About the Production
Most people know KATIE ASELTON as that cute girl opposite her real-life husband, MARK DUPLASS, on "The League" and from those great Mumblecore comedies like "The Puffy Chair" and "Cyrus" and her own 2010 romantic adventure, "The Freebie." She's played funny, she's played romantic. . . but what about kickin' some ass?
That's what the actress and sophomore director asked herself a year or so back. "I'd never even thrown a punch in real life," she says. "So I thought I'd try out the world of the action/thriller genre and see how I liked it."
Aselton pulled out some classic thrillers, like "Deliverance," "Cape Fear," and "The River Wild," and discovered something she hadn't seen in a while. "You sit down and watch a movie like 'Deliverance,' and the concept is just so simple. It's something genre films don't do anymore. Now there's always some kind of paranormal twist."
One idea had been tossing around in her head. "What's the worst thing that could happen if you went camping with your friends?" she asks. "Well, something paranormal -- I don't think that's gonna happen." The worst thing would be something going horribly wrong, rooted in a huge miscommunication. "Then the shit hits the fan, and you have to fight for your life -- and it becomes the struggle of who wants to live more."
Aselton batted the story around for a while, placing a trio of friends in different locations, but never got through the story. It wasn't until Christmas 2010, when she and Mark, were visiting her childhood hometown of Milbridge, Maine, and went out for a walk in the snow with a bottle of wine, that the story finally came together. "We were just walking and looking at the juxtaposition of this incredibly brutal landscape -- of the beauty of the ocean and the rocks on the shoreline. It just echoed what I'd been looking for. We just shaped the story out there."
Duplass found himself trapped in a weather-induced 18 hour layover on his way back to L.A. -- and took the time to churn out a script for BLACK ROCK on his laptop. "By the time he got back to Los Angeles, there was a pretty awesome script," Aselton says. The story is centered around three childhood friends who, on the instigation of one, come together for a camping trip on one of their childhood haunts, a secluded, empty island called Black Rock. "These girls have known each other since early childhood. And when you've had people in your life that long, there's bound to be a lot of shit between you," she explains.
It is that very dynamic that fascinated the director. "It's one that's born out of the changing and growing you do over the years. A lot of times, things go down that can upset the balance, and that's what's happened to this group."
Aselton's character, Abby, "is one of these people who thinks she's done everything you're supposed to do," she says. "She went out and got a great job, she married a nice guy. She's doing it all, and she's still not happy," something subtly visible in Aselton's smooth performance. "When those things aren't fulfilling, people in that situation don't know that's what's really wrong. And they don't know how to fix it."
Abby also blames Lou for a lot of what's wrong in her life. "Lou had perpetrated an indiscretion years before, and it's something Abby is still holding onto. It's really toxic stuff, and she just blames everything that goes wrong in her life on Lou and what happened."
Portraying Lou is actress LAKE BELL. Aselton recalls, "I sat down and asked myself, 'Who do I want to crawl through the mud with for a month? Who's gonna be a super-tough girl who can do this without driving me batty?'" Bell had been friends with Aselton and Duplass for a number of years, appearing on "The League." Says Bell, "Katie and I are pals -- we go to dinner parties together occasionally, maybe a little game night." Bell was just finishing work on "How to Make it in America," and was at dinner with her friend, when Aselton asked her, "At one point, I remember her just saying, 'You know, there's this movie, 'Black Rock,' and I wonder if you want to go in the woods and get weird with me?' Now, why would I say no to that?" she laughs.
Lou, Aselton describes, is still flailing, in some ways, trying to figure out where she ought to be in life. "She's having a hard time getting her feet underneath her, and hasn't really been able to gain traction in her adult life. Which is particularly hard if you don't have a super-strong family and have an infrastructure of her friends. Life is tricky, especially in your 20s. And if you're doing it alone, it's hard and it's scary." Bell related well to Lou. "I grew up with sisters -- I relate to the dynamic," she says.
The third member of the triumvirate is Sarah, who attempts to reconcile her two friends by tricking them into this private campout. "When you have a threesome, it leaves someone stuck in the middle," Aselton explains. "She's the leader, the organizer. "She's the one who pulls everything together and always has the plan. Sarah's the go-getter, she's super chipper. She probably was the head of her Girls Scout troupe." Sarah is also someone stuck in the past. "She hasn't really moved forward or grown either. A lot of it for her is the 'Remember when' stories."
Aselton and Bell began thinking of who would best fill out the party, going through lists of actresses, looking for an appropriate candidate. "Lake knows so many people, and she was, like, 'Nope, you don't want to do that' and 'That's not gonna be fun' or 'She's difficult.'" Bell eventually suggested actress KATE BOSWORTH. "I'd known her socially, and I thought she was really cool," she says. Adds Aselton, "When her name came up, Lake said, 'You will loooove her. She's awesome.' And when we met, I was madly in love with her. I don't use the word 'spitfire' often, but she is just. . . alive. She's got so much life in this tiny little body. We couldn't have had a more perfect Sarah."
