Kooky Stuff: June Diane Raphael on Ass Backwards

The writer and co-star of the Sundance favorite on not using butt doubles and working outside the studio system.

Fred Topelby Fred Topel

I got to take a little bit of Sundance home with me. One of the movies I saw in Park City was Ass Backwards, written by and starring Casey Wilson and June Diane Raphael. I didn’t meet them at the festival, but I got to interview Raphael by phone from L.A. Raphael and Wilson have been writing partners since college and also co-wrote Bride Wars together. Ass Backwards is the R-rated (well, it will be once it’s distributed) adventure of Chloe (Wilson) and Kate (Raphael), returning to the beauty pageant they lost as children. Check out my review in the Sundance recaps and my reminiscing with Raphael over the Sundance classic. 

CraveOnline: When did you get back from Sundance?

June Diane Raphael: I was back on Friday and I feel like my skin is just now recovering. It was dry. At one point I was like, I think my eyeballs feel dry. Everything is zapped of moisture. It’s good to be back.

You and Casey’s faces are so expressive. Is that something you’ve worked on and developed over years in comedy, or have you just always been that way?

That’s so funny. You know, I think that we’ve worked together for a very long time. I mean, Casey and I met when we were 18 at NYU in a clown class, so maybe some of those expressions you saw came from our background in clowning. We have such, I think, just a comfortable rapport with each other and really as performers, there’s a lot of generosity and a lot of trust which is so nice in comedy because there’s so much improvising. We just feel really safe and comfortable with each other. In terms of our faces and our expressions, I don’t know. I don’t notice it at all. I mean, there were certain scenes where I’m like, “Okay June, take it down a notch or two.” But I don’t know that that’s something we’ve really cultivated as much as it’s just a bit, and maybe unfortunately, instinctual.

Which were some scenes where you thought you overdid it?

Oh, you know what, Fred, I think I’m amazing in every scene. Let’s be serious, let’s be serious. No, I think the joy of the movie is that they’re bigger characters. I think that there’s a lot of comedy where you haven’t seen women doing bigger characters in a while. Not to say they’re sketch characters necessarily but they are heightened. Their worldview is heightened and their delusion is heightened and that’s a tone that we really wanted to go for. So performance-wise, I think that fell in line too. We were going for a bigger comedy. This wasn’t I think your typical Sundance comedy where it sort of leans more into the dramedy than the comedy. This is definitely balls out, we’re playing big characters. These are girls that in some ways wear costumes every day. They dress up and perform the idea of themselves every day so I think that that’s the tone we were going for.

Kate and Chloe are just totally positive. There’s nothing cynical about them. Was that also the kind of character you wanted to create?

Yeah, it’s so funny because I think especially with our generation, enthusiasm and sincerity and optimism is seen as sort of not cool and maybe a little bit lame. I think that we had so much fun playing these characters and we love them so much because of their optimism. I think that’s a very hard thing for people to hold onto in real life, optimism and enthusiasm. Even though we wanted them to learn and by the end of the movie locate themselves in the real world on some level, we didn’t want to strip them of what we think is so lovable about them, which is their infectious optimism. That truly does come from my relationship with Casey and the way we met and our lives in a certain period of time where we were constantly affirming each other and telling each other that the other person was just the best and they weren’t doing anything wrong and if the world was saying no to them on any level, that was the world’s problem and to not worry about it at all. So I think extrapolated, it of course can be detrimental, but also it’s something I really love about the characters.

Me too obviously. So the opening shot of the movie, were those your real asses?

Unfortunately, yes.

What do you mean, unfortunately?

[Laughs] We couldn’t afford butt doubles so we had to put our own asses on parade. The other thing too is this is an independent film, so there were no makeup trailers. To get ready for that shot, we were literally the two of us in a van, in a cargo van on the side of the road where our makeup artists were hanging towels over the windows and we were just on all fours hunched over getting our asses touched up. It’s just like wild times. We always have loved that opening shot and the idea of starting off the movie that way, and when we wrote it we were like, “This is hilarious, we’ve got to do this, this is everything.” But then when you’re actually there shooting the scene and you’re on all fours on the side of the road in a van, it’s like a different thing.

It’s only a few seconds in the movie. How long did you have to do it?

We had to do it for a while. We actually had to reshoot that. We had to reshoot that three different times. There are those piss streams. That was one of our most complicated shoot days because it’s all in one shot, we were trying to get the water to come together. So one day we had started shooting and we got rained out. Another day the water wasn’t working and then finally we came back. So literally our asses were out three different times.

Wow, that’s art, man. That’s what Sundance is all about.


When Chloe and Kate sing the CD skipping, is that something you and Casey really do?

Well, the whole idea of this road trip came from a road trip we took together right out of college when we were leaving New York to go to South Carolina to perform this sketch show that we used to do at a festival down there. Our friendship was definitely tested on that ride. Both of our phones were shut off when we left Manhattan because we hadn’t paid the bill. Casey had brought her CDs and the only CD we had that was working was Les Mis because the rest of them were all scratched up and I was so angry at her because I would have brought my CDs had I known. So we just were listening to Les Mis the whole time and then halfway through the trip, that CD got scratched too. So by the end of the trip, we had just memorized all the skips and honestly, preferred them.

When you and Casey are writing together, are you all business?

