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A Conversation With Robbie Pickering, Rachael Harris and Matt O’Leary (NATURAL SELECTION)

(Natural Selection is now available on DVD and Blu-ray through Cinema Guild. It opened theatrically on Friday, March 16, 2012. NOTE: This review was first posted on March 17, 2011, in conjunction with the film’s screening—and multi-award-winning—at the 2011 SXSW Film Festival.)

Tisch alum Robbie Pickering gained attention with his short film Prom Night, and three of his scripts landed on Hollywood’s lauded Black List of best unproduced screenplays. One of these was Natural Selection, his feature film directorial debut, which swept the 2011 SXSW Film Festival awards, garnering Best Narrative Feature, Screenplay, Editing, and Score, as well as Best Breakthrough Performance for leads Rachael Harris and Matt O’Leary. The story centers on barren Christian housewife Linda White, who is forced out into the world to grant her dying husband’s wish that she find his sperm-donor son. This leads her to Raymond, an escaped convict, whose lusty adventurism draws long-dormant hungers out of Linda.

Natural Selection has roots in Robbie’s religious upbringing in East Texas, and more, poignantly, his stepfather’s diagnosis of terminal cancer, and Robbie’s concern for his mother’s loneliness and grief. Part catharsis and part tribute, the film is by turns violent, funny, and moving, anchored by the lead actors’ strong performances. Also striking is the thorough execution of the film, from the poster to the production design to the score.

I caught up with Robbie, Rachael, and Matt in Austin, where we discussed filming on the RED camera, improv, and chucking gerbils.

H2N: There’s a family atmosphere between you. How did you all come together?

Robbie Pickering: How we stayed together was more unique than how we came together. I basically was supposed to meet with Rachael—because a lot of actresses wanted the part—I absolutely was like no way am I meeting with the bitchy wife from The Hangover, she’s not right for the part. Not because I’m too good for her, but because she’s a comedian and I didn’t want to do that kind of movie. When I finally broke down and met with her… I could tell that she pretty much had the essence of the part. And with Matt too, Matt took a couple of auditions. He was angry at first, but then he got the boyishness of Raymond. Rachael auditioned and she—you blew everybody out of the water. But how we stayed together… Rachael dropped out at one point due to a pilot she had to commit to, and I had to go with my second choice, and my second choice wasn’t working out, and it was like two weeks before the production and I wanted to go back to Rachael. Everybody told me not to. They all told me and my producers, you don’t do that with an actress once you pass. And finally one night I just midnight Facebook messaged [Rachael], and within a couple hours she responded and was like yeah, I’d love to do the part, the pilot didn’t go through.

H2N: And this is two weeks before the production?

RP: This was two weeks. We pushed a week so Rachael could be in the movie.

H2N: Did you have much rehearsal time?

RP: No. I mean, our rehearsal time was every day after shooting, we’d go back and kind of study the script.

H2N: It’s a very intimate story, mainly between two characters…

Rachael Harris: There were a few scenes that we really did rehearse that Robbie had us go through. It was really good because the night before we would go through everything so that when we got there to set… we were all on the same page and then we could do the scene.

Matt O’Leary: It wasn’t running the lines necessarily…

RP: It was more structuring the scene, and all of us getting on the same page about the scene.

RH: And rehearsal would often be in this little room, we were all staying at a bed-and-breakfast and so rehearsal would be in one of our rooms.

MO: Well, it would be in hers because mine was disgusting.

RP: Yeah, yours was disgusting.

RH: Or we’d be in this little community room.

RP: Do you know that Matt, every night, would watch The Deerhunter?

MO: And Fear And Loathing. I watched that…

RP: Don’t say Fear And Loathing to everybody. Just say, “Every night I would watch The Deerhunter.” It’s perfect for you.

H2N: That was preparation for you?

MO: It was pretty great. Yeah. I never saw it before.

RP: He’d come out with his shirt off and be like, “Dude, I’m watching The Deerhunter. It’s really fucking great.”

