Hitting select theaters tomorrow is writer/director Jeff Baena’s unconventional nunsploitation comedy, The Little Hours, which is an adaptation of The Decameron and features stellar performances from the likes of Aubrey Plaza, Dave Franco, Alison Brie, Kate Micucci, John C. Reilly, Molly Shannon, and Fred Armisen.

And while he was sure to line up some great comedic talents to bring his adaptation to life, Baena discussed during the recent press day for The Little Hours that his ensemble of players were cast with something different in mind. He also chatted about his experiences filming The Little Hours in Italy, and how the film remains very timely, despite the fact that it’s a story about nuns set in the 1300s.

Did [Pier Paolo] Pasolini’s version of The Decameron inspire your decision to make The Little Hours at all?

Jeff Baena: No, the initial spark came from when I went to NYU for film school, and for my electives I took a bunch of classes that inadvertently gave me a minor in medieval renaissance studies. One class was called “Sexual Transgression in the Middle Ages and Renaissance,” and I read The Decameron in that class and I was just blown away by it. There's this one story in particular, the third day, which is the bones of this movie. It's a super departure from it, but it's the general setup that I used to base this off of. I didn't see the Pasolini movie until years later.

When you have actors like this, where you know where their strengths lie in terms of their comedic timing and their serious approaches to their characters, how much do you take that material that you're basing this off of and play to their strengths as far as what they're going to bring to the table for characters?

Jeff Baena: I'm just drawn to actors that can inhabit both comedy and drama. It's more that I know the tone of what I'm going for, and then I find the actors that can live in that world. John C. Reilly and Molly Shannon, Aubrey [Plaza], all these people are people that definitely can do drama just as easily as they can do comedy. They don't necessarily have as much opportunity to do drama, but when they do, they can knock it out of the park. It's less about playing up their strengths and more about finding a way to put them into this environment that they can thrive.

And how was it shooting out in Italy?

Jeff Baena: It was interesting because they don't have a huge movie-making infrastructure. They don't make as many movies as they used to, so what they generally do is they bring movies in—most likely from America, sometimes from England, other places—and they just dub them. Dubbing companies are basically de facto production companies there. The infrastructure, there is Rome and there is Milan, but where we were, we were in the middle of them. There wasn't really a lot of support there. It was mostly an American crew. We had Italians working on it, but it was challenging because like I said, we were in rural Tuscany, so it was like, "Oh, we need a new lens," and then you're on your own out there. There's challenges to it, obviously, in terms of being able to go to production houses and stuff like that, but in terms of the charm and the geography and the architecture, it's insanely gorgeous and untouched and beautiful.

Once you got to that location, did your visual plan when you first started mapping this out in your head, did that change at all once you got to the location and dug around a little bit and got into some of the nooks and the crannies of the buildings and stuff?

Jeff Baena: I was fortunate enough to spend a day with Jonathan Demme a couple years ago, and he cemented how I approach things. He said, "Never set up shots, don't do storyboards, until you actually see the location you're in, because you can be forcing something that isn't organic to the location. You preconceive something that you think would make sense, and then you shoot it and it's forced." He would always come up with his shots as he was doing it, which is how I've always done it, but by him telling me that, it empowered me to go with that.

I don't like master shots, so generally if it's us, I would get as wide of us as we could get, without it being a master, and it would be like two shots of the group and then singles and then roaming singles, but in terms of the actual setup and the dynamics of a shot, especially the more complicated tracking shots and the zooms and stuff like that, it's more how you read the scene, you read the blocking of the actors, and then you decide what you want to shoot. It's ultimately about the actors and their interpersonal dynamics, and you just try to highlight that. You're feeling out what that is, and then you decide how you want to shoot it.

Even though the story is set in the 1300s, there are a lot of parallels in terms of how women are treated, certain things that they had to deal with back then that kind of still, unfortunately, ring true today. Did you realize that, going into this, that perhaps beyond the wacky comedy and the fun witch stuff, that it also very well could be making a statement in terms of how women are viewed by society and religious oppression?

Jeff Baena: Yeah, I'd say that was my priority, as opposed to the comedy. The comedy stuff comes out of that, and that's super interesting, but I was completely interested in the gender dynamics. I studied that time period in college, and the subjugation of women. Almost the point of the movie is that these women are put in this place, and they don't want to be there.

So what I'm trying to do is express our ideas of what a nun is, especially in the Middle Ages and specifically at this time period, is that they weren't there because they chose it because of religion. Women generally went to convents almost like school, and when they were 14 or 15 or 16, they'd get married off, and then they start that life. Plenty of them didn't get married off, either their father wanted to have favor with the church, or they were the youngest daughter or they were a widow, or they were a spinster, they were divorced. There's various reasons why you'd end up being in a convent and none of them wanted to be there.

It wasn't until the early 1400s, maybe the mid-1400s, that women started choosing to go to convents almost as a feminist act. But up until that point, it was basically a prison sentence. When you read The Penitentials, which is sort of the punishments that the church would level against these people—nuns and priests and whatever—you realize it was wild. They were repressed and no one wanted to be there, so they ended up teaming up and having some wild times. This movie's obviously comedic and it's playing off of those ideas, but at its very core for me is trying to preserve some amount of historicity and try to express to people that this is really what it was like, even though it's obviously zany and crazy. So it's ultimately based in that truth.


In case you missed it, check here to read Heather's previous coverage of The Little Hours.

  • Heather Wixson
    About the Author - Heather Wixson

    Heather A. Wixson was born and raised in the Chicago suburbs, until she followed her dreams and moved to Los Angeles in 2009. A 14-year veteran in the world of horror entertainment journalism, Wixson fell in love with genre films at a very early age, and has spent more than a decade as a writer and supporter of preserving the history of horror and science fiction cinema. Throughout her career, Wixson has contributed to several notable websites, including Fangoria, Dread Central, Terror Tube, and FEARnet, and she currently serves as the Managing Editor for Daily Dead, which has been her home since 2013. She's also written for both Fangoria Magazine & ReMind Magazine, and her latest book project, Monsters, Makeup & Effects: Volume One will be released on October 20, 2021.