MAKING A NATURAL SELECTION WITH ROBBIE PICKERING
Writer/director Robbie Pickering has settled into the Film Independent family in more ways than one over the past six years and this Friday is a bit of a graduation ceremony as his film, Natural Selection, makes it’s way to theaters across the country. Pickering has participated in Film Independent’s Artist Development Labs – including Directors Lab, Screenwriting Lab and Fast Track – since 2006 and his film has made a successful festival run, culminating in numerous awards and a Spirit Award nomination for “Best First Feature”. Starting today, March 16, audiences will be able to take a road trip with a dutiful (and barren) Christian housewife (Spirit Award nominated Rachael Harris) rambling through a tragic season of her life with her husband’s just-discovered biological son, a foul-mouthed ex-con, on the big screen. What results has been called “magical alchemy“. Pickering took some time to speak to us from New York about how his NBA dreams were replaced with a film career, his many inspirational father figures and more. Read on and then check for showtimes near you.
Tell me a little about where you grew up.
I grew up in a small town outside of Houston, called Jersey Village. A pretty religious, you know, the whole town isn’t religious, but my mom was pretty religious. You know that kind of deal, very conservative town.
Many times in that kind of conservative community, parents will shelter their kids from seeing certain movies ad television. How did you get introduced to films and filmmaking?
It is true, I couldn’t watch a lot of stuff, I couldn’t watch the Simpson’s when I was a kid, even in high school I wasn’t allowed. But somehow I think a lot of the films I was watching, my parents didn’t know what they were. At a certain point at age 16 or 17 I really starting to watch foreign films and things like that, [my parents] didn’t really know what the films were and they weren’t interested in them, so I’d just be in my room watching them on my VHS machine and my little tv. I first wanted to be an actor, I remember wanting to be an actor when I was about 13 years old. Because you just look at the movies and you want to do it, and you’re just into it, and you’re like I want to do that. And growing up where I grew up, I mean like, I don’t know my parents even are still kind of sketchy on what a producer is, or director is. Up until a few years I would go home and people would be like, oh robbie he produces movies, or whatever. They don’t know what all those jobs are really, so you just kinda know what the actors do for sure. So I think that’s the first thing I wanted to do. But then I really started reading film criticism. I started reading a ton of Roger Ebert, and a lot of Pauline Kael,and Andrew Sarris,and Jonathan Rosenbaum, and one critic led to the other, and they all led me to really great films. And you know, I would just raid the foreign films section at Blockbuster. It wasn’t a big section so I’d see a lot of them, or I’d read about what I could.
What gave you your inkling of “I could make movies, too”?
I don’t know that I ever really thought about it that way. Let me put it this way, I desperately wanted to be a basketball player from probably age 9 to age 15. I was very interested in movies and acting but all I wanted to do was play basketball. And my mom and dad had told me all growing up that whatever you want to do, you can do it, you just have to work hard enough. But that is absolutely not true for an uncoordinated unathletic 5 foot 5 white kid! I was a horrible basketball player. So making the leap then to say, oh, maybe I can [make movies], it wasn’t as high in the sky or impossible. (Laughs) I just thought “Oh, I really want to do this.” It was only later in film school and after film school where those doubts really crept it in. It’s like, “Can I do this, I don’t know if I can…” In high school it was “I just want to do this.”
And then when you went to NYU. Did you go there for undergraduate or for grad school?
I did. I went to University of Texas for a year, then I transferred to NYU, and that was really where I learned a lot. A lot from a couple really great teachers there that taught me a lot about writing. And I learned a great deal from the students. That’s the best thing about being in the film school at NYU is the students.
Yeah, I would imagine that community, it’s super close, and everyone’s so eager at that point.
There were a lot of kids like me there, who are still my good friends, and are directors now. There was a contingent of kids there that were all from the midwest, or the south, from small towns. So you got to be in a place with kids who had the same experiences that you did, that everybody thought were crazy for doing what they were doing, and nobody really understood it, or their parents didn’t want them to do it. I think I realized that I wasn’t so unique in that experience, and that was comforting.
Those are really formative years in college; are there any elements of your studies that really stuck with you? Gems from your professors, or certain tactics you used in your student films that even now you use?
