For some reason, Joshua Tree calls to creatives as a place of rebirth and renewal. Whether it’s the definitive U2 album cover, the characters of ENTOURAGE taking shrooms and getting lost, or the attempted cremation of Gram Parsons in 1973, the desert of other worldly cacti and strange rock formations has been a source of inspiration. Thomas Beatty’s dramedy THE BIG ASK adds itself to this list, with a story of friendship, regeneration and the ultimate favor. Andrew (David Krumholtz) has just lost his mother to cancer. In order to cope, he and his girlfriend Hannah (Melanie Lynskey) invite two other couples to a cabin in Joshua Tree. Andrew has a plan to defeat his depression – he wants to sleep with all his female friends at one time.
I had a chance to speak with Beatty just after the film was released by Tribeca Film, and my first question obviously was how he ever came up with such an out-there premise, which also happens to be a majority of frat boy fantasies. “Well I think what’s funny, the reason it did feel kind of radical to me,” explained Beatty, “was that I thought of it not in the context of a fantasy, but more like an interesting way to talk about needs.” The idea itself actually came him as he went through a similar rough period in his own life. He was surprised at his own mind. “It made me laugh. Not because it’s just bad but because of the context,” says Beatty, “I was like ‘oh wow, I feel incredibly needy and this is what my mind has come up with as the thing that will solve it?’” Most of the time the solutions we create for own our problems are not necessary healthy, and Andrew’s request is the perfect example of that. He feels broken, and he is looking for something that might, as Motley Crue would suggest, ‘Kickstart his Heart.’ “It’s all very human and flawed and personal,” says Beatty, whose next step after completing the script was to show it to his girlfriend (now wife). “I was not sure how she was going to react,” Beatty says, “luckily she was into it.”
What makes Joshua Tree so special is the landscape and the once-in-a-world cacti and other flora found there. I’ve hiked there a number of times myself and I have had an experience I have in so many other National Parks – there’s nowhere else on Earth like this. “There only two places in the park where you can shoot,” says Beatty, “but luckily, we told them our movie was about the teddy bear cactuses and so they allowed us to shoot, even though normally you’re not allowed to.” The film actually premiered under the name TEDDY BEARS, at the Seattle International Film Festival. The Teddy Bear Cactus, or Cylindropuntia bigelovii, has a soft appearance due to its absolutely solid mass of formidable spines that completely cover the stems, making it look kind of cuddly. It also feels like a description of the situation into which Andrew gets the group of friends – it looks like teddy bears and ice cream on the outside but it is deadly to their relationships.
Without the Joshua Tree setting, THE BIG ASK would feel like a majority of indie films that criss-cross the film festival circuit – a bunch of 20-somethings sitting around in one location and talking about their lives and coping with making the leap to the next stage of adulthood. However, Beatty has a not-so-secret weapon to deal with that as well – an amazing cast. The ensemble is made up of recognizable actors mostly drawn from television: David Kumholtz (Numb3rs), Melanie Lynskey (Two and a Half Men), Gillian Jacobs (Community), Zachary Knighton (Happy Endings), and Jason Ritter, who in addition to cancelled-way-to-soon The Event, also seems to be in five indie films a year (insert gratuitous shout out to Jay Gammill’s FREE SAMPLES, one of my favorite films of 2012). “We got really lucky when a good friend of ours gave the script to [casting director]Rich Delia,” says Beatty, “and finding a great casting director when you’re a first time director is vital.” But what Beatty had to offer these actors was something special, a script full of flawed and interesting people. Beatty continues: “Part of our pitch to them is that Rebecca [Fishman, wife and co-director] and I feel like we have a real eye for talent, and for people who would have the ability to do something other than what they spend most of the time doing.” For example, Ritter actually gets to play a nice guy… through the entire film, which is sure swell because normally he’s somewhat questionable, or at least self-obsessed. I’ve seen Ritter in so many films the last few years, shorts even, and it’s really cool; I don’t know him (I did meet him at SXSW) but it seems like he’s so generous with his time. Beatty agrees: “He’s incredibly giving, and a really wonderful person. I think he just likes the work. Jason was always the one to be so encouraging and uplifting.” Lynskey is another indie star who gives herself to the ensemble. She’s a great comic actress (as seen in Putzel), but besides that and her TV work, she is known for drama. “Melanie was the first one to say yes,” says Beatty, “and she’s a champion for independent movies. She’s a dear person, and we love her. People who care a lot about independent drama obsess over her, and no one else seems to know who she is.” THE BIG ASK works so well because it brings together all these great characters, and they just play off each other, as equals. This would not have been possible, I think, if there was one ‘known’ quantity and group of unknowns. “These were all actors whose work we really loved, and knew that they could handle more dramatic material,” says Beatty, “I think giving them the opportunity to do something different is what attracted them.”