MO: Well the problem was I would watch it and I was so tired, you know, it was my time to sleep so that’s when I would turn it on so I’d watch parts of it…

RP: In his quiet time to rest, away from all the frantic-ness of the set, Matt would watch The Deerhunter. That’s Raymond in a nutshell… But there were very few scenes actually, three or four scenes in the movie, that we all knew we had to get perfect… We knew if we didn’t nail them in some form or fashion then we were fucked for the movie. Those scenes were the only ones we really rehearsed in the sense that we mainly rehearsed blocking. In the drunk scene, her move around the bed, how she’s hanging off it, and how she ends up in his lap…

H2N: That’s a great shot. I loved that shot, where you’re sort of hanging off the bed and he’s in soft focus.

RP: What we rehearsed was… what that “dance” would be on the bed, and how that would reflect what’s happening in the scene… The scene outside the church, that one was less blocking, that one was rehearsal. There are scenes that you need to rehearse in different ways… I mean, typical rehearsal is before the film.

RH: We didn’t have the luxury to do that.

H2N: You said your mom was an inspiration for the film. Did you introduce Rachael to her?

RP: I didn’t want Rachael to be playing my mom. She did meet my mom, but Rachael’s smart enough to know not to play my mom. And if I thought there was a danger of Rachael trying to imitate my mom I would have never introduced [them]. We weren’t even a week into the shoot when we did the church scene, and my mom was there and Rachael met her, but it didn’t really… she’s not playing my mom in terms of the mannerisms and all that shallow stuff, but she is getting the essence of my mom, and the essence of my mom is the essence of the story, all that loneliness, and all that grief, that fear. That’s the essence of everybody in the audience who connects to the movie, so that’s not just my mom.

RH: We talked a little bit about his mom. I related to her.

RP: Rachael created that character… I wrote it at a time when I was in great fear about what was going to happen to my mom because my stepdad was dying, and she was going to be alone for the first time. I wrote it imagining my mom in that role, what would my mom do in this situation, things like that. Rachael is responsible for the fact that now it isn’t really about my mom anymore, and if it was still about my mom it would be a really boring movie. The movie’s not about my mom.

H2N: It’s a road trip story.

RP: Well, it’s about Rachael, and it’s about Matt, and it’s about these characters they created.

RH: You rarely see a coming-of-age story for a woman, let alone a 40-year-old woman. I loved that whole journey for her, to go from being in this cloistered small town with her husband as her main resource for everything, to meeting Raymond and going to Florida…

RP: Being thrust out into the world.

H2N: But how well she actually adapted once she was put in those scenarios…

RP: Once she was ejected from the womb.

RH: It was scary but she did it. She then ultimately did take care of herself. I loved that, I found that compelling.

H2N: And also the sexual evolution, I think a lot of that speaks to the chemistry between the two of you onscreen, how it’s entirely plausible. I was almost thinking Harold and Maude in the beginning, but by the end it was a very believable, embodied relationship. Did you shoot in sequence?

MO: We didn’t shoot in sequence but it was cleverly [organized]. It’s not like the sex scene was first up.

RP: The soup-feeding scene was the first scene we shot, so the chemistry was always there. The sex scene was towards the end, and I think that was well-designed. [In] the soup-feeding scene you guys are getting to know each other.

MO: I think in real life too, we spent so many grueling days working with each other, and by the time that [sex scene] came around we were just so comfortable. It was not the first time I was in my Speedo, you know what I’m saying?

RP: But the scene outside the church, that really hard scene, that was like the fourth day of shooting. That was really early on, we had to do that then.

RH: I was really aware that we were shooting out of sequence. I had to know where I was emotionally.

RP: She had charts and graphs.

RH: I did! I had charts of where I was at emotionally in this scene so that…

RP: Matt just had The Deerhunter. [Rachael laughs]

RH: When we would go through I would be like, Oh my god, this has happened here, this is what’s going to happen here, I don’t know exactly how it’s going to play out but I know that if I’m in this place emotionally I know that it’s going to match. I had to really rely on that. And then I would call my coach in LA and be like, wait a minute, this is what we’re doing today… It was a grind. It was the best thing ever, but we would get there early and leave late… I think it’s appropriate that it’s the Independent Spirit Awards because I feel like you have to have a certain spirit to do an independent film.

RP: Yeah and our whole crew had it.

RH: You have to really want to be there. It’s not a luxury job, it has to be about the script. It starts with an amazing script, and… Robbie was so passionate about it that it just set the tone for everyone to raise their game and go for it.

