A young couple, seemingly committed and secure, become anxious that their relationship is falling into a rut. So they decide to give each other one night to have sex with someone else with no complications, bad feelings or questions asked. As explored with sly humor and at times painfully direct candor in "The Freebie," opening Friday in Los Angeles, the idea is simple in conception and extremely complicated in execution.
"I just wanted it to feel honest," said director and star Katie Aselton. "And that means sometimes it's funny and sometimes it's dramatic. I wanted it to have a very honest through-line of 'this is a couple.' Sometimes you're going to laugh and sometimes you're going to be appalled."
Aselton was also looking to skewer a specific type of couple "who are overly therapied and see themselves as highly evolved. Those couples kind of drive you crazy. I have a few in my life, and I want to sort of punch all of them. They see themselves as so much better because they are so honest, when really they're just full of it."
Though she can now be seen on the FX comedy "The League," Aselton was initially inspired to make her own film because she was not getting acting jobs and she wanted to create a role to showcase herself. Encouraged by her husband — actor and filmmaker Mark Duplass (who is her costar in "The League" and is co-director of "Cyrus" with his brother Jay) — she set out to create "The Freebie."
Aselton shot the film in 11 days in spring 2009, working from a six-page outline written in Silver Lake's Casbah Cafe; the restaurant is featured in the film, and it inspired the husband's crush on a character known as "Coffee Girl." All of the dialogue was improvised. The main location was Aselton and Duplass' own house. The crew featured cinematographer Benjamin Kasulke and editor Nat Sanders, both of whom had worked on the film "Humpday," starring Duplass. "The Freebie" premiered at the Sundance Film Festival this year as part of the inaugural low-budget Next section.
Though Aselton, who will turn 32 the day her film opens, knew she would play the part of the wife, she had a hard time finding a suitable actor for the husband role. Duplass in recent years had become friendly with Dax Shepard (currently on the TV show "Parenthood"), so he put out a call: Would Shepard want to make a movie starting the very next day? Though he had never met Aselton, barely 12 hours later Shepard was on set.
"If I had gotten that call from all kinds of other people, I wouldn't have," said Shepard, "or I would want to see a script or want to know all these different things. You do get burned. You start this thing with tons of trust that gets slowly whittled away. But he was definitely one of those people I would have done anything he was about to do."
And, the project happened to fit perfectly in Shepard's schedule.
"I was going to do the pilot of 'Parenthood' in 14 days," Shepard recalled, "and this was starting the next day and was going to be 11 days, so I could just do it. And I literally finished that last night's shoot and the next day flew to Berkeley and started 'Parenthood.'"
Once Shepard was on board, things moved quickly. The movie was filmed mostly in sequence, and the first scene he shot was a dinner party that sows some seeds of the couple's discontent. Things began to click right away.
"Dax literally walked in and did exactly what you would have hoped someone would do with this movie on that day," Aselton said. "I remember in the middle of a take, and I can see it in that dinner party scene, where I'm looking across at him, just like 'thank you.' That night was so exciting. Dax's energy fit so perfectly with what we were trying to do and how we wanted to do it; it was just seamless."
In the film, tension mounts between the couple following their big night out/off. Neither is certain of what the other has done, and both are unsure exactly how to feel regarding their own actions. It builds to a riveting argument that culminates in Shepard delivering an insult no man should say to his spouse.
"Dax said that against his will," Aselton pointed out.
"That was one of the few lines I was told to say," Shepard said. "Doing it on the day was tough, but worse was being in the audience at Sundance, which felt like a majority of women, and there were gasps."
Added Aselton, "People were talking back to the screen, 'No, you did not say that!'"
"The Freebie" has gotten Aselton some job offers, but not the kind she expected. She is being pursued as a filmmaker and now has two more projects of her own she is developing. One is slightly more scripted than "The Freebie," while the other is a fully scripted genre piece she describes as "'Deliverance' meets 'Thelma and Louise.'"
"I wanted to get another acting job out of it," she said of making "The Freebie." "And I have yet to get another acting job out of it, and now I have all kinds of opportunities to make movies, which is really bizarre."