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Horse Girl director Jeff Baena on creating the awkward mental health alien abduction movie of the year

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Feb 14, 2020, 7:00 PM EST

Horse Girl is not your standard mental illness movie. And it's not your standard alien abduction movie. It might be both or neither of those, and therein lies what makes it special. Sarah (Alison Brie) is an awkward woman attempting to make friends, to find connection, and finding herself unable. Instead, she finds solace in crafting, her former horse (former being the operative word), and her favorite supernatural crime procedural (starring Robin Tunney and Matthew Gray Gubler in a series I would totally be into were it real). 

But when Sarah starts having strange dreams, losing time, and experiencing weird physical side effects, like bruises and nosebleeds, her mind starts to twist. Is she a clone? Is she being abducted by aliens? Or is she exhibiting signs of mental illness? 

The movie keeps us guessing, and lets us decide for ourselves. But director Jeff Baena isn't a fan of clear answers. SYFY FANGRRLS spoke to Baena about the film, which he co-wrote with Brie.

You and Alison wrote this together. How did this idea come about?

So we've worked together twice before and she lives in my neighborhood, a couple blocks away. She asked me if I wanted to go on a hike, and she had something she wanted to tell me. And she pitched a bare-bones version based on some of her anecdotal history with her grandmother who had paranoid schizophrenia. She wanted to come up with an idea for a movie about a woman who has a family history of mental illness, but then is having unexplained, possibly sci-fi things happening to her, and she isn't capable of telling what's real and what's not. And that sounded really interesting to me, so we just started talking. And I had another idea that was in this world of a girl who grew up riding horses, and no longer had access to that, and how it affected her. And we realized that they actually are complementary ideas, and just started discussing it as if it was one.

This character seems to find her entire identity in these things she loves, like the horse, her favorite TV show, crafting, and it feels like such a very specific fandom thing I think a lot of people can relate to. It's like, "Who am I beyond this thing?"

Mm-hmm. I'm sort of interested in the way we dismiss people. And I think it's easy to compartmentalize or group people, to be reductive about who people are. It's like a marker that we use to stereotype, and to group people together is maybe an efficient way of seeing the world, but I don't think it's an effective way. And I think I'm interested in going deeper into things that we only take at face value, and go beneath the surface and see what's underneath.

Specifically, with women, a lot of female interests get dismissed or diminished as not that important, or as not taken seriously. And that can range from the horse girl concept to major mental health issues. Those things are so often just dismissed for women.

Yeah, absolutely. I don't know if we were intentionally trying to explore the way women are minimized necessarily, but unconsciously I'm sure, and that is something I'm concerned with. I think to some extent everything that I've put my creative energy into is to bring people closer to some extent and to help shed light on things that we don't normally take seriously, or don't consider enough. And I think women are definitely minimized in our culture, and subordinated, and have been for almost all of time. So it just seems like a byproduct of that, and I'm definitely fascinated by the way that society does that and looking for ways to counteract that creatively.

It's kind of a theme for a lot of the movies you've worked on, a throughline of grief in the characters. I adored Joshy, which also focuses on the different ways people deal with grief. Was that a piece of what you wanted to bring into this?

Yeah, absolutely. Dramatically, I think loss is such a fertile ground to explore. I think there's this feeling to this movie, and definitely to Joshy, and even in Life After Beth too, which is also dealing with loss and grief, where it's almost like all the fun stuff already happened and now we're left with cleaning up. The circus has left town and there's that sort of empty feeling, but still trying to find meaning. I don't know why I'm drawn to that, but I think if everything is going great that's not super interesting to watch. We have these preconceived notions of the way things are, and then watching those plans fall to the wayside, and then having to contend with the stark reality, I think that's pretty interesting. And so maybe that's what I'm drawn to? I don't know, but there's definitely a throughline between that. And I think to some extent the difficulty of love — even The Little Hours, which is a funny movie, for me, I think I was also drawn to the idea that these are people too, and they've been dead for 600 something years. There is a disconnect and there is a wall between us, which is built by death and the destruction of time. I think that that's definitely a theme that I don't know exactly why I'm drawn to it, but I definitely am.

There's such a loneliness in Sarah, and the isolation of trying to reach out and make some kind of connection, and of how hard it is to make friends as an adult that's really relatable. Joshy was dealing with his grief, and did have friends around but still felt lonely, whereas Sarah is literally alone.

Connection's hard. And I'd like to think that I'm trying to tackle these movies in a compassionate way. And ultimately by seeing this side of the way this all works, that you're going to understand how that, in the real world, that connection can be achieved or is worthwhile. But yeah, Joshy, for instance, everyone is technically there for him, but they're really there for themselves, and they think they're doing the right thing, but they're really not listening to him, or paying attention to him.

And even though he's theoretically the main character of the movie, he has the least screen presence. He's almost receding to the background in every scene. And that's a function of just these guys thinking they're doing the right thing, but really they're not really being present, and listening, and paying attention. And in this movie, I think it's a more extreme version, and I think the cringier, or the more sad or desperate moments, I think are generally suffered in quiet or in solitude. And so by highlighting them this way, we're able to experience things that maybe we take for granted, or don't consider or appreciate.

You seem to work with a lot of the same people — like, Alison, Paul Reiser, Molly Shannon. Does that build a sense of comfort and trust on set? Do you all understand each other in a way? Or is it just you like working with them?

I think it's both. The way I work is a little bit atraditional, so having people that I've worked with before on set definitely helps. And then I fall in love with everyone I'm working with. If it was up to me, I would use every single person I've worked with over and over and over again, to the point where I have a cast of thousands. The problem is I can't let them go, I love them.

Right.

But I try not to cast people that are big stretches and try to find people that, number one, I can trust their abilities and their talent. And number two, they understand the material. And number three, they're just fun to be around, because the creative process is harrowing and there's vulnerability. And inevitably you're putting yourself out there and you want to feel safe, and you want people to feel comfortable. And obviously having worked with them before, it makes it easier for them to feel more comfortable. But there's a reason why I cast them all, I'm in love with every single person I cast and I want them to keep coming back, and I want to keep working with them. And obviously that's not technically feasible, but I'm trying my best.

In terms of the sci-fi element and visuals, how did you approach that, both in the script and then directing? Really wanting to make it seem like this could be a real sci-fi tale and not a cut-and-dry "this is simply manifestation of mental illness."

I try to keep it grounded, but at the same time, I didn't want to sell it short. And the way I envision it, I have a series of really strange dreams, and one, in particular, had to do with abduction and I was trying to utilize some of the imagery from that. And also something that would be a foil against her every day mundane life, something that would just really juxtapose that ordinariness. So in the script, it was always describing it as a vague white space. But in my mind, especially since she's not sure whether or not this is real or not, the place that she ends up going, or wherever she is in those dream sequences, is so foreign and unnatural.

I wanted to make it almost like her memory is incapable of fully processing it. So I use the white space almost like it's a negative space. And so there's things that you are not actually seeing that her mind is incapable of processing. Since there's so much of this memory issue in the movie, with the way that potentially these aliens are controlling her, or paralyzing her, or removing these things from her memory, it's almost like it's an absence that you feel as opposed to something you see.

Horse Girl is now available to stream on Netflix.

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