Horse Girl, a collaboration between Alison Brie and Jeff Baena, premiered at Sundance, is currently playing on Netflix, and is one of the most imaginative and daring films to premiere this year. It all sprang from a long hike—and from some of her most painful memories and deepest fears. Brie sat down with Paste to tell the whole story.
Paste Magazine: Congratulations on Horse Girl, because this is a doozy.
Alison Brie: I like it being described like that!
Paste: This is what Sundance is all about, movies that take chances. And succeed.
Brie: Thank you for saying that. This is not a movie that came out of nowhere, obviously—I put many hours in writing it, putting it together—but three days into shooting I was talking to a friend like, I don’t know. I just don’t know. She said, “It’s a big swing, but you gotta do it!” I’d rather take a big swing and do something that is really exciting to me, that I can really sink my teeth into, and be so engaged, even if it’s not for everyone. And this movie certainly is not for everyone. I just feel so fulfilled by this whole process.
Paste: I love that this is becoming the Jeff [Baena, director] and Alison show.
Paste: Talk a little bit about your history with Jeff, which readers might not know, and then how you would characterize the partnership that’s springing up, what you mean to each other artistically.
Brie: There are a lot of different stories about when we met. He seems to have two other memories of other times we possibly met that I don’t remember it all. So in my mind, we met when Jeff asked me to do a small role in his film Joshie.
Paste: Another Sundance film.
Brie: Yep. It was a small role, but the pitch sounded interesting, and everybody that was involved with it was so great, and I thought, “Oh, why not go do one day?” I’d never really done an improvised movie before, so that was really fun. Then, the next summer he came to me, and separately to my husband Dave [Franco], and had meetings with us about his film, The Little Hours. That pitch was just unlike anything I’d ever heard before. It’s a modern comedy about 14th century Italian nuns, but we’re going to talk currently, colloquially. And it’s raunchy and crazy, but we’re nuts and we’re going to shoot it in Italy.
Paste: Because when I think about Aubrey [Plaza] and you, I think 14th century nuns.
Brie: Typecast, of course. I feel like Molly Shannon was already signed on, Aubrey was going to do it, and having seen Joshie I already was a fan of Baena. The idea sounded so different. I think a lot of artists are always searching for that thing that is different, unlike anything we’ve seen before. It was just so exciting. I couldn’t shake that. And it seemed scary to fully improvise the whole movie. I had no idea about how to really do that. Once I convinced Dave to do it, the idea of shooting a movie in Italy with my husband for a month sounded kind of great, too.
Brie: Shooting The Little Hours was super strange. I had no idea, a lot of the time, what the movie was going to turn out to be like. Within those first few takes, a lot of magic can already happen with everybody’s energy there. And there is definitely this heightened sense of nervousness and being alive in the moment of really having to listen to your fellow actors to see what they’re going to say and do. That was a really exciting part of making it in a really different way. And then seeing that movie, it was everything I had imagined it to be, but better. I was sort of shocked at how well he had done that. So when it came time to talk to someone about this idea that I had been thinking about, I thought Jeff would be a great candidate. He does things that are creatively fulfilling to him. He’s not ever trying to pander to a wide audience, and he’s not afraid to take risks and do something different. This thing I was thinking about was a little bit different, and it also had some really personal elements to me.
By this time, Jeff and I were very close friends. We had shot those two movies together, and Dave and I double date with Aubrey and him sometimes. We actually live really close to them. Jeff and I go hiking a lot in our neighborhood. We’d talk about every type of thing, and he’d bring up certain types of characters that I should play. In this case, he was talking to me about how I should play a horse girl. I get that a lot. People often think that I grew up riding horses, but actually we lived in a duplex in Highland park and didn’t do that.
Paste: The Annie character [in Community] seems like it could be the source of some of that. She seems like a horse girl.
Brie: You’re absolutely right. But even prior to Annie, I had encountered that knee-jerk reaction to me. Anyway, he had said that, and then a week after that we were on a long hike. I said, “Let me pitch you a little something.” I had been thinking about this story about a girl, she has a family history of mental illness, so maybe some strange things start happening to her. There may be alien components. And because of her family history, she doesn’t trust her own mind. She doesn’t have the wherewithal to know what’s real or not real, or to even know if she can know. He responded to it immediately. He was so excited. The rest of the hike we just ended up talking about it. I said, “We should do this and then we’ll do your horse girl idea next.” And he said, “I think they’re the same idea.” That’s when everything came together. It really locked in who this character was.
Paste: How would you define a “horse girl”?
Brie: I think we all know a horse girl and, I think that one of the quintessential things about her that we wanted to put into Sarah, this character, is that they tend to march to their own drummer. A lot of the time they would be on the outside of social society within middle school and high school because they have this other cool thing going on. So they didn’t seem to really care about being popular in high school, but in a way they were a little mysterious. They weren’t quite cool, but they weren’t really nerdy. They were confident. They just had their own thing going on.
So Sarah is that horse girl who, years later, after she’s had some traumatic events in her life, she’s now almost even isolated from her horse girl identity. She’s not totally welcomed there either. On the one hand, she’s very content. She’s made a world for herself, watching supernatural crime shows and working in a craft store. She loves doing arts and crafts by herself. She has a Zoomba class she goes to regularly. She’s doing okay in theory, but when some things that she can’t quite explain start to happen, it’s very difficult for her to discern dreams from reality because of this isolated world that she’s created for herself. She doesn’t have the tools to really handle it. She doesn’t really have people to talk to about it.
Paste: Tell me about writing a character like that. It seems like that’s a difficult character to say, “Okay, what experience of mine am I going to draw on to make this character real?”
Brie: The personal side of this for me is I have a family history of mental illness. My grandmother lived with paranoid schizophrenia. My mother grew up with this schizophrenic mother, and I grew up hearing the stories about my schizophrenic grandmother. I didn’t know her personally. I saw her before she died. She was a homeless woman. She’d been institutionalized. When all of those hospitals lost funding—we say it in the movie and it’s straight out of my mother’s narrative to me—my family didn’t have the resources to give her care. She was very resistant in her state of mental illness and she lived on the street, and they kept tabs on her.
I’m in my later thirties, but it’s my personal fear of how having mental illness in my bloodline might manifest one day. That was the jumping off point for this—how terrifying that can be to not be able to trust yourself. That was the jumping off point for this character, and it became actually very easy to write for her, and then very easy to play her once we had spent all this time writing her. I had been in her head already for six months.
Michael Dunaway is an award-winning filmmaker, writer, photographer and general troublemaker. He is Paste’s Editor at Large and the host of the Paste podcast The Work. You can follow him on Patreon.