Coping with life in the real world after college, when it’s seemingly spinning out of control, is a subject many recent graduates will surely be able to relate to. The main character Jillian, in the new comedy-drama Free Samples, which premiered at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival, starts off feeling that her life is falling apart, without purpose. But after a day with her friends and complete strangers, she comes to realize if she learns to trust others, she’ll be able to find her way in the world.
Free Samples follows Standford law student dropout Jillian (Jess Weixler) after she decides to put her legal career on hold to pursue a life in the arts. After quickly realizing that she doesn’t have any creative talent, Jillian begins questioning what she should be doing with the rest of her life. She has resorted to bar-tending and hanging out with her friends, including Nancy (Halley Feiffer) and Wally (Jason Ritter), and contemplates her estrangement from her fiance, Danny (Keir O’Donnell).
The day after Jillian’s latest hang-over, Nancy asks her to drive her ice cream truck and hand out the free samples of the new products she wants to promote. Jillian reluctantly agrees, as Nancy has to attend the intervention for her older brother, Peter (Jordan Davis). Along the way, Jillian receives an intervention of her own from the customers, who constantly bother her with ridiculous questions and bad attitudes. She begins to re-evaluate her life after these interactions, particularly after seeing Tex (Jesse Eisenberg) again, who she met the night before but hardly remembers.
First-time feature film director Jay Gammill and actress Jocelin Donahue, who plays Paula, one of Jillian’s former classmates at Standford, recently took the time to sit down with us at New York City’s Hilton Fashion District Hotel during this year’s Tribeca Film Festival. The two spoke about they both became involved in the film, how viewers can relate to Jillian’s struggles and what their reactions were when they heard the movie was accepted into the festival.
WGTC: Jay, Free Samples got started when screenwriter Jim Beggarly pitched you a story about friendship and trust. Why did you decide to direct the film?
Jay Gammill: Well, the first time I read it, I thought it was funny and hilarious. That was my initial response. Then the second and third times, I thought this character was on this journey. She was in this transitional phase that I related to, and I think that’s what ultimately kept me with it.
She’s at a place in her life where she has to make some choices about stuff that she thought was going to work out for her. I think a lot of people can relate to that.
WGTC: Jocelin, you play Paula in Free Samples. What was it about your character that convinced you to appear in the film?
JD: Well, I think similarly, when I read it, I was laughing out loud through the entire thing. I thought the dialogue was so authentic. It captures how girls talk to each other. Then all the random interactions she has with the people who come up, I think is so witty and funny.
Then I knew of Jess‘ (Weixler) work, and I was so honored to work with her. I think she’s so talented.
WGTC: Had you worked with Jess before on other films?
JD: No, but we know the same circle of people. I’m so happy for her, because I think she shines in this.
WGTC: Free Samples was made by production company Film Harvest, which has the goal of producing cost effective films. Did having a limited budget influence, or limit, what you could shoot?
JG: Yeah. Well, we were always intentional in the story that it needed to fit our budget. I think in that sense, it worked out well. But I think you’re always going to want more than you have.
We had a very fast shoot, in 10 days, but we made it work, and got through it. Our producers made it happen, and my hats are off to them.
WGTC: Jocelin, what was the preparation process like while you were rehearsing?
JD: It’s interesting, because my character does have a history with Jillian, and most of the other characters are just random people on the street. So we talked a little bit about who she was, and whether she was judging her or feeling sorry for her, and what the vibe would be of seeing each other again after a long time.
So there was a lot to play with there. Jay was really great with giving ideas for that, and we tried a bunch of different things.
WGTC: Did you create a back-story for your character before you began shooting, maybe how Paula met Jillian?
JD: Yeah, that part was written into the script, that they were friends at law school. Like I said, there was a fine line of not wanting to judge her, and also being surprised of seeing her in that situation. Then also maybe wanting to be more sympathetic.
Then there were other factors of wanting to hide her ex from her. There was a lot going on internally in that scene, even though it’s a small scene. It was fun, there were a lot of different elements at play.
JG: It was a very delicate balance. (laughs) But you pulled it off, you could really see that you care for her, but you have this secret.