Yeah, there’s a lot of them. I remember after graduating NYU, I had this writing professor that I really loved, that was my mentor. I had written a script in his class that was pretty good, and he really encouraged me to keep writing, and after I graduated I just broke down. I felt like I couldn’t write another good script, ever. I wrote him this huge email saying, I mean it was like this tone, it was all about my insecurities and how I didn’t think I was ever going to be able to write a script again. I felt like I was tapped out, done, and it was just a gigantic email. And he wrote me back, “shut the fuck up and do it.” That’s what he wrote me back! That stayed with me a long time, because I think that there’s so much resistance in anyone who wants to create. There’s so much resistance you’re going to put up to block yourself from doing something good and actually doing the work. I think “shut the fuck up and do it” is a good piece of advice. I still struggle with that, and his voice is still in my head saying that every time I struggle. I haven’t gotten really any better at it, but that’s always with me.
So was it after that email that you starting writing Natural Selection? Or at what point in your career did you start writing it?
I started writing that in school, it was actually the first script I wrote and I was working on it all throughout school. It was the first script that I wrote. That advice to just shut up and do it… I was trying to make Natural Selection for six years before I just figured, you know, I was waiting on everything to be perfect. We thought we had two million dollars, turned out the producers didn’t have any money. At a certain point I got with new producers and we just had to shut up and do it for what we had, and stop waiting for everything to be perfect. So that kind of advice applies everywhere.
It’s hard to make a specific plan and when things go not exactly according…
Yeah, I find a lot of indie film directors are always waiting for everything to be perfect, that’s a common thing. The perfect cast, the perfect amount of money, the perfect amount of days… and a little of that is good, because you do need to set high standards for yourself, but at some point you just gotta do it.
So you started working on it six years ago with your producers, how’d you find them? Did you go to school with them?
Well, I started working on it, actually seven years ago with a different set of producers, and I found them through my manager at the time, he had sent my script to them. It ended up falling through with that set of producers, because they never had the money, they basically didn’t tell me the truth, they said they had the money for like three years. It kept being a thing of “we’re going to make it in six months, well, we’re going to wait another six months, we’re going to make it after we make this…” And they never had the money. So at a certain point, my other friends, who I did go to school with, approached me, they were UPM’s (Unit Production Managers) at the time, and they said “hey, we want to produce our first movie, and we want your movie to be the one we produce.” They had never done anything, they didn’t have a lot of connections, but their ethos was, I felt, the right ethos for me at that time. We were just going to raise the money ourselves and do it. We tried to raise a million, then we tried to raise 750 grand, and eventually we just had to do it for $150,000. But there was a more DIY ethos with them.
I imagine it was really different seven or six years ago when crowd funding wasn’t such a big thing like it is now.
No no, I mean we were raising the money like four years ago, because like I said I was with the other producers for like three years. But even three or four years ago Kickstarter was just starting off. I wish Kickstarter was around, but we raised the money. I mean, my producers family, there’s 2 of them, my producers and their family and friends, my family and friends. It was really tough in a certain way because I had to go to people I had been telling for three years that I had the money to make the movie, and go to them and say “hey look ,I don’t have the money, I need the money from you.” It was really humbling. And [my producers] had to do it, too. We had hundreds of investors on the movie, it was really difficult to raise even that amount of money, but you know, all in all every one of our investors is proud of the movie.
That’s great! I think it is this constant kind of letting go of everything that’s in your head keeping you from your goal, and just continuing on and doing it, whether it’s writing or raising money. What’s been the most surprising and best part of getting this from a story in your head to seeing it on screen tomorrow?
Well, I wrote the movie about my mom. When my stepfather was dying, I was scared of my mom being alone. She hadn’t been alone since I was a kid. So really it was a movie about my fear of my mom being alone. The fact that my mom loves the movie, and that the movie speaks to my mom as a widow now, on an emotional level, and it comforts her in some way, is really incredible. There’ve been a few things that happened that I consider, like, blessings, and I never use that word blessings because I heard it so much growing up. Things like Roger Ebert inviting me to his festival, and really being a fan of the movie. I can remember when I was 15, 16 years old, being introduced to so many movies because of him, and thinking to myself that my goal was to one day have Roger Ebert see a portion of something I did. I didn’t care if he reviewed it, I didn’t care if he saw the whole thing. I just wanted Roger Ebert to see a minute of something I did. The fact that he watched the movie, loved it, and invited me to his festival… that was a huge thing for me. Because when I was a kid, Roger Ebert was like my 3rd dad (because my stepdad was my 2nd dad). Roger Ebert was god to me. And then seeing everything that happened to Rachael, that’s on a personal level that really touches me. I think Rachael gave so much in the movie. From the moment she stepped on set she was just so honest. She gave us such a gift. And I think she’s brilliant, I think she’s a genius. And the fact that she got nominated for an indie spirit as best actress and that she’s gotten so many accolades, that’s a huge thing for me as well. And the fact that, you know, I got to make Josh Welsh proud.
