Director Robbie Pickering Talks About His First Feature, ‘Natural Selection’
Robbie Pickering’s Natural Selection will blow you away. While the film seems like the work of a seasoned writer-director, Pickering worked for seven years to complete his first feature. The result is a truly moving story of a Christian woman (played by Rachael Harris, in a rare dramatic role) who sets out to find the son of her dying husband—and finds herself along the way. Harris delivers an emotionally powerful performance, set within a film that illuminates the depths of the human condition and how one must deal with breaking through their own limitations. We chatted with Pickering about his introduction to film, the moving inspiration for the story, and casting Rachael Harris in a dramatic role.
I loved the film. It had a very unique feeling to it and the performances were great. I think people will love it.
Thank you, I really hope they do. I just hope no one thinks I’m an idiot. I don’t know… I’m a huge pessimist.
It’s your first feature and I’m sure you’re very proud of it, but do you feel like it represents you as a filmmaker and do you feel like it’s a good stamp of you?
Yeah, I think it is. I don’t know in three years time whether it will, but it’s definitely a stamp of me as a writer and director at a certain point in time. I’m extremely proud of it.
You’ve been working on the film for so long. Are you nervous about it’s release?
I don’t mean to sound like such a depressive— just don’t know. I’m really lucky that the movie is coming out and all, but with that comes a lot of a headache and a lot of worry. It’s your baby, you know?
How did you get into filmmaking? Did you grow up doing it?
I grew up in a small town outside of Houston called Jersey Village. I think I always wanted to make movies. I think when you’re young and you come from a background where you don’t really know who makes the movies, you think in the back of your head that the actors really make it. You kind of look at a movie and say, I want to do that and what that. My parents only now really know what I do. I’ve been doing it for like ten years now and they only now know that I’m not a producer. They don’t know what a director or screenwriter is, and I didn’t either until I was about 15; I started reading a lot of Roger Ebert and Pauline Kael and started learning more about who made the movies and started recognizing some of these movies that I was really obsessed with as a kid, I was really obsessed with the world [of filmmaking] and the director.
How did you transition from NYU to making this film?
Well, I wrote this in school, and I’ve been trying to make it for seven years. I was going to make it for two million dollars, and then the recession happened and we couldn’t raise the money. New producers approached me after three years, and we decided to make it for a million. We found out we couldn’t raise a million and the budget just kept going down from million to 750 to 500. Finally we had to make it for what we thought we could raise, which was a $150,000. The actress that was attached to the movie dropped out so we had to scramble. I met with bunch of great actresses and then my casting directors told me, Why don’t you meet with this lady Rachael Harris?
Had you seen her in anything before?
I had. I’m a big comedy geek. I knew who she was and I said, absolutely not—there’s no way I’m meeting with this woman . They convinced me, and I met with her. Rachael has been known for one type of role, and that’s how I knew her. I saw something else in her as soon as I talked to her. I could see a lot of Linda in Rachael. She auditioned for me, and after some bumps she finally attached to the project a week before we were going to make it.
Did you rehearse a lot before you shot the film?
We didn’t have any rehearsal. Her first time reading was on set, when we did the first scene. We knew she was going to be good comedically, but we didn’t know what she could do dramatically until the second day. She had this scene where she had to get her heart basically ripped out of her—she had to cry and break down. I told my producers that she’d never done this before because she hadn’t on film. I thought we’d be there all day because expected that I’d have to beat it out of her, but from the first take she blew us all away. And that’s the way it went from then on.
There are so many different themes and issues in the movie, but it’s dealt with in a way that felt so natural and relatable. Even though this is a sort of strange and unique situation she’s in, it still felt like anyone could identify with it just in terms of trust and betrayal.
Rachael had just been through a divorce, and I think she was really drawing from that in a big way. I was consistently blown away by what she was giving us on set. It’s amazing to watch on screen, but more amazing to watch being there. Seeing this woman who is most known for being a comedienne—to me, it’s a transcendent performance. I think Rachael is naturally funny; she was able to play all the dramatic moments in a very honest way, but she was still naturally funny without trying to be. If a comedic actor is able to go to the depths that a dramatic actor can, they have a wider latitude of performance, generally. She’s smart enough to know there’s really no difference between tragedy and comedy. You play it all serious.
I feel like a dramatic actor would try and push for the comedy in some of the parts where her character was very innocent and a bit out of touch.
People always ask how was she able to go between drama and comedy so organically and the answer is: she’s not doing that. She’s just not thinking about it. I think a dramatic actress would have been thinking, This is a joke, and I have to play this moment with humor, or, I have to play this moment serious. Rachael just wasn’t thinking about that. She was just playing every moment real, and she was never looking down on that character or winking at the audience. It’s all Linda. Rachael is completely inhabiting her character.
So you grew up in a small town in Texas. Were these people that you knew and a community that you grew up in?
It wasn’t like Big Love or anything, but it was very religious, very middle class—Christian conservative. My mom was single for a large part of my childhood. I think being the son of a single mother enabled me to have a close relationship with my mother was a love/hate relationship.
So would you say that’s what inspired the film?
I wanted to do a movie about a woman like my mom for many years. I had never seen a woman like her on screen. My mom called me one night and told me that my stepdad, to whom she had been married for thirteen years at that point, was dying of cancer. I immediately went into kind of shock and I couldn’t sleep at night. All I could think about was, Who’s going to sleep with her now? Who’s going to keep her company? To me, the story is just about a woman who can’t sleep in an empty bed at the beginning, but might be able to at the end. I came to find out that I was not only dealing with my mom’s impending loneliness, but I was dealing with death as well. I was trying to imagine some world where my mom was going to be okay.
I think you portrayed that feeling really beautifully even if it’s in an indirect way. I think that’s why it did feel so human, because it did come from such a real place.
I didn’t want to write a movie about a woman whose husband is dying of cancer. I didn’t want it to be literal. I just wanted to take the feelings I was having and put it into a kind of fantasy world where I could sort everything out. A lot of it was stream of consciousness.
It had a very raw feeling the way it was shot. It was gritty and it was pretty unforgiving. Everyone looked like they were really dealing with these problems.
I banned makeup on the set. A lot of woman I grew up with in Texas do wear a ton of makeup, but my mom never wore make up. I actually read a review recently where a guy was just totally ripping into the movie and he says that I put all this old-woman make up on Rachael. I was offended, because there’s no make up on Rachael! That’s what she looks like and she’s beautiful! Every time I see the movie, I’m always blown away by how beautiful Rachael is.
I loved the duality in the characters. It made them endearing no matter what their flaws.
I think that all the characters are covering up their pain with some form of dependence. Linda is dependent on her husband, obviously, and to me the emotional motivation for her character is that she thinks her husband is going to die. I think someone faced with the death of a loved one will grab onto anything to keep them alive. The Christian stuff was just a backdrop. I just looked at them as flawed people.