Filmmaker Jeff Baena (The Little Hours, Life After Beth) has consistently defied expectations over his career, taking audiences on wild rides that often veer from the comedic, to thrilling, to deeply unsettling—often within the same movie. His latest, Spin Me Round, brings his all-star comedy world repertory to Italy for a tale of sun-dappled Tuscan romance gone way, way wrong. For the second film in a row, Baena co-wrote the script with lead Alison Brie, following their first successful writing collaboration on the 2020 psychological thriller Horse Girl.
Brie stars alongside Alessandro Nivola, Molly Shannon, Aubrey Plaza (a two-time Film Independent Spirit Awards host and winner!), Lil Rel Howery, Tim Heidecker and Fred Armisen. The film tells the story of Amber (Brie), a restaurant manager for an Olive Garden-style US restaurant franchise who wins an all-expenses paid trip to Italy to meet the chain’s charismatic owner (Nivola) and enjoy a seemingly lavish experience. But what starts out as the trip of a lifetime—with the added plus of a potential love connection for Amber—abruptly turns into something quite dark.
We recently spoke to Baena spoke to from his home in Los Angeles about the film, the restaurant which shall not be named, giallo, his stable of fresh and returning collaborators and more. Spin Me Round comes out August 19.
I’m going to start with a really important question. The film prominently features a fictitious Italian chain restaurant in America based on a real one. I’m not sure if we can mention the name here, but whenever you’re there, you’re family. I was wondering, what’s your go-to order there?
Baena: To be honest with you, I’ve never been to the unsaid restaurant in my life. There are a couple places I’ve never been to and that’s one of them. I’ve never been to Red Lobster. I’ve never been to Sizzler. If I were to go to said franchise Italian restaurant, I’d probably get something like spaghetti Bolognese. I don’t even know if they have it there, but that would be my go-to.
Could you tell me a little bit about how the concept of Spin Me Round came together? When did you start working on it?
Baena: Coming back from Italy after shooting The Little Hours I read an article about this program, where this Italian franchise restaurant takes their top managers [from the US] and sends them to an institute in Italy where they learn about food, wine and culture. The author of the article—who was one of these managers—had a pretty horrible experience. The expectation was that they’d be staying in this insane villa that you see on the website, but then they’re staying in this run-down dorm. The only thing they really had worked out was that the person who designed the menu made a Bolognese for them and then, after that, they just felt kind of trapped. They weren’t going anywhere. Outside their window they’re seeing Italy, but they almost felt like they were in prison. I thought that was a really funny set-up, so I wrote a 15-page outline. My last three movies had basically been improvised just off of outlines, so that was the intention here, too. For various reasons, nothing happened with it and then Alison and I wrote Horse Girl together and made that instead. So it just felt natural to bring this idea to her and show her the outline. It resonated with her, so we started collaborating on fleshing it out. The intention was to shoot in the summer of 2020, but due to COVID it got nixed, so we spent the next year fleshing it out as an actual script.
Alison Brie has acted in your last four films and this is the second you’ve co-written together. Is there anything you’ve learned from her across these collaborations?
Baena: It’s a real benefit to have someone you’re collaborating with in terms of both writing and being in the movie, because they’re on the other side of the camera and can help set the correct tone within the scene itself. Obviously they know the character and the world as well as you do. In terms of consistency and world-building, it’s extremely beneficial. I’m a big fan of collaboration in general, in terms of working with every department and every performer at every step of the way. I like to incorporate people’s ideas. I’m not precious about anything. If something’s not working, I’ll just throw it out. I’ve written a lot of my movies by myself, and I’ve written these last two with her. My first thing I wrote [I Heart Huckabees] was with David O. Russell. So I see the value in having someone else to bounce ideas off of and being able to come up with things and go to places you normally wouldn’t, because two brains are better than one in terms of everything.
Someone you’re working with for the first time here is Alessandro Nivola. He has such an interesting sensibility. He’s done some wild roles. Are there any particular performances you’ve seen from him in the past that led you to believe he could play this particular role as a narcissistic, power-hungry CEO?
Baena: It’s more just him as a person that’s interesting to me. In terms of his character he’s portraying a charming person and not necessarily a villain. Contextually, he’s easy to villainize. But ultimately the conflict and tension I’m playing off of is that he’s charming and seems harmless, and is basically too good to be true. He’s a super dashing, handsome guy that seems really intelligent and funny. To me, that was more important. It was less looking at his history of playing villains or playing unsavory characters and then saying he’d be so good as an unsavory character and more who can sell this to the point where it’s disarming enough that you would buy into what he’s selling.