JD: Whenever you have a secret as an actor, it’s good. (laughs)
WGTC: Jillian believes that her life has fallen apart, without purpose. While working on the ice cream truck, she comes to learn that the more she can trust other people, she will be able to find her way. Do you think viewers will be able to relate to Jillian’s struggles?
JG: Yeah. I find that some of the days where you most need that word of encouragement, it somehow comes to you, from a stranger or a friend. I just hope that it resonates, I know it resonates with me.
JD: Yeah, I think it’s striking a cord now. I feel like people stay younger, longer, in this new world. Whether it’s economic opportunities, or because people live longer, there’s a longer adolescent period before you become an adult. Right now, it’s hard to figure out your path, and everyone goes through that.
WGTC: Jay, Free Samples is your feature film directorial debut. What are some of the most important lessons you learned about filmmaking while you were shooting the movie?
JG: I learned so much. (laughs) One thing I learned is that when you have a very talented cast and crew, you let them do their job, they’ll do amazing. They’ll bring their own unique style to the film. You trust them to do their best, and they will. You realize who those people are that you have.
WGTC: Did you have a close working relationship with the cast and the crew, since it was such a sort shoot?
JG: Yeah, we did. It’s funny, when you’re doing very serious work, you can’t really have that rapport between takes. You’re trying to keep the tone on set very serious. While we were getting our work done, it was fun that we had that rapport.
WGTC: What was the casting process like for the film?
JG: There were so many ways that we cast it. We were very fortunate to have Jesse Eisenberg, who attached himself to the project early on. Then Jess got involved.
When we were getting closer to the shooting, I remember with Jocelin, we were late in pre-production, it was a very fast pre-production, we had still not yet cast her role. Then our producer showed me her work. I knew her from The House of the Devil, and I said, yeah, it would be an awesome opportunity.
It was a team effort. I think we had a really great casting director (Joe Lorenzo), who put a lot of great people in front of us.
WGTC: Speaking of The House of the Devil, Jocelin, what was the transition process like from that film, since it was a horror movie?
JD: (laughs) Jay was just talking about how much fun it is to be on the set of a comedy, and it’s true. It’s more light-hearted. When you’re doing a horror movie, you’re supposed to be terrified the entire time, or tripped out, or scarred.
It’s definitely more intense. This was so much fun. It was a joy to be on set with everybody.
WGTC: What was it like working with Jesse and Jason Ritter, since they’re a little more well-known? Did you have fun working with them?
JD: Yeah. I don’t really have scenes with them in this movie. I did know Jason from another movie that we had done. So it’s cool to see the same people. To be part of a group of people that work on indies is really cool. But meeting Jesse was fun for me. I’m a big fan of his.
WGTC: What do you hope that viewers will learn from Free Samples? Are there any lessons you hope they take away?
JG: Maybe a lesson to take risks in life, and maybe trust people. You can’t try to micro-manage your life.
WGTC: Jocelin, you have starred in several short films, including Heartbreaker and Boundaries. Do you have a preference of short films to feature films, or vice versa?
JD: Well, doing features is nice if you have a character you can have more time to think about who they are, and develop. But you always look for good content, whether it’s in short format, or in feature. We’ll see what comes.
WGTC: Free Samples premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival. What was your reaction when you heard that the film was accepted into the festival?
JD: So excited. I remember when Jay called me, I was really excited.
JG: It’s such an honor and pleasure to be here. There are other films that I’m looking forward to seeing, too.
WGTC: Since it’s your first film, were you surprised it was accepted here?
JG: I was happy. (laughs) It was thrilling.
WGTC: Do you both have any upcoming projects that you can discuss?
JD: I did a film, called Live at the Foxes Den, and I’m waiting to see where that will go. Hopefully to the festivals. But I sing in that movie, it’s exciting.
JG: I’m working on a few things, but nothing coming out yet.
WGTC: Jocelin, do you sing in real life?
JD: No, just karaoke. (laughs) It was my first time singing in an audition and singing in a movie. But my character’s not actually a singer, she’s a cocktail waitress. She gets pulled up on-stage to sing a song.
That concludes our interview, but we’d like to thank Jay Gammill and Jocelin Donahue for taking the time to talk to us. Free Samples premiered at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival on Friday, April 20 at New York City’s Clearview Cinemas Chelsea.