A Woman, a Part
A Woman, a Part mixes passion and ambivalence to create a work whose ambiguities seem earned, and lived in
One of the more unusual films to play the Sundance Film Festival this year was writer/director Jeff Baena's "The Little Hours," a sex comedy set within a 14th century convent, one that eschews period dialogue for more modern performances. Alison Brie, Aubrey Plaza and Kate Micucci play three nuns who experience an intense sexual awakening when a clumsy piece of meat (Dave Franco) stumbles into their lives. Molly Shannon stars as the convent leader Mother Superior, who has her own repressions. Also appearing the film are the likes of Nick Offerman, Fred Armisen, Jemima Kirke, John C. Reilly, Paul Reiser, Lauren Weedman, Adam Pally and Jon Gabrus. "Grandma" director Paul Weitz even makes an appearance as the local farmer that all of the nuns love to humiliate. [To read Brian Tallerico's review of the film, click here.]
RogerEbert.com sat down with Brie, Franco, Shannon and Micucci to talk about their hilarious movie, its unique take on the sex comedy formula, how making "The Little Hours" was different than other comedies they've worked on and much more.
What was the part of the project that made you say, “Yes, I’m doing this”?
MOLLY SHANNON: I have to say [it was] when [writer/director] Jeff Baena said it was going to take place in the 14th century. I thought it was a great place for women too, what a great idea for all these strong female actresses, comediennes, and it reminded me of movies from the 1930s with Rosalind Russell, which had great parts for many women. And I think a convent is a wonderful atmosphere for that. And then finding out that Dave [Franco] was going to be in it; Jeff directing it. I think Jeff has a rare ability of being really funny and then also amazing visually, which you don’t always see in comedy movies. And a true music fan.
DAVE FRANCO: The basic concept that got me excited, just the idea that in the 14th century, these young women became nuns not because they had strong religious beliefs but that’s just what you did. And so there were all these women in these convents who had all of these desires to have sex and to party but they had to suppress everything. And so Jeff then wanted our story to be about these feelings that they had below the surface, coming to the surface and things going haywire.
KATE MICUCCI: For me, I’ve always wanted to be a nun.
KM: I mean, I think about what it’s like to be a nun. And I’ve always been fascinated with nuns and I have a nun collection, I’ve been collecting nuns for 20 years. And I have a song that I wrote, “I Wanna Be a Nun,” when I was 25. And then so when they called me, and my manager said, “Hey, they want you to be on this nun movie,” I literally said, “Nun as in n-u-n?” And he said “Yeah,” and I was like, “You know I have a nun collection, right? And he said, “How would I know that?” And so anyway, for me, selfishly, I was just so excited to play a nun.
Kate, what is your interest in nuns?
KM: I don’t know, I’m always like really fascinated by Catholicism, and I think that’s another thing in the movie. We got to kind of experience that a little bit.
MS: I was gonna say the same thing—I used to play nun when I was little, because I was raised Catholic. And so we were always playing nun, and I would use my Barbie dolls. Sometimes I would make them nuns and then I would make Stretch Armstrong a big, sexy priest. And they’d have to pray for forgiveness from Stretch Armstrong. He’s so muscular, like “Faaather, forgiiive me!”
ALISON BRIE: I had no personal history with nuns or Catholicism. To piggyback on what Dave said, the whole idea—it seemed like a wild setting for a comedy, for a comedy especially where people are speaking in a contemporary way, and all of the ideas seem very contemporary but we’re in the 14th century seemed very ambitious and unique to me, I think. I just got excited by it. It was unlike anything that I had ever heard, and I think every other thing that people are pitching me is, “Boy meets girl, they fall in love, but maybe they don’t, what’s gonna happen!”
But they do.
AB: They always do! Classic rom-com is all I ever get pitched, so when Jeff sat down and was like, “Oh no, it’s nuns, and maybe they’re having sex and maybe they’re drinking.” And also hearing the history of it, and reading some of The Decameron, and realizing that this kind of humor did exist 600 years ago, and even then people were like, “Don’t take all of this so seriously.”
