Aubrey Plaza on Why Low Budget of 'Emily the Criminal' Was Critical to Film

Aubrey Plaza wanted more money and time to produce her student-debt thriller Emily the Criminal, but the lack of both ended up serving the final vision.

"We shot the film in 21 days, which is a ridiculous amount of time to shoot a movie," she tells Newsweek. "It's no time at all. We were moving really fast, so there was an adrenaline just to the nature of how we shot it and it kind of worked."

Asked whether that was by design, she let out an emphatic "No!" Plaza, who stars as the title character and also produces, said, "When I first read the script, I thought, OK, I want to do this film but I want to have a really comfortable budget because I want to do it right and I don't want to kill myself in the process. I want to have time. Time equals money."

And money equals opportunity. The plot of Emily reflects that: It centers on a woman so desperate to pay off her student loans and get her life on track that she turns to an increasingly dangerous life of crime.

Aubrey Plaza in Emily the Criminal
Aubrey Plaza plays the title role in "Emily the Criminal," a woman saddled with student debt who turns to scamming. Courtesy of Roadside Attractions/Vertical Entertainment

"I saw the potential of making an entertaining and beautiful movie but also putting something out there that's relevant to the state of society and America today," she said about the project, which premiered at the Sunday Film Festival in January. "It feels like it's hitting a nerve. I think that's what you always dream of when you make an independent film."

The Parks and Recreation star added, "That's also what is in some ways sad. I read the script four or five years ago—pre pandemic times—and everything has changed in the world and this country since then. But these issues of this generation, graduating from school and being saddled with so much debt and student loans. It almost feels more relevant now. It's aged very well."

In the end, Plaza—who also just wrapped filming on White Lotus season 2 and has the upcoming film Spin Me Round, directed by her husband, Jeff Baena, and starring co-writer Alison Brie—got the film she wanted by not getting what she wanted.

"Finally we linked up with [producer] Tyler Davidson at Low Spark Films, and he didn't have the numbers that I was looking for but he had the passion and an idea of how to do it on a lower budget. So no, it's not by design," she said, "but sometimes when you have constraints and limitations it actually elevates the film.

"There is such an energy behind it. Sometimes when people have too much money or enough money, and they're comfortable—and you you see a lot of that with the streamer movies these days because their budgets are so bloated—that doesn't always help the movie in the end, because movies have a soul and the production has a soul and a spirit and it kind of works out the way it should."

Plaza calls this her most physical role to date—"Ingrid Goes West and Black Bear for me are also thrillers but they're more psychological and that's demanding in a different way"—and she loved that.

"One of the appealing things about playing this character was the physicalization of her getting to kind of do something different, sound different and move different. This is a really small movie, but it's treated almost like an action movie at times. I'm fighting people, there are car-chase sequences, I'm driving all over the place. Also what made it so physically demanding is the pace at which we were shooting....I'm really excited for people to see Emily the Criminal. I can't wait for it to come out."

Emily the Criminal is in theaters nationwide on Aug. 12.