'Mack & Rita' Director Katie Aselton On Working With Diane Keaton and Grounding the Story (2024)

Diane Keaton

'Mack & Rita' Director Katie Aselton On Working With Diane Keaton and Grounding the Story (1)

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'Mack & Rita' Director Katie Aselton On Working With Diane Keaton and Grounding the Story (2)

[Editor’s note: The following contains some spoilers for Mack & Rita.]

From director Katie Aselton, the dramedy Mack & Rita follows 30-year-old self-proclaimed homebody Mack Martin (Elizabeth Lail), who finds herself coming out of a regression pod during the bachelorette weekend for her best friend Carla (Taylour Paige), having suddenly transformed into her 70-year-old future self (Academy Award winner Diane Keaton). Going by Aunt Rita, so as not to attract too much confused attention, the old soul learns to free herself from other people’s expectations and realizes that maybe she wasn’t being as authentically true to herself as she previously thought.

During this 1-on-1 interview with Collider, Aselton talked about why she needed a little convincing to take this film on, what she was most excited about getting to shoot, how COVID changed things, the ways this production was different from the other two films she’d directed, the surreal experience of working and collaborating with Keaton, and balancing a fantastical element with a grounded story.

Collider: I tremendously enjoyed this movie and found it so delightful, so thank you.

KATIE ASELTON: You know what? It was genuinely my pleasure.

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When you were told about this film, how was it presented to you? What was the pitch that made you decide to read it, and then what was it about reading it that made you decide to do it?

ASELTON: It was pitched to me by Alex Saks, who’s a producer that I’ve worked with before, as an actor, and had a nice friendship with. And we went to the same Pilates studio, which is the Pilates studio that you see in the movie. She had asked me if I was gonna direct again. I had taken some time off of directing for my kids and my acting career, and I was like, “Yeah, I was actually just thinking that this is the year I’m gonna direct again.” She was like, “Great, I’ve got the movie for you. It’s Diane [Keaton]’s next movie.”

And I was like, “Oh, my God.” So, she hands it to me and I read it, and I was like, “Alex, this is a body-switching comedy. It’s big and broad. I make tiny indie movies for no money, that are all about feelings.” And she was like, “Okay, all right, well this is gonna be on a small independent budget and it’s still about feelings, and it’s starring Diane Keaton. So, maybe think about it.” And I was like, “Those are all very good points. Yes!” So, I sat down with Diane and pitched her my take on it, which was leaning into it being about a woman on her journey to embrace authenticity. That’s a journey that we’re all on, and I think Diane is a person who just embodies that so much because she is so authentically her, all the time. And so, I just became very passionate about what this message would be and Diane was like, “I think she’s passionate about it, so let’s go.” That’s how it all began.

You mentioned the challenges that you saw in this, but when you read this, were there scenes that you were most excited to get to shoot?

ASELTON: Yeah, absolutely. The transformation scenes, with her coming out and being in this body, almost like a baby deer being born into a life where she has to learn to walk as a 30-year-old in this young world. That was something that I just thought was really great. Being able to generationally step over for her and watching what that would be like, to see a 70-year-old woman exist in a 30-year-old’s world, was the thing for me. That was really great. And then, honestly, contrasting that with our older women in the wine group and having their sage advice come in and ground her and pull her back, all of those things were really exciting to me.

I loved that group of women. Those scenes with all of them together were just so fantastic. It made me wonder, was there a lot of laughing? Was it hard to get through takes?

ASELTON: There were absolutely major breaking points. Lois Smith really came in with some humdingers in there. She would make us laugh so hard.

'Mack & Rita' Director Katie Aselton On Working With Diane Keaton and Grounding the Story (4)

As a writer yourself, was there anything specific you wanted to add or change when you read the script, or was everything that was in there pretty much what we see now?

ASELTON: We got to collaborate a ton. I’m gonna be completely honest, when the script was brought to me, it was pre-pandemic, so it was a very different movie. The transformation happened at Coachella, so we were gonna shoot at Coachella. We were going to shoot at Stage Coach. Everything was a lot bigger and the scope was a lot larger. And then, when the pandemic hit, funding disappeared, so we had to scale things back. Obviously, Coachella didn’t exist for a couple years, and group scenes had to be kept at a minimum, along with where we were allowed to shoot. What we were allowed to do was much more limited, and that all fell on us to scale down the movie. But within that, what we got to do is really focus on the dynamics and the relationships, so all of that became very collaborative, with me and Alex and the writers. We really got to shape and mold it, and I got to really put my stamp on it. That was really exciting.

In those early days of COVID, people didn’t know whether productions would ever get going again.

ASELTON: No, and it was like a bad joke where I, for a good eight months, was like, “Do you remember when I was supposed to direct Diane Keaton in a movie?” It felt like the worst sick practical joke.

Were you confident that it would happen, at some point, or were you really convinced that it just wasn’t going to happen?