There was one other actress Aselton briefly considered for the role -- herself. "When Mark handed me the script, I read it, and I was, like, 'So I'll be Sarah.' He said, 'You should pick the one that is most difficult to play.' And Abby was the most complex, so I became her."
Regardless of who she would portray, Aselton had an additional challenge the others didn't -- working on both sides of the camera. "There we're certainly times where my director/producer brain would kick in, and I would really struggle to stay in the scene as an actor," she recalls. "But having talented actors around me really helped me stay in it."
Having known and developed the characters since their inception also helped her to direct scenes more insightfully than another director have. "As an actor, you usually sign onto something, and then a few weeks later, you're shooting it. But with this, I've been sitting with these characters, including my own, for so long, it was very easy to talk to the girls about our characters' relationship and dynamic."
That dynamic changes throughout the movie, as things progress from "girls' campout" to a fight for survival. Says Bell, "You start in a place where you're talking about boys and kiss-and-tell pasts. But that sort of petty stuff gets shed and becomes irrelevant pretty quickly, once things get rough. That's what I find so interesting about the dynamic that changes between them."
Lou and Abby's relationship takes an important turn towards reconciliation, as the two huddle naked in a lean-to -- their original childhood shelter, in fact -- trying to keep warm and come up with a plan, without letting themselves go mad. "In that moment, they grow up and realize their life is in their hands," Aselton says. "They need to take control and be strong and powerful. If they want to get off the island, it's up to them."
The girls are up against a pretty tough opponent, in the form of JAY PAULSON's Derek, one of three young veterans who have just returned from serving in the Middle East and are themselves on a camping trip on the island. Paulson had been a big fan of Aselton's and Duplass's films, to the point of, once, while watching one, asking his wife, "How can I get to work with these guys?"
The actor was in Montreal last Spring, working one of the usual types of roles he portrays -- the "rookie FBI agent" -- in a pilot, when he received an e-mail from his management letting him know Katie Aselton was trying to get a hold of him. "They were asking me, 'Do you know this girl? Why is she e-mailing you?' To have that land in my inbox was pretty incredible."
Aselton had seen Paulson in a two-episode arc on "Mad Men" and instantly knew she'd found her man. "It was such a subtle performance, so bizarre and strange," she recalls. "It was really off-putting and made you feel really uncomfortable. That's Derek."
After meeting the actor, though, she began to have doubts. "He was just the sweetest, nicest guy. I thought, 'He's not gonna be able to play this role -- he's a saint.' And Jay is also tall and thin, and I'd always imagined Derek to be big and threatening."
But the director soon found herself watching "Restrepo," the Oscar- nominated documentary which follows a platoon of soldiers in Afghanistan. "There was one soldier who was so fragile -- and small and wiry. You got to see how this boy, through the arc of the film, lost all of his innocence, so that by the time he came home, he was so damaged. I could see how this could happen to a character like Derek in our film. And he reminded me so much of Jay."
"Katie was really strongly moved by that film," Paulson says. "Once you start to watch some of this material, you begin to understand what these young guys go through over there, and how it can negatively affect some of them. And
then they're expected to just fly home and get back to the way things were. That's quite a demand to place on a human organism." Such is the case with Derek. "Terrible stuff happened to this guy. He didn't have the time or help to process it, if that's even possible. After that, he's just running on program."
In his own research, Paulson dug up a study from World War II, in which the qualities of soldiers who came out of Guadalcanal relatively unscathed, emotionally, were examined. "They found that the good soldiers were intelligent, masculine, socially mature and emotionally stable. I realized pretty quickly that Derek was not necessarily a good soldier."
Paulson skillfully wove some of those "bad soldier" qualities into his character, infusing them at every point he could into Derek's persona -- effectively enough to frighten his co-stars. "He was actually terrifying on set," Bell recalls, noting that Paulson even kept his distance from them between scenes to allow the effect to remain intact. "Jay is really a masterful actor. He does such interesting things with that character; his physicality and the essence behind his eyes is so strange. He is the driving force of all the action."
The actor was careful to keep his performance in the realm of realism. "I didn't want this to just be some caricature of soldiers with PTSD," he says. "I don't think that's really fair to them. It was always important to try and keep him as real as possible."
That naturalism is, in fact, what makes BLACK ROCK so compelling to watch. "It's the injection of human interaction, and that naturalistic quality, applied to a survival movie," says Lake Bell. "It starts in a place of realism and ends in a place of realism." There are no helpless, screaming girls running and tripping over rocks here. Says Aselton, "When I would talk with the girls, I told them, 'Put yourself in this situation. How would you really react?' You can play it big, and you can go with big screams, or do you just get really quiet and really freaked out? That's the way real people behave."
Notes Bell, "Most of the usual woman action roles have hair and makeup, like in great spy movies, which I love. But this was messy. We had no stunt doubles. It truly gave us the freedom to be as vulnerable as possible. It was refreshing."
Aselton was insistent that she and her co-stars did no training for their roles. "I didn't want these girls to look like they went through a cardio-kickboxing class," she says. "They're just normal girls. All they have is their spirit and their fingernails and their elbows. And their teeth."
