Jillian Bell stars in "I'm Totally Fine." Photo courtesy of Decal
LOS ANGELES, Nov. 4 (UPI) -- Many independent filmmakers tell stories of rushed productions that wrapped in about 20 days. Jillian Bell said her new film, I'm Totally Fine, in theaters and video-on-demand Friday, wrapped in only nine.
"At the time, it was probably overwhelming, but I think we were just so in it, there was nowhere to go," Bell told UPI in a recent Zoom interview. "We were all in lockdown."
Bell, 38, plays Vanessa, who is mourning the sudden death of her business partner and best friend, Jennifer (Natalie Morales). An alien takes the form of Jennifer to study humans and Vanessa spends the weekend with her.
Writer Alisha Ketry, director Brandon Dermer and producer Kyle Newacheck asked Bell to be in the movie during the COVID-19 lockdowns of 2020. They followed industry safety protocols to film at a house in Temecula, Calif., in November 2020.
It wasn't a simple matter of memorizing the entire script to film in nine days, because nighttime brought a revision of the next day's scenes.
"Every night ended with Natalie, Ketry, Brandon, Kyle and myself sitting at a table just talking about what we were going to do with the next day's work," Bell said. "We would improvise or change something because it wasn't emotionally working."
Bell said she and Morales shared a house, and the crew stayed in the house in which they were filming.
"With that, we also had to go home, memorize that new stuff and come in the next day because we didn't have time to mess around," Bell said. "It really was all hands on deck."
I'm Totally Fine is a comedy, but it deals directly with Vanessa coming to terms with grieving Jennifer. Bell said she could relate because she went through grief when her father died 10 years ago.
"I just found myself saying all the lines of my character instead of the alien," Bell said. "I'm really resonating with this woman who is grieving the loss of someone very special in her life."
The filmmakers initially asked Bell to play the alien. Morales speaks in a monotone voice, drinks olive oil and has trouble understanding human conversations.
Bell understood how her resume would lead to the alien role. She has played wacky supporting roles in comedies like 22 Jump Street, Office Christmas Party and Rough Night.
"I get it," Bell said. "I play a lot of weirdos, but I think there was something when I was reading this that I just felt so drawn to my character."
Morales and Bell knew each other socially because they participated in a fundraiser for a mutual friend's cancer treatments. Bell said they'd meet at industry parties, and Bell personally called her to ask her to play the alien, Jennifer.
"She was painting her bathroom," Bell said. "I said, 'Stop painting for a moment so I can pitch you an idea that will take us away during this weird pandemic era.'"
Since stealing scenes in some of her comedies, Bell has played the lead in several films. In Brittany Runs a Marathon, she portrays a woman training for the New York City Marathon, and in Disney's Godmothered, Bell portrays an aspiring fairy godmother.
More wacky roles are in Bell's future, but she said she enjoys the emotional comedy of movies like Brittany and Totally Fine, adding that such films challenge her to do more than simply add a joke to each scene.
"It's sitting in the uncomfortableness of the silence of the scene and just leaning in," Bell said.
I'm Totally Fine did take advantage of Bell's improvisational skills. The night before the alien arrives, Vanessa spends a drunken night goofing around the house, which Bell improvised.
"Most of it's just me shouting and smooshing cupcakes and drunkenly falling off a bicycle," Bell said. "It's also weird because you're doing it under the guise of being very sad."
On another night, Vanessa and the alien take Molly and hire a DJ. Bell said she and Morales drank margaritas for the scene, which she considers a mistake.
"I wouldn't recommend doing that again," Bell said. "We made our stomachs really upset because we were just thrashing around after that for quite a long time."
Bell said the nine-day whirlwind of filming I'm Totally Fine inspired her, and she filmed additional roles in movies during the pandemic that are yet to come out. And she hopes to apply the filmmaking spirit to her own projects.
"I'd written a movie five years ago and I still am nowhere to even getting it made," Bell said. "It's wild how quickly [I'm Totally Fine] came together, and it was just everyone saying yes."