Allison Burnett is a rarity in Hollywood. He is not just a successful Hollywood screenwriter, a respected novelist, and a published critic and poet, but also a film director. His new film, Ask Me Anything, which he wrote and directed based on his own novel Undiscovered Gyrl, was released two weeks ago in selected theaters and on all digital platforms. It stars Martin Sheen, Christian Slater, Justin Long, and, in the lead role, luminous newcomer Britt Robertson. Recently I sat down with Allison in his Los Angeles home to discuss the challenges of indie filmmaking in general, as well as the difficulties with his leading lady that has caught the attention of the national media.
Dusty Wright: You wrote and directed Red Meat in 1996 and then did not direct again until Ask Me Anything. What took you so long to tackle directing again?
Alilson Burnett: To me the great allure of directing is creative control. Something screenwriting rarely affords. Making an indie movie requires a huge exertion of time and energy to raise the independent capital or attract a production company that will secure that freedom. As much as I loved directing Red Meat, I simply wasn't prepared to go through that ordeal again. Also, as indie filmmaking pays next to nothing, I needed to make a living. So I returned to studio screenwriting. In the years that followed, whenever I craved authorial control, I achieved it not by returning to directing, but by writing novels. I published five novels between Red Meat and Ask Me Anything.
DW: Why return to directing at all then?
AB: I missed it. And I had what I felt was an important story to tell. If Mary Harron, Greg Mottola, Noah Baumbach or some other indie filmmaker I admire had wanted to direct my script, sure, I would have given it away in a heartbeat, but that wasn't about to happen. And since the script was based on my novel, Undiscovered Gyrl, I knew I was distinctly well suited to direct it.
DW: I'd like to discuss your recent problems involving your lead actress Britt Robertson's refusal to promote the film. But first give our readers some background on how the movie got made and how she landed the role.
AB: Britt was one of the first actresses I auditioned. She was ideal for Katie Kampenfelt in so many ways, but she seemed to be struggling with the lighter side of the character. Later, after I had seen dozens of actresses for the role, I learned that Britt had been offered a small role in a studio comedy whose schedule conflicted with ours. She far preferred to play Katie. If we did not cast her now, however, we would lose her forever. I was also told that she had had trouble with the humor when she auditioned for me because she had been going through a rough patch with her boyfriend, and that she was feeling much better now. So I called her back in. She blew me away. I knew we had found our Katie. I spoke at length with my producers, and we all agreed to give her the role. That should have been the happy ending. But because of a disastrous mistake by our casting director, the offer took four days to reach Britt's agent. It arrived an hour too late. Heartbroken that we did not want her, Britt had just said yes to the studio movie. It was a nightmare for us, because without a brilliant Katie, there was no point in making the movie.
DW: Was there any talk of giving up?
AB: No, but it was scary as hell. We brought in dozens of more girls. I eventually chose a newcomer with almost no meaningful acting experience. It was a risk but I thought she might have the raw talent to pull it off. I worked with her almost every day for weeks until I discovered five days before shooting that she refused, despite previous assurances to the contrary, to shoot nudity of any kind. The movie is hardly explicit, but Katie's sexual encounters had to feel real. I was forced to fire her. Now the movie was scheduled to start shooting in five days and we had no Katie.
DW: That's unbelievable--.
AB: Tell me about it. We put out an immediate SOS and auditioned and re-auditioned everyone we thought had a prayer of getting the part. In the middle of this madness, I got a letter from Britt, telling me that she had heard that I had lost my Katie, and that she was still desperate to play the part. She said she would do anything asked of her if we would work around her other movie and give her the role. The letter was so beseeching and heartfelt that I gave her the role, even though it meant shooting the movie in two installments.
DW: And costly, right?