At a certain point, it is clear Abby and Lou have indeed evolved far beyond the gentle young women they were at the beginning of the film, as they fiercely battle Derek in a brutal fight to the death. "I really believe that the girls, at a certain point, become very animalistic and turn to their animal instincts and let them take over," Aselton states. It's a fantasy, in a sense, for woman who'll view the film, Bell notes. "It's mayhem, and it's horrible. And there was plenty of peeing in the woods -- we were immersed in nature. But there's something fantastical about relieving yourself of all the trite bullshit women normally discuss among ourselves. These girls are bound together by shear survival. You're sticking people in the most base and raw environment, with the most raw set of circumstances."
Freeing as it was, Bell found that portraying some acts of violence were enough to shake even her well-prepared nerves, particularly in one scene where she defends herself with a knife. "We didn't have a rubber stunt knife -- that was a real knife, but with tape on it. And there is an aspect to doing that kind of scene that's psychologically messed up. It rattles you." On the flip side, it was also a freeing experience, in a way. "I have older brothers, and it was nice to sort of express that violence in a fantastical, controlled setting. There's a sense of power in it -- and then be able to put it away again."
Contributing to the naturalistic experience of the movie is its setting -- an island near Milbridge, Maine, the birthplace of one Katie Aselton. "Maine is such a beautiful, beautiful state. It's pretty easy to get a good shot out there. You literally point a camera and you've got a beautiful frame." Adds Paulson, "It was some of the most beautiful country I'd ever seen. It's breathtaking how beautiful it is. And it juxtaposes nicely in the film, with all these horrific ugly things going on."
While Milbridge is six hours from the nearest camera rental house in Boston, it does have the best of what most small towns have: a grocery store, a bank and a post office -- and a simple way of life. "Thank God, there's a doctor's office," says Aselton. "I sent three of my people there." Its small town mentality was a refreshing change for filmmakers from Hollywood. "I went into the Town Manager's office to ask if we could shoot at the dock -- which is a working dock with fisherman coming in and out all day. I said, 'This is what I'd like to do -- is it cool?' 'Yup.' 'Do you want to see our insurance' 'Nope -- we're good.' It's the town I grew up in. They've known me my entire life. That same guy gave me a speeding ticket when I was 16 years old!"
The cast got to enjoy that same experience. "You'd go into the little knick knack shop and they'd be, like, 'Oh, are you with the movie? Where are you staying -- with the Aseltons?' It was, like, 'Local girl makes good!'" laughs Jay Paulson.
"We'd have dinner at Katie's parents' house, and her sister cooked all our food on set," recalls Bell. The women stayed in the Duplass's beach house, with the guys in a neighboring rented house. "It was like sleep-away camp, but with only three girls. We were like dorm mates -- we'd make mac 'n cheese, talk shit and play music. And then you go into the woods and do weird stuff all day."
The weird stuff all took place on nearby Flint Island, a quick five mile boat ride from town. [By the way, that's the unapproachable Shipstern Island, just next door to Flint, subbing in for Black Rock in the "King Kong"-like establishing shot in the film.] The island offered a very different experience for the cast and crew from their comfy Milbridge home base. "It was June, and it was foggy, rainy and cold," Aselton says. "If you have something planned up there, it's like mother nature knows. . . "
Maine being the northernmost place in the continental U.S., the production experienced some of the shortest nights in the year for their night shoots, with the sun beginning to light the sky by 3:30 in the morning. Tides would regularly swallow beach settings. "The tide would come in up over our C-stands and lighting setup, and over the camera operators' feet during scenes," the director says. "We'd break for lunch, and come back an hour later, and our set was gone."
The water was a mere 45 degrees some nights -- particularly tough on Aselton and Bell, the latter suffering from an asthma attack in one cold, exhausting swimming scene. "My body went into shock," she recalls. "It was a scary moment -- thankfully someone was at the other end with an asthma inhaler, and we got through it. But I definitely became very aware of my own mortality." Mosquitos tended to find plenty of targets -- particularly the two stars mentioned above, who spent a scene or two unclothed, digging through the dirt with their bare hands. "There were plenty of bugs," states Aselton.
The island's inherent beauty was nonetheless the source of countless spectacular shots captured by cinematographer Hillary Spera, who had worked previously with Aselton on "Freebie." "Hillary just has a beautiful aesthetic," says her director. "Plus, she's from Vermont, so she gets trees." The two were kept plenty busy, devising fascinating shots -- including one from the point of view of a frightened Kate Bosworth quietly hiding up a tree, looking down as her pursuers hunt for her on the ground below. "We had Kate in a safety harness, and our grip finagled a rig to put Hillary 20 feet up in the tree with the camera. It was one of my favorite shots -- I wish we could have shot a whole short film with Kate up there."
It wasn't lost on Aselton that her DP -- as well as her producer, composer, and other key players on the film -- were women. "I love the idea of this being a girl-power movie," she says. "I'm so over girls raising their voices three octaves to be sexy. I'm a big believer in girls using their 'big girl' voices -- without losing their femininity. I'm excited by women who find their strength attractive and use it instead of hide it. BLACK ROCK is a girl's take on the thriller genre, and instead of shying away, we really dug our teeth in. . . so to speak."
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