spot.
CW: This is about childhood, but we do have friends and I think there were aspects of us, where you’re able to live a very performative version of your life. Especially with Facebook and Instagram and Twitter, I can’t tell necessarily the nitty gritty of what you’re really up to. I’m just seeing the performance of all the work you’re doing and the look you’re giving; it’s very hard to get to the center. It’s very hard to see what’s what. We just liked the idea of sending these two who are refusing to see any kind of reality out on a road trip where the reality is really going to hit.
JDR: And that’s, to me, a real generational thing. You can sort of be something before you’ve done any of the work to get there. You can name it and you are it, and it is sort of specific to our generation and something you see a lot.
AVC: Well for all the therapy talk, do you feel like you have closure now that the film is done and being released?
JDR: No. [Laughs.]
CW: [Laughs.] Yes. I do, personally. I do feel closure, don’t you, June? I’m just so happy it got finished. I think it’s finished was one amount of closure, then getting it into Sundance, and now it’s coming out… I think we have a nice distance from it, because we were so close with this one that we do feel some closure because we did do this. I’m so happy it’s done and I’m so proud of it, and I’m ready to close the chapter in that way, versus [the release] causing more anxiety.
JDR: Yeah me too, it’s weird. The movie is very polarizing in its own way, and I think people either absolutely love it and are fans of this movie for life, which is a response that we’ve already received, or they do not get it at all and are angry about it. [Laughs.] We didn’t think it was that polarizing when we made it, but I think that’s for a few reasons, the parts of women behaving badly and women being dumb. But the truth is that now when we think about it and the place we’re in is like, “Wow, we made something that some people are going to love and some people are going to hate,” and that’s great because it’s not a studio film. It’s a place where we took a lot of risks, and I think we’re just incredibly proud of that. I think it’s a great space to work in; you don’t get everybody, but the people you get are yours forever. It’s great because it’s released to the universe now, and we have no control over it, so the people decide. It’s amazing to screen it with audiences and go to different movie festivals; we’ve had amazing screenings out in L.A. To take the movie around, to see the response, it’s been very overwhelming and emotional. Yes, I think we’re totally experiencing the closure that we need. [Laughs.]