Alison, I have to ask—since Baena's previous ensemble comedy "Joshy" has been out for a year now, were you excited to know you were going to die in the opening sequence as the girlfriend character?
AB: Oh my God, yes! I loved being a part of "Joshy." We were shooting our sixth season of “Community,” and Baena came to the set like on my lunch break and sat in my room and quickly told me the movie and everyone who was involved, and obviously that was a great cast. He told me the cast and I was like, “Oh my God, I’d love to be in this movie.” And he was like, “So, basically you’re going to die right at the beginning and I think it will be shocking.” His feeling was that I make sense in that cast, and it would be surprising to people that I would die right away.
DF: [To me] Do you remember what you felt when you first saw that?
Yeah, there was a big gasp in the room. I really appreciated that twist. What about you, Dave, were you freaked out seeing that twist?
DF: She had told me about it. That being said, the scene is still very visceral, but it’s real. And a little too, too much.
You get to see interesting things happen to your significant other in this business.
AB: Yeah, he gets to watch me dead and I get to watch him have sex with other women! It’s wild!
To add to what we’re talking about regarding women in this film, there’s a nice reversal of the sex comedy concept with this story. Especially in allowing women to be funny and nude but having full agency. I was wondering if you had specific interest in the project because of that.
AB: I love the nudity in this movie, even though I myself do not get nude in this movie. You know, we did discuss it, but it sort of didn’t make sense for me to be taking off my full habit in the garden. But I love the nudity in this movie, you talk about wearing the nun habit. It's very oppressive, as it’s meant to be. You’re really robbed of a sexual identity or a femininity or feminine identity or anything like that. And the clothes themselves are very heavy, and you could only see so much of your body. I felt very depressed wearing that, and you could see why the women in this movie want to let out all of these repressed feelings underneath those things. So I feel it’s very satisfying, even watching the movie, and seeing everybody so covered up all of the time to finally see a full body in not an exploitive way, but a sort of organic way. It’s like exciting.
KM: I think even in the movie when you take your habit off, and I have the moment later where even just my hair is out, it seems scandalous.
MS: I am also really attracted to the idea ... homosexuality has been around for ages, and we have no study of it because it was kept secret for so long. And of course, maybe it ran in families but nobody knows. And I feel a lot of people are out of touch with their own sexuality, and I love anything that explores the secrets of sex, desire.
DF: It’s hard for me to talk about the female nudity without sounding crude or douchey.
You got to play the sap this time, you’re the toy.
AB: He’s the sex object, as they objectify the one man.
DF: Absolutely, and I respect Jeff for encouraging me and allowing me to play this character sympathetically, and not like this lascivious guy who’s just sleeping with everyone and having a great time. And it’s not fully explored, but he’s somewhat of a sex addict, and he can’t help himself. He is! I know that I shouldn’t be doing these things because in every situation I know it’s going to be getting me in trouble, but I can’t help myself. But again, it was nice to play the part in a way that doesn’t feel like that typical lethario guy.
AB: And it’s empowering that it’s the women who are instigating the sex.
In terms of working on this movie, was the set atmosphere of “The Little Hours” that much different than other comedy sets you’ve been on before?
AB: Yes, I think it was very different [laughs]. We’ve talked about the way the movie looks so different from other comedies, because it’s so beautiful, and I think that was very different being in Italy. It wasn’t just like, “We’re all fucking around on set!” I think we were just taking in the experience much more. It more felt to me like making an experimental 70s film than it felt like being on the set of a raunchy comedy. Especially because the dialogue was very collaborative, we talk about actors not improving in the usual sense, it was more like we were collaborating with Jeff on dialogue as we were shooting it, and some of the shots are very long and a lot of it is very quiet. So, I felt like we were all living so much more in the emotional identity of the characters, rather than just like, "Just riffin’! Riffin’ on a comedy set, hangin' with your buds!"
