Katie Aselton and Adrian Grenier have a couple of things in common. Both star on TV series (Aselton on FX’s raunchily funny “The League,” Grenier on HBO’s long-running “Entourage”) – and both directed films that are at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival: Aselton’s “The Freebie” and Grenier’s “Teen-age Paparazzo.” I had a chance to talk to both of them in Park City about their films.
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Katie Aselton, 31, has been acting for almost 10 years. Married to indy filmmaking upstart Mark Duplass, Aselton was between jobs – and eager to work – when she followed her husband’s example and decided to do it herself.
She had inherited some money and had her husband’s example of shooting quickly and cheaply. So she came up with the idea for “The Freebie,” which starts as a comedy and quickly turns into something darker. The story of a married couple (Aselton and Dax Shepard) who give each other permission to have sex with someone else for one night only (and then suffer the consequences of that decision), “The Freebie” had an outline but no script.
“Being around Mark and (his brother and partner) Jay, I had learned enough that I would never presume that I could write a script,” Aselton says. “But the story was very clear to me. I knew exactly where it was going. And I like the idea of the actor making the character come to life and filling out the scene with something that’s not on the page. The story was tightly organized; everything else was loose.”
And it paid off: “I wasn’t married to the ideas – I had no pride as a writer. If we found a scene wasn’t working, we could let it go. After the first 16-hour day, I found myself thinking, ‘That was so what I had in mind.’ Dax deserves the credit. He understood the story and the tone – that it wasn’t super-dramatic but not glib either. He got it at just the right pitch. After the first day, I gave this massive sigh of relief.”
The film was shot in 11 days, including one 18-hour day in which Shepard and Aselton stayed in bed together, working through the scene in which the couple discusses the pros and cons of going forward with the idea of a one-day free pass for infidelity.
“I liked the idea of a couple who thought they were so evolved that they could buck the system,” Aselton says. “The idea came from these friends of ours, who just talk their relationship to death. A friend and I were talking about them and how easy it was when you didn’t have to talk everything to death like that.”
The film is told in semi-jigsaw-puzzle style, breaking chronology to move back and forth in time. Aselton had the idea to mix things up right from the start, color-coding the scenes on cards, then shuffling them around as she planned the film. Given the opportunity to do it again, Aselton would fracture the time scheme even further.
“If I had a better imagination, I’d have done more time-jumping,” she says. “It might have been confusing to the audience but it would have been more creative.”
The film leaves the fate of the relationship between the couple – and even the question of whether they followed through on their plan to sleep with other people – unresolved. Aselton shot scenes that showed what actually happened but won’t reveal the contents (nor promise to include them if/when the film goes to DVD). As a result, the audience can take away any of several different ideas of what the film’s ending means.
“Isn’t it cool that everyone has a different interpretation?” she says. “It’s like one of those choose-your-own-ending books, because it can be interpreted in different ways. What did we shoot? It’s my own secret. I’m like Carly Simon; I’ll take it to my grave.”
At a Sundance dominated by films that will be released via video-on-demand or the Internet, Aselton is optimistic – or, at least, eager – about having her film be released theatrically.
“I want people to see it in a theater, although I know that possibly, with video-on-demand, more people would see it,” she says. “When you look at the younger generation of filmgoers, they don’t buy tickets to arthouse movies. When we made ‘The Puffy Chair,’ we assumed we’d get every little indy-rock hipster – and they didn’t come. So you’ve got to look at who the audience is.
“Maybe something like video-on-demand makes more sense. That being said, I want a theatrical release.”
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Adrian Grenier’s “Teen-age Paparazzo” seems like almost an accidental film. As Grenier says in his narration of this documentary, he saw young Austin Visschedyk as the then-13-year-old snapped his photo as he came out of an event and began talking to him.
Before long, he had befriended the tow-headed L.A. paparazzo and decided to make a doc about him. Eventually, it expanded to become a film about paparazzi and celebrity culture in general. It also began to turn Visschedyk into a sensation, someone about whom stories were written and, eventually, around whom a reality-TV show was pitched (it never happened because Visschedyk didn’t want his privacy invaded to that extent).
So Grenier is aware of the ironies and paradoxes of making a movie about the celebrity/paparazzo dance and doing it as someone who is the subject of exactly that kind of coverage.
“I really enjoy finding the parallels, breaking down lines, finding the shades and contrasts,” Grenier, 33, says.
While shooting the film, Grenier bought himself a high-end still camera and joined Visschedyk in the hunt, filming himself as part of a pap-pack accosting Brooke Shields as she came out of a restaurant and got into her car. While Shields’ husband, Chris Henchy, is a writer and producer of “Entourage,” running into Shields was a coincidence – and Shields didn’t even realize Grenier was part of the scrum.
“When you’re being accosted by that many people, you can’t focus,” Grenier says. “The only thing you can think is, ‘Get me out of here.’ The pope could be behind one of the cameras and you wouldn’t notice.”
It became apparent “pretty quickly,” Grenier says, that training his camera on Visschedyk was changing Visschedyk’s life: “At first, I turned a blind eye to it. I had a commitment to the film, a vision, hopes, dreams. There’s a lot of that going on with the paparazzi as well. In the attempt to feed themselves, they sometimes forego ethics. But it’s never too late to recognize that and make amends. The media is a confusing thing, so maybe I can help clarify that. That’s why we go to films, isn’t it? To learn about ourselves and define our values.”
Grenier has no illusions about the declining state of celebrity media, in its race to the bottom – and yet he tries to see the situation from a positive standpoint.
“I’m an optimist – I mean, all of this celebrity media – is it something larger?” he says. “Was it Duchamps who put the toilet in the art museum and asked – well, is it just a toilet or is it art? Or Warhol’s soup cans – is it just somebody shopping or something more profound?
“I think of it as a slice of a larger experience, one piece of the puzzle. The whole story can only be told if you look at how everything fits together. It’s like the story of the seven blind men trying to define what an elephant looks like by feeling different parts of it – but it’s not until they put the pieces together that you get a real picture. I see the paparazzi as blind men with cameras and a narrow focus. It’s not until you start to connect the pieces – with the Internet and everything else – that the vague shape of the elephant starts to arise. And this is my single blind offering.”
In his first film, “Shot in the Dark,” about his search for his biological father, and now with “Teen-age Paparazzo,” Grenier has focused on telling personal stories – or stories from a personal point of view.
“It’s a format I’ve been working with, the personal-exploration documentary,” he says. “I feel myself expanding outward with the second film. It stemmed from a deep curiosity and a desire to define and figure out my world. The first one was my own coming-of-age story. This is a coming-of-age story, too, but about Austin.”
As for the idea of maintaining a private life while dissecting his own life in films for public consumption, Grenier is philosophical.
“If you live candidly and honestly, then you’ve got nothing to hide,” he says. “They can’t expose anything because my life is already an open book. I don’t feel I have dark secrets that I can’t explore with you in my movie.
“We have such a great opportunity to transcend ourselves. Once you define celebrity, that it’s a myth, then ultimately we can let go of the myth and get on with it.”