In Los Angeles, it feels like everyone wants to be young — except for Mackenzie “Mack” Martin (Elizabeth Lail), a 30-year-old woman who’s ready to skip to her senior citizen days and live her best life. Cue some magical realism (via an ad hoc past lives regression machine/tanning bed), and Mack finds her consciousness now inside a 70-something woman who starts going by Rita (Diane Keaton). It’s a fun, 2022-esque spin on high-concept body-swap classics like Big and Freaky Friday, which did mark a big change from director Katie Aselton’s past experiences as a filmmaker.
While Katie Aselton’s not a first-time director, she tells Consequence that she was eager to take on this project because “I hadn’t done a full-fledged comedy as a director, so I was really excited to lean into that.” Plus, she says, “I was excited about the message that this movie has. I loved the heart of the movie, what it says, what it says to young girls, what it says to middle age women, and what it says to older women.”
Aselton has directed two other films, 2010’s The Freebie and 2012’s Black Rock prior to now — but in those cases, “My first film was fully improvised with an outline by me. My second film was written by my husband [Mark Duplass] and co-written with me, story by me and then we improvised a lot, but there was a full script,” she says.
Both of Aselton’s films belong to a subgenre of indie film that became known in the mid-2000s as “mumblecore” — pioneered by a number of filmmakers including the aforementioned Mark Duplass and his brother Jay, the genre came to define a certain type of storytelling: character-focused low-budget productions, with a naturalistic approach to dialogue often driven by improv.
Meanwhile, Mack & Rita “was a full script written by two people that I wasn’t married to [Madeline Walter and Paul Welsh], and that was great,” Aselton says. “That was really great, to get new fresh voices in there — I think a lot of times when you’re writing and directing something, the voice can get very singular.”
While working with the script, though, Aselton created space for improvising on set, especially since Diane Keaton herself is no stranger to improv after working on fully improvised films like Annie Hall. “It was like ‘Diane, loosen it up — this is the start point, this is the endpoint. However you want to get there, just go for it,’” Aselton says. “She’s got it in her bones. We absolutely did improvise in this and loosened things up and I think that’s what makes it special.”
Aselton, it probably should have been mentioned sooner, is also a well-established film and TV actress, thanks to her starring role in FX’s The League, along with supporting performances in shows and movies including Legion, The Morning Show, and Bombshell.
This may be a factor in why her Mack & Rita cast feels that as a director, Aselton is “the sun.” At least, that’s how Taylour Paige (Zola), who plays Mack’s best friend Carla, puts it. “She’s just so sweet, so excited. She approaches it with this really great energy and attitude and just like a joy. Which I think is the heart of this film: It’s sincere, it’s earnest, you know? So you hope that the director of an earnest film is also earnest.”
Adds Paige, “She’s the homie, you know? She’s like, ‘Okay, in this scene, here’s the truth of the scene and here’s what we’ve gotta do. I feel like she speaks to us like we’re on the same level. Like, ‘We all want this thing to work. We want it to go well — how do we do that?’”