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SXSW Award-Sweeping Robbie Pickering on His Surprise Comedy Natural Selection

Texan director Robbie Pickering arrived at SXSW with no name recognition and a debut feature, the comedy Natural Selection, that's biggest star was The Hangover's Rachael Harris. He left with his film having swept nearly every major award at the festival, earning raves from jurors Roger Ebert and New York magazine's own Logan Hill. Selection follows a mousy Christian woman (Harris) sent by her pious, ailing husband to go fetch the son he's never met, the result of a long-ago sperm donation who is currently a dirty, drug-using escaped convict (Matt O'Leary, best known for appearing in the last two Spy Kids movies). Vulture spoke to Pickering at the festival about his surprise success, and why a movie with "Christian porn" isn't anti-Christian. All this after a clip of the film.

Where did the idea for Natural Selection come from?
I did a couple of short films at NYU, and I’d done some writing and stuff, but this is the first feature I’ve directed. I wrote the screenplay during a weird, painful time in my life when my stepdad was dying — I was listening to The Arcade Fire’s Funeral every day, thinking about how my mom was going to be alone. I’d always wanted to write a story about a woman like my mom, but I didn’t want to be like the people at NYU who make documentaries about their grandmother and stuff like that. I wanted to be emotionally true, to address that deep-down loneliness.

What happened after you finished the script?
It was on the Black List, that douche-y Hollywood list of good scripts, for a while. I showed it to producers from major studios, and they all liked it but nobody wanted to make a coming-of-age movie about a 40-year-old woman, especially one that didn’t star Jennifer Aniston. I eventually went in with the attitude, “I’m going to make this movie whether you help me or not.” That’s how we finally found producers.

Matt O’Leary and Rachael Harris have such incredible comedic timing and chemistry that it’s hard to believe they hadn’t done anything like this before. How did you pick them?
Matt came in, and at first he gave a really angry audition. Nine dudes out of ten dudes, when they’re doing anything artistic, the go-to is anger. So we just had to see something beyond that. I called him back and said, “Be less angry,” which is a horrible direction. Then when he came down to Austin, I had to drive him for 45 minutes, and the kid just doesn’t shut the fuck up. He tells these stupid stories — like, he’s making an electromagnet at home, and that segues into how he has a Christmas tree farm, and he wants to sell Spy Kids Christmas trees. I acted like I was listening to him, but the whole time in my head I’m like, “this is the guy.” It was perfect for the character — someone who goes on and on even though no one’s listening. That’s better than an audition.

There was a long list of really seasoned dramatic actresses for the role of Linda. Then my casting director suggested Rachael. I had always thought of her as “the bitch” — everybody does — because those are the roles they kind of typecast her in. One agent even said to me, “I thought you were taking this seriously. I didn’t realize you were making a big, stupid comedy” after I told him I was considering her. But I let her audition and there was something about her that was the essence of the character. We cast her, but then she dropped out due to scheduling conflicts. Deep down, though, I knew she was right for it. I finally sent her a message on Facebook and said, “I want you to be in my movie.” She came down the next week, and that night we were buying costumes together at Wal Mart.

I really like how the film gives a lot of weight to the female character’s emotions.
There are so few films about women that are really about women, and not just about the dude she’s with via her. The only movies where I think a woman has a higher purpose are like Alien and Silence of the Lambs. We tried to make our film more focused on Linda as a person, rather than as an object — which is what a lot of the women I grew up with in Texas were like, objects. Totally dependent.

Where does the title come from?
It comes from the central relationship. The two of them — the ex-con and the barren Christian wife — connect because they’re both the world’s bitches, cast out of society by natural selection, the weakest creatures in the jungle, unfit to survive in the world. I would tell Matt, “You’re not the type of guy who goes to prison and does well. You go to prison, you get the shit kicked out of you, you get fucked in the ass.” Linda’s a victim of her circumstances — people find her so beautiful, though. She brings up a lot of mommy feelings for boys in the audience.

Natural Selection pokes fun at Christianity — like a hilarious scene where Linda’s husband jerks off to “Christian” porn — but it’s never mean-spirited or smug. How did your upbringing shape the way you handled this?
I was raised a Christian. We shot near my hometown, and we used our church in the film and my mom’s friends as extras. My mom was concerned that I was going to make fun of them, that I was going to make fun of religion. But that wasn’t our goal. I take the piss out of Christian people because I love them. She’s Gotta Have It is about a guy from Bed-Stuy making fun of people from Bed-Stuy because he loves them. Alexander Payne does the same thing with people from the Midwest. I think anybody you have affection for, you should make fun of.

Photo: Hutton Supancic/WireImage