In this interview from TFF 2012, director Jay Gammill talks about Free Samples, his directorial debut that stars indie darling Jess Weixler, Oscar nominee Jesse Eisenberg, Jason Ritter, and Tippi Hedren. Available to watch now on-demand or through digital platforms, the film is now playing in LA and opens next week in NYC

Tribeca: Tell us a little about Free Samples. How would you describe the movie in your own words?

Jay Gammill: Free Samples is a film about finding yourself. I think we’ve all experienced times when our idea of what our life should look like is at odds with what it actually is, but eventually life intervenes, and so this film is about the journey through the wayward moments. It confronts that journey front and center, and through Jillian, the main character, it pokes some fun at it. Everyone makes choices in life, be they good or bad, and those moments of decision are the ones that matter. I think this film really says that this happens to everyone.

Tribeca: Every Generation Y-er can relate to Free Samples. Was it the fact that Jim Beggarly’s script addressed a much-shared experience that drew you to the project?

JG: Well, partly because the script is so relatable. I met Jim when we were coming out of film school, and we knew we wanted to work together. Jim had written a bunch of scripts, and this was one. I loved the idea itself and immediately connected to it. I was able to relate to the story, especially having gone through something similar, like everybody else. Over time what the story means to me has changed. My intuition about the script was good—it is about a life crisis—but I began to understand that the real theme of the movie is the challenge of trusting again and taking a risk after you have been disappointed, especially when you are not sure what’s going to happen.

The other thing that drew me to the script was how authentic the characters were as written. Their dialogue was so witty and organic, and I also related to this story of a person who’s trying to find meaning in her life and wishing she could somehow stop the world around her while she figures it out

Tribeca: Were you able to have input on the final script?

JG: Jim did a few drafts of it, and we would go back and forth.  I had a couple of ideas that he liked and implemented, but at the end of the day, it’s Jim’s script. It’s so funny because our sensibilities, from the very beginning, were so in tune that we never had any issues. Our collaboration would be like, “What if there was a different flavor to that scene?” or something like that. We just played around.

Tribeca: Was Jim able to be on set?

JG: He was, which I loved. He had some great ideas on set that we were able to incorporate, and he was able to troubleshoot things that weren’t working from a writer’s standpoint. When we were making Free Samples, it very much felt like a team sport. 

I thought coming out of film school that you could go from film school to getting a studio picture. Not so, and it is important to be realistic.

Tribeca: Can you give us a sense of your timeline? How long have you been working on Free Samples?

JG: Jim wrote the script in the spring of 2008, and then we started the process of finding the right production team that could bring in investors/financing. We did it outside the traditional system, but attracting interest from Jesse and Jess gave us confidence that all of this would be possible. Having Joe McKelheer and Eben Kostbar from Film Harvest come on was just great. The whole process was an incredible journey.

There were so many times we’d almost go into production and it just didn’t happen. There were times when I was going to give up. Then Joe texted me one day, “I think I’m going to have good news for you this weekend.” I thought, “Yeah, right.” But that was the weekend that we got the green light and our investors really got behind us. I would have survived if Free Samples hadn’t happened, but I’m so glad it did.

Tribeca: How long was the actual shooting process?

JG: We shot for 13 days. We would be on the set for 12-hour days, from sun rise on. We would wait for the first beams of light to hit and then start shooting straight through to the sunset.

Tribeca: You have an exceptional cast: an Oscar nominee, several television stars, a couple of indie darlings and a bona fide Hollywood legend. Can you tell us about the casting process?

JG: We were so fortunate. I’m still pinching myself.  If my memory serves, Jesse Eisenberg was involved in another project at the time, but it didn’t end up working out, so when we got him the script, he could respond and attached himself to the project. As for Jess Weixler, who plays Jillian, she was always the actress that Jim and I saw for the role. The story I hear is that Jesse ran into her one day at an audition in New York back in 2008. She responded to the script, which was great. As for the rest of the cast, I knew that I wanted to work with Jason Ritter and Halley Feiffer in the roles that they played. There was a great sense of camaraderie among the cast when we went into pre-production and production.

As for Tippi Hedren, it was so unreal for me at the time and still is. The role that she plays, this tired B-actress from old Hollywood, was difficult to cast. I originally thought that I wanted somebody who embodied the essence of the character, and Tippi is not that. She is a movie legend. However, her current work and past work makes her perfect for the role. She understood the character.

When we hadn’t cast the role and one of the producers asks me whom I wanted, I half-jokingly said “Tippi Hedren.” She was always my first choice so we went for it. We sent her the material and she responded positively to it. It was such a pleasure to work with her and have her as a part of film.

Tribeca: It was so interesting to see someone like Tippi Hedren in a movie that seemed custom made for Generation Y. She just knocked it out of the park. Free Samples was also a bit of a departure for Jesse Eisenberg, who is actually pretty studly in the film.

JG: [laughs] It’s funny because a number of people had said that who have seen the movie. I love that. I love that he can do that. He’s just so good.