Outside of the six friends, Andrew comes across some odd Joshua Tree inhabitants, which help him see his own life in perspective. “I didn’t want to do a movie where white kids from the city go out to the desert and don’t talk to anyone there,” says Beatty. It’s interesting, because the movie is so hyper-realistic, and then Andrew runs into a heartbroken Dale Dickey (you know her from a thousand things, most recently as Werewolf Grandma in True Blood), and she’s so bizarre and over-the-top with this almost Greek tragedy or Ibsen performance. “Even though I realize how totally surreal it felt,” Beatty admits, “we totally wanted to inject these desert people into the movie in the way that happens when you’re out there.” The other outsider, ‘Old Man Carl,’ a man on the look out for his lost dog, steps in almost out of Grapes of Wrath. “So here’s the crazy thing,” Beatty assures me, “Both her character [Dickey] and the character my dad plays [Old Man Carl], those people are almost verbatim people of the desert, people we have come across and conversations I’ve had.” Oh yeah, Thomas Beatty’s dad is Academy Award nominated Ned Beatty, which is a nice cameo to be able to call in. Both he and Dickey add a sense of mystery and magic to the world these city-folk have escaped to. “You’re on this meditative journey all by yourself, and suddenly you run into the craziest person you’ve ever met,’ says Beatty, “and they totally upend your expectations of what your vacation is going to be.
Of course, with so many great actors, a lot of great stuff ended up on the cutting room floor. Beatty says his 90-minute script became, in the edit, a two hour and forty minute film, so “there’s is a whole other movie that didn’t make the cut. The actors were so wonderful, everyone gave so much more of their own story. The film was able to go many different places.” This is especially funny when one considers some of the reviews of the film, mostly positive, but which sometimes question whether the film pays off what is set up in the opening premise. For myself, I found it interesting that what starts off as a film that seems to be about three girls getting it on with one guy, kind of ends up being a film about monogamy and traditional values. Of course, I wondered if there was going to be a ‘too-hot-for-festivals’ DVD release like it was an American Pie movie. Beatty knows a lot of the film was shaped in the edit. “It’s put off certain reviewers because [the film]doesn’t go to these crazy spaces,” he says, “and that was not the intention, it’s just where it went. There were different versions, one that was more focused on sexual politics. But what I found was the most interesting version was where I put my friends and myself in the situation, and played out what we would do.”
Along the journey with Beatty was his wife, Rebecca Fishman, who co-directed the film with him. Beatty says sharing the reins on something this big can be “really hard on the relationship but creatively very rewarding.” Fishman added especially to the look of the film. “For one thing, she’s a photographer,” says Beatty, “and between her and Aaron [Kovalchik, Director of Photography], I knew that they could come up with a visual identity for the movie that would be more precise and more beautiful than anything I could have come up with.”
THE BIG ASK is a strong ensemble dramedy, one that will allow you to see fresh sides of some very talented actors. The set up is ripe for conflict, but execution is small and honest, with no over-blown ‘oscar moment’ type acting. The scenery and mood of the piece is really one of its greatest attributes. “We wanted to honor the feel of the desert with a really beautiful movie,” says Beatty. Hopefully your television will be big enough to enjoy the lush backdrop of the film on VOD, but the magic of renewal that lives in Joshua Tree fills even the living room scenes.