Sundance Filmmaker Preview: Katie Aselton, Director of Black Rock

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Some readers will likely know Katie Aselton as “that bombshell from The League.” Others will know her as the wife and frequent collaborator of mumblecore icon Mark Duplass. If she continues on her recent path, though, she’ll soon be best known as a director. This week she brings Black Rock, her second straight feature as a director, to Sundance, where she premiered The Freebie in 2010.

“It’s a character-based thriller in the vein of Deliverance,” She tells us. “I like to think it’s like Deliverance meets Thelma and Louise. And the story is that three childhood friends go off to an island they used to frequent as kids to reconnect, because there’s sort of been a falling-out between them. They get to the island and it’s sort of the worst thing you could possibly imagine that sort of happens. It’s a reality-based thriller. There’s no creepy albinos coming out of the woods; there’s no paranormal activity, it really is just a very realistic take on what happens when things go horribly wrong.”

Directing a thriller is an interesting turn for an actor/director with such a “serious indie drama” pedigree, but Aselton doesn’t see it is a disconnect at all: “For me, whether it’s playing in the thriller genre or doing something like The Freebie, which was a very relationship-y, talky type of movie, I like grounded, realistic, honest performances. I think that can only really happen if your circumstances are grounded and realistic. I like sort of dipping into the thriller genre with that as my parameters.”

With that philosophy, it’s not much of a surprise that there;s already a buzz about the performances in her films, especially from the three leads, Kate Bosworth, Lake Bell, and Aselton herself. “They are about as incredible as it gets,” she gushes. “For me, the biggest part in casting this movie was like, who do I want to crawl around in the woods with for a month? And there are a lot of girls in Hollywood that you definitely would not want to crawl around with for a whole month. I knew we were going to have our work cut out for us, and that this was going to be a challenging shoot, laying on the floor of the woods on the coast of Maine. The last thing I needed was a girl who was upset that her nail polish had chipped or it was a little chilly. These girls were tough. Kate and Lake were ballsy and brave and they put a whole lot of trust in me that I am incredibly appreciative of.”

It was obviously a very different experience from her first feature. “Yeah, Freebie was my very first,” she agrees, “and that was a very different experience from start to finish. We shot The Freebie from just an outline and it was sort of Cassavetes-esque in our approach. It was a very small crew and it was really for the most part just Dax [Shepard] and I and just getting into a room and saying things back and forth, and seeing where scenes would go, and exploring different ideas It was very loose and creative, and it was also really quick. You know, we only shot 11 days on that film. This was very different. It was fully scripted, and we shot for a month, and we had a much larger budget and a much larger crew and just in general, it was much more challenging. It was difficult. There’s action and there are stunts, and cinematography was a really big part of it. So mapping that out and being very specific about our choices was quite different.”

Adding to the challenge was her choice of shooting location. “We shot way at the coast in a town called Milbridge,” she remembers, “which is past Bar Harbor. And it was where I was born and raised. I had all the locations in my head and all these ideas, and I was not really taking into account how difficult it actually is to shoot on the coast of Maine. We shot in the month of June, which has the shortest nights of the year. And we shot primarily nighttime. We shot virtually on the coast, not taking into account, initially, that the tides would make our location go away every six hours. So that was difficult. It was cold. It was wet. Basically, I feel like the elements threw everything at us that they possibly could and we had to overcome it, which we did. When we were scouting, my cinematographer and I were like, “God! Why don’t more people shoot here? It is so incredible! It’s breathtaking. This is going to be amazing!” And by the end of it, we’re like, “Oh. I know why most people don’t shoot here. It’s really fucking hard! It is virtually impossible to shoot a film here without losing your mind!” But we did it.

Shooting in her home town made the experience even more surreal. “Yeah, It was kind of weird for me,” she laughs, “just because people don’t really know me in that capacity. I mean, they know of me in that capacity, but they really know me as Dr. Aselton’s daughter, you know? And so it was very strange, I think, for them to see me with this big group of people with camera and lights. And it’s such a foreign idea. I mean, it’s a fishing town. They catch fish for a living. That is what my town is. There were a lot of very bizarre looks, like, ‘what are you doing?’ But it was really fun to take people back and show people where I’m from. And getting to make a movie in a really small area where people are just excited to help, instead of trying to put up a bunch of red tape. We’d go into the town office and say, “can we shoot at the dock” and the town manager was like, ‘yup.’ ‘Ok, well, do we need a permit? Or do we need to sign…we’ll show you our insurance…’‘Nope, you’re good. You’re fine.’ And we were like, “OK!” It was wild.”

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