They may be playing former beauty pageant contestants, but there's very little that's glamorous about what June Diane Raphael and Casey Wilson are doing in their new film Ass Backwards. And they have no one to blame for it but themselves.
"We wrote this as a star turn for ourselves," Wilson said. "But when you're actually crouched on the ground, pissing on the side of the road, bare-assed, you have to wonder, Is this what you wanted to write for yourself?"
Writing partners and best friends since their years at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts, Raphael and Wilson co-wrote and star in Ass Backwards as Kate and Chloe respectively, two very delusional thirtysomething women who don't realize quite how bad they are at everything. When they're invited to a beauty pageant reunion, they embark on a road trip to recapture the glory that evaded them as kids.
While Kate and Chloe are highly exaggerated characters, they were inspired by Raphael and Wilson's actual post-college experience.
"Our lives were kind of disasters, but we refused to see that," Raphael admitted.
More like "in shambles," Wilson noted. "We were sharing a 300-square foot apartment and sharing a bed and sharing Ambien and sharing creditors and credit cards. Everything was in shambles, but we thought we were just doing it up."
Similarly, Kate and Chloe have no idea they're not living their best lives. Kate makes a living — if you can call it that — selling her eggs, while Chloe performs (badly) as a go-go dancer. But even as they hit rock bottom, they continue to enable each other by encouraging their bad behavior.
"The main sort of kernel for the movie was that codependency," Raphael reflected. "Anything Casey did, I was like, 'That's amazing and please don't change a thing about your life, because you are right on track.' And she did the same for me, so it was really about that codependent relationship where you kind of love each other to a fault."
At this point, Raphael and Wilson have a lot more control over their lives — and their success speaks to that. In addition to their various TV roles (Raphael's had parts on Parks and Recreation and New Girl and Wilson starred in the late critically-acclaimed comedy Happy Endings), they've also sold two scripts currently in development for the 2014 pilot season.
But with Ass Backwards, the writing partners sought to craft a movie on their own terms. That meant creating characters that they thought were funny: two very loud, very heightened personalities that are both embarrassing and somehow endearing.
"We [thought], What would it be like with two girls who, every single choice they make is wrong?" Wilson recalled. "That's how we got our title. Everything's ass backwards."
At the same time, Wilson and Raphael felt so much affection for Kate and Chloe.
"We love them, believe me," Raphael said. "They're not assholes. Especially, I think, in this time, everyone's so sarcastic. Everyone's too cool for school and too over all of it, and these are two characters to us who are never over it. They are loving life and everything it has to offer, and they're not cynical in any way."
Open-minded, yes, but also incredibly stupid. Over the course of their adventures, Kate and Chloe accidentally participate in a stripping contest and fawn all over a dangerous junkie they recognize from Rehabilitation, a parody of A&E's Intervention.
"I think we have tonally done something a little different," Wilson explained. "It's not Bridesmaids, in the sense that those are more naturalistic characters in a really funny world; but these are big characters in a natural world."
Reviews for the film have been mixed, something Raphael and Wilson credit to the fact that their comedic sensibilities aren't the same as everyone else's. It was more important to them that they stick to that than cater to a wider audience.
"It's just about what we find funny," Raphael explained. "We've worked in the studio system and the network world, where you're constantly getting feedback and notes. And a lot of time, the comedy's getting watered down and watered down, and you're just pulling back and pulling back from your own instincts, and I think this is something where these are our own instincts on the screen.
"Everything you see, fortunately or unfortunately, is absolutely based on simply what we wanted to do and put out there. I don't think we gave very much thought to what people would think."
Raphael and Wilson are aware that the response has been divided. But while mass approval is a good thing, Wilson actually prefers that Ass Backwards is contentious: As far as she's concerned, it's better to garner responses on opposite sides of the spectrum than to inspire no reaction at all.
"I think, in the studio world, like commercial comedies, that's where you're gonna get, 'It wasn't great, but it also wasn't terrible.' It's so much more in the middle zone," she explained.
While Wilson and Raphael are aware that their senses of humor just might not match what others find funny, the writer-actors wonder if there's more at play. Even as they grow tired of talking about "female comedy" — the problematic implication being that all other comedy is somehow male — they recognize that as women writing and starring in their own film, they're still subverting more old-fashioned notions.
And that's especially noticeable when they're peeing on the side of the road, stealing veterinary services, and smoking crystal meth.
"I have seen a few reviews that do seem almost alarmed. Who are we to take on these big characters?" Wilson noted. "And I'm like, Yeah, that's what Will Ferrell does so beautifully and brilliantly all the time. That's what we love about him doing it."
"There's an instinct to want to see your woman cuddly and sweet, and that's not who we created," Raphael added. "Our characters are very big and complicated and dumb. We think that's funny, but I think that can be upsetting to certain people who are unevolved."
For any writer-performer, the ability to create and star in one's own project is a rare gift; but for Wilson and Raphael, being able to also subvert expectations for female-driven comedy is an added benefit.
Not to mention the fact that the female buddy comedy genre — "bramance," as Wilson suggested — is still not getting the attention it deserves. Even if the concept of "female comedy" is troubling, Raphael and Wilson acknowledge that comedy by women, free from the limitations imposed by studios and producers, is essential.
"It's not all there, all the time," Wilson concluded. "And I certainly don't think it's for lack of women wanting to do it. [But] I'm proud that we're doing it and putting it out there."