‘The Little Hours’ Cast and Director Talk About Making This Satirical Comedy

The Little Hours poster

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 Jeff Baena

“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 Dave and Aubrey

“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.

The Little Hours Nuns

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.

The Little Hours Molly Shannon poster

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

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Don’t Think Twice

Dont Think Twice poster

Don’t Think Twice” starts off with a black and white montage of improvisation groups at work onstage. The important thing to notice is how the actors work together as a group and accept the ideas given to them. It’s never about trying to be funnier than the other person because that just throws the whole dynamic off. You simply work together and let the scene you have created flow from one place to the next, and if you are lucky you will reach comedy nirvana for yourself and the audience. But there’s always that one rule you most follow the most during improv: don’t think. Thinking just screws you up.

This movie completely understands the improv dynamic, and it’s no surprise it was written and directed by an actor, writer and a comedian, Mike Birbiglia, who has been in groups like those before. Birbiglia plays Miles, the senior member of an improv group named The Commune which has long since gained a strong following in the New York area. All the group members care for each other very much like family and live in the same building together. As they continue to perform and develop their talents, they keep pursuing what they see as the comedy holy grail, a comedy variety show called “Weekend Live.” Clearly, this show is a not so subtle stand in for “Saturday Night Live” as it promises fame and fortune for all those lucky enough to be cast on it.

Then one day two of The Commune members, Jack (Keegan-Michael Key) and Samantha (Gillian Jacobs), get called to audition for “Weekend Live,” and we know this is going to change everything for everybody no matter what happens. Jack ends up getting cast and his friends are happy for him, but once they see him on the show their excitement fades as they begin to wonder why they aren’t as successful as him. Another Commune member, Allison (Kate Micucci) wears a t-shirt that says “Friends Forever” on it, but you quickly get the feeling that this won’t be the case as the movie goes on.

All the characters in “Don’t Think Twice” are wonderfully realized by Birbiglia and the actors he has cast. There are no good or bad guys here, just a group of friends trying to support each other the best they can. It’s great that they have this support group as show business is always fiercely competitive, and what keeps them going is their love of acting and especially improv. Still, a number of roadblocks are put up in their general direction as the theatre they perform in gets sold, and they move into a more expensive venue they are unable to fill up. Also, their biggest fans are more eager to see Jack back in The Commune than to watch a Commune show without him.

I love everyone here is genuine in following their passion, and you see the price they pay for pursuing such elusive dreams. They work day jobs that are demeaning to say the least. Bill (Chris Gethard) in particular has a job at a local supermarket handing out food samples to customers who are typically quick to avoid him. He later remarks at how he had all the lead roles in his high school plays and now feels like his father looks at him as a loser. Like the others in the group he has no real interest in a desk job or any other 9 to 5 job, but the time is coming where he may have to question whether it is worth it to continue on the path he has chosen for himself.

It’s no surprise that everything “Don’t Think Twice” reaches a climax as feelings of bitterness and resentment come right up to the surface. Jack has gained a lot of fame in a short period of time, and he tries to help his friends out by passing their writing samples along to “Weekend Live’s” Lorne Michaels-like manager who instead urges him to write for himself. Miles feels he is owed a spot on “Weekend Live” and thinks he has been cheated out of what is rightfully his. Everyone else comes to see what they have sacrificed to be a part of The Commune, and now they wonder if it was worth the price. This makes the movie more intense as you know these people will eventually explode at one another, and you hope the damage isn’t too great that it can’t be repaired.

Now many other movies like this one would have ended on a note of bitterness to where enemies are made and friendships are forever destroyed, but Birbiglia doesn’t do that here. While failure is not an option for many starving artists, for others it is. Or perhaps they shouldn’t look at this as failure and instead as a chance to redirect their energies. This could have been an infinitely pessimistic movie, but Birbiglia manages to soften the blow in a way that feels honest and genuine. He shows us people who start to wonder if it is time to move on to something, but they never lose their love of improv. They all may not be able to make a living off of performing, but they don’t have to give up on it either.

My hat is off to the actors who have clearly been through the various ups and downs of an acting career and been involved with groups like these. Keegan Michael Key is terrific as the breakout cast member who struggles to exist in a high-pressure showbiz world that is not as welcoming as The Commune. Gillian Jacobs is also a standout as one who is so committed to her group that the thought of leaving it feels so wrong to her. Birbiglia is perfect as the improv teacher who occasionally sleeps with his students who eventually find him to be a 40-something weirdo, and the fact that he is actually 36 doesn’t seem to help matters. Kate Micucci, Tami Sagher and Chris Gethard also have their wonderful moments as the supporting players who are desperate to validate their worth in the eyes of others.

I apologize if I make “Don’t Think Twice” sound like a depressing picture because I certainly don’t mean to. It’s a movie as moving as it is funny, and some parts of it are very funny. It has a lot of hope in it even as it deals with the increasing odds against making it in show business and how New York real estate has gotten far too expensive for any artist of any kind to live there. It also shows how your love for your art and your friends is undying and always helps you through the toughest of times. It’s a heartfelt movie that is genuine in its emotions, and its lessons on improvisation are true and to the point.

Don’t think, just go and see “Don’t Think Twice.”

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Copyright Ben Kenber 2016.