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FRANKIE

Interview With Ira Sachs
FRANKIE is in many ways a continuation of your recent work, but it is also a departure in some respects. There is the same level of intimate attention to how individuals and families relate to one another that we have seen in all your films. But after the very New York-centric stories of LOVE IS STRANGE and LITTLE MEN, you are telling a story set in Europe with an international cast of characters. How did this project come about?

In 2017, Said Ben Said came to me and said he wanted to work on a film together. For about a decade, I've had this particular story idea of a family on vacation. So I proposed doing that story. My co-writer and collaborator, Mauricio Zacharias, is half-Portuguese; his mother is of Portuguese descent. And they have a family house in Cascais. So when we were looking for a place to set the film, he mentioned Sintra. And then it started to ring a bell: I had been there on a European trip with my mother and my two sisters when I was 14. But I didn't remember the place very well. Working with Said involved a development opportunity to go scout Sintra and see if it made sense for the film.

Can you tell me about how you and Mauricio developed the story?

We started with an idea of a family on a vacation and a mountain. Then we spent a little over a week in Sintra, where we had a great location scout who drove us around. It was like a scavenger hunt. We had the framework for a story, so it was like we were in our movie without knowing what our movie was yet. At that point, I can really work as a director and say, 'I can place a big hunk of the story here.'

When I was there I constructed three layers of Sintra for us. The ground floor is the Quinta de Sao Thiago, the hotel where the family is staying. The middle is Pena Park, which is the elaborate gardens underneath the Pena Castle and felt to me like a very magical place, a sort of Eden where people are relieved from their everyday sense of what is right and what is wrong and what might happen, and the audience as well. And then there is the top, the Sanctuary of Peninha, which includes both the mountaintop and the horizon. That structure created a kind of narrative that loosely drives the film.

After that trip, we came back and spent probably another three or four months writing the script. We were then able to write it for the location, as if writing it for an actor. We could write for this particular swimming pool, this piano that we knew was in the library of the Quinta. And we knew there was a road up to a mountaintop, and we knew there was a tram that went from Sintra to Praia das Macas, the beach that Maya visits. I was a filmmaker working out of my country so it was very important to me to do the work to know the location well, almost as if it was a theater set for the actors and the story. We also created parameters for ourselves. The story would take place in one day; we tightened those parameters even more by having it take place from the morning to the late afternoon. That condensed time period lends a kind of automatic theatricality to the various narratives you're trying to execute in the film. There's a unity of time, which is the single day, which creates its own artificial tension and structure for the stories. That was always important for us.

What were some of the themes you wanted to explore? We get early intimations that Frankie is ill.

Being middle aged, you begin to think about mortality. Over the past ten years, I've been close to illness and death in a way that I had perhaps been fortunate enough never to witness before. Obviously, people in my life have died before. But not until I was in my 40s did I experience death and sickness first-hand. That intimacy with the experience was very much on my mind, and I think for Mauricio as well.

A very good friend of mine had breast cancer in her 40s and died soon after she turned 50. And there was a surprising mixture of comedy and tragedy in that experience, a mundanity, as well as depth. I was very aware that I would go visit my sick friend and simultaneously I'd be worried about some email I had received. So that was an undercurrent for the writing of the film. Which then became a film, like many of my others, about daily dramas that we face. And how a family faces the inevitable when a member is sick but also how a family avoids it.

Frankie is arguably an atypical portrait of a woman facing mortality. And there's nothing maudlin about her or her story.

I was friends with the lesbian experimental filmmaker Barbara Hammer, who died of cancer in March. Barbara didn't like to say, 'battling cancer.' She did not believe that it was a war; it was an illness. Barbara had cancer for the last 10 years and in the last two, three years of her life I spent a lot of time with her for various reasons. And I was always so impressed by the way in which in her presence her illness disappeared to a certain extent, as she was living so forcefully until the end of her life. Her life was not about sickness even though sickness was part of what she faced. You're not in a perpetual state of dying. You're actually in a perpetual state of living.

You live until you die. For me the character Frankie is witness to that.

FRANKIE is very much about the lives of its other characters, too.