ASELTON: No, I thought it was gone. I thought it had just gone away. I was so thrilled when, in October or November of 2020, Alex called and was like, “I can get us some money, but we’ve gotta make some major changes.” And we did. I actually love the movie more now. I was more excited to make the movie when we made it than I was pre-pandemic. The world shifted and the whole idea of really just living in the moment and living your best life now was more and more apparent and clear to us.

'Mack & Rita' Director Katie Aselton On Working With Diane Keaton and Grounding the Story (5)

You directed your first two films, The Freebie and Black Rock, pretty close together. And then, about 10 years passed before you directed Mack & Rita. When that much time passes in between, what are the feelings that you feel before doing it again? Were you nervous about directing again? Were you excited? What went through your head?

ASELTON: All of the feelings. There was massive excitement. I had more prep time because of the pandemic. We had really been sitting with this movie for so long, so I had prep time that I never had on my first two movies. I had a real strong sense of comfort with the script, and the story and characters, that I didn’t with my first two films. In a lot of ways, I was more confident and comfortable. That doesn’t mean I didn’t have a massive imposter syndrome attack on the regular, which I still have. I think if you’re not having that, then you’re doing it wrong. Also, even though I wasn’t directing at that time, I was acting and I was on sets, as an actor. I’d be sitting there thinking, “Oh, I would do this differently.” I was directing in my head, constantly. I was also much more confident in my filmmaking on this movie than I was with my first two films. I was 10 years older. My feet were more firmly planted, and it felt better this time.

Had you ever thought about or considered playing a character in this film, or did you just want to focus on directing during the shoot?

ASELTON: Which one would you want me to play?

You could have changed one of the characters or written a character for yourself.

ASELTON: Oh, no, I’m too old, but that’s sweet. Actually, this was a really fun experience to just direct. It was still a very small movie, but large compared to the first two movies I made. To be able to just focus on the one job, which is a massive job and a massive undertaking, I didn’t wanna have to worry about remembering lines and getting my hair done in the middle of that. No, thank you.

I wonder what it must be like for an actor trying to direct themselves, especially when they’re in a scene with another actor that they’re also supposed to be directing.

ASELTON: It’s hard. For my first two films, what it really required was me having a great deal of trust in my producing partner, who was my eyes because I had no interest in watching takes afterwards. I never wanted to look at the monitors, and we couldn’t afford monitors, so there was really nothing to look at. I was really looking to my DP and my producer, and being like, “Did we get that?” And they would say, “No.” And I would say, “Okay, we’re gonna do that again.” But for something of this size, I wanted to be the one to know we got it. I wanted to see everything. That was really important to me, and I really loved it. I would do it again like this, in a heartbeat. I love acting, and I will do that forever. And if there was a great two-hander, that was just me and another actor and that was a smaller thing, I would definitely consider directing that. But when it’s something like this and we’re only going bigger from here, baby, I’m going to stick to directing.

'Mack & Rita' Director Katie Aselton On Working With Diane Keaton and Grounding the Story (6)

What was it like to work and collaborate with Diane Keaton? What was that dynamic like, throughout the production? What do you learn, just from being around someone like that?

ASELTON: It was a completely surreal experience. I never, in a billion years, ever dreamt that could happen. I never thought I was gonna direct. I moved out to Los Angeles to be a soap opera actress. That was where my goal was, and that never happened, so I’m still striving for that. I just kept moving my goal post, and then ended up directing my first film and really, really loving it and falling in love with that. And then, I direct more and the idea of directing more sounded great, but I still never even imagined that I would get the opportunity to work with someone as incredible and as iconic as Diane. I had a poster of her on my wall when I was a child. It’s still in my office. I guess it’s a vision board, but I didn’t realize it, at the time. It was my only vision board.

To this day, as I’m sitting here right now, I can’t get over that it actually happened. She was a dream. The only way I can describe her is that the Diane we have grown up watching and have fallen in love with and are so enamored by, with all of her quirks and eccentricities, she is exactly that. It’s why she’s so great in this movie. She’s just so authentically herself. What she presents to the world is exactly who she is. That’s not a thing. That’s Diane. That was a great lesson to sit with, every day, and get to work with that, every day.

One of the things I love about this film is that while the idea of a regression pod being able to allow someone to suddenly be a different age sounds insane, you love these characters and their relationships enough that you just totally buy into it and go on the ride with them anyway. What was it like to balance having that fantastical element, but keeping the whole thing so grounded and real that you forget that it’s a fantastical element?

ASELTON: That’s honestly the nicest compliment you could have ever given me because that’s the struggle. It’s about, how do you do what you want to do? I wanted grounded, real, authentic performances, where you’re feeling like, “That could be me. I feel so connected because I see myself in that character,” even though you’ve just witnessed someone step out of a tanning bed in a different body. It’s really a testament to the actors and their talents and their chemistry together. The goal was to keep it grounded and real, and have the only weird thing be that these two characters are the same person, 40 years apart.

Mack & Rita is now playing in theaters.

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