Welcome to World Builders, our ongoing series of conversations with the industry’s most productive and thoughtful behind-the-scenes craftspeople. In this entry, we chat with Alison Brie about Spin Me Round, her latest collaboration with Jeff Baena.
It’s late at night. You’re kicked back on the couch in your friend’s apartment. Together, you’re formulating an undoubtedly great film. If only you could find the time, energy, and financing to make it happen. In the morning, the two of you walk away with nothing to show for your imagination. The difference between you and Alison Brie is that she takes those ramblings to the next stage – production. Also, she initially wanders into that room with creation as her purpose.
Spin Me Round is Brie’s second screenwriting collaboration with director Jeff Baena. Their first film, Horse Girl, was crafted and outlined in the room, but a script was never officially constructed. They took their ideas before the camera and just made their damn movie. With Spin Me Round, the pandemic provided a little extra time, allowing them to expand their outline into a traditional screenplay. Once on set, however, the film came together similarly to their last one – fast, loose, but fashioned with determination.
Alison Brie plays Amber, the manager of an Italian casual dining restaurant that’s totally not Olive Garden. After nine years of running the place, her boss Paul (Lil Rel Howery), selects her for the company’s immersion program. Overseas for the first time in her life, Amber expects romance and adventure. When she meets the company’s owner Nick (Alessandro Nivola), she thinks she’s achieved a fantasy. Then, things get weird. Real weird.
Spin Me Round trades in cringe comedy, pushing its tone along a road where there’s a cliff on both sides. At various points, you expect the narrative to tumble into oblivion, the road is getting thinner and thinner the closer we reach the climax, but Brie and Baena never let it fall. When Amber reaches her destination, she’s changed. As wild as it was for her to get there, the experience never felt far from the truth.
“This was based on an idea Jeff had,” says Brie. “He read an article about an exemplary manager’s program that was run through a, shall be unnamed, Italian American restaurant chain. So, he already had the broad strokes based on that, in which managers were sent on this program that was meant to be a full immersion into food and culture in Italy, but actually, they stayed in dormitories and just learned how to make a bolognese. He thought that was really funny, and he brought that idea to me with about a ten-page outline.”
Alison Brie and Jeff Baena put no stress on the creative process. The film will come together for them eventually. Being their own masters frees them from worry and anxiety. The plot and characters will come together sooner or later, and this confidence propels them through the storytelling machine.
“From there,” continues Brie, “it’s a lot of sitting around and talking. I love working with Jeff, and the way that we write together; the style is very casual because we’re writing on our own time. It’s not like we’ve been commissioned to make a movie for somebody. It feels like we’re never trying to force ideas. If there’s a day where nothing’s really coming up, then we’re kind of like, let’s go for a walk, or let’s meet up again tomorrow.”
Everything from their chatter goes in the stew. Some elements congeal, others dissolve. The ideas come quickly and without preciousness. Whatever is going on in their lives is fair game.
“A lot of it becomes talking about things that we think are funny,” she says. “Different characters, maybe. I feel like as I’m immersed in writing something, and Jeff too, we both end up dreaming about the project, and then he’ll be like, ‘Oh, I had this idea last night while I was sleeping.’ And then a lot of that also brings up stories from our lives. It’s a lot of sharing about situations that we’ve been in, or that our friends have been in, and then that gets infused. It all goes into the simmering pot.”
How do those thoughts come together in the screenplay? What does that actually look like? What tools are they using to get the job done?
“It’s usually Jeff on one couch,” says Brie, “and me on another couch. We both got our Final Drafts open. There’s a mechanism within it where you can screen-share and both type on the thing. That’s how we do it, pretty much. When we wrote Horse Girl together, we only ever wrote a thirty-five-page outline, and the dialogue was all improvised. It was the same on the other two films that I’ve done with Jeff, Joshy and The Little Hours. We’re always sitting on our computers when we would meet up. Casual, chilling, drinking tea, telling some stories, typing down some ideas, trying to crack a situation.”
With Spin Me Round, Brie and Baena were forced to slow down. Minus the pandemic, they probably would have created the movie like they did their other projects. Now, they had an opportunity to practice the more traditional route.
“But with this one,” Brie continues, “because of COVID and the lockdown, we just had so much time on our hands that we decided to write the full script, write all the dialogue. A lot of our process ended up being on Zoom, but it’s ultimately not that different because we’re still on Final Draft doing the same screen-sharing thing.”
Beyond pandemic necessities, there was no other reason to go full-script with Spin Me Round. The universe simply shoved them in this direction. Subconsciously, though, was there anything about this particular movie that might have required this approach?
“No,” says Brie, “especially not compared to Horse Girl. I think if I were looking at those two movies now, you would think it would’ve been more advantageous to have written the script for Horse Girl because there are a lot of twists and turns going on, versus this. But it ended up being really advantageous because the cast is so big in this movie. A lot of the scenes that we shot have eleven people in them that we’re trying to do coverage on. We shot Spin Me Round in twenty-two days. You’re limited; we shot it in Italy. So, like, you really had eight hours a day of actual shooting time.”
Keeping that in mind, there’s no denying the power of a screenplay. The script allowed the cast and crew to accomplish their tasks at a pace that improvisation couldn’t possibly achieve. For that, Brie is thankful.
“It’s a time crunch,” she says. “It’s like a real sprint to the finish line. It was really helpful that we had the script written, and it wasn’t such an experimental process on the ground. From there, because we have such a talented cast, you find the areas in coverage to let people rip and put their own spin on it. Or, if it’s a two-person scene, it’s just me and Molly Shannon; you let her have a little fun with stuff, and those end up becoming some of my favorite moments in the movie.”
Alison Brie is unsure whether Jeff Baena and her will work full-script again. Clearly, having the screenplay on set is a privilege, but she won’t deny the power behind the outlines for her previous films. Looking at the finished products of those movies, we can’t argue with her either. What Brie and Baena have is working, and they’re not stopping anytime soon.
Spin Me Round is now playing in select theaters and on AMC+.