I'm drawn to ensemble films. It's the difference between a novel and a novella, in a certain way. A novel can encompass multiple stories and a novella tends to be a single thread. I feel that by expanding the story, you provide a lot of different points of access for the people in the audience, whether they're 19 or 65. You might say this is an ensemble feature with a central performance.

There's an interesting geometry to the film, where you have the different groupings of people. It's also a film about marriage and couples.

And couples at very different stages of their lives. So you have someone having their first kiss; someone considering ending a marriage; and someone facing the potential loss of their life's partner at the end of a marriage. We tried to build those parallels into the writing of the film in a way that they could play off each other organically.

And then you have Ilene, Frankie's hairdresser friend, and her boyfriend, Gary. Frankie invited Ilene with the aim of fixing her up with her son, Paul; Gary's presence throws a monkey wrench into the works. One way we looked at the story was as a marriage comedy. We built it, partially, around Ilene and the question of marriage for Ilene. Who will Ilene marry? Will she marry? Who are the suitors, what are her choices? That became the comic narrative in the film. As opposed to Frankie's story, which is a different kind of narrative. But Frankie's story is also about marriage: is she going to be able to marry her son off?

So in a way we were using these different genres to play with the balance of tone in the story.

FRANKIE drops us into its characters' lives in the progress. It's only over the course of the film that we learn how the characters are related to each other and what their shared histories are. For example, we see the tension between Paul and Sylvia very early on, but we also see a closeness. By the end of the film, we have a different take on the dynamic between them.

I'm always interested in trying to construct stories where you feel like the life came first, the film followed. It's something that's central to the films of Maurice Pialet: what is the question of the scene, what does the scene ask that you're not able to answer but you're curious to know? As a filmmaker, you're always trying to figure out how much information is enough to give the audience a feeling of confidence but also leave gaps that create suspense. Because suspense is the active term for the audience. How are these people related and what's going to happen to them over the course of the film? Even in a film that's kind of a domestic drama, that's central to how the film has to be driven.

Let's talk about the cast. How did Isabelle Huppert come to be involved?

I got an email from Isabelle after LOVE IS STRANGE (2014). Initially, I thought it was a prank! But I was very excited that she had seen the film and responded to it. We met in person for the first time in New York in 2016, and then again at the San Sebastian Film Festival, when I was there for LITTLE MEN. She's a very warm person. The things that she talks about are things that I like to talk about, too: life and cinema and family and culture and gossip and art. After a year or so of conversations, I recognized that I was seeing a woman in front of me that I had not seen her portray on film.

You wrote Frankie to be an actress. Can you tell me about the decision?

For me it goes back to this idea that you're not casting actors, you're casting people. Transformation is not my mode when it comes to working with actors. It felt very natural to write Isabelle's character as an actress. It was also a way to separate her character from everyone else in the film. Frankie's position in the family - given the personal crisis she's facing - is somewhat similar. She's part of the family, and yet facing her own dilemma. That's the thing about Frankie: she manages to be a part of every scene even when she's not there. She's certainly the glue for this family.

Isabelle is an incredibly un-performative actress who knows brilliantly how to perform. She knows how to create meaning out of the smallest gesture. One of the things we talked about in this performance was how to remove the distance between herself and her emotions. And that takes risk. Because it means that you aren't always allowed to be in control. What I love about the performance she gives in the film is that she's pared it down and there's no cover. Particularly towards the end. So it's a revelation for the audience. Isabelle's relationship to the audience becomes truly intimate.

On set, Isabelle always wants to do another take if there's time to do another take or any need. She always wants to know if there's anything else to be uncovered. And my job was often to say, 'We got it, let's move on.' She's never tired! She's extraordinary. She reminds me of a few people in my life. I have a friend who's a Hebrew professor and she's always searching for whatever is going to inspire her. She was an influence for the character of Frankie for me. But it turns out Isabelle is that kind of person, also. So it was a good match. Tell me about casting Brendan Gleeson as Frankie's husband, Jimmy.

I met Brendan in 1999 or 2000 because we almost made a movie together. I had seen THE GENERAL and I thought he was a genius as an actor and exactly the kind of actor that I love. You can't see how he gets from here to there.

Brendan is quite literary. He can read and think about text and character very deeply. He's like an actor/dramaturg in that it is important for him to be precise and economical with what he gives an audience, without being calculated. To the extent that he's morose