Although a far different existential crisis than the one faced by the lead in his first film “Free Samples,” Jay Gammill encountered a crossroads while going to film school. As a storyteller, his sensibilities drifted towards the comedic while a desire to be taken more seriously pushed him in the direction of drama, so when it came time to direct his feature debut, he was pleasantly surprised to discover a kindred spirit in screenwriter Jim Beggarly, whom he had met at a film festival and had passed along an idea about a young woman who is surly well beyond years.
“Thankfully, there’s a world where you can make that comedy-drama film,” says Gammill. “It’s like I get to have fun and enjoy it, but I also get to connect with characters, which is why I like watching movies.”
Parked firmly between those two genres, “Free Samples” offers up a “Waiting for Godot”-esque tragicomedy set during this golden age of food trucks, where Jillian, a recent dropout of Stanford Law School ponders her future in between handing out cups of an unidentified frozen dessert for a company trial to a parade of eccentrics, old acquaintances or some combination thereof. Anchored by the reliably radiant Jess Weixler as the taciturn Jillian, the movie’s revolving door of customers and passerbys lends itself to an impressive ensemble that includes Weixler’s “Peter and Vandy” co-star Jason Ritter, Haley Feiffer, Jesse Eisenberg, Matt Walsh, “House of the Devil”’s Jocelin Donahue and Tippi Hedren, who in particular shines as a former actress who knocks some sense into Jillian by describing her own life as a shut-in once she felt her best years were behind her.
Clearly, that’s not the case for either Gammill or Weixler, who recently took the time to talk about “Free Samples” a year removed from its debut at the Tribeca Film Festival on the eve of its day-and-date theatrical and VOD release, reflecting on the unusually smooth way the film came together through friends and the sweaty days they spent on the truck during a short shoot in Los Angeles.
How’d you get interested in Jim Beggarly’s script?
Jess Weixler: Jesse [Eisenberg] was first attached to the movie and brought the script to me and he’s like, “Do you want to do this? It’s the lead.” I haven’t been offered a character like this before where you get to be a sourpuss the whole time…not the whole time. Hopefully, [Jillian] has moments of being a good listener. But I hope it’s something that people can relate to when you’re in the service industry and you are just not having a good day and you’re forced to interact with people when you’re not in the right state of mind.
In a larger way, I saw her as a person who worked very hard all of her life but had been working hard in the wrong direction, like towards being a lawyer and getting engaged and those jobs or those people were not right for her, so it’s like she’s throwing the baby out with the bathwater for this year of her life.
Jay Gammill: It was really those dramatic underpinnings that I could relate to. I feel like I’ve been in every one of these circumstances in my life. Jim Beggarly, the screenwriter pitched the idea to me originally and I loved it, then he wrote it and what I really liked about the script itself was it was just really funny and I loved the dry humor of Jillian, but on the second look, it was really like I can relate the idea of what your life should be is often different than what it is, so how do you reconcile that? [Jillian] felt stuck and maybe was making choices for the wrong reasons and finally realized it, so it’s taking that step back and that’s what I really liked about the film. If that hadn’t been there, it wouldn’t have been something I would’ve been into.
Since she’s stuck in more ways than one, what was it like shooting in one location for the most part?
JG: That was hard. A big concern early on before we were shooting was that we had to have a location where we could have the truck, but also find places around the truck, so we could have a scene by the dumpster and you’d feel like you weren’t in the same place, or a scene on the lawn with Tippi [Hedren]. Those were things we were looking for in our location so we could always keep it interesting and really, I owe a lot of that to our [cinematographer] Reed Morano. She was just so in tune. We were both on the same page when we were scouting locations and she always had ideas on how to change something up, like we haven’t seen something from this angle or we could just switch this, so we could keep it fresh. That’s challenging.
For Jess, was it an interesting experience to have a new scene partner every day?
JW: It was. I felt like I was part of the crew and all these guest stars are coming to play and hang out and you start over and find a new dynamic every day. Oftentimes on a shoot, you build a camraderie with people, which was nice about doing this with so many friends. Keir or Jason, they’re people who there was some familiarity with, and when you’re on a 13-day shoot, which is extremely short, you don’t get a lot of takes. So it helps to have a bit of a shorthand with people and be around people you’re already comfortable with because it just naturally takes longer when you’re getting to know somebody to find your groove. With friends around, you can at least be like, alright, let’s try to get comfortable together as quickly as possible and see how to make this story move forward so that something’s happening in each scene. We hope something’s happening in each scene.
Was it a different energy in the scene with Tippi Hedren? Even putting her legendary status aside, her first scene with you is one of the few to take place outside the truck and is pivotal for both the film and it would seem the tone of the shoot.
JW: What I really loved about working with Tippi and playing opposite her character is that it’s when I have to listen. I’m not just shutting people down or cutting people off. She’s saying something that’s worth listening to and absorbing, just that there are many lives within one life and by the time you’re her age, that’s just a truth, so make the choices you want to make. I think Jillian in some way learns you can’t just be miserable all the time. [laughs]
Still, I wanted to get to that – there’s one scene of you actually driving the truck. As difficult as it looked?
JW: It was not easy to operate. [laughs] It was this really old, falling apart truck that died right after shooting or in the middle of shooting even…
JG: Both. Or before we were shooting. All of the above.
JW: It just died all the time. Those old trucks are tricky to operate. I’m sure the newer ones are better.
They wouldn’t have had as much character.
JG: We had our challenges, but we were very much all on the same truck.