RP: Everybody was really… we were all creating something. I think they felt as much a part of the creative process as we did… I was the filter, I was the one who had the power to say no… I was very aware that if I didn’t choose certain things, if I didn’t make decisions, there wouldn’t be a voice in the film, but so many people really… it’s all our movie, and it felt like that while we were making it. Even in the post-production process that was the case as well, with our editors and things like that. It was a really collaborative movie, and that’s the way it should be, honestly. It shouldn’t be some guy being an asshole.

H2N: You had crew from New York, LA, and Texas as well?

RP: Yeah I did, it was a real patchwork kind of thing. And all of them got along. I mean, there were people that didn’t get along, it was like any family. We were really a family because we were stuck in the same small town.

RH: It was movie camp.

RP: Yeah, we would all go out together on the weekends…

MO: While you leave me out. [They laugh]

RH: Matt’s still holding a grudge.

RP: We all bullied him.

H2N: He had a curfew, or…?

MO: I always wanted to party later, everybody’s like, gotta go to bed, man.

RP: Yeah, because we had to work, and… you’re a little boy that can get like two hours of sleep… But yeah, it was awesome, we all stayed together. I miss it. It was fun.

RH: It was really fun.

H2N: When it ended I felt like, wait, but there’s more…

RH & RP: That’s good.

RP: Because that’s where Linda is at the end of the movie. It’s not going to be good. And it’s not going to be bad. But she doesn’t know what it’s going to be, and that’s what’s important.

RH: Whereas I just think it’s good. I think it’s incredibly hopeful.

RP: It is hopeful, but the point is, in that moment it’s good.

RH: What happens next we don’t know.

H2N: I think it’s interesting because you said you had some reservations about the comedy aspect, in terms of Rachael maybe, but to me when I saw it everybody was laughing, there seemed to be a lot of audience response. There was comedy, there was violence, it was very visceral and active while still being an emotional and dramatic story.

RP: That’s because I don’t think they were trying to be comedic or dramatic. And life is funny, and it’s sad, and they were in those moments. With the edit there were a lot of times where we would be watching a scene that’s one shot, and I’d watch it and I’d say to the editor, see, she’s giving him focus right here, because this is his part of the scene. And he’s giving her focus at this part. We never talked about any of that shit. And they’re not thinking that when they’re in the scene. They’re doing it because they’re in that scene, and they’re being in that scene, they’re not acting that scene. So there’s comedy in the script but the script isn’t genius. They make those words live, and they make them funny. And the things they do in the moment make those things funny, or sad, or whatever. That’s just playing it truthfully. I think we all wanted it to be violent, and sad, and funny, and hopeful. We didn’t want to define it, you know?

H2N: Is it pretty close to the script? Was there any improvisation?

RP: Well, yeah, but it was more like ad-libs. There was improvisation.

RH: It’s pretty close to the script, I would say, having done improv movies and things like that. The script was there. We didn’t improvise scenes by any stretch of the imagination.

MO: It was more like lines.

RH: Just making things our own.

MO: Yeah, definitely, we reshaped some words. I reshaped a lot of things.

RP: When we would do improv we’d take what’s going on in the scene, like “Rachael is grooming Raymond” and we’d just be like, ok, brush his hair. So a lot of that’s improv—brush his teeth, or wash him, or put up a fight, or whatever it is. I don’t know. When we would do improv improv, like when [Linda] first meets Raymond, and they’re sitting in the chairs, that’s pretty close to the script, the thing is we did like—what did we do? We wasted so much time…

RH: Two hours, at least.

RP: Like two hours doing improv for both sides. I was like, holy shit, I got Rachael, she was in The Groundlings, she’s this awesome improv actor, and I got Matt, you know, who’s…

MO: Nothing.

RP: Let’s be honest, he’s mediocre. [They laugh] But I though Rachael would bring up his game. Rachael would ask him, do you have any hobbies, and Matt would come up with these unbelievable things, like something about gerbils and toilets?

MO: She asked me if I have any pets or hobbies and I was like, “Interesting enough, I like chucking gerbils, but I chuck ‘em into nets so it’s more humane.” Things like that.

RP: He would go on about these things he does, and at some point Rachael was just like, “I feel like this is a Groundlings skit,” and she got really uncomfortable. Matt was game, but Rachael was really uncomfortable at those moments.

