I was excited to talk to Jeff Baena about his new film, The Little Hours. The movie is, at its heart, for classics nerds, of which I count myself. The source material is the stuff of medieval studies majors at liberal arts institutions. Who else reads Bocaccio’s The Decameron, a collection of 100 stories written in 14th century Italy? The Decameron is funny, bawdy, and often ridiculous, and it’s the perfect place to find a sacrilegious story of sex and mayhem at a convent.
Despite my enthusiasm for The Little Hours, and writer/director Baena’s previous films (Life After Beth, Joshy) I realize in hindsight that calling the movie a film for nerds wasn’t a great place to start our conversation. Alas, that’s where we began.
What resulted was a frank discussion about making The Little Hours, marketing The Little Hours, and how Jeff Baena would rather not be talking about The Little Hours.
This interview was conducted on the phone and has been lightly edited for clarity in print.
Christopher Zumski Finke: I feel like The Little Hours is a movie for classics nerds. Why did you make a movie out of The Decameron?
Jeff Baena: Did you say it’s a movie for nerds?
Zumski Finke: Classics nerds. People who’ve read Bocaccio in lit classes.
Baena: I guess I made the movie to defy that attitude. I minored in Medieval Renaissance Studies, I read The Decameron in college. To me, it was something that transcended classicism, and was completely fresh and funny and timeless and human, and ultimately something I think is just as applicable today as it was 667 years ago.
Zumski Finke: You shot The Little Hours in secret. Nobody knew about it until it arrived at Sundance. Why did you make it that way?
Baena: I’m not a big fan of people having preconceived notions of films. The idea that a movie is preceded by months of marketing and synopsizing and reviews and any kind of coverage, is ultimately really hurtful to that movie. It hurts the primary experience of seeing that movie. I’m an advocate of trying to keep the movie under the radar as much as possible, so that when you do experience it, you’re experiencing it as fresh as possible and you don’t bring any baggage to it.
Zumski Finke: What’s it like, then, to do press junket interviews like this?
Baena: I’m not a fan of putting it out there, or publicizing it before you actually see it. Unfortunately that’s the nature of the beast when you release a movie. But I try to do my best and keep it as under wraps as possible.
Zumski Finke: Would you rather not have to sit for interviews like this one?
Baena: Yeah, I mean, preferably I would not have to do interviews, and be reductive and try to break down the movie into sizable bites. I think, it’s ultimately necessary. The market is so saturated that you have to do something to set your movie apart, but the narrative that is created through marketing and publicity is a lot of times counter to the piece that you made, itself.
I understand why it’s a necessary function. But personally, if it was up to me, I don’t think people should do publicity and I don’t think there should be any marketing. People should just be exposed to films. See them, and make their judgments and base them on that experience. It’s more of a primary experience, they have a blank slate, as opposed to some idea of what they’re getting themselves into.
Zumski Finke: That’s interesting because the marketing campaign for The Little Hours includes the response from The Catholic League and others who are upset about the film. What’s that been like for you as this film rolls out?
Baena: I think it’s a little overstated. This is an independent film so our footprint isn’t that large. I think if this was a studio film, if it was something like The Last Temptation of Christ, you’d see protesting and all kinds of handwringing, but because we’re a small independent film and we’re just platforming this, I think it’s a knee-jerk reaction on behalf of the Catholic League. They hadn’t actually seen the movie when they declared it ‘trash.’
But, obviously I would prefer them to see the movie and judge it. There have been different articles, one was a review in America Magazine, which is a Jesuit publication, that came to our defense saying that there is a place for this and that Catholics are doing themselves a disservice by not exposing themselves to something that isn’t just fluff.
There was the Catholic League declaration that the film was trash, without having seen it, and then AmericaNeedsFatima.org started a petition where they got 30something-thousand people to write letters to Van Toffler at Gunpowder and Sky, asking him to not release the movie. Other than that I haven’t really heard anything else. To me it sounds like we’re getting the minimum amount of fire from the Catholics about this film.
Zumski Finke: The fact that the controversy is being used in the marketing, that it’s in the trailer, it’s not entirely considered something that’s negative for the film.
