Right in the middle of our phone conversation, as Katie Aselton is describing how making the dark action flick Black Rock came from a desire to stretch her legs creatively and move her body and "hurt somebody," she pauses, waits a beat, and then declares: "I think we just had an earthquake. Not a bad one. Just a jiggle."
And then, just like that, she suggests we continue on with the interview, like the ground hadn't just rearranged below Hollywood.
"It literally just felt like a big truck drove by, but we're in a massive hotel, so it's not possible that the building could have shook from a truck," she says. "Continue, next question. I'm still alive. Everything is still on the wall. You're good to go."
The 34-year-old Aselton, an actress-writer-director, seems to take a lot of tectonic shifts in stride. She established herself through entirely anti-establishment means, co-founding the so-called mumblecore movement alongside her husband and creative partner, Mark Duplass, her co-star on FX's The League. Black Rock, which Duplass wrote, is her second directorial effort, a film that, in and of itself, is something of a groundbreaker: a survival thriller featuring three women leads that isn't genre torture porn, a damsels in distress trope, or stylized action from the overactive imagination of a comic book writer.
Black Rock, which made its debut at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year and hits theaters in limited release on Friday, features Aselton, Lake Bell and Kate Bosworth as three childhood friends reuniting in a house on the small island where they used to vacation together. Their reunion has its emotional difficulties — Aselton and Bell's characters are estranged, and neither realize Bosworth, their mutual friend, had invited them both in hopes of forcing a reconciliation — but old resentments quickly fall by the wayside. A night spent camping and drinking with three men (recent dishonorable discharges from Iraq as it turns out) begets an attempted rape, a self-defense killing, and a Battle Royale-style island faceoff, an actual war between the sexes.
The three women in Black Rock have no formal fight training, and much of the movie is dominated by tactical fleeing and flailing, desperate combat.
"I choreographed as little as absolutely possible, because I loved the idea that these girls weren't fighters and didn't have those skills and didn't throw a punch before, so I specifically told Lake please don't work out, don't get any type of fight training," Aselton explains. "I had never held a gun until we shot this movie. That was terrifying, to hold up a gun to someone. I had never been in a kerfuffle. So I wanted it to be messy and weird and kind of ugly, and we did that. And we have all the bumps and bruises and scrapes and scars to prove it."
Bell says she particularly enjoyed the experience both because neither she or Aselton are a major studio's first choice when it comes time to cast an ass-kicking woman, and, just as her director/co-star points out, the ass-kicking they did was particularly sloppy.
"That just becomes live or die, whether you're a woman or a man. I think there are definitely some girl power elements to it," she explains. "There are parts of levity and comedy, because these are real people who are messy and they don't have ninja skills. In real life, when something's scary is going on, there are moments that are awkward. It's not like boom-boom-boom. It's not like there's a score going on and everything is action packed. There are moments of hiatus. It's comedy. I think if anything it becomes more real. There are no weird zombies with machine guns."
The film is in no way an allegory for the current state of Hollywood, though with only nine percent of the top 250 box office films of 2012 having been directed by women, it's an easy assumption to make. Does Aselton ever feel at a disadvantage, plagued by the difficulties that often face female filmmakers in all segments of the industry?
"I feel that because it's a question that's posed to me," she says. "I don't find it in the practicality of my day-to-day; I don't find it hard to make a film because I am a woman. I think if you have a movie to make, make it. If you happen to have a vagina, that's okay. Still make it."
She's quick to clarify, though, adding that "I feel horrible if I'm being trite about it and someone has had a bad experience, but me personally, I have not found that. I think the film community itself is incredibly inviting and supportive and embraces filmmakers, so get in there and make a movie. It doesn't have to cost a lot; Freebie [her first directorial effort] cost $15,000. You don't have to sit there and wait for permission from a studio. Go make a movie."
Bell, whose directorial debut In a World was a Sundance smash, also says that her gender hasn't created any sort of institutional disadvantage.
"I think I'm eager for the moment to arise when the story is less 'What does it feel like to be a female director?'" she says, reflecting on the past six months since her movie debuted. "I hope the story soon becomes 'I either liked your movie or I didn't, let's talk about your movie.' That's the real goal. Because honestly I look around and I see wonderful role models that are ladies. People who are writers and directors, people who are actors and directors, writer actors. There are a myriad of them and I look around to all sides and I see support and feel support, so I guess I have a more optimistic outlook on them."
It should go without saying that one of Aselton's greatest challenges in making the film was directing the near-rape scene, especially because her character was the one being assaulted. It's a sensitive topic to tackle in any context, but in speaking about it, she downplays the notion that it was a significant accomplishment or particularly traumatizing, cool as ever.
"It was tough, but it was a good plotting device to get us to that point," she says. "It was interesting to be in that moment and be like oh shit, this is intense, but it serves its purpose and moves it forward."
All told, the film is, more than anything else, a massive departure from the more domestic-focused films and TV projects on which Aselton has worked throughout her career. That's no accident, either.
"You learn something on every movie that you're a part of, that you make," she offers. "Everything should be a graduation and we can't keep making the same movies, because a., that's boring, and b., we'd be failing a little bit."