Your 4th dad.
Josh Welsh is like my 6th dad.
How did you find Rachael and what made you brave enough to work with a comedienne in such a dramatic role?
Well that’s interesting, because for the three or so years that we were going to do it for a higher budget we had somebody else attached. Somebody who, it’s such a crass term, but “meant more” than Rachael. This other woman was a great actress, but when we cut the budget from two million to one million to 150 grand we told her we were going to have to do it in 18 days in Texas. I mean, I’d be scared too, I had no track record as a director. So she bowed out, and she had a hectic schedule anyway. My casting directors then sent my frantically (because I only had a month to cast all the roles), they sent me frantically meetings with different actresses to play that part. I met with a lot of great dramatic actresses. But nobody was really working, and then one day they brought up to me that there’s this woman, Rachael Harris, and I knew who she was because I’m a big comedy geek. I knew immediately who she was, and they said “She wants to sit down with you and have lunch with you and talk to you about the project she really liked”, and I said “Absolutely not, there’s no way that Rachael Harris is right for this role, I’m not going to sit down with her. It’s a waste of my time, it’s a waste of her time, too.” Thankfully the casting directors convinced me and I sat down with Rachael. My buddy Josh Leonard has a good saying and that’s that all great casting is just hyperbole. You cast the person for the role because you see the role in them in some way. Something small, something about the personality that just fits, and I saw it in Rachael immediately. I saw this vulnerability. She’s small, she’s vulnerable but she’s also got this really disarming honesty and strength and I felt like “that’s Linda”. I auditioned her and she did well in the audition, but we honestly, didn’t know… we didn’t have rehearsals, any chemistry reads, nothing like that. We didn’t know how deep she could go and immediately, there was one scene in particular we had to film on the second day, a gut-wrenching scene where she had to break down and act as if her heart was getting ripped out of her chest, crying, the whole bit, and I told my producers “We’re going to be here all day, I have to beat this out of her because she’s never done this before,” and she did it on the first take. It’s one of those moments that you read about. Everyone on set was just flabbergasted and speechless. From that point on all I had to do was support her and stay out of the way.
She took that role and ran with it and it’s amazing to see.
And her being a comedienne was just the icing on the cake. It was great because I think comedian-actors know that there’s really no difference to how you play drama and how you play comedy. You just play everything honestly, nothing’s played as a joke with Rachael and that’s how she’s able to go so fluidly between comedy and drama. I think generally only someone with experience in improv or on the comedy scene really knows that and can really do that so fluidly.
I’m excited to see who else you work with… which unconventional comedy actors you work with next. Michael Ian Black recently tweeted that he can’t believe he wasn’t in Natural Selection…
Oh yeah, that’s all I want to do now. My job for three to four years has been writing big studio comedies with a co-writer, on the side, and I’m just such a huge fan of comedians, there’s so many I want to work with. When I was a kid, for me humor-wise… I would rush to watch The State. I felt like those were the only comedians who really had my sense of humor. I loved how weird they were. They saved my life. To have Michael Ian Black tweet about it, or to have Thomas Lennon or Ben Garant watch the movie at SXSW, I met David Wain… that shit’s just amazing for me.
That’s great, I’m a huge fan and it’s great to see these connections being made. What can people expect to see on screen tomorrow?
People can expect to see a really funny movie, a really heartbreaking movie and the best female performance of the year in Rachael Harris. I don’t think there are many actresses working today who can do what she does in this movie. It’s a really transcendent performance.
You said you’ve been working on writing other studio movies, do you have aspiration to direct bigger budget projects, do you want to stick with making indie films, or what’s up next?
I’m attached to direct a bigger budget project for Sony that will hopefully go into production this year. It’s kind of a horror-comedy movie that’s really funny, that a guy named Oren Uziel wrote the script for, it’s a great script. I got attached to that maybe three or four weeks ago. I write bigger studio things and a lot of them I’m not going to direct, I just write them as a job with my co-writer, but they’re really fun to write, I love writing them. And all the stuff I write on my own, (which, I am always writing on my own) it’s smaller stuff, it’s generally indie stuff. But I don’t really discriminate. The indie scene is great, the studio scene I don’t have a huge problem with, I’ve worked there for a few years. I just want to make good movies. That’s my criteria.
-by Jasmine Terán for Film Independent
March 16th, 2012 • No Comments