You bring a lot of performers back from your earlier films—Molly Shannon, Fred Armisen, Lauren Weedman, etc. But you also have a number of first-timers in addition to Nivola, including Lil Rel Howery and Tim Heidecker. Do you have a different method for directing those who you’ve worked with before versus ones you haven’t? Do those who’ve worked with you before have a better idea of what they’re in for on-set?
Baena: A little bit yeah. I’ve known Tim for over 20 years, since college. Zach Woods I’ve met a couple times through Aubrey at UCB [Upright Citizens Brigade]. I think having worked with a bunch of people that I’ve worked with before helps set the tone [for a project]. It’s sort of like mother dough, to bring it into the pizza realm. It helps create a culture of being able to be vulnerable and being able to share and feeling less pressure. Ultimately I do want to collaborate with everyone. I want everyone to feel safe and free to contribute. This one being an actual script, it’s a little bit safer for an actor who’s never worked with me on one of my improvised movies. I’ll do everything I can to make sure they feel safe, that they feel like their performance is protected.
Was there any improv in this film or was it all scripted?
Baena: It was mostly scripted. There were a couple moments that weren’t. When Molly confronts Alison in the hallway, Molly was improvising a bunch. There was a line that Zach Woods had when Alessandro Nivola says something like, “Do you know what it’s like to hold your sister’s hand when she’s dying?” and Zach says, “No, how could I? That would be an insane coincidence.” He just dropped that in our table read and I thought it was hysterical, so I just put that into the script. I’m not precious about the actual words that are in the script so I’m sure it doesn’t match totally. But there wasn’t as much of an opportunity to improvise as normally or has been.
Your films often start as pretty comedic but often shift and throw expectations aside. Are there any directors who influenced you in this regard or is just something that you personally like seeing in movies?
Baena: The movies that I’m drawn to tend to buck trends or defy genre. My favorite directors are Robert Altman and David Lynch. For the most part I’m drawn to novelty. If you go into something and it gives you what you expect, I know there’s a dopamine reward for that for some people. For me, I like mystery and getting into places you weren’t expecting. Taking a left when you thought you were going to take a right. Feeling like you’re painting yourself into a corner and having to get out of it. To me, that’s really fun. Watching movies and TV shows and any kind of entertainment—even music—that does this is interesting. David Bowie is one of my all-time favorite people. He more than anyone subverts the expectations in terms of chords. What I’m drawn to ultimately is someone taking risks and taking big swings and going to places that don’t feel as familiar. Sometimes it pays off and sometimes it doesn’t, but ultimately I don’t think there’s any value in rehashing things you’ve seen before. I think exploring new territory is where it’s at, especially with art and entertainment.
Your composer, Pino Donaggio, has worked on a lot of great Brian De Palma films, such as Carrie, Blow Out and Dressed to Kill. How did you get him? It makes sense, since he’s a great Italian composer.
Baena: When I first conceived of this movie and started outlining it, my intention was to create a score that was in the world of Body Double, since it’s one of my all-time favorites. I think what that score does brilliantly is it balances this classicism with almost sleaziness. There’s that synth-y and then breathy vocalization, but there is that insanely brilliant classical music element to it. That was always the intention.
Baena: I never thought I’d actually be able to get [Pino]. This is boring, but one of the things in setting up the movie was we got a tax credit. You get a certain percentage off, an incentive. We mainly had key people that we had brought over from America, but in order to qualify for this tax incentive you needed to have had an Italian key person. So I just threw it out there, “Let’s see if Pino would even be interested.” We did a Zoom before we started shooting and then, when we wrapped, Aubrey and Alison and I drove up to Venice and sat down with him for the day and tried to convince him it something he should do. He was super into it. It was honestly one of my favorite collaborations ever. He’s such a genius. We went to this place called Harry’s Bar across from his studio; he walks in and they close down and call him “Maestro.” I’m so honored to have been able to work with him, I’m so glad he slummed it with me [laughs].
That fits, too, since the movie has a little bit of giallo to it.
Baena: That was also intentional. De Palma’s movie is basically sleezing up Hitchcock. Pino has done so many giallos in the ’60s and ’70s. This movie to some extent devolves into giallo. It sort of starts off as Under the Tuscan Sun but turns into Suspiria or something. I thought that would be a real organic fit. I’m really luck that he did it.
Spin Me Round will be released by IFC Films in theaters, on demand and streaming free for AMC+ subscribers starting August 19.
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