Katie Aselton’s second feature as a director is just about the last thing fans of her debut, The Freebie, might have expected—which is exactly why she did it. Rising out of mumblecore—she starred in 2005’s The Puffy Chair—to a spot on FX’s The League, she’s stuck to stylistically subdued, character-driven work, or at least she had until she filmed the new girls-in-trouble thriller Black Rock. Working from a script by her husband Mark Duplass, the movie reunites onetime BFFs Aselton, Lake Bell, and Kate Bosworth for a weekend campout on a Maine islet. But their attempt to work out longstanding grudges in the isolation of nature is foiled by the intrusion of three young military veterans whose time in combat has left them dangerously off-balance. Given that Deliverance was one of Aselton’s models, it’s not surprising that, before long, survival takes precedence over burying the hatchet, forcing pursuers and pursued toward their primitive selves. Though Black Rock closed a distribution deal not long after its debut at Sundance in 2012, it’s taken this long to hit theaters and on-demand, where it’s now available.
The A.V. Club: If you didn’t know before you started Black Rock, there’s a whole subgenre of exploitation movies called rape-revenge, of which The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is the most expensive…
Katie Aselton: The best one ever! I loved Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.
I haven’t read the books. I haven’t seen the Swedish films. I tried to watch the Swedish film after watching [David] Fincher’s and I couldn’t go there. I wanted to sit there for nine hours and watch all three stories. I’m pregnant and uncomfortable and I can’t sit down for a long time and I was still there. I thought it was fantastic. My movie’s not as good as Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. I’ll put it out there. I’ve got things to learn. Fincher’s good.
AVC: Were you familiar with those kinds of movies at all?
KA: I really wasn’t. And truthfully, I don’t like contemporary horror movies and thrillers. I have no appreciation for found-footage films. I have respect for anyone who’s going to go out and make a movie for a small budget and turn it into a phenomenon. God bless you. Please keep making movies. That’s great. But it’s not what entertains me. What I get really excited about are movies that I connect with emotionally. Deliverance was on TV, and they don’t really make movies like that anymore, just simple and scary. The truly scary thing is, “I’m going to threaten your life, I’m going to threaten the people you love. What are you going to do about it?” I loved the idea of jumping into that world. I really liked The River Wild and Cape Fear and those movies. Protective movies, I guess. I just realized that doing press. I was like, “Hello, they’re all movies about protecting the people you love.”
AVC: And it gives you the chance to do something physical, rather than…
KA: Talky. Yeah. I did The Puffy Chair in 2005, which—I went to theater school, I trained, I can do a lot of different things. But you do one thing that people really like, which for me was dramatic improvisation that has a comedic undertone. So I went from Puffy Chair and then I did The Freebie, which has a very similar tone and then I’m on The League, which is comedic improv. So I never really get asked to do, like, The Bourne Supremacy. Why not? I’m smart. I could be a spy. I could totally do that. I really enjoy those movies. But I can’t make a Bourne Supremacy movie. I can’t tell that story. It’s a lot of stuff I don’t understand. So for me to see something like Deliverance, when I saw it, it just struck me and inspired me. That’s something that’s in my scope of storytelling. There are all of these thrillers that have a set of rules. What if I took my own personal way of making films and played by their rules on my playground? And I got really excited. It was an interesting challenge to me, both as filmmaker and as an actor.
AVC: Suspense movies are very technically demanding; if the framing or the editing is off, the tension won’t build. How do you do that on a small budget?
KA: On Freebie, we could just sort of put the camera wherever. On this one, we storyboarded. We shot-listed. It was a very different pre-production process than Freebie. Freebie was really just collaborative, John Cassavetes-esque, like, let’s get a group of people, super small, a pared-down crew, [a] tiny, tiny cast, and let everyone do their thing and the DP can just make it look good. We ran 60-minute takes for the actors and it was great. I loved it. But it was an acting experiment. It was a creative experiment. This was way more technical—a much larger crew, a very different approach, way more specific for each scene, especially the water scenes. It was, “Exactly what do we want to capture? How are we going to capture it?”
AVC: “How much longer do I have to be in the ocean?”
KA: Yes. That was really hard. So yeah, it was way more technical, which was exciting—to do something that different.
AVC: So it’s more challenging as a director. What about as an actor?
KA: It’s just a different experience. Part of it was doing a role that I hadn’t gotten to do in a while, which was something more precise and specific.
AVC: Actors get used to nude scenes, but what’s it like directing yourself in one?
KA: It was a little strange. But I did the directing before, you know what I mean? With clothes on. And then everyone was in their places and everyone was prepared, everyone knew exactly what was happening and then I was like, “Okay, are we ready to do this?” A lot of the scenes were like that. The water scenes: “This is what this scene is going to be. This is what we have to get. We are going to shoot this until we get this. You have to tell me if we got it.” Because the water scenes, we couldn’t do playback.
