Katie Aselton Almost Turned Down Directing the Comedy of the Summer
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Katie Aselton Almost Turned Down Directing the Comedy of the Summer

This content was created by Girlboss in partnership with Mack & Rita.

Katie Aselton almost passed on directing Mack & Rita, a feel-good comedy about a 30 year old who accidentally finds herself in the body of a much older woman (courtesy of a past-life regression and a “shaman” using a repurposed tanning bed off eBay. It’s a whole thing.)

“This was out of my wheelhouse,” says Aselton over Zoom one Friday afternoon. “I’ve made two other movies, and they were both really small, gritty indie movies: one about a couple toying with the idea of an open marriage [The Freebie], and the other, a Deliverance-esque thriller with rape and murder [Black Rock],” she adds, making a sharp contrast to the dopamine-hit-a-minute fun of Mack & Rita, alive with the technicolor color palette of Palm Springs and downtown LA and gleaming with that gloss of impeccable costumes and aspirational interiors (the main character affords that loft with floor-to-ceiling windows on a writer’s budget?!) that we all adore in a romcom. “This wasn’t an obvious choice,” adds Aselton.

And yet, it was also the right one for where Aselton found herself at the time. “Black Rock, the thriller, was traumatizing for me,” she says, referring to the film she made in 2012, starring Lake Bell and Kate Bosworth. “It was a very challenging, hard movie to make, and it really kicked the crap out of me and made me scared to go make another movie, and I think that’s part of the reason I took so long between projects.”

When Mack & Rita’s producer, Alex Sacks, brought her the film, Aselton first told her she was insane—and then she sat with it, and realized Sacks might be onto something. There was also, of course, the fact that the legendary Diane Keaton was already attached to play “Rita,” the name that Mack, the former 30 year old, gives her fabulous, older alter-ego.

“I was like, God damnit, I think she’s right—and part of it is, I think she knew I would do my best to make the most intelligent version of a romcom I could,” says Aselton. The pandemic only cemented this resolve. “This was the movie that I needed for my soul and for the experience I wanted to have, which is to be on set and laugh and bring joy, to find the light and have a little bit of escapism in a really dark, dismal time.”

Here’s more of our conversation (spoiler: Diane Keaton is just as magical as you would expect):

It really comes through when you watch the film that you all had fun together on set. What did you do as the director to create the kind of work environment where that was possible?

“I took the job of setting a fun tone very seriously. To feel the love in this movie, you had to feel the connection. The comedy had to feel grounded and real, even in a body-switching comedy where there’s a regression pod. It also helps to have a delightful cast who’s lovely, delightful, smart and funny. [Ed’s note: The cast includes Elizabeth Lail as Mack and Dustin Milligan, who you might recognize as Ted from Schitt’s Creek].”

Were there any specific things you did to set that fun tone? Like, ice cream trucks everyday?

“We had a very female-forward crew, and that was the number one thing that set the tone. We had a very strong policy of speaking to each other with respect. There was no yelling, there was no obstacle that couldn’t be overcome by just figuring it out. That’s not to say things didn’t get stressful or tense. Making movies is very hard and challenging, but I will say that this felt like a very mature set in that we worked through our problems and talked about them rationally.”

Photo Credits: Courtesy of Gravitas Premiere
Elizabeth Lail in Mack & Rita

Do you have a particular philosophy of leadership you subscribe to?

“I believe in hiring capable people that I don’t have to micromanage, and I believe in thanking them at the end of the day for all of their hard work. Making a movie is a very collaborative experience, and it doesn’t happen just with the work of one person. You need to look, see, acknowledge and appreciate everyone and the work they’re putting into it. I’ve had crew members tell me, ‘You say thank you too much,’ and I’m like, ‘Nope, there’s no such thing.’”

Have you ever had any insecurity as a female director around being perceived as “too nice,” to the point where people might take advantage of that?

“I’ve had experiences where I’ve tried it the other way, and I don’t like it. It’s not who I am, and it’s not the environment I want to create. Those previous experiences came out of stress, lack of sleep, panic, insecurity—it’s always insecurity, right? There is something, which speaks to the theme of Mack & Rita, that does come with age. I don’t have the same insecurities now. I have a comfort in saying, ‘I don’t have all the answers, let’s figure this out.’ I’m confident that me saying, ‘I don’t know’ doesn’t make me less of a director.” 

That idea of evolving, and allowing yourself to grow as a person, is such a theme of the movie. Just because you don’t get something right the first time, doesn’t mean you should never try again.

“Everything is a learning experience, right? I’ll own it. On a previous movie [set], I messed up and I yelled at someone in the art department when it wasn’t their fault. There was a lack of communication on my part, they thought they were doing the right thing and it was the last minute and we couldn’t change it. Could I have handled the situation better? One hundred percent. Will I do that ever again? I won’t. Did I do certain things on Mack & Rita that I’ll learn from and do better on the next film? Absolutely. If we’re not learning and evolving, what the heck are we doing?”

We have to talk about working with Diane Keaton. What was that like?

“Diane Keaton is one hundred percent, perfectly, to the tee, what you would expect from someone who is authentically themselves, at times unapologetically so. That comes with the good, the bad and the ugly, but there is no ugly. There’s just weird little quirks that are so perfectly Diane, and it’s what makes her the icon she is. The reason we’ve been drawn to her for decades is because she has consistently danced to the beat of her own drum. And that doesn’t come from absolute confidence. It comes from her being the most comfortable, and that is her safe space—the hats, the jackets, the gloves, the ties. I will say, she upped my style game! I dressed for Diane everyday, and it kind of got me out of my head everyday and distracted me from the stresses of work. All of that to say: She shows up ready to work, ready to play, ready to give us what we need, and is always pushing for more funny, more physical comedy. Diane was like a piece of clay. She was open, and I think that is such a rare thing.”

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Gravitas Premiere
Diane Keaton in Mack & Rita

You made such an interesting point that authenticity doesn’t equal universal likeability. Like, Diane’s quirks aren’t going to be for everyone, and even in the film, Mack’s journey into being her authentic self means embracing parts of herself that she never felt were “cool” enough, and being open to the people who loved her for those things.

“The messaging of this movie can be very like, ‘Oh, self love is accepting who you are,’ but it’s also about setting boundaries. It’s learning to say no, and what you like or don’t like, and how you want to be treated. Knowing how to set those boundaries is going to make you free.”

You’re an actor who made the transition to director. Do you have any advice for someone who’d love to do what you do?

“A lot of the things that I have achieved in my career have come out of sheer panic and frustration. I love working, and when I’m not doing it, I tend to spin out. My directing career was born out of that, but I didn’t ever dare to dream that big. I just wanted to be in soap operas! I continually move my goal post because I have fallen in love with this work so much, and have created opportunities for myself. Always keep your eyes open for what your potential next step could be, and if that feels like a bridge too far, stretch yourself. And if you fail, step back, and figure out another way around. I’m from a tiny town in Maine, where my mom is an art teacher and my dad is a doctor. It was wild that I moved to Los Angeles to do this. But my mom always said to me, ‘I wish I’d become an archaeologist,’ and that sentiment always stuck with me. I never want to say, ‘I regret never having done dot dot dot…’”

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