Last month, writer/director Jeff Baena and actor/producer Aubrey Plaza brought their film, The Little Hours, based loosely on a section of Boccaccio's irreverent 14th century social satire Decameron, to SIFF. A few hours before their screening, on a very hot Saturday afternoon, we sat down for a few minutes (13, to be exact) to talk about the film.
(The Little Hours—which also stars Alison Brie, Kate Micucci, Fred Armisen, John C. Reilly, Molly Shannon, Nick Offerman, Jemima Kirke, and Paul Reiser—is playing now at the SIFF Egyptian and a place called the AMC Seattle 10, which is apparently the new name and corporate parent of the artist formerly known as the Metro and the Sundance Cinemas in the U-District. Bummer.)
I had read that Baena and Plaza were/are a couple, but I didn't feel comfortable asking about it (IndieWire didn't mind). Nor did I get around to asking Baena about his experience co-writing I Heart Huckabees with David O. Russell. (When I interviewed him about Huckabees for this very publication, nearly 13 years ago, it went so well that he insisted I come to LA so we could do mushrooms together, though I suspect it was just pillow talk.)
The chat with Baena and Plaza was nowhere near that chummy, but it did kick off with Plaza reminiscing fondly about the "amazing" Seattle film crew she worked with on Safety Not Guaranteed a few years back.
Then we got down to the subject that was clearly on everyone's mind: the Catholic church in 14th century Italy.
I was curious about the origin of the film? Did it start off with a dog-eared copy of Boccaccio?
BAENA: Right. I went to NYU and my major was film, writing and directing. And then I took electives at the Gallatin program [an interdisciplinary department for gifted students], and for whatever reason, all the classes I took fit under the medieval and renaissance studies banner. So I got a minor in medieval and renaissance studies. And one of the classes I took was sexual transgression in the middle ages and renaissance. And that was where I was introduced to The Decameron for the first time. So I read it and I fell in love with it. I thought that was really funny and timeless. So I always kind of had that in the back of my head. And then I was hanging out with another filmmaker and it came up. This is like a year and a half ago, after almost 18 years from when I first read it. And she was encouraging me to make it. And it turns out one of the minority investors, she's from Tuscany. And she had been asking the investor group for three or four years to come to Tuscany and shoot in these medieval villages that she had access to. And so when I told my producer about this idea, she told me that this woman had been pitching this for a while and would be overjoyed. It all just kind of came together really fast.
Are there many similarities between the sexual transgressions of the present day and those of the middle ages?
BAENA: I think there are more similarities than differences. I mean, the chief differences are what make this a movie, and that's why it's interesting to me. Primarily it's sort of the subjugation of women and how they were forced to live in a structure that they didn't want to be in. And our misunderstanding of history, where we think of nuns and priests and clergy as being these hyperreligious people who were just dedicating their lives to Christianity. The reality is: It was more of a social structure. Women, when they were little girls, would go into convents, basically treating them as schools, and then by the time they were of age, let's say 14 or older, they would get married off. But oftentimes they wouldn't. So either they were a way for the family to sort of tithe. Or the family just wanted to curry favor with the church. Or they were widows, or they were spinsters. All these different reasons why they weren't let out of the convent. One of the things we read in this class were the Penitentials, which were the punishments the church would levy against people. And it was wild just how much trouble people were getting into back then, how much they didn't want to be there. And how they made do, and how repressed they were. So that was fascinating to me.
As opposed to the idea that you have a vocation, that you take a vow of chastity and really mean it?
BAENA: There is a portion of people that applied to. I think it was a far minority… Well, this movie takes place in 1347, so in the 1400's is when you start seeing women choosing to go into the convent. I think at some point it was almost 30% to 40% of women chose to go into the convent. Especially in the Florence area. Almost as like an act of feminism. But before that, it was almost a punishment.
[To Plaza] Since you were obviously acting and producing, did you see this feminist element in the script? Did you notice a correspondence between 1347 and 2017?
PLAZA: I mean, honestly, I just liked the story that Jeff wrote. And I grew up going to an all-girls Catholic school surrounded by nuns. So it was a kind of familiar territory for me. I was just really excited to play a nun.
[To Baena] What about the decision to write it in modern, colloquial language?
BAENA: I mean, that was always my intention from the beginning. I guess when you think about period pieces—especially foreign period pieces, things that take place not in English-speaking countries—there's sort of a tradition where the filmmakers have everyone talk in a slightly British kind of Shakespearean English, which is super strange to me. In my mind, if you went back to the Middle Ages, in Italy they'd be speaking Middle Age Italian. And at that point, it would obviously be indecipherable for us, but for the people of that time, it was just normal talking. One of the interesting things about the Decameron itself was it was written in the Florentine dialect as opposed to the Latin vernacular—and that was mainly to have it be a piece of literature for the people as supposed to some kind of highfalutin canon. So, I sort of took a cue from that and thought, "What a better way to sort of humanize and make this time period more relatable? Let's not have a buffer between us and the history through the language." Try to make everything as historically accurate, but make the people feel real and alive and contemporary. That way, what they're going through resonates more than as if it's some kind of rarefied story that we can't relate to anymore?
Even though your film isn’t really about criticizing the contemporary church, surely the Catholic church has some kind of objection machine that they're going to unleash on you. Has that happened yet? Are you on their radar?
PLAZA: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah.
BAENA: I mean, there is now a website called, it's called Women for Fatima, or like the Need for Fatima.com or something like that. And they're—
PLAZA: —just giving us free press right now.
BAENA: Yeah. They're doing a petition that initially was supposed to be 20,000. They kept upping and upping it. It went up to 25,000. Now it's up to 30,000. And they have almost 27,000 signatures on it right now. Once they hit 30,000, I guess they'll probably keep upping it to 40,000 or 50,000. But at some point, they're going to send a letter to Van Toffler at Gunpowder & Sky, who's our distributor, to ask him to not release the movie. Which obviously is not going to happen. But none of them have seen the movie. So it's just sort of arbitrary pandering. Like the Catholic League came out with a review of our movie, having not seen it. And described it as trash, pure trash—which we then used for our poster. I took a cue from David Lynch when Lost Highway came out. he had that blurb that said, "Siskel and Ebert give this movie two thumbs down. Two more reasons to see Lost Highway." Which I thought was the funniest thing ever. It's not like they're crashing on the gates to try to take us down. But it's definitely on their radar and it's a bummer just because they haven't seen the movie. And the movie is not an attack on Christianity.
But if they had seen the movie, it seems fair enough to assume they would still object to it.
BAENA: But let them see it and decide. As silly as this movie is, it is really rooted in history. I mean, obviously it's a story. But all the details, including the stuff that the people are doing, is based on fact. And that's what people were going through at that time. So it is a piece of Catholic history. It's not an indictment on Catholic history. It's more of just sort of an airing of Catholic history. And I think it's important for all of us to look at our past as opposed to blindly turn away from it. Which is what I feel like they're kind of doing right now. So at least check it out. If you don't like it, great. But give it a chance.
[To Plaza:] Is producing something you're interested in doing more of? Or was it sort of more so that you could sort of get the film done so you could do the part?
PLAZA: It was a role that I kind of came upon. I wasn't a producer from the very beginning of it. But it was just a kind of organic thing that happened because I've been involved in all of Jeff's movies and I do a lot of things behind the scenes. And I was doing “produce-orial” things anyway. So it just kind of naturally made sense. And after that, I went on to produce Ingrid Goes West from the very, very beginning. So that movie really opened my eyes in a bigger way to what producing is all about. I really enjoy it. And I'm going to keep doing it.