"Who’s got the best joke?"
AB: Exactly. It was not that. And it was also, I think we were losing our minds a little, just in the hills of Tuscany, and we were in one room together, all of the time.
It sounds isolated.
KM: Isolated, together! [Laughs]
AB: Isolated but with small space heaters and like one guitar and we had songs.
KM: Oh my God, your songs were so good! I forgot about the singing!
Did you have powwows?
KM: Aubrey and I were bought a 50 dollar guitar and it was really cool. John C. Reilly loves to play, and we got really loopy. But it was fun to just like, we definitely had fun moments. And we moved so fast in shooting that there wasn’t a lot of like, it still felt like, “OK, we have a mission.” We never got too crazy or anything.
DF: And I just want to say that I think most people would describe this movie as a crazy, medieval sex comedy. But it’s not a full-on comedy. The humor comes from the characters and the situations, as opposed to all of us just telling jokes one after the other. And that’s the kind of comedy that I respond to anyway, because I’m not the most quick-witted person in the world, and where I succeed is when you put me in a bizarre scenario, I’ll play it just as straight and as real as possible. And I think that this movie really is geared to that.
AB: And there’s a lot more to this movie than comedy. There’s a lot of heart, and darkness. Some thrilling moments, some truly bizarre parts.
KM: You truly feel for the characters. There is a lot of emotion. Like with your character, I always feel like your character, when your dad comes to visit, that’s a really sad moment.
MS: And that stuff really happened, where people could not afford the dowry and they had to put their daughters in convents, it’s fascinating.
And Baena was saying in yesterday’s Q&A that he found the nuns and their life situations to be relatable. I was wondering if you could speak to how you might have related to them.
AB: I think it was easy to relate to the characters and it definitely helped that we were speaking … colloquially? What do we call it?! Contemporarily? I guess it’s just relatable to think you’re having feelings that you’re longing to express and you’re not feeling like you’re able to express them, or that you don’t have the tools. It made me think of being a teenage girl, exploring sexuality because even though we’re adult women. One of my favorite scenes is when the girls have the sleepover and are getting drunk together, they’re singing songs and it’s like very juvenile in a way. When Jemima [Kirke] is talking about sex it’s just a foreign idea to them. So, I could relate it to me being 15 years old and talking to my friends about sex and having no idea what it was. But wanting to act like I knew, or stuff like that. Anyone who has had desires that they couldn’t realize.
KM: I could relate to it being 25 years old and still not knowing it. I was really slow. [Laughs]
MS: I think my character was more about keeping her thing so secret. I really connected to them in a deep way, because I was raised Catholic. So when you’re raised Catholic, it’s the attitude that like, it’s very bad and it’s dirty. And there’s something wrong with it, and you’re a sinner. I mean, I was raised hardcore in the Catholic church, so I remember my sister and I would like, I feel bad saying this, but the first time she did that, she said, “It feels GOOD! What’s wrong with it?”
AB: "They’ve been lying to us!"
MS: So, I related to that, finding yourself sexually in a repressed atmosphere, and how wonderful that is. It’s so celebratory for these women and men, this crazy wild celebration of openness and coming out, and being free and no more secrets. I deeply related to the material.
Did any of you see the other nun movie playing at Sundance this year, “Novitiate”? I saw that much more serious film about convents and repression right after “The Little Hours.” It made for quite a double feature.
MS: No, but I’m so into nuns that I had developed a show for HBO, about a nun who leaves the convent to go into the world of dating. It didn’t get picked up, but I had developed it with Tim Long, a “Simpsons” writer. I love that idea of exes, ex-nuns.
KM: And also if you come from a Catholic family, that’s why that happened. But I had an ex-nun once tell me that she would pray so hard it would feel like she was having sex with God. And I was like, “Whoa!” I remember she told me this and I was like, 20. And I still hadn’t had sex, so I said, “OK, so ... if I pray enough?”
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