From its trailer, I figured “The Little Hours” would be a spoof of all the religious movies we grew up watching. But actually, it is a straightforward comedy which instead looks to satirize a culture we assumed was wholly religious, but was actually a lot looser and fun than history books ever made it out to be.
Based on the first tale of the third day from “The Decameron,” it stars Dave Franco as Massetto, a young servant who flees from his master after he is found out to be having an affair with his wife. Massetto is taken under the wing of Father Tommasso (John C. Reilly) who agrees to hide him and pass him off to the residents as a deaf-mute to avoid detection. But among the residents are a trio of medieval nuns, Alessandra (Alison Brie), Fernanda (Aubrey Plaza) and Ginevra (Kate Micucci), who think nothing of berating a pleasant laborer, chafing at their given duties, and also spying on one another. When they become aware of Massetto, a wealth of sexual repression becomes awakened along with a dose of substance abuse and wicked revelry, and he wonders how long he can keep this act up before giving in to temptation.
“The Little Hours” was written and directed by Jeff Baena whose previous credits were “Life after Beth” and “Joshy,” and he was joined at the movie’s Los Angeles press day by actors Dave Franco, Aubrey Plaza, Alison Brie and Molly Shannon. Baena explained how, while he was studying filmmaking at NYU, he also earned enough credits to get a minor in Medieval and Renaissance Studies. This is where he learned about “The Decameron,” a collection of short stories written by Giovanni Boccaccio in the 14th century. The stories dealt with life lessons and love, and I asked Baena why he chose to make a movie out of one particular story from it.
Jeff Baena: I wasn’t expecting something as funny and bawdy coming from a source material that is almost 700 years old. So, when I read it, it just read to me as something so human and just highlighted how similar we are to these people even though obviously the context is completely different. I was just drawn to how amazingly easy it is to connect to this thing and find our commonalities and also highlighting differences and showing how much we’ve changed despite that. All that stuff was really interesting to me.
I was also interested in learning from Baena about how he conceived this movie. Like I said, I thought this would be a religious spoof after watching the trailer, but “The Little Hours” proves to be much more than that. I was curious to see how this story evolved for him as he went about turning it into a movie.
Jeff Baena: I just wanted to achieve something similar to what “The Decameron” does itself which is funny. It’s a humanist book, so more than anything I just wanted to get the tone of that silliness but also the historicity which is a sort of strange balance, and then highlight all these actors who I love being in this world and then finding a way to make it adjustable for people to digest.
“The Little Hours” takes place in the year 1347 and was shot in Tuscany, Italy. As a result, it was tempting to believe the actors did a lot of research in preparation for filming. But in talking with Franco, he explained why this didn’t end up being your average period film.
Dave Franco: I kept asking Jeff what kind of research I could do and what research I should be doing, and he told me not to overthink it. He said it is not about knowing about the time period or how they talked or what activities they were doing there anything like that. It was more about the human connection. Even though the movie is set in the 14th century, it’s just about the relationships and we want you to talk in your own natural cadence. We don’t want you having to talk flowerily language. So yeah, it was just about connecting to one another.
Both Alison Brie and Aubrey Plaza play nuns who are not at the convent for religious reasons as much as they are for some form of persecution. Many have asked the actresses what it was like wearing the nun costumes, and they replied they were heavy and itchy. But being an actor myself, I was more interested in how these costumes influenced their performances and if it changed the way they thought about their characters. Actors spend a lot of time preparing a role, and the costume is like the finishing touch or the missing puzzle piece which completes everything.
Aubrey Plaza: Yeah. Nun habits can feel really depressing. They are like really weighing you down literally, and only having just your face exposed is really hard. So, I think psychologically it helped get us all into character because we were totally de-sexualized, we couldn’t use our bodies, and we just felt after 10 hours of that we were all kind of like, “Can we get this fucking thing off?” Because it’s a drag.
Alison Brie: I feel like it made the character. The costume, the habit, is very oppressive and I found myself to be very depressed while wearing it, and my character’s in that same mental state a lot of the movie. So, it definitely helped and it did sort of change the way I went about performing in the movie because I’m a very physical person, and I think that that is one of my biggest tools that I use often. It’s like the tool I always reach for first in the bag. So, to have that kind of physicality taken away from you and also any sexuality robbed from you and to have just this small part of your face exposed, it was an interesting challenge in minimalism and in conveying ideas with as little movement as possible sometimes.
Then there was Molly Shannon who plays Sister Marea, easily the nicest and kindest character to be found in “The Little Hours.” When it comes to Shannon, we all know her best from “Saturday Night Live,” where she created Mary Katherine Gallagher, the awkward and unpopular Catholic schoolgirl prone to severe mood swings. Last year, I got to attend a special screening of “Superstar” which starred Shannon as MKG, and she spoke of how she went to Catholic school as a child and the experiences she had which to came to inform the creation of that character. I asked Shannon if MKG or her Catholic school experiences came to inform her performance as Sister Marea in “The Little Hours.”
Molly Shannon: That’s interesting. No, I wouldn’t say so much Mary Katherine Gallagher, but we did have a nun when I was in grade school named Sister Rosemary and she seemed really unhappy to me. She was fascinating because she seemed kind of miserable. She was young and she had a beautiful face. She was my first-grade teacher and she would take the hall pass and go, “Do you want to smell it?” Meaning like she wanted to hit you with it. I used to go pray at her convent after school to get extra credit, and I would just kind of study her and I was like wow, this is so weird. This young girl lives in this clean house. And then she left the convent and was seen on this golf course with a miniskirt like whooping it up with one of my schoolmates’ fathers and I was like, “Yay, she’s free! She got out!” I think about her in that little golf cart and I’m like, “Wow!” I could see she wanted to escape. She seemed unhappy. I think I always liked to study characters. I would study people. So, I think maybe I thought more of her.
While “The Little Hours” might seem crude on the surface, it is truly one of this year’s more original and subversively wicked comedies. It also shows how the 14th century was nowhere as stolid as we all have been led to believe, and it serves as a highly entertaining showcase for Baena and his super-talented cast. It opens in theaters on June 30, so be sure to check it out!
Stills, posters and trailers courtesy of Gunpowder & Sky
Jeff Baena photo courtesy of Getty Images