Free Samples is easily one of the funniest films playing in this year’s festival. It’s the story of Jillian, who is stuck performing a thankless humiliating job while running into some of the weirdos of Los Angeles and avoiding what’s really bothering her. We were able to talk to the director of this great film, Jay Gammill to figure out what it was like filming with the ice cream truck and what makes Jillian tick.
Heartland Film Festival: So much of the story comes from vignette humor as different customers visit Jillian in the ice cream truck. As the director how were you able to keep those segments fresh and full of variety?
Jay: I think there’s something funny just in the fact that Jillian, played by Jess Weixler, is trapped in a dilapidated ice cream truck in a deserted parking lot of Los Angeles. And beyond that, the oddballs that come up to the truck add another ridiculous layer, and I owe all of that to Jim Beggarly’s screenplay. And then we were very fortunate to get a great group of actors to play the supporting roles, each with their own sort of take on the interactions they have with Jillian. And you know, when I have someone like Matt Walsh, who is a great improviser, coming in to play a customer, I was eager to let him loose on the scene and see what would happen. Director of Photography Reed Morano and I were always thinking up new ways to shoot each scene to keep it fresh, so it became a wonderful collaboration to make each vignette work and have it fit in into the larger story.
Heartland Film Festival: Majority of the movie is Jillian and the truck. With just one main character and one main location (with a few different places she visits) did that make this an easier movie to shoot for your first feature film?
Jay: Having one main location did make it easier in terms of a few of the logistics of shooting, but creatively, it presented a great challenge of how I’m going to keep it fresh visually. But even in scouting this parking lot that the we used for the film, I was looking at areas in and around it that could become mini-locations within the space. So the back of the parking lot, where we shot the scene with Tex (Jesse Eisenberg) or the lawn just out to the side where Jillian and Betty (Tippi Hedren) sit—those were nice breaks from the scenes that by necessity took place at the Mike’s Dream truck’s counter window. But even then, Reed Morano and I were conscious of this challenge and we were constantly changing up how we shot from scene to scene.
Heartland Film Festival: This is a very funny film as you see Jillian react to her various annoyances throughout the day. Yet the movie hits upon something very truthful and serious about her situation. How were you able to examine that while keeping the movie humorous?
Jay: I think underneath Jillian’s character lies a quiet sadness. We were always looking for ways to tap in to that in the midst of the annoyances. I relate to Jillian’s struggle with trying so hard to make her career and relationships work and then discovering life still goes on when things don’t turn out as planned. I think much the comedy comes from her anger and earnestness in dealing with the customers and their inane questions, although I do also like the playfulness she has with Wally, played by Jason Ritter. That was fun to shoot, and I liked seeing that different side of Jillian.
Heartland Film Festival: The film could be structured where these strangers can help Jillian learn about her life, but a lot of the humor plays upon her stubbornness in learning anything. What was it about Tippi Hedren’s character of Betty that broke the mold for Jillian?
Jay: I think Jillian sees a bit of herself in Betty, and Betty has a fair dose of cynicism of her own, to be sure. What I’ve always found most interesting about Betty is that while she feels finished with her life, she has, throughout it, taken many risks in her relationships and never afraid to start over. She can speak to Jillian in a way that softens Jillian’s demeanor and also offers a more long-term perspective on her quarter-life crisis.
Heartland Film Festival: Are you working on your next project?
Jay: I’m working on a few new projects, and Jim Beggarly and I have been looking to reunite on another film too. That would be a lot of fun.
Heartland Film Festival: What are some moving films that have inspired you as a filmmaker?
Jay: My favorite film is Ordinary People. If you haven’t seen it, you must. I will leave you with that.
You can purchase tickets for Free Samples for the following days…
– Saturday October 20 at 6 p.m. at AMC Castleton Square 14
– Thursday October 25 at 8:45 p.m. at AMC Castleton Square 14
– Friday October 26 at 9 p.m. at AMC Showplace Traders Point 12
– Saturday October 27 at 9:15 p.m. at AMC Castleton Square 14
Interview conducted by Austin Lugar