In “The Little Hours,” Aubrey Plaza plays a foul-mouthed nun in 14th century Italy, the kind of sarcastic humor Plaza does best. Unsurprisingly, the actress had more than one hand in the production: It’s her first movie as a producer, and director Jeff Baena is her boyfriend.
The film, which also stars John C. Reilly, Dave Franco, Molly Shannon, and a host of other comedic actors, is a loose adaptation of “The Decameron,” the 1353 short story collection by Giovanni Boccaccio. However, “The Little Hours” is also notable for Plaza because it marks her first producing credit. The actress best known for her recurring role in “Parks and Recreation” already has a few more of those in the bag, including the upcoming “Ingrid Goes West,” which opens in August. Plaza’s work on “The Little Hours,” however, provides a window into the collaborative process of an indie power couple who have been gaining momentum in recent years.
Baena and Plaza first collaborated on Baena’s 2014 directorial debut, zombie comedy “Life After Beth,” and she also appeared in his 2016 followup, “Joshy.” With “The Little Hours,” her more active role provided an excuse for the couple to join forces in a new way. In New York to promote the film’s theatrical release, they talked through the experience of working together as a couple — and when they choose not to work together — as well as their different opinions about the state of the film industry. The following is an edited version of that conversation.
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Courtesy of Sundance
Jeff Baena: [Aubrey] researched all the prayer services in the film, which John C. Reilly says throughout the day. That led her to come up with the name for the movie, because the names of the six services are all called “The Little Hours.” I don’t want to say she was an ambassador to the film, but she was interacting with the cast to make sure everyone was comfortable.
Audrey Plaza: I was… producing.
JB: Yes! She was producing. And in my first movie, “Life After Beth,” she was just acting. So watching her take on this other role was really interesting.
AP: Honestly, it was a very organic role for me to take on, because I’ve been in every one of Jeff’s films. I’ve been there from the beginning of every idea because we’re together. We’re working on it even when we’re not working on it. It just made sense. Also, we shot in the middle of nowhere. Jeff and I had to be hosting this experience together. We had to take on those leadership roles, whether we wanted to or not. We had the entire cast and crew flying out to rural Tuscany. I couldn’t just be like, “I’m just an actor! Woo!”
I mean, I could do that. A little bit. But I end up gravitating toward the producing role on movies, anyway. It’s my personality. On the last movie I did, back in January [Jim Hosking’s “An Evening With Beverly Luff Linn”], I really felt the urge to get involved. I feel like everything comes together through that process. It all affects the final product.
JB: She really stepped up as the producer of “Ingrid Goes West” as well. She took on an even more significant role there.
AP: I’d say so. How do I get a PGA membership?
JB: You should have something. Doesn’t that get you good health insurance?
AP: I’m gonna make a phone call tonight. I produced three things in a row — “The Little Hours,” “Ingrid,” and a TV pilot. [Sits up.]
JB: You see the way she’s sitting?
AP: This is my producing pose.
JB: She turns it on and off. I have my ideas about the way my career should go, but I don’t have ideas about the way her career should go, so I don’t feel comfortable telling what she should or shouldn’t do. But if she asks me for my opinion, I’ll chime in. I’ll just never offer it without being asked first.
AP: I do what I want, when I want. But the way that Jeff works is a really different from doing improv comedy on television. This approach is somewhere between scripted and improv. He knows exactly what he wants us to say. He just wants us to say it in our own words. It’s not like we’re looking for wild new ideas or heightening the jokes. It’s more like just saying what he wants.
On the next page: Why aren’t there more good studio comedies?