In our discussion of his latest project, spin me around, director Jeff Baena holds nothing back to describe the setting of the film. He loves Italy and everything that goes with it – the food, the people, the culture. After filming in 2017 The small hours in Tuscany, Baena always knew he wanted to return, so when the opportunity arose to return, it was a no-brainer.
spin me around tells the story of Amber (Alison Brie), a restaurant manager chosen to learn at the company’s culinary institute in Italy. There, she meets Nick Martucci (Alessandro Nivola), the rich and handsome owner of the restaurant chain. As Amber begins to fall in love with Nick, she discovers secrets that change her journey. In a conversation with Digital Trends, Baena shares his stance on Italian restaurant chains, why he champions improvisation as a director, and what makes his collaboration with Brie so successful.
Note: This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.
Digital Trends: I have to start with your position on Italian restaurant chains. Are you a fan of them?
Jeff Baena: In general, I’m not a fan of any chain restaurants. I prefer local and independent cuisine.
I’m definitely against Italian restaurant chains, but I’ll go for the burgers.
Yeah. I mean In-N-Out it’s cool when you’re on the road, but honestly I think when I was 22 I stopped eating fast food. I did an experiment where I took a few weeks off because I was probably eating McDonald’s once a week or something. I waited a few weeks, ate it and just smelled it in my system. I was like, “This is definitely not good for you.”
I feel like that’s the right way to do it. Just cut yourself.
You clearly have this affinity with Italy since this is your second shoot there. What precisely is the reason you wanted to come back for another film?
I mean, not to hit any other country – because I’m sure every country in the world has its advantages, it’s beautiful and it has its places you can’t believe – but for me [with] Italy, I’ve been there quite a bit over the past 10 to 15 years. Every time I go I am blown away and learn something new. You go to a new area where you’ve never been before, and you experience new foods, new buildings, new culture, [and] really amazing things. I know France probably has that, and I’ve never been to Germany, but Italy, for me in particular, blows me away every time, even when I go to places I’ve been before. I’ve been to Tuscany so many times, and every time I go I find a new place.
I went to visit Aubrey [Plaza]. she was shooting The White Lotus a few weeks ago. I had been to Sicily before, but still went to Cefalù, where I had never been before, and it blew my mind. The Amalfi Coast is amazing. We went to Puglia, where I had never been before. It’s incredibly beautiful. People are so nice to me. For me, they have it all figured out, like, this is the place. I’m just drawn to it. I found out a few years later The small hours that my father is 25% Italian, according to 23andme, which we had no idea. So I guess it’s in the blood.
Do you have a favorite region in particular?
I would say everywhere. I mean, I love Rome, I love Tuscany, I love Emilia-Romagna and I love Sicily. It’s hard and there [are] still places where I haven’t been. I’m sure wherever I go, I’m going to fall in love with it.
spin me around incorporates many genres and themes into a single film. There’s romance, comedy, satire, and even thriller elements. What was the first idea behind this film?
The first idea was after I shot The small hours in Italy I came back and saw this article about a manager of an Italian franchise restaurant who was invited to this program for the best managers in the country to travel to Italy to learn about food, wine and culture – and they were extremely disappointed. It was a completely disorganized program. The organization chef made bolognese and that was pretty much the highlight of the trip. They really hadn’t prepared anything and almost felt like they were trapped in this dorm.
Italy is one of the most amazing places, and if you’ve never been out of the country and go there, it’s breathtaking. Then to have a completely underwhelming and curated experience where you sort of feel like a prisoner, I thought that was a really fun setup.
You have already collaborated with many actors of the ensemble, such as Aubrey Plaza, Molly Shannon, Debby Ryan and Alison Brie, the latter being co-writer and co-producer. How is your collaboration with Alison going, especially in terms of writing?
So the difference between this and horse girl is that I had sort of sketched out this idea for a while after Italy and then we worked on our horse girl together from scratch, and I was completely blown away by the kind of creative commonality between us in terms of our sense of humor and our sense of storytelling and character. And so, I thought it was kind of a no-brainer to bring her in and get her involved. We ended up working more on the outline.
The idea was to shoot this in the summer of 2020, and then COVID hit, so we had an extra year to work on it from time to time, and [we] wrote it as an actual script instead of a blueprint. Normally it would have been an improvised film, but that was beneficial because we didn’t really have a lot of time to shoot this film, so we didn’t really get a chance to do my kind of improvised style. We pretty much had to stick to the script, so I think having a fully fleshed out script really helped us, given the lack of time we were in.
You kind of mentioned your improvisational style. As a director, how do you set up improvisation with the actors? Make sure you do your shots first and then give the actors a few takes to try out different ideas?
In terms of how I do improvisational filmmaking, there’s obviously a limit to how many takes you can do. Generally, by configuration, it is like three or four. There’s not really a “you do yours, I’ll do mine” thing. I like to think of myself as a true collaborative director, having discussions with the performers about what the character is, where he’s going, and what the story is.
My outlines don’t leave you hanging, and you have to figure it all out for yourself. They are quite descriptive. It’s more [that] the dialogue is not written. It’s more like what you say in the scene, but not how you say it. It’s more just kind of an agreement between me and the performer to have the same direction we’re going and ultimately being surprised by some of the things they bring to the table.
But, at the same time, everything is in the area of what we expected. It’s not like, “Hey, let’s revise this character, make the scene completely different, and make this thing happen.” It’s more just kind of a focus, and I guess at the end of the day it’s as authentic as possible so that it matches who they are as a person and who their character is.
Sometimes there’s a huge gap between the way an actor is and the way their character is, who obviously acts. I think I like to narrow that gap as much as possible so there’s a truer kind of expression, and it makes you feel more comfortable and not have to think on a meta level about what they do [and] how it affects the character and the story itself.
It’s almost like a more natural performance for the actors.
Yeah, they’re more natural, but at the same time, I like to be surprised. Obviously, if we’re doing funny stuff, for example, Zach Woods is a comedy genius. And so, some of the things that come out of his mouth are incredibly bonkers, but so funny. I welcome it. I’m not precious about the script. I’m precious to the movie, so as long as the movie comes out well and everyone pulls their own weight, then that’s great.
One of the performances that surprised me came from Alessandro. He has acted in black comedies before, but he is best known for his dramatic work. I think the last thing I saw him in was The Sopranos prequel. But, he looks like the perfect man for a romantic comedy. What marked Alessandro during the casting?
I mean, Alessandro is an amazing actor, and so, I think whenever I’m looking to cast someone, I’m looking for great actors who also have a sensitivity to comedy because not everyone can pull off the comedy. I think anyone who’s an actor, not that they’re great at it, but they generally have some skill to be able to play dramatic roles. Threading that needle between comedy and drama is super tough, and I’ve seen it [Alessandro] do it. After meeting him on Zoom and getting to know him, I understood his sense of humor. I made adjustments to the script to fit his personality, which is definitely my way of working.
As I said before with the improvisation stuff, my instinct is not to force square people into circular holes; it’s to finally find that kind of balance and synergy between their character and personality themselves. And so, Alessandro, in real life, is a funny, goofy guy who’s extremely smart and extremely gifted as an actor. He went to Yale. I mean, he knows what he’s doing, and he likes to have a lot of conversations about who he is, where he’s from, and what this character ultimately is. I like this. I love going in depth and learning about this process so it was so much fun working with him. I love working with him.
spin me around will be released in theaters, the-