Alison Brie has been here before. With GLOW heading into its final season and BoJack Horseman freshly wrapped and released, there’s open space in front of her not unlike what she experienced a few years ago when Mad Men and Community wrapped. In response to that moment, Brie turned to GLOW, expanding the idea of the kind of work she could do with a layered character that found camaraderie and confidence in the wrestling ring and complications outside of it.
With the just-released Netflix film, Horse Girl, Brie is again getting the chance to push those limits, switching between heartbreaking and upsetting as a woman with a fading sense of what’s real and what’s not. The difference is this time, Brie is creating her own shot. Born from a burning desire to play with different genres and lightly borrow from her personal connection to mental illness through her grandmother, Brie co-wrote (with director Jeff Baena) and produced this mind-bending project, opening up more opportunities for herself in a future that suddenly seems to be as much about a growing profile behind the camera as it is about finding good roles in front of it. Uproxx spoke with Brie recently about the film, the road ahead, playing with expectations and assumptions, and endings.
How important was it to you that your first time writing something be something that was fueled by a personal connection to some of the subject matter, specifically your grandmother’s history of mental illness?
It’s probably the main thing that pushed me into writing something at all — having such a personal connection to the story and the material. I’m not sure if I would have had the courage to just write some random idea. The real base of the idea, just thinking about my grandmother’s mental illness, is something that I have been thinking about my whole life, and I’ve wanted to do something artistically [about it] for at least 15 years. I just never quite landed on it.
Am I going to write a short story about it? How is the art going to express itself, and why am I so focused on it, and what about it is meaningful to me? So as I got close to having the courage to put the idea out there to someone else, I think I was really honing in on what’s so personal about it to me, not the fact that my grandmother was a paranoid schizophrenic, but how did that relate to me, how does my personal fear manifest in my life? And, on the flip side, what kind of projects would I like to be in as an actor? If I’m going to write something for myself to do, can I step into a genre that I haven’t explored before and can I push myself as an actor in ways that I haven’t had the opportunity to before?
On the other side of it now, does it feel cathartic?
It feels incredibly cathartic. The whole process of making it, I think I was able to just kind of get it out of me and put it out there, and I’m so proud of the thing that we made. It’s a departure, obviously, from literal facts about my family. In that way, it’s been a really nice relief, and also an interesting bonding experience for me with my mother, in terms of interviewing her about her path. Even though we used most of that for character backstory and things like that. But it felt really nice, especially as a first project, the first film I’ve written and produced.
You’ve said that this isn’t specifically a mental illness story and there are a lot of other things going on here. But there’s been a lot of good work in that space over the last few years, though. So going into something where you’re going to touch on those elements, what’s the goal?
I think our goal is for people to have different interpretations of the film, and for people to really go on the experience with this character. We’re sort of attempting to humanize mental illness, and take people on Sarah’s journey in an empathetic way, rather than a judgemental way. The film is specifically designed for the audience to be in Sarah’s shoes, not knowing what’s real and what’s not real, the same way that she has trouble discerning dreams from reality. I just want people to have a real visceral experience while watching it, if they have questions when the movie’s over, then we’ve done our job.
What was the basis for making Sarah a “horse girl” and taking that from her?
The “horse girl” element began on a much lighter note. Jeff and I came up with this idea on two separate hiking excursions in Los Angeles. And the first time we were hiking, Jeff actually was saying to me that I seem like a horse girl. And I said I get that a lot, but I’m actually not one. It’s a very common misconception. He was saying we should make a film where I portrayed that archetype, and we kind of were tossing that idea around a bit. And then the following week, I came to him with my idea for a sort of sci-fi thriller about a woman with a familial history of mental illnesses, much like my own, and these things would start happening to her, and she would not have the tools to cope with them. As I told him the idea, he sort of suggested that this would go well with his horse idea, and once we realized that they were kind of one and the same, it cracked everything open. I think it helped a lot with the story, and backstory, of someone that used to be a person of means and her youth riding horses was really the best time of her life, her happiest time, her safest time. And now she really doesn’t have that anymore. She still has a strong connection to her horse, but she’s unwanted in that space. It helped us portray this idea of isolation. To me, in high school and middle school, horse girls felt mysterious. They had this other thing going on, they sort of existed outside of the social scene. With this character, we’re sort of exploring what would happen if she sort of lost that connection to her horse girl world but she had never forged any real friendships or relationships. Where does that leave her now in her mid-thirties?
The film’s visual ID really stands out. It’s very specific.