AVC: Sometimes you’re in long shot, which means the camera’s basically up on a cliff above you.
KA: Exactly. So there’s a lot of trust in the people around me. Part of the process of acting in a film that you’re also directing is really trusting the people around you to capture your vision, which hopefully you have communicated well to them. And you know, sometimes you get it and sometimes you don’t. I feel very lucky that they captured it. Hillary [Spera], my DP, and I talked a lot about the nude scene and exactly what I wanted to see and what I didn’t want to see and how I wanted to see it and what I wanted the light to hit and what I didn’t want the light to hit. Like, you don’t want light to hit coochie. No cooter shots. [Laughs.] Did that answer your question? Your uncomfortable nudie question?
AVC: It did.
KA: I’d never done a nude scene. I’m not the nudie girl. And trust me, the last person you want to do a nude scene next to is Lake Bell. But I really liked the idea that it had no sexual undertones to it whatsoever. It was purely for survival. That water, I’m not even kidding you, was 45 degrees.
AVC: When did you shoot?
KA: June. The air temperature that night was 43 degrees. It was effing cold. We were in wet suits underneath our wardrobe and we could still only be in the water for five minutes at a time before the first-aid guide would look at us, our gums would be white, our pupils were dilated. I sent Lake to the medic. So truly for survival, if that was a real scenario, you would have had to take your clothes off to snuggle for body heat. So I liked that idea of those being the reasons why we took our clothes off—while still following the rules of the genre of having some boobs in there. [Laughs.]
AVC: But they’re crying and it’s dark, which kind of ruins it.
KA: I’ll just do it without the sound next time. [Laughs.]
AVC: In addition to gratuitous nudity, gore is endemic to the genre. How did you decide how much to show?
KA: I have no interest in being gratuitous, but at the same time I also had no interest in pulling punches and shying away from the violence of what was happening. So I wanted to be true to the story and stay as close to it as I could without it being a slasher film. I like it building to the end, and I will go there for a minute, but I will always reel back from it. Like with the nudity, it doesn’t scare me, but I don’t feel the need to put it in your face. Yes, there is blood and there is gore, but there’s not as much of it as other filmmakers would probably put in there.
AVC: It’s great that the movie starts out with so much banter between you and Lake Bell and Kate Bosworth.
KA: I like that it starts out like a chick flick. It sort of starts out like one of my previous movies, with establishing relationships.
AVC: But even that’s not in the traditional “chick flick” format. It’s really just three old friends shooting the shit, which is not something you get to see women do onscreen very often. How did you decide how much of the movie that was going be?
KA: The tricky thing is, it’s actually sort of a technical answer. You have to get to the action by a certain point in the movie to keep your audience engaged. Like, for Freebie, how long do you want before you mention “the freebie”? In the thriller Black Rock, how long do you wait until the first scare? People know it’s coming, but you can’t make them wait too long. We tested a lot of it. That opening chunk, that opening quarter of the movie, could have been doubled in time. We had enough of that footage. But it’s all about keeping the audience engaged and keeping the momentum going.
AVC: The idea that they hadn’t seen each other in eight years, was that always part of it?
KA: Yup. Someone was saying before that it’s kind of like The Descent. And I was like, “Yes, it’s what I wanted The Descent to be.” I loved the idea that they had all of this emotional shit between them, and then something goes horribly wrong. But then albinos come out of the crevices. It’s like, why? I don’t know why. To me, there’s nothing scarier than being trapped in a cave with the wife of the guy you’ve been fucking who’s dead. So I loved the idea that initially their emotional drama was big enough to be the tension in the moment, but then something else even bigger happens.
AVC: What about the setting? It’s basically right where you grew up.
KA: I was born and raised there. It’s beautiful, and I loved the idea of the beautiful ocean with the craggy rocks. It’s this whole juxtaposition of beauty and brutality—not to get to get too artsy-fartsy on you.
AVC: Go ahead.
KA: Here we go. It’s sort of the theme of the movie. Beautiful girls are getting beaten, and there’s strength and power and weaknesses. It’s all this juxtaposition. So I was just playing with that idea. Plus, it’s hard to get an ugly frame when you’re shooting there. So I had that going for me.
AVC: You still go back there?
KA: Yeah. My family is still there and Mark and I have a house there. It’s changed now for me. I went back at Thanksgiving, which was my first time back since we shot. It’s weird to be back. When we were shooting, the girls and I all stayed in Mark’s and my house and it was so strange to be in the house again and not in production. It felt like I was being very lazy and not doing my work and like, where was Kate? She’s so small she can just hide around every little corner. It was awesome to shoot there. I would have these moments… I remember in the scene where we’re tied up on the beach I looked over at this point that I used to play on all the time as a kid and thought, “I bet I never imagined I would be shooting a film on this beach.” It’s so surreal to me.