Jeff Baena says his fascination with medieval times (the historical period, not the dinner theater) inspired his latest film, The Little Hours. The story follows three young Tuscan nuns (Alison Brie, Kate Micucci, and Aubrey Plaza) as they cope with tedious life in the convent. When Father Tommasso (John C. Reilly) brings on a new hired hand (Dave Franco), a handsome young servant forced into hiding by his angry lord, the repressed nunnery “erupts in a whirlwind of pansexual horniness, substance abuse, and wicked revelry.” As if the cast weren’t stacked enough, comedy greats Molly Shannon, Fred Armisen, Adam Pally, and Nick Offerman build further on the film’s unusual premise and hilarity. I talked to Baena about career beginnings, shooting in Italy, and life in the convent.
How did you stumble upon the text that The Little Hours is based on?
I went to NYU film school and got a major in writing and directing. But I accidentally got a minor in Medieval Renaissance Studies because I took a bunch of classes that gave me enough to qualify. So there were a bunch of classes like “Arabian Nights” and one of the classes I took was called “Sexual Transgressions in the Middle Ages and Renaissance.” And in that class we read the Decameron and sort of studied that time period and people’s attitudes and mores about sex. I was assigned that book and was just fascinated by it.
What fascinates you most about the medieval period?
Mainly the distinction between how we perceive it to have been and how it really was. I think one of the bigger issues with modern-day people is that we don’t give enough credit to people from history as being real. We almost treat them as these rarified beings that didn’t exist the way that we do with emotions and urges and drives. We sort of just clump them all together as these unreal – almost like players in a movie, but we don’t give them enough credit for being people themselves. I think for me, the most interesting thing is just hearing exactly what it was like.
One of the things that we learned was that nuns weren’t there because they wanted to be, the majority were forced to be there through various circumstances. Either their father wanted to curry favor with the church, or they were divorcees or they were spinsters or their husbands died. Or this was the only way they could get an education. There were so many reasons why these women ended up being there, but the vast majority of them were trapped. It really runs counter to the narrative we tell ourselves about what the Middle Ages were like, especially in convents in monasteries where we assume they were these really dutiful and pious people, but really, it was more like a prison.
Did anything unexpected happen while shooting in Tuscany?
I guess one of the things that was super strange was that I scouted in September and so I looked at most of those locations – they were absolutely gorgeous and full of trees, but when I went back in February it was basically snowing. And we were supposed to start shooting at the end of March. I was really freaking out because the movie really needs to take place in spring because that’s almost like a theme throughout the movie. The idea that this would be a winter wonderland really ran counter to the themes I was working with. So my line producer Alessandro Bertolucci, who is from that region, just kept telling me that there’s a saying in Italy – Marzo e Pazzo – which means like “March is crazy.” It means one day it’s snowing, one day it’s raining, one day it’s 85 degrees. It’s like super schizophrenic weather. Luckily, we started shooting on March 28th and legitimately a day before we started shooting it just transferred over to spring. On March 26th when we went to do our tech scout on this really beautiful bridge, it looked like Nightmare Before Christmas – all the trees had no leaves, barren branches. It looked really sketchy and gothic, which would be cool for another movie, but not this one. But the day before we actually had a shoot there, we went and it was completely in bloom. It was really fortuitous.
Were there any interesting alternative scenes that got cut?
There were a couple minor scenes. There was a scene after John (C. Reilly) meets Dave Franco, after he does the confession and they get drunk together, there was a scene where John goes back to Dave’s room and tucks him in for the night, but it didn’t really forward the plot. There was one scene were Molly and Kate are cleaning up the altar after the service, and Kate asks Molly if she ever misses being with a man and Molly kind of deflects the question. Those were the only things I think I cut out – everything else we were able to use.
With so many funny actors, did they manage to stay in character? Or did they break at times?
People pretty much stayed in character. There were a couple where people broke. The scene when John is giving communion to all the nuns, he couldn’t keep it together because he said it looked like a bunch of baby birds coming at him and it just made him crack up and Aubrey (Plaza) kept cracking up because John was cracking up. Then, the scene from the end when Nick Offerman was outlining all the torture methods he was devising. Dave Franco, Jon Gabrus, and Adam Pally couldn’t keep it together, Nick was too funny.
Before you found success as a writer/director, did you have any interesting day jobs?
My first job after graduating was working with Robert Zemeckis. I got a job a week after graduating and moving to LA. So I got to work on What Lies Beneath and Castaway as a PA, which is basically like a gopher. He was really kind and generous and I got to be on set a lot and spend time with him as he was shooting and learn about different things. It was really cool seeing that. And then I worked with David O. Russell as an assistant editor and that’s how I got to know him and eventually became a co-writer with him. But I was lucky that after school I was able to find jobs in film and not have to work as a waiter or something like that.
Growing up in Miami, did you always know you wanted to someday write comedy?
I always knew I wanted to make movies since I was around eleven. I never thought of it as wanting to do straight-up comedy. Even now I don’t see things in terms of genre. I know when I was in film school some of my films were silly, but a lot of them were more dramatic. I don’t think I intentionally set out to do comedy stuff. I guess that’s a consequence of coming up working with David O. Russell and skewing toward those sensibilities. But I do like things that are kind of richer and not reductive and are not completely dependent on fulfilling any kind of genre.
What are you currently reading?
I got this book – I mean this is ridiculous – but I got this book that’s a translation of ancient Egyptian scrolls called Writings from Ancient Egypt. And I’m reading the River of Doubt by Candace Millard about Teddy Roosevelt which is pretty cool. And…that’s it for now.
Any ideas for your next project?
Yeah, but I don’t want to talk about it.