It’s not often that a filmmaker has the guts to allow his characters to be real people — flawed and at times self-serving, even when their own moral codes say to be selfless and giving.
But Robbie Pickering has found those guts and splayed them on the screen with “Natural Selection,” an honest, moving film about Linda White (Rachael Harris) a devout Christian whose husband won’t be intimate with her because she cannot bear children. He has, however, been visiting the local sperm bank over the past 20 years making regular deposits, a fact hidden from Linda until he suffers a debilitating stroke there.
Pickering spoke to The Film Yap about his film, about carefully basing his film on real life, on creating characters who do more than serve an archetype and on making a film about conservative Christians without bringing politics into the equation.
What exactly drew you to this story, and what was the genesis of you making this movie?
I had always wanted to do a movie about my mother and the housewives I knew while growing up in Texas, but I never really had a suitable emotional window into the story. Then one night, my mom gave me a call and told me that my stepfather, who she’d been with since I was very young, had terminal kidney cancer. From that day forward, I was constantly haunted by the knowledge that my mom would eventually be alone, and that provided me with the emotional jumping-off point that I needed to tell her story. “Natural Selection” isn’t a didactic recitation of my mother’s exact circumstances at the time, but it sprang from that fear of my mother being alone for the first time in her life. In retrospect, I think I was also dealing with my own feelings on death and loneliness and all that fun stuff.
Can you tell me a little about getting the movie made? How did you approach getting funding and working out the endless stream of details toward getting the movie actually shot?
Getting the movie funded was a gargantuan pain in the ass. Essentially, it took me about six years from writing the script to actual production. During that time, funding fell through twice, we had to cut the budget by two-thirds and I changed producers. Eventually it came down to raising money from friends and family, which actually motivated us even more to make the best movie we could. When it’s your poor buddies from high school investing money in your movie instead of some faceless financier, you tend to feel a little more pressure — mostly because most of my friends wouldn’t hesitate to beat the living crap out of me if I wasted their money. Fortunately, that didn’t happen.
As for the endless details of getting the movie shot, I was fortunate in the sense that I was able to do so much prep for the film over the years. I had storyboarded the whole film and done a lot of work specifying the look in terms of production design, costume design and cinematography on my own. Also, I was lucky to have such hard-working and wonderful producers. They were able to work magic with little to no budget, and I could not have done the film without them.
Can you talk about casting? You had a couple of real gems in Rachael Harris and Jon Gries.
And Matt O’Leary! Don’t forget Matt O’Leary! I think that 80 percent of directing is in casting, so i went through a pretty exhaustive process to find Rachael and Matt. Essentially, we sent the script out to casting directors early on, found a good one who really loved the film and sent out the breakdown to all the major agencies. Initially, I didn’t even want to meet with Rachael because nothing she had done prior indicated that she was right for the role. But I went out on a limb and met with her anyway, and almost immediately I could see that she naturally had the right vulnerability, physicality and sensibility for the role. When I auditioned her for the part, she blew it out of the water, and I felt incredibly lucky to have found her. Matt was cast in much the same way, as was Jon Gries. I felt incredibly fortunate to have worked with all of them.
“Natural Selection” delves into a lot of themes of marital fidelity, religious conservatism and the role of family and friends. Can you talk a little about your approach to those themes in the film?
I really tried not to take an explicit stance on religious conservatism in the film, not out of any ideological impotence — which I assure you is not an issue of mine — but because I was more interested in exploring honest characters and emotions rather than making a satirical or polemical film. The Christian conservative climate is merely a backdrop for the character stories. I spent my childhood in a conservative christian environment, so I know it intimately, and I think that it’s a milieu full of conflict and rich characters; that is all. There are good Christian people and misguided Christian people. There are hypocrites and there are true believers. There is much to make fun of and much to admire. It’s not unlike any other backdrop or “world” for a story (sports world, business world, entertainment world, art scene, etc), but it tends to draw a lot of attention because religious faith is such a political lightning rod these days. So I understand the focus, but I hope at the end of the day, people focus on the characters and not any perceived statement (or misstatement) on faith.
One of the things that struck me about the characters was that they all felt like real people as opposed to simple archetypes. Abe certainly does some despicable things, but he’s still more or less a stand-up guy; Linda is almost completely good, but she does things that are more than morally questionable; we get hints that Peter has romantic intentions toward Linda, but he’s working out of genuine concern; Raymond is a despicable person in many ways, but he also has a soft streak that actually feels like a real soft streak, not a manufactured Hollywood one where a bad person suddenly goes good. Can you talk about shaping these characters, making them more than just caricature?
I certainly hope all of the characters in the film come off more than just caricature. I empathized with all of them when I was writing the screenplay and I still do when I’m watching the movie. I think a big part of this fact is that I based them all on real people I knew growing up, so it was hard for me to straight-up demonize or sanctify any of them. I think all of the characters are weak, some more than others, but in my mind, people’s weaknesses are what makes them compelling. I’m not at all interested in a character who is purely good or purely bad, unless the story is a cartoon or an intentional satire. “Natural Selection” might be an exaggerated reality, but it is based in real emotion and a real sense of place.
What plans do you have for the immediate future, as far as other projects?
Speaking of cartoons, I just wrote a big CG movie for Warner Brothers that I won’t be directing, but is something I’m really proud of. I can’t say what it is, but you’ll probably be hearing about it soon. Beyond that, I’m searching for my next project to direct. I have a couple of projects that other people have written that are making the rounds, and I’m also working on a couple of my own original ideas. Basically, I want to be in production on my next film ASAP.