In their fourth collaboration, “Spin Me Round,” which premieres at the SXSW Film Festival today, actor Alison Brie and director Jeff Baena follow the manager of an Olive Garden-esque restaurant in Bakersfield on an immersive retreat to Italy.
Once again co-writing the screenplay, as they did for the 2020 Netflix film “Horse Girl,” “Spin Me Round” marks a return trip to the European country, where Baena made the 2017 film “The Little Hours,” which also starred Brie.
Brie and Baena got together on Zoom for a recent conversation about their ongoing work together, which was born in part from going on hikes together to talk out story ideas. Baena was calling in from her home in Los Angeles, while Brie was in Colombia, where she is shooting the upcoming action comedy “Freelance” with John Cena.
Leaning more toward conventional comedy than Baena’s previous films, “Spin Me Round” does continue his skillful exploration of tones, at times feeling like a rom-com, a sex farce or a thriller, all with an undercurrent of self-discovery for Brie’s character . The actress, known for her TV roles including “Mad Men,” “Community” and “Glow,” says her collaborations de ella with Baena allow her to explore alternatives to her high-strung onscreen personas.
“Honestly, I feel like all my movies are normal. I mean, obviously that isn’t the case, but in my mind I think that strangeness or weirdness is just personal taste,” Baena said. “For me it’s making sure the characters track and that there’s depth to them, and that even the villains in a story are sympathetic, and that everyone kind of has their moment and we’re able to connect to them… Whatever the story is and how those characters interplay has to feel relatively organic and feel motivated and not forced — that’s [what] I focus on.”
As with “The Little Hours,” taking a large ensemble cast to Italy on a tight budget presents its own challenges. The “Spin Me Round” ensemble includes Alessandro Nivola, Aubrey Plaza, Molly Shannon, Ego Nwodim, Zach Woods, Ayden Mayeri, Ben Sinclair, Debby Ryan, Fred Armisen and Tim Heidecker.
Baena gives Plaza — the two are married — special credit for helping to hold things together.
“She and I spent a lot of time too just hanging out with the entire cast, making sure that they were taken care of,” Baena said. “And they were in heaven… It felt like a trip for them, which I think was really important.
“Whatever the situation is, as long as the talent is sort of stable and happy and feeling taken care of… they can sort of be more vulnerable and open and give you a performance that is truer and coming from a calmer place,” said Baena. “Productions tend to be frantic and crazy and I think shielding the talent from that as much as possible really benefits the performance.”
For Brie, taking on additional responsibilities as a co-writer and producer on her collaborations with Baena have been extremely fulfilling. “You really glean what a small part of filmmaking the acting portion is,” she said. “So much of filmmaking is collaboration. It’s been really fun to get to feel like I’m stretching different parts of my imagination and just getting to work in different ways creatively. It’s new and exciting for me again.”
“Spin Me Round” had a more fully written script than Baena and Brie’s previously collaborations, which were rooted in improvisations from the actors. That allows the movie to feel more precise as it shifts gears and reflects the uncertain realities of life.
“The comedy that happens in these movies, the awkwardness, is because everyone’s committing to who they are and grounded in those scenarios,” said Baena. “And then when their character is interacting with another character, who’s sort of dug into that position and they’re in conflict, that’s where the comedy comes up. So it’s less about funny lines and throwaway jokes and more about the dynamics… where everyone’s coming from and how that’s at odds with each other — that is what you mine for the comedy.”
“We just always want all actors to be so grounded in their character and their own character’s personal stakes, that’s bouncing off of one another,” said Brie. “And no one’s ever trying to steal the spotlight with a funny joke, it’s more about just playing out those human moments.”
The film also surprises with its lush score by Pino Donaggio, the Italian composer best known for his collaborations with Brian De Palma on films including “Carrie,” “Dressed to Kill” and “Body Double.” For a tax credit, it was necessary to have a key Italian crew member, and Baena was a huge fan of what he called the “classiness and sleaziness” of Donaggio’s work, so he figured it was worth asking. When it turned out Donaggio was interested, Baena, Brie and Plaza drove to Venice after they finished shooting to meet the composer. He gave them a whirlwind view of the city, including a long evening at the famed Harry’s Bar.
Baena called the collaboration “a once in a lifetime thing” and returned to Italy for the scoring sessions. “I went to Rome to meet him at the studio where all the Italian greats worked, it’s basically this one studio that the legends recorded at,” Baena said. “And it was like my dream to basically spend a week with Pino Donaggio and just hang out with him. And he is like this cute, amazing old guy who is so on the level and is so sharp and funny and so down.
“And his music is incredible,” added Baena. “It’s hard to basically say, ‘I want to do something like your old work,’ but I didn’t really want to push that. I want him to go to a new place. And I think I found this middle ground where it’s reminiscent of some of his older stuff from him, but it feels completely new and fresh. So it has a familiar, but also unique feeling, which is what I want the movie to feel like.”