Jesse Zwick didn't aim low when it came to his directorial debut, "About Alex." Instead, the writer-director put together a cast that would make most seasoned filmmakers jealous: Aubrey Plaza, Max Greenfield, Nate Parker, Jason Ritter, Jane Levy, Max Minghella and Maggie Grace.
"Casting was definitely one of the hardest parts of the whole process, for a couple of reasons," Zwick told HuffPost Entertainment following the world premiere of "About Alex" at the Tribeca Film Festival. "One, I'm this unknown, first-time director without a track record, so they don't know what to expect entirely. Two, it's this real pure ensemble where all seven of the roles are almost equally sized. It really required a group of actors who were just passionate about the project and willing to share that space and screen time and want to work with each other in this way. I don't think it would have appealed to just any actor."
Inspired by a wealth of '80s movies -- including "The Big Chill" and some John Hughes films -- "About Alex" is, well, about Alex (Ritter), an upstate New York resident whose suicide attempt reunites his college friends (Plaza, Greenfield, Parker, Minghella and Grace) for a three days of memories, sexual experiences and hard truths about how their relationships have developed in the decade since graduation. Greenfield and Plaza, in particular, are standouts among the ensemble, with performances that belie their well-honed television personas on, respectively, "New Girl" and "Parks & Recreation."
"Aubrey was someone who came on kind of late to the project, but we had this one Skype conversation when I was doing pre-production in New York, and the connection was going in and out so we could barely hear each other," Zwick said. "But we talked and we were both on the same page of what we wanted out of this. I knew that this was a character she hadn't quite done. She knew that too, and that was a big part of what drew her to it. She was eager to prove that she was a different actress than people imagined. I remember asking her about that when we first met. She was like, 'I went to NYU and Tisch. I did all sorts of stuff. I did Shakespeare. Somehow I fell into this thing and it worked out great, but that's not all of me and not what I want out of this project.'"
Zwick shot "About Alex" in Hudson, New York in the summer of 2013, roughly two-and-a-half hours outside of Manhattan. The isolated location helped foster unity among the cast and crew: Zwick said all seven of his actors stayed in Hudson during the production and would often hang out after the day's schedule was complete.
"In some ways it was a little bit self selecting. I only wanted people who were passionate about this project, and the actors who gravitated toward it were ones who were selfless," he said. "They were willing to work on a little film for not very much money. They were willing to go in the middle of nowhere with barely any cell reception and immerse themselves in this project. I'll say, there were a few people along the way who aren't in the movie now, in part because one or two of those elements wasn't for them. In indie cinema, where because of time and money constraints, and the fact that you have seven actors who have really busy schedules, it's sort of an amazing thing whenever all the pieces come together. When they all did, we had to just run with it."
Zwick, whose father is filmmaker Edward Zwick, said the high-wattage cast was the source of his biggest stress before the film.
"I think all I knew was that I shouldn't give them line readings. That was a big taboo. I won't do that, but I'll give them prompts and things to think about and whatever," he said. "Because of that, my attitude going in was to adopt a collaborative approach. If something wasn't working for an actor, we'd come up with a solution. We rewrote stuff on the spot. As a result, I really got along well with everyone. I think some actors hadn't even had the experience with a director being so curious with their thoughts. I think they appreciated it. My opinion, and I don't know if I'm right or wrong, I just felt like if an actor couldn't get behind a line or moment that would somehow affect their performance. That was something I was stressed about that wound up being a nice part of the production."
"About Alex" is at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival. The film does not yet have distribution.