Sundance 2010: 'The Freebie' covers the cost of meddling with happiness
Premiering today as part of the inaugural NEXT section at the Sundance Film Festival, "The Freebie" marks the directing debut of Katie Aselton. Having appeared as an actress alongside her husband, Mark Duplass, in the 2005 indie-fave "The Puffy Chair" and more recently on the television comedy "The League," the film is Aselton's first feature, and in many ways, it's emblematic of the new-era digital filmmaking NEXT is intended to celebrate, made quickly and cheaply and with an eye toward quiet, keen observation.
The film stars Aselton alongside Dax Shepard as a married couple who decide to grant each other one free night to go out and fool around with someone else. What starts as an idea to add spark to their increasingly settled lives together quickly becomes a source of destructive conflict, as neither is quite sure if the other did or didn't go through with their plan.
The film had its genesis last fall when Aselton found herself at loose ends, in between jobs and anxious to work. "I sort of end up tail-spinning when I have no idea what's going to happen," Aselton, 31, said recently. "Which is where this came from -- I was like, 'I have no offers right now, I'm freaking out,' and Mark said, 'Just make something.' "
Within a few months, she would be shooting in her own house as the main set from just a six-page outline -- the film itself has no writing credit on it, though Aselton is credited as screenwriter in the Sundance program guide -- as she and her actors would improvise the dialogue.
The film also pulls together talent from the indie circles Aselton has met along the way on the festival circuit. Editor Nat Sanders and cinematographer Ben Kasulke both worked on "Humpday," which starred Duplass (who has an executive producer credit on "The Freebie" and is also at Sundance with "Cyrus," a film co-directed with his brother Jay). Shepard, a friend of Duplass, was cast at the last minute, barely 12 hours before shooting began, after Aselton struggled to find the right leading man.
"I just knew that I had this concept, I knew exactly the story I wanted to tell," said Aselton. "And then I just surrounded myself with people I wanted to help tell the story. I'm coming at it as an actor anyway, I'm not really coming at it as a filmmaker."
For as many films that explore the romantic complications of single people, or couples in the midst of splitting up, it is somewhat rare to see inside the dynamic of couples that are actually working. And the film seems to want to remind viewers, don't forget it is work to keep a couple together.
"I liked telling the story of this couple that there's not really anything wrong with," said Aselton. "I feel like everyone talks so much now, it's all this therapy culture and it's not like generations before us that just got on with it.
"And also here's this couple who have this superiority thing about other couples because they think they're so honest with each other. And they can be incredibly hurtful to each other but it's coming from 'an honest place.' And I hate that. And then just the idea that this couple thought they could pull it off."
After "The Puffy Chair" Aselton made the rounds of auditions in Los Angeles but nothing much came of it. Then she took some time away from acting after the birth of her child with Duplass. With "The League" preparing to shoot a second season and having completed "The Freebie," she is feeling like her career is back on track.
"I kind of wanted a second chance at the post-'Puffy' world," Aselton said. "I was stupid after 'Puffy Chair.' I was young and I felt deserving and I just assumed things would come of that, instead of what Mark did, which was make your own stuff happen. I was much more lazy and self-righteous and I wanted people to come to me and they didn't. So now I want a second chance, I want to show what I can do as an actor, a storyteller."
-- Mark Olsen
Photo: Katie Aselton and Dax Shepard from "The Freebie." Photo credit: Sundance Film Festival