Ebertfest audience believes in "Natural Selection"
When first reading Robbie Pickering’s script for "Natural Selection," actress Rachael Harris immediately connected with the protagonist Linda.
But Harris figured there was no way she would land the role, that it would likely go to one of the "much greater actresses" out there.
"When it did come to fruition it felt like such a blessing to do this role," she said Wednesday evening, after "Natural Selection" was shown at the 13th annual Roger Ebert’s Film Festival at the Virginia Theatre in Champaign. "I have to say everything came together. It was just meant to be."
Indeed, Harris turned in an extraordinary performance as Linda, a sexually frustrated but dutiful Christian wife whose fundamentalist husband refuses to have sex with her because she is presumably infertile. He believes intercourse is for procreation only.
After he has a stroke while donating sperm to a sperm bank — something he had been doing for decades, without Linda’s knowledge — she takes off in their hatchback to find his biological son.
Adventures ensue, and the movie becomes something of a road movie, though writer-director Robbie Pickering said he tried not to fall into road-movie conventions in "Natural Selection," his first feature film.
He admitted he did, though, when Linda’s car is stolen.
And like many road movies, Pickering’s is set in motels and diners, specifically in southeastern United States. He wanted those places, though, to serve not as geographical markers but rather metaphorical ones.
"It’s a road movie but Linda through the movie is kind of climbing out of the womb," he said on stage after the screening.
Harris, who is better known for her comic roles, said Pickering trusted her and let her do what she felt she needed to do as she portrayed Linda. She said he pushed her until she wasn’t thinking but instead feeling.
Pickering said he did not know Harris before she began work on "Natural Selection" and didn’t know whether she was capable of doing drama.
"She doesn’t see the difference between the comedy and the drama," he said.
Harris, who is best known for her roles in the movies "The Hangover," "Showtime" and "Diary of a Wimpy Kid," never crossed the line into making Linda a comic person, though the movie is funny and appeared to be a crowd-pleaser at Ebertfest. She ad libbed only one line, and that line was in keeping with Linda’s character, Pickering said.
The young director, a graduate of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, used a Red Cam to shoot "Selection," saying it gave him the ability not to have to call "cut."
The Red Camera is made by the Red Digital Cinema Camera Company, for professional and cinematic use, and offers higher resolution than previous digital cameras, even high-definition ones.
Pickering shot the 89-minute movie in 18 days, but "Natural Selection" was six years in the making, he said. It has won several festival awards, among them the jury award and audience award for best feature film at the recent South by Southwest Film Festival.
Ebert, who was on the jury there, decided then to make it a last-minute addition to his film festival, a special event of the University of Illinois College of Media, his alma mater.
Pickering noted that winning SXSW is not like winning at Sundance but that "people are circling" to pick up the theatrical distribution rights to "Natural Selection," which by the way is an appropriate and clever title for the movie.