SXSW: “Spin Me Round” brought Alison Brie and Jeff Baena to Italy

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In their fourth collaboration, Spin Me Round, which premieres today at the SXSW Film Festival, actress Alison Brie and director Jeff Baena follow the manager of an Olive Garden-esque Bakersfield restaurant on an immersive retreat to Italy.

As with the 2020 Netflix film Horse Girl, Spin Me Round again co-wrote the screenplay and marks a return trip to the European country where Baena filmed the 2017 film The Little Hours, which also featured seeing a starring role was Brie.

Brie and Baena recently caught up on Zoom to chat about their ongoing collaboration, which grew in part from hiking together, to discuss story ideas. Baena called from his home in Los Angeles while Brie was in Colombia where she is filming upcoming action comedy Freelance with John Cena.

Leaning more toward conventional comedy than Baena’s previous films, “Spin Me Round” continues his skillful exploration of tones, while at times feeling like a rom-com, a sex farce, or a thriller, all with an undercurrent of Brie’s character’s self-discovery. The actress, known for her TV roles like ‘Mad Men’, ‘Community’ and ‘Glow,’ says working with Baena allows her to explore alternatives to their strained on-screen personalities.

“Honestly, I feel like all my films are normal. I mean, that’s obviously not the case, but in my opinion, strangeness or weirdness is just personal taste,” Baena said. “For me, it’s about making sure the characters follow and that they have depth and that even the villains in a story are likable and that everyone kind of has their moment and we can connect with them… Whatever the story is and how those characters play together has to feel relatively organic and feel motivated, not forced — that’s [what] I’m concentrating on.”

Alison Brie and Jeff Baena while in Italy working on Spin Me Round.

(Alessandro Scerbo)

As with The Little Hours, bringing a large ensemble to Italy on a tight budget presents its own challenges. The Spin Me Round cast 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 also spent a lot of time just hanging out with the entire cast and making sure they were taken care of,” Baena said. “And they were in heaven … It felt like a journey for them, which I think was very important.

“Whatever the situation, as long as the talent is somehow stable and happy and cared for…they can be more vulnerable and open and give you a performance that’s truer and comes from a quieter place,” Baena said. “Productions tend to be hectic and crazy, and I think protecting the talent from that as much as possible really benefits the performance.”

It has been extremely fulfilling for Brie to take on additional responsibilities as co-writer and producer for her collaboration with Baena. “You really realize what a small part of filmmaking acting is,” she said. “A lot of filmmaking is collaboration. It was really fun to get the feeling that I was stretching different parts of my imagination and just working creatively in different ways. It’s new and exciting for me again.”

Alison Brie looks around a gate.

Alison Brie in “Spin Me Round”

(Sean McElwee)

“Spin Me Round” had a more fully written screenplay than Baena’s and Brie’s previous collaborations, which relied on improvisation by the actors. This makes the film 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 is acknowledging who they are and leaning into those scenarios,” Baena said. “And then when her character interacts with another character who’s kind of buried in that position and they conflict, the comedy kicks in. So it’s less about funny lines and throwaway jokes and more about the dynamic… where everyone’s coming from and how that’s at odds with each other – that’s what you mine for the comedy.

“We just always want all of the actors to be so ingrained in their character and their own character’s personal interests that it bounces off each other,” Brie said. “And nobody ever tries 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 in films such as Carrie, Dressed to Kill and Body Double. Having a key Italian crew member was necessary for a tax credit, and Baena was a big fan of what he called the “class and leanness” of Donaggio’s work, so he thought it was worth asking. When Donaggio turned out to be interested, Baena, Brie and Plaza drove to Venice after filming to meet the composer. He gave them stunning views of the city including a long night out at the famous Harry’s Bar.

Baena called the collaboration “a one-off thing” and returned to Italy for the scoring sessions. “I went to Rome to meet him in the studio where all the Italian greats worked, it’s basically that one studio where the legends recorded,” Baena said. “And it was like my dream to spend a week with Pino Donaggio and just hang out with him. And he’s like this sweet, amazing old guy who’s so bright and so sharp and funny and so down.

“And his music is incredible,” added Baena. “It’s hard to say, ‘I want to do something like your old work,’ but I didn’t really want to push it. I want him to go somewhere new. And I think he’s found that middle ground that’s reminiscent of some of his older stuff but feels totally new and fresh. So there’s a familiar feel to it, but it’s also unique, and that’s what we want the film to feel like.”

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