MO: I think it was more—Raymond’s on edge.

RP: It just didn’t fit and Rachael knew it. When we got in the editing room my editor was just like why the fuck did you… and we used one line. There’s one line of improv from that whole two hours: “Do you have any hobbies, or aspirations, or pets?” But, let me say, that line is worth those two hours. [They laugh]

RH: It was. It does get a good laugh.

RP: “Do you have any hobbies, or aspirations, or pets?” I love that Linda puts those three things together.

H2N: Well, the subtext being that anyone else would look around his room and realize that the answer is no.

RH: It’s absurd!

RP: When we did improv it was more ad-lib, like that’s a perfect Raymond line, because, again, they were in the characters, they were being those characters… So we did stuff like that but it was very specific.

H2N: You shot on the RED camera so you had a little bit of latitude to roll…

RP: I had a lot of latitude. I don’t call cut, because I don’t like fucking people coming in for last looks.

H2N: So you just keep rolling?

RP: Fuck yeah. It was hell on the production crew, because I will do a forty-five minute take that has eighteen takes in it. I did one—not with them—on the first day I did one take of a woman saying one line, that’s not in the movie, it was forty-two takes in one.

MO: We were there.

RH: We were there, we saw it.

RP: But you weren’t in it.

H2N: Would you just light the scene so you could roll? Your gaffer and DP worked around that?

RP: No, they’d light the scene for whatever shot we were doing, but I’m saying within the shot I wouldn’t call cut typically. I mean, I’d call cut sometimes… mostly I’d call cut because I knew if the digital file was corrupted on the RED all my takes would be gone. So it happened once, fortunately with a scene that we could be easily replicate. After that I started calling cut every seven takes or something like that. My goal, as a director, is to get them out of their heads… Half of the takes are just meant to confuse them, and get [them] mad at me. When Rachael got mad at me it’s gold because she’s letting go of shit. So yeah, the RED is good for that, and I loved filming on it. I mean, I love film, I’m a film geek, but you can’t do that on film. Because once you call cut all these people rush in there, everything stops, hair and makeup’s got to be in there. Our hair and makeup girl was amazing, but every hair and makeup girl wants to rush in there and do this [adjusts a strand of Rachael’s hair] as if that is going to matter in the scene. Is that more important than Rachael being out of her head? Absolutely not. And then they have to re-slate and… it just sucks… It’s better for the actors, it’s not better for the crew. A lot of the crew got upset.

MO: Well, you got a boom mic guy fucking standing up there…

RP: Yeah, so you do still have to call cut. And you got the PAs that are locking down everything because nobody can make any noise, and it does get annoying for them. My friend Josh Leonard, who just made The Lie that was in Sundance, he does it the same way, he doesn’t call cut very often. But, you know, to each his own. That’s how I like to shoot.

H2N: What do you all have going on next?

MO: Nothing. I don’t have anything. [They laugh]

RP: Matt’s auditioning for some really big things right now that he can’t talk about.

MO: I’m a professional auditioner, and sometimes I act on the side.

RP: He’s seriously auditioning for some huge things, but can’t talk about it.

H2N: Do you look forward to playing dirtbags in the future?

MO: Oh yeah, bags of dirt. [They laugh] This really inspired me to kind of, you know, break whatever personal boundaries I had had before, I definitely broke them in this film. I’d like to do that again.

RH: I play the mom in all the Diary Of A Wimpy Kid movies, and so that’s opening on March 25th. And then I’m doing a pilot for FOX right now with Mike O’Malley and Rob Huebel that Shawn Levy’s directing called Family Album.

RP: My other job is doing studio comedy films, which I love, so I’m writing one for Paramount right now, me and my co-writer, we’re about to write another one for Warner Brothers. I have a couple scripts out there, I think one’s going to get made, but not by me, an indie script that I wrote on my own. I’m looking to adapt a book or something. I really want to get back out there and direct something within the year.

H2N: So this didn’t ruin it for you?

RP: No, I want to direct something. I don’t want a bunch of money to direct something, I want… let’s put it this way, if I got to direct a movie and they credited me as the intern, I would not have a problem with that. I don’t care, I just want to be back doing it.

— Susanna Locascio

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