Our D.P. Sean McElwee shot the film. Most of our discussions about the look of the film were sort of focused on if we wanted to differentiate between dreams and reality. And the answer was no. We wanted everything to look and feel as real as possible because that’s what’s so misleading to Sarah herself as she’s experiencing this. And we wanted to put the audience in Sarah’s shoes. That was very important. Not to give them like major clues, “oh, you’re in a dream now,” or things like that. I think even from the very beginning of the movie wanting to use lighter pastels, obviously the color scheme… peach plays a big role in the film, which is a color that represents calming, and safety, and things like that. I think we wanted to kind of lull the audience from the start into a mindset of safety and comfortability. Even just seeing me and Molly Shannon doing a quaint scene in a crafts store feels like an indie that you might feel really comfortable with. Like, “Oh, I know what this movie is.” It’s sort of the same place that the character is starting from — a place of safety, and knowing her surroundings, and feeling comfortable, and as confident as she can before we’re going to kind of turn it all upside down.
How did directing an episode of GLOW last season inform the process of making this film? How helpful was that?
Incredibly helpful. I think for all my future work experiences. Directing that episode of GLOW… less than the artistic side, it more just kind of helped me to inhabit my own power on a set, and be comfortable making my ideas heard, and things like that. Luckily, Jeff Baena is such a wonderful collaborator. We were never butting heads. There was never a question of who had more control. He’s directing the movie even though we wrote it together, we produced it together. The plan was always for him to direct, and for me to star in it. It really was a fully collaborative process the entire time, so that was really wonderful. I think that directing on GLOW just really helped me kind of find my footing to come from this position of power when putting a project together.
Can you tell me a little about the decision to let the dialogue come to the surface during production as opposed to being fully scripted, and going forward, is that something that you want to adopt as a style?
I don’t know. This decision was rooted in the fact that Jeff really makes his movies this way. He’s made his last two films this way, Joshy and The Little Hours, both of which I was a part of. From the beginning, we kind of decided that’s how we would do this as well. Jeff finds that it just makes for very naturalistic dialogue to let it come out of the actor’s mouths the way that they feel like they would say it, but it’s not as loosey-goosey as a lot of improvised projects are. The outline is extremely detailed, and I think Jeff and I had pretty specific ideas of what would happen in the scenes and what would be said, although there are scenes where people go on a longer run. It’s fun. It certainly heightens all the senses. I think it makes all the actors really present. You’re forced to be in the moment really listening to the other person, and in that way, it’s really exciting. Jeff and I are working on another project now and we’re sort of right in the middle of deciding if we want to go ahead and script the dialogue or if we kind of want to leave it open-ended again. I’m interested in doing it both ways. As an actor, sometimes it’s nice to have the dialogue. You can fully prepare what you’re going to do. At the same time, sometimes that preparation can show a little too much and feel a little too canned. So it’s exciting to shoot this the way that we did.
With this coming out, and GLOW ending, and BoJack just wrapping up, is this a scary or exciting time for you in your career and is directing and writing a coequal focus with acting at this point?
Yeah, it’s exciting. I’ve gone through this before, Community and Mad Men ended within months of one another and that was sort of another open-ended time in my life. I’ve been so lucky to have worked on these incredible shows, but this does feel like a bit of a turning point for me as I’m getting into directing and producing and writing a bit more. Now that I’ve unlocked it, it’s a little less scary to me. Just the idea of it is a little less daunting, and I really enjoyed feeling a bit more in control of my career and the thing I was doing. It kind of reconnected me to why I love acting, and why I love creating from a real artistic standpoint of how fulfilling it is to just be kind of create your own work. So looking forward, I think it makes the future a lot less scary imagining that I now can have a bit more control and start to spearhead my own projects. And then other things that come along on the acting side are like an amazing treat.
The ending of this is so open to interpretation. I really enjoyed the ending of BoJack, as well. That silent moment there at the end, not to give too much away, but where these characters go… it’s also wide open. Is that your favorite kind of ending?
I love an open-ended ending. I don’t like it when things wrap up too cleanly with a perfect bow around them. With Horse Girl, we certainly want the ending to be left open to interpretation. I think BoJack also did a great job, with painting a picture of where the characters are emotionally, and that’s a little more important than literally what is the next thing that’s going to happen to them in the very next moment. I think with Sarah, we tried to do the same thing where whatever you think is happening at the very end of the movie, we just want you to know that she is heading towards it with acceptance and peace.
‘Horse Girl’ and ‘BoJack Horseman’ are both streaming on Netflix now.