Baena: I just told them to put that in the trailer and poster because I think it’s funny. I’m a big David Lynch fan and when he made Lost Highway, he put on his poster Siskel and Ebert Give It Two Thumbs Down, Two More Reasons to See Lost Highway, and I thought that was really clever. So I figured might as well use it, because it’s there.
To me, condemning the movie without seeing it is closed-minded.
Zumski Finke: How much of the movie was improvised?
Baena: All the dialogue was improvised. We based the movie on a 25-page outline, so I basically told the actors what they were going to say in the scene but I didn’t tell them how I was going to say it, so we could achieve, I guess, some degree of realism. As the actors were performing they weren’t anticipating what the other actors would be saying, and were thus present and listening. I tried that in my second movie, and I liked the results. So I gave it another shot on this one.
Zumski Finke: That was Life After Beth?
Baena: No, it was Joshy.
Zumski Finke: When you’re shooting a film that’s entirely–or almost entirely–improv, what was that shoot like? You have a lot of actors in the movie, you were in Italy for the shoot, how long was your shoot?
Baena: The shoot was 20 days. I think when you say improvisation, people have the assumption that it’s just a lot of alts, and people figuring out the scene as it was going. We had to be very deliberate, we had very little time. And we had only a certain number of locations, and a certain amount of time in each of those locations, so we had to be very economical with our time. It was not too dissimilar from the way that actors work with a script. But the way they get to speak the lines is different. After the third take, we’re pretty much doing coverage. It’s not like every take was different. There wasn’t a lot of room for people to vamp and ad lib and go off on a tangent, it was more a way to find our way into lines that were clearly delineated.
Zumski Finke: Making a movie like this, it’s fairly unique. There are other convent comedies, and there’s Monty Python. Were there movies you looked to to inspire what you were going for?
Baena: Honestly, no. I just wanted to do an adaptation of The Decameron, so I didn’t think of it as emulating any style or any previous work. Truthfully, when we were in Italy we didn’t have any wifi, so I wasn’t streaming any movies. I didn’t have any DVDs with me. So, I really was in a hermetically sealed jar without having any access to any other media.
Zumski Finke: None of the cast had any wifi either?
Baena: We had very little wifi. The hotel we were in, we were in very rural Tuscany, for whatever reason production wasn’t able to secure wifi. So it was pretty much just our phones, roaming.
Zumski Finke: What did everybody do? You shot in Tuscany, Italy. There’s a lot of folks in this film. I doubt you had a lot of down time, but what did everyone else spend their evenings doing?
Baena: There’s wasn’t a lot of downtime. We shot in 20 days, which was ambitious for the number of scenes. We had so many setups. So, pretty much, it was eating. There would be lunch, we’d hang out outside the convent in a field overlooking the Alps, and when we’d break in the evening, if we weren’t super exhausted, we’d go to town, eat dinner, then go to sleep.
Zumski Finke: Tell me about the locations. They’re beautiful. Is that an active convent?
Baena: It was a former convent, from the 1100s, turned into an agriturismo, which is basically a bed and breakfast that’s also a working farm. And we had a chapel from the 800s, where all the services took place. We shot at a bridge, also from the 800s. And then there was a castle that we shot in for two days, that was Nick Offerman’s castle… all those locations were in an area called Garfagnana, in Tuscany.
Zumski Finke: That seems like pretty much the ideal for a movie like this. You couldn’t have wished for something better than getting all these historic locations, I imagine.
Baena: That was sort of the impetus to make the movie. When I told my producer about this movie, she mentioned that one of my producers on my first two movies had been asking people to shoot in these locations, and the investor group didn’t have any need for medieval locations, so when this idea popped up everyone got really excited.
Zumski Finke: What’s your favorite bit in the movie? Is there something that surprised you?
Baena: The scene where Jemima (Kirke) shows up and the girls all get drunk and hang out. There’s a real energy and spirit in that scene that is exactly what I was going for in this movie.
Zumski Finke: What do you hope audiences take away when they watch this movie?
Baena: I hope people feel a bittersweet understanding that history is not something that is distant from us, but is just people in a different time period that were going through very similar things that we go through, and had just as rich an interior life as we do, and that despite the fact there may be differences in technology or political/religious/social structures, we all are coming from the same place, and the only thing separating us is time.
-Christopher Zumski Finke