Tribeca: Most of the events of the film take place over a single afternoon. I loved how you showed time passing. Did any films inspire you in particular?

JG: A film I did look to early on was Clerks. Similar to Free Samples, it certainly had humor, and it took place over one day, but it came across as more episodic in comparison to the film I wanted to make. It was, however, informative to see how that film was constructed within its own slice-of-life story. My biggest worry, though, was how I was going to shoot Free Samples, how to pull it off logistically within the independent film budget. Sometimes it seemed like the odds were against us.

We were shooting in December and only had about 8 hours of light to work with. That was really tough. The film really took shape during the editing process. Certain scenes didn’t make it into the final film, because we had to feel out how the pacing should work so that we could create the feel of time passing.

Tribeca: You chose such an interesting location to film a movie. It felt like a kooky little LA spot hidden away from all good society. Only vagabonds seemed to drift through Jess’s day. Did anything crazy happen on set?

JG: Well, we didn’t have that location until three days before the start of production. That was lightning strikes in a good way. Before that we had a couple of locations, but they weren’t all that great. It was vital to the story that Jess’s story takes place at an actual crossroads, and it worked beautifully. Another crazy thing was that the ice cream truck we initially got and customized ourselves broke down on the highway when our producer was driving it. That was bad for him. On our 11th day, we got rained out. We were originally only scheduled for 12 days, but we had to extend. 

When we stopped production, it rained for a week. We had to put the whole project on pause and then pick up a couple weeks later. With all of the puzzle pieces we were playing with, that was a risk we had to take. And there were other obstacles as well. The ice cream machine rarely worked, so what Jess is handing out the majority of the time is frosting. Fortunately by the end of shooting, we did get the machine working. On the day of the rain, we took a space heater inside and shot the insert shots.

Tribeca: As well as directing Free Samples, you also co-edited the film. Where there any scenes that you regret leaving on the cutting room floor, especially as the director?

JG: I think we made the right decision to cut them. The scenes that were cut involved extra customers at the ice cream truck. It was too much and took the focus away from Jess’s character. I loved the editing process, but it was hard to cut scenes with great performances. As the director, I knew that I wouldn’t have the objectivity to make the decisions required, so I would defer to my lead editor, Franklin Peterson. He ran the show in that respect, but I had a few ideas for editing scenes that did work.

I went to film school with Franklin and we co-edited each other’s senior projects, so it was great to have a chance to collaborate with him again. Also, there were jokes that just didn’t play and other scenes that had to be cut down for different reasons, so that we could get to what was working well. The film is the better for it.

Tribeca: Did you always know you wanted to direct?

JG: Not very early in the life. I was just actually thinking about this. I took fine arts when I was young, and I was painting and drawing and sculpting. But I always told my instructors that I wanted to be a cartoon animator. They didn’t really like that. [laughs] That wore off, and when I went to high school, I started making these zany films and mockumentaries with my brothers as actors. It was that process that started my interest in directing. I ultimately went to film school, which gave me a great opportunity to refine the skills that I have now.

Everyone makes choices in life, be they good or bad, and those moments of decision are the ones that matter.

Tribeca: As a first-time feature-length filmmaker, what is the main lesson you took from the experience?

JG: The value of having the right people on your team. One thing I was initially hesitant about, and I hate to admit, was trusting people to bring their best—whether cast or crew. I learned that if you have the right people, the film will be better for it because everyone will bring something unique to the process. I learned to be open to that and to trust my team. That’s a really important lesson.

Tribeca: Is there one particular thing you wished you had learned before you started making films?

JG: You can never make enough films to really hone your storytelling skills. My best advice is to keep making films and be open to indie cinema. There are a lot of opportunities there and an incredible surge of creative, talented filmmakers and films coming out of the indie genre. I thought coming out of film school that you could go from film school to getting a studio picture. Not so, and it is important to be realistic.

Tribeca: What are you most looking forward to at Tribeca?

JG: First off, I love New York and am looking forward to being in the city. I’m also looking forward to showing the movie to an audience. I want to see how they respond to these crazy, off-the-wall characters. Plus, I really want to meet other filmmakers and enjoy the festivities. It’s going to be a great time. I’m really excited. 

Tribeca: If you could have dinner with any filmmaker (alive or dead), who would it be?

JG: Andrei Tarkovskiy. His films are very arresting visually, and I’m always captivated by them.

Tribeca: What is your favorite New York movie?

JG: I can’t really limit it to one. [laughs] I’ll give you my top three. I love Kramer vs. Kramer. I really liked The Exploding Girl, which came out a few years ago. And Klute.

Tribeca: What would your bio pic be called?

JG: The One Who Overcomes.

Tribeca: What makes Free Samples a Tribeca must-see?

JG: It’s about free ice cream! [laughs]

Free Samples hits NYC next week, but if you live in LA, you can catch it this weekend at the Laemmle NoHo 7.