AB: Very, but not as expensive as what happened next. Several days into shooting, they announced Hurricane Sandy was on its way to smash New York City. Britt's other movie was shooting in New York City. So the other producers decided to yank Britt off our set and fly her to Atlanta, where she was to sit in a hotel room until Sandy had blown over. It didn't make a whole lot of sense of many levels, and it was devastating to our schedule, but they had the muscle and used it. Well, we all know the chaos wrought by Sandy, almost as bad as could be imagined. To make a long story short, the next months were absolute insanity. The other movie's schedule was blown to pieces, changing every day, and somehow we had to cobble our movie together in Britt's little chunks of free time. In the end, we shot five days in October, six in November, five in December, and six in January. If anyone watching the movie wonders how a small indie managed to capture real Halloween and real Christmas in the same movie it's because we actually shot at both times. Sheer lunacy. And, as you correctly pointed out, very, very expensive. But worth it because Britt's attitude and work ethic were exemplary, and her performance is undeniably once of the best any young actress has pulled off in years.
DW: Okay, so let's flash forward. You finally finish the movie and...?
AB: Britt won Best Actress at the Nashville Film Festival. The movie also won Best Music there. We received a rave review from the LA Times. It's streaming everywhere and doing well. But Britt refuses to help us promote the film.
DW: Why go AWOL?
AB: The short answer is "I have not the faintest idea." Here's the long answer. When Britt saw the completed movie for the first time, she wrote me an email. She said that she had never been more proud of anything she had ever done and that she would do anything to help promote the film. She was, to put it mildly, over the moon. We sold the film to the first distributor who saw it. Naturally, Britt's total commitment to promoting the movie was intrinsic to the deal. But something had occurred between the time I gave her the role and the movie's moving toward its release: Britt had landed the leads in two giant movies -- Disney's Tomorrowland, starring George Clooney, and the new Nicholas Sparks film, The Longest Ride.
DW: You think the fact that she is about to become famous is the reason she has disappeared?
AB: Where facts are absent, rumors fill the void. The first thing I heard was that Disney, not too keen on their leading lady promoting a movie in which her character gets drunk, smokes pot, and has sex with three different men, had put a gag on Britt. It seemed far-fetched but what did I know? Then I heard the same thing about the producers of The Longest Ride. And now I am hearing that there is a jealous boyfriend in the mix. Which I suppose is possible, as Britt's boyfriend Dylan O'Brien, star of The Maze Runner, is quite close with teen idol Max Carver, one of the three men Katie sleeps with in the movie. This sort of speculation in the end is a dead end, though, because what really matters is that a brilliant young artist has given a breathtaking performance of which she is deeply proud, and for some reason she has been advised to keep her mouth shut about it. Maybe I'll never know the real reason. Maybe it's a combination of all of the above. Maybe Britt is simply too valuable a commodity right now to risk her brand by pushing a movie this raw and honest. All I know is, after a long expensive ordeal to use Britt, we have been repaid with total betrayal. It stinks. A planned press junket was canceled. TV show appearances scuttled. In a marketplace cluttered with choices, this sort of media exposure would have launched the movie in an incredible way. Instead, we are almost solely reliant on social media.
DW: Any chance Britt will have second thoughts?
AB: No. She hasn't written back to me in months. And her agent is claiming that no one from our movie ever contacted her about publicity -- which is of course laughable. What indie movie would not approach its lead actress to do publicity? Plus, her reps have been fighting tooth and nail to have the "best-faith efforts to promote" clause expunged from her contract. If we never approached her to promote, why bother with that? No, the ship is sailed. Britt is gone. And her beautiful performance is now being treated as a dirty little secret. I just hope that in years to comes when she is reminded by fans how incredible she was in the part, it occurs to her that maybe what she did was not just unethical but foolish.
DW: What's your take away from all of this?
AB: Don't ever cast anyone in a small movie without iron-clad assurances of marketing support. And that in Hollywood no good deed goes unpunished.
DW: Sadly nothing surprises me in this business we call show. Any new projects looming on the horizon you'd like to share with our readers?
AB: I want to direct my own adaptation of Tish Cohen's brilliant novel Inside Out Girl. It's about a parenting expert, single mother of two, who falls in love with a wonderful man. The only impediment to their being together is his special-needs daughter, who forces her to confront her buried issues as a woman and a mother