Matt Aselton makes a Gigantic Debut

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Matt Aselton on the set of Gigantic
Matt Aselton on the set of Gigantic
Epoch director Matt Aselton debuted his first feature, Gigantic, at the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this year.The film, which Aselton also co-wrote with college friend Adam Nagata, is the second produced out of Epoch (after Phil Morrison's Junebug). The absurdist, not so neat love story revolves around Brian Weathersby, a young mattress salesman (Paul Dano) trying to adopt a Chinese baby, who falls in love with the free spirited Harriet Lolly (Zooey Deschanel), the daughter of one of his customers Al, played by John Goodman. Other featured talents include Ed Asner, Jane Alexander and one very disturbed Zach Galifianakis. The film launched in various cities earlier this month and premiered Friday in Los Angeles at the Nuart theater. Aselton spoke to Creativity about lessons learned from his big screen foray, his storytelling M.O. and what it's like to stalk John Goodman.

Tell me the history of the film. Has making a movie always been a goal for you?
It's something I always wanted to do. I wrote it with Adam Nagata, who I went to college with. We probably started writing in 2005 or so, and then in 2006 we finished and the first person we gave it to was Mindy [Goldberg, Epoch EP]. I think she was just finishing up with Junebug. She passed it on to Christine Vachon, who's sort of a pillar in the independent film community for 20 odd years. She was one of the founders of Killer Films, she did Boys Don't Cry and the Todd Haines movie, I'm Not There. She and Mindy had a relationship and when she got involved that was it. In 2006 the ball started rolling. There was casting and financing and all that stuff which was really, really hard.

What was the learning process like?
It's not the most difficult thing in the world, but it's a certainly a different education. It's mostly talent-based, trying to figure out what the metric is—when John Goodman can shoot, and we need him to overlap for this many days with Ed Asner, Paul Dano and Zooey Deschanel, who's on tour doing her album. Frankly, from commercials you never have to a) worry about that necessarily or b) nobody brings it up to you. Producers make it happen. In this situation you kind of have to be your own advocate and meet with the actors, convince them. There's no way that you can learn it except from doing it. There's nothing I could have done before that was going to prepare me for having to fly to New York to meet with John Goodman to convince him not to do the studio movie but to do my movie. (Laughs)

Dano and Deschanel in Gigantic
Dano and Deschanel in Gigantic
How did you get that cast? It's an amazingly accomplished group.
A fair amount of luck, to be honest. Mindy and Christine have a certain amount of credibility, but they're also very persuasive people. They were able to get me the meetings. Paul Dano got interested and he had not yet done There Will Be Blood, so when he got involved it made it a lot easier. So Paul liked the script a lot, we met in New York and once we met that was great and we agreed in principal. We weren't financed at that point, we were still scrounging for money. Paul is an executive producer on the movie for that reason because at the very beginning he said, "Whatever you need, I'll support the film and let's try and get people." After that Zooey Deschanel read the script and liked it. There were other people who read the script along the way that never made sense to me, but Zooey and Paul made sense. Once I had them, I just kept calling John Goodman. He was in Berlin doing a big studio movie so we'd have different time zone conversations. It was like Lost In Translation, except I was Bill Murray's wife. After some considerable badgering, John got involved. We had written this role for John. I think not giving up on cast is the most important thing I learned through this whole process. If you think these are the people you want, don't give up. Getting the right cast was to me, really crucial.

Tell me about the story itself. Is this a story you really wanted to tell?
At its bones, in a way it's a story about privileged kids who can't find something to commit to. I'm not sure that that's necessarily the most compelling thing in the world—J.D. Salinger told that story, a lot of people have. I think it's trying to put a modern voice to modern dysfunction, which again, has been done before, but it's a strange movie, an odd film. There's a homeless stalker in it played by Zach Galifianakis and a kid who wants to adopt a Chinese baby. It has its own original storytelling ideas, but we wanted to tell that in a new way, provide a voice to I guess, in a way, a different generation of fathers. Ed Asner plays the oldest father, John Goodman plays a baby boomer father and Paul Dano becomes I guess a modern view of a father—a 28-year old single guy who is trying to adopt a baby. I can't say I know exactly why we wanted to do it. It's kind of one of those stories that just unfolded. That's how I worked with Adam—we came up with the central components of it, built our archetypes and characters and worked backwards.

What about the absurdist qualities of the film? You've talked about your Lynchian influences. Why doesn't that element appear in the trailer?
That's a question I get a lot. People ask what about this movie will you not learn from the trailer? Pretty much the whole thing. When you sell your movie, they make the trailer and you have very little say in it, which isn't to say I don't like it, but I find it a little misguided. It's not a traditional narrative—things are left open, we don't know exactly what happens to these people. I think we wanted to make it a bit more abstract and a little harder to swallow than look at this down and out guy when he meets this pretty girl. Also, that's the kind of storytelling I like—that I think you find more in books. We wanted to challenge the narrative a little bit. I've had people come to me after the Toronto Film Festival saying, "Thank you for not making this movie so on the nose, and thank you for not hammering us with exposition." That's nice to hear because that's what we were trying to do, but then literally I had a woman come to me like, "What the fuck do you think you're doing?!" She was pissed.

What about directing the film? How did it differ from your commercials experiences?
For me the difference with the film was a) it was longer, but more importantly, the actors. In commercials you end up working with actors who have been around, but not in the ways that John Goodman, Ed Asner have. You get a chance to watch them and develop characters with them as opposed to the three-day shoot. It's really about creating characters with actors who have a great facility with that stuff. That's the biggest difference. The other great thing—after the first shot, you feel like you've got it, it's done, but you still have that sense where you need to turn around and go talk to your partners at the agency and say, "What do we think?" But there's no one over your shoulder and it's like "Oh!" It's frightening and exhilarating at the same time.

What was your biggest challenge throughout?
Time is the hardest thing. I do realize on commercials even though you're running and going as fast as you can, on the film you have pages to cover in a day as opposed to 30 seconds of dialogue. Twenty-four days in N.Y. and one day in L.A. for a film of this size, was just really, really hard. I felt like if we got 20 minutes behind, it was going to fuck up things three weeks down the road.

If you were to make this film again, given the same constraints, would you anything differently?
It's so hard to say because I look back at it now and it is the thing that it evolved into. I don't think so. Very early on there were discussions about the most "controversial" part of this which is the homeless man [Galifianakis] in the script. People were like, "This is a very disconcerting part of this movie, it doesn't make it easy." I think that would be the thing most up for discussion. I had this discussion the other day with Mindy. In reflection, would you still do it? I definitely would. I think it's the thing that makes the movie unique and weird. For some people it makes it polarizing and maddening, but at the end of the day I feel like it's the right decision to make it a little harder to swallow than "Boy meets Girl. Boy gets Chinese baby."

Are you working on any other films?
I just wrote another one with Adam Nagata. Mindy has it. We're meeting with managers, agents, producers, talking about cast, getting ready for the next three years of abuse. It's not quite as strange as this movie. It's untitled as yet. But it's about a zoo. That's all I have right now.

Is it animated?
It's not. Not yet, anyway.

What about Epoch's role throughout this?
They were vital. They're sort of like family and extraordinarily supportive of the whole process. We all learned a bunch together and I feel like there's nobody I would rather do this with. I feel like honestly, I'd be sort of afraid to go outside of Epoch at this point because of how much I trust Mindy, Jeff [Preiss] and Jerry [Solomon]. Not that it's unnavigable, but it's really nice to have these three very smart people behind you and know that they have your best interests in mind whereas a lot of places, you could take this film and they'll take your zoo and make it an animated zoo.

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