No, not at all. The way we write, we kind of break the story and pitch ideas and jokes and just the story structure together, but then once we have that, we usually split it in half, the outline and then we write on our own. Once we have the outline, we’re constantly passing the script back and forth over e-mail. So we don’t write in the same room but that’s mainly because we have difficult schedules to make that happen. So by the end of a script, whether it’s a feature or a TV show, we don’t even know who’s written what but it’s so much fun. In some ways, I can’t imagine writing on my own in terms of comedy because there’s something so easy about well, if I write something and Casey laughs at it, then I know it’s good. Or if I laugh at something she’s written. We have a built in system of checks and balances there, and if something doesn’t make us laugh then it doesn’t get in. I think if I were on my own, it would be much harder to know, is this actually funny? Am I on the right track? Whereas with each other, A, it’s just fun to get together and f*** around and think of ideas, but it’s also a lot easier to trust in our work because we both trust each other so much.

That does seem very disciplined though. That’s what I meant by “all business.”

Oh, yeah, look, we work very hard. We definitely have a really great working relationship. It’s something we totally worked on though. Casey and I have gone to an astrologer together and gotten a couple’s reading, figured out these are her strengths according to her sign and these are mine. We’ve done kooky stuff together because a writing partnership is totally a sacred relationship. We take it very seriously. As much as we have fun doing it, we set deadlines for ourselves. We’re both Capricorns, Fred, so we’re very goal oriented.

So you have a meth house, a lesbian camp, a strip club. Is there anything that didn’t make it into the script for Ass Backwards?

We actually shot a scene that did not make it in just because of pacing. We shot a scene at a pawn shop. It’s right after the animal hospital scene where Chloe’s brought all of her things in the van so we go to sell them, and Kate of course has brought nothing. So it’s this nice moment where you realize Chloe has all these material attachments and Kate just has her hormones with her. The woman who runs the pawn shop, we think we’re just going to make a mint off of Chloe’s nicknacks. She’s got Babysitter Club books there, just the randomest assortment of things. We think we’re going to make a mint and we’re going to get there and we’re going to have money, and she gives us 40 dollars. And we see that Laurel’s book is being sold there for about the same amount.

You talked about how hard it was to shoot the opening shot. Were there any scenes you would have liked to go further but you didn’t have the days or the resources to continued?

I think the pageant destruction was written as a much bigger set piece, and we definitely had limitations in terms of just production and time. I think that’s one area where if we had the time and money, we probably would have made that a bigger scene. That said, it’s kind of amazing to see what you can do with editing and sound to at least make it feel the same way. The restrictions we had were definitely just budgetary. Creatively we were able to go as far as we wanted to. We just had to make adjustments based on what we could afford.

Have you thought of other adventures Kate and Chloe could go on?

You know, we do think the characters can live on. One idea we’ve been tooling around is do they need to go to Europe together? Where do we want to place them to see them find their way back? I think that’s what is nice about the end of the movie. I think a lot of Hollywood movies, they do such a makeover with the characters and the characters have to learn so much by the end that then you’re really limited and you also kind of, I think, kind of destroy their spirits a bit when you change them entirely. So I think Kate and Chloe definitely have more adventures. We’re not quite sure where we want to see them yet but they’ve got a lot of life left in them.

Have you had any bites from distributors or offers since Sundance?

We are working on all of that as I speak. We have a lot of interest in the movie. I think we’re trying to figure out where the right home is and we feel like there is definitely an audience. Especially when we saw it play in Salt Lake City which was really fun because it was pretty unbelievable to see it with just your average moviegoing crowd who wants to see a movie and have a good time. The movie just played really well so we’re very confident we’re going to find the right home for it.

Has anyone raised concern with the title and suggested changing it?

You know, no. We haven’t had any problems with the title. In fact, I think the distributors are very happy with the title. I think what they may have to do to sell it in certain places is probably put the $$ sign over the S’es, but otherwise nobody’s said anything. I’m certainly not going to bring up that concern.

Just because this seems like such a different voice from Bride Wars, how much did that script change in the studio system?

I mean, I think that everybody who works in the studio system can testify to being rewritten a million times. It’s definitely comedy by committee. We’re proud of the movie and we stand behind the movie. Our draft went through the studio process which is unfortunate because sometimes you pitch them a version of the movie and then they get super excited about it and you’re writing a draft, and then when you start developing it, everything that you were hired to do is what they then want to take out of it. I think ultimately that was still a movie that we always felt the heart of that movie was about friendship, and about female friendship. So that’s something that we’ve always been interested in exploring and writing about. But of course, every studio comedy, for the most part, and that was our first feature that we ever wrote, every studio movie goes through a real process of tons and tons of writers coming on. So by the time it’s done and by the time you have a shooting draft, sometimes it’s barely recognizable. There’s definitely remnants of stuff that we wrote in there. There were major changes to the story that are absolutely ours and that we’re proud of, but it went through the cycle for sure.

What were those initial pitches that fell by the wayside in that process?

There’s a lot of different characters we had that didn’t make it in. There were set pieces that we had that never made it in. I think stuff that we wanted to do in terms of comedy was probably bigger and I think funnier. The movie was ultimately a PG movie which is definitely not where our script started. We actually worked with a studio executive at Fox on that movie who’s an extremely smart woman and has become a good friend of ours, so I’m not the kind of writer that’s like, “Oh, studios are terrible and their notes are horrible.” In some ways I think her notes were great and I got why she gave them. They made the story better. I think what suffers a lot of times is the comedy but we still stand behind our work. We stand behind the movie and we’re incredibly proud to have that opportunity and be a part of it.

I didn’t mean in a bad way. I’m just always fascinated by what might have been and the process?

No, believe me, it’s a fascinating thing. It was a fascinating process. It truly is because it’s one that’s done by a lot of people and I think any time art is made by a million different people, it’s always a little bit problematic. That was what was so exciting about doing Ass Backwards, that it’s just us.

Fred Topel is a staff writer at CraveOnline. Follow him on Twitter at @FredTopel.