'Little Hours': Aubrey Plaza Makes Producing Debut Amid Catholic League Uproar

The actress — along with director Jeff Baena — talks about improvising the irreverent adaptation and responds to the League's condemnation: "I don’t care, really, at all."

When Jeff Baena was scouting locations in Italy for The Little Hours, he made sure never to mention that he was shooting an adaptation of Giovanni Boccaccio's 14th-century work The Decameron. “It’s a Catholic country, so it’s a touchy subject for people,” says the writer-director. “It’s almost 700 years old and it’s still ruffling feathers.”

Despite a minor uproar from the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, the irreverent comedy — featuring an ensemble that includes Baena’s longtime girlfriend Aubrey Plaza, real-life couple Alison Brie and Dave Franco, and Molly Shannon, John C. Reilly, Nick Offerman and Fred Armisen, among others — was nabbed by Gunpowder & Sky out of Sundance, and will be the upstart’s first theatrical release, out June 30.

Originally titled Nunz (as a joke) and sweetly renamed by Plaza after a convent's daily prayer services, The Little Hours is based primarily on the tale “Day Three, Story One” and follows a servant who seeks shelter at a convent full of emotionally unstable nuns. Baena first encountered the unlikely source text while studying at New York University. “I thought it was gonna be dry, unrelatable school work, but I was blown away by how fun and human they were,” he told The Hollywood Reporter during a recent chat at Brooklyn’s Alamo Drafthouse. “It’s such a hysterical situation and it’s historically accurate: nuns were screwing around and getting pregnant. I always wanted to do something with it.”

Fortuitous circumstances arose more than 15 years later, when an investor in Baena’s films Life After Beth and Joshy mentioned access to a medieval locale in Tuscany. A 20-page treatment set the groundwork for the entirely improvised 20-day shoot. “We talked through each scene and the historical context, but I wanted it to feel spontaneous,” recalls Baena. “People that hadn’t done anything improvised before were a little more reticent — the first take, they were more mannered like they’re in a Game of Thrones episode or something — but then they relaxed and just became people talking and reacting naturally, instead of anticipating.”

“There was a crazy, frantic energy to what we were doing that I think you can feel onscreen,” adds Plaza, whose favorite scene was the opener in which she and fellow nuns Brie and Kate Micucci berate an innocent gardener with endless expletives. “It was just fun to harass someone for really no reason at all.”

After the movie’s Sundance debut, the Catholic League called it “pure trash” — a reaction quoted in the film’s red band trailer alongside critics’ reviews. “I don’t want to hurt people’s feelings, but I think when the Catholic League was protesting, they hadn’t actually seen the movie; they were just going off of reviews,” explains Baena. “I understand why they would feel the need to inject themselves into the conversation but I wish they would just watch it and understand this isn’t an attack on their religion. It’s just the context in which it takes place, and I didn’t come up with that. This book has been controversial in the past, and it’s part of Italian history.”

Plaza — who shrugs off the Catholic League’s condemnation (“I don’t care, really, at all,” she says) — notched her first feature producing credit with Little Hours, which she helped develop, cast and keep focused throughout production. “I’m really interested in creating that environment on set where everyone has the same vision and feels like they’re contributing, because that changes how the movie comes out in the end,” she explains. “For me, the moviemaking process is a magical, mystical journey, and having that input and control from the beginning was fun. I like the idea of being able to affect the movie in more ways than just saying my lines.”

Plaza says she’s now “actively looking” for films to produce, especially if helmed by a first-time director (she also produced her subsequent film, Matt Spicer's social media satire Ingrid Goes West). “It depends on whoever is directing the movie — I wouldn’t tell Paul Thomas Anderson that I demand to be a producer — but I think I’m at a point now where I feel more confident in knowing what I want to do and how I want to do things. Now that I’ve been through it, my brain is like firing on all cylinders.”

And though “a little bit burnt out” from shooting three movies (including Jim Hosking’s upcoming comedy An Evening With Beverly Luff Linn) and the FX series Legion, Plaza has more plans ahead: “I want to direct. I will direct.”

Adds Baena, “She’s gonna be a great director.”