While Jeff Baena’s films are—in his own words—“destabilizing,” “unmoored,” and full of “chaos,” in conversation he’s quite the opposite. Soft-spoken and clear-eyed, he’s the kind of artist whose passion for his work is evident in the work itself rather than how he discusses it.
As he tells The A.V. Club, anyone who counts David O. Russell’s I Heart Huckabees as their first credited screenplay is bound to be drawn to unclassifiable, hilariously awkward, star-studded stories; hence, Baena’s critically acclaimed Life After Beth, Joshy, The Little Hours, and, with co-writer and star Alison Brie, Horse Girl, most of which also feature Molly Shannon, Fred Armisen, and Baena’s wife Aubrey Plaza. He and Brie’s new film Spin Me Round, a genre-elusive comedy of errors about a corporate retreat, was filmed on location in Italy with plenty of COVID restrictions shaking up their creative process. Based on what Baena reveals about his artistic credo, we’re betting this will be far from the last time he reunites with his favorite on-camera muses.
The A.V. Club: How did this process differ from Horse Girl, The Little Hours, or your other films? As I understand it, the pandemic meant improvisation had to happen during writing as opposed to filming.
Jeff Baena: Yes, definitely there was not as much improvisation. There was a lot of improvisation based off of table reads, we incorporate some of those into the scripts. But traditionally I work off of outlines. Not having an outline to work off of was almost a function of COVID because we had an extra year to make this. We were supposed to make it in the summer of 2020, and obviously Italy was a hotbed of coronavirus. So Alison and I started to write the script and, yeah, it was a completely different process. We basically were under the gun a lot on this one, given the coronavirus situation. We only had two weeks of prep, we shot it in 22 days, but in Italy you only have eight-hour days to shoot instead of 12-hour days. So there were a lot of considerations that I think added to a frantic energy while shooting this. And I think the decision was made pretty early that there really wasn’t any time or room for improvisation.
AVC: Which do you now prefer, this more scripted approach or the outlines and improv? Will it just depend on what stories you want to tell?
JB: Yeah, it’s definitely situational. I came up as a writer, so I value screenplays and I think they’re amazing. I think creatively, it’s really fun to work off of improvisation: you can develop things in the moment that are unexpected, and can deliver performances and even plot elements that, maybe if you had thought about it, you wouldn’t go there. But in the moment, you get there, you commit to it, and that leads to really interesting things. So both ways work. Obviously, this was more of a traditional way of shooting, but I also really love improvisational filmmaking.
AVC: Going off of that, what is working with Alison Brie like as a co-writer? How does working with someone who is skilled at acting lend itself to the writing process?
JB: It’s an insane benefit to have the person that you’re collaborating with on all fronts also be on the other side of the camera. Because in addition to understanding, obviously, where the script is coming from and what the intention is, they can also set the tone in terms of acting. Obviously, as a director that’s [my] job, but having someone who is the lead and the focal point of the scene setting that tone is insanely beneficial. So having worked with her before and knowing that we have relatively similar senses of humor and senses of story and a real kinship, I guess, creatively—I think being able to find a person that you can trust and find common ground and then be able to work together on something is super rare. I think creative partnerships are generally rocky and strained and few and far between. And I’m lucky that she came to me to begin Horse Girl after having shot two movies together. And as time goes on, it just becomes easier and easier, and you develop more of a shorthand. At a certain point, you start finishing each other’s sentences, you know? Sometimes you just kind of feel it. That is invaluable.
AVC: Are you intentionally developing a troupe of regular actors? Spin Me Round features several returning collaborators.
JB: Yeah, absolutely. Molly Shannon, I’ve worked with her now four times. Most of the people in these movies, probably three or four times. There’s a couple of new people that I’m friends with or some people who I’ve never met before that I got to do this project. But what I have found is—especially working in a slightly nontraditional way, the way I work—it’s really helpful having people that kind of know where you’re coming from and where you’re going. Truthfully, I do sort of fall in love with all these actors and have such a great time with them. And they’re so multidimensional and multifaceted, that you think to yourself, “Next time, it would be really fun if they played something like this or if they did something more like this,” different from this, just mixing it up. So there’s multiple reasons why I end up being drawn to the same people, but primarily it’s that I can’t get enough of them.
AVC: But this also felt like the kind of movie where you need different actors who each have their own brand of, can we say awkwardness? How much did you consider tempering these different absurdities, without ever skewing too cartoonish?
JB: Yeah, I don’t think you ever want it to go cartoonish. You always want to have some sense of reality. But also, you know, it’s a movie. So it’s fun when it kind of does go off the rails and you get to see people turn it up to 11. That’s, I guess, part of directing. I’m a fan, clearly, of shifting tones. I like things to be destabilizing—once you think you have figured it out, it goes in a different direction. But yeah, cringey, awkward stuff, I definitely get off on that. This movie definitely has that in spades.
AVC: Take us back to the beginning. When someone’s first produced script is as idiosyncratic as I Heart Huckabees, how does that dictate a creative process or career trajectory?
JB: I was really young when I wrote that, and I think one of the benefits of that being my first movie is that it really is hard to classify. I’ve seen friends who are also filmmakers and writers who do a movie that [for example] takes place during spring break and then all they’re getting for the rest of their life is spring break movies. Or they did a melodrama, then they’re only getting melodramas. And I think personally, I’m only making stuff that I feel is different from something I’ve made before. [I like] trying new things and going into new places and painting myself into corners and trying to get out of it. And if it’s something that you’ve seen before, I don’t see the value in making it again. And, you know, sometimes there’s a criticism of, “I was expecting this and I didn’t get it.” But to me, what’s the point? Then watch that old movie that you thought this was going to be!
I think the benefit of having done a movie like that to start off—which is, you know, bonkers—is that you have room to spread out and do more bonkers shit. And that movie has an ensemble, so writing for ensembles is something that I love to do, creating dynamics between multiple characters that come into conflict or come into harmony with each other. And I’m definitely drawn to chaos. So I think there’s a lot of through lines from that movie that probably propagate into my other movies. But more than anything, it’s probably just a sense of being unmoored and not feeling like you have a “thing” that you’re doing.
AVC: Lastly and relatedly: who’s your favorite filmmaker, what’s your favorite film, and who’d be your dream collaborator?
JB: Favorite filmmaker? Probably Robert Altman. Or a Robert Altman-David Lynch hybrid. Favorite film? Probably California Split or Blue Velvet. Dream collaboration is a good question... Maybe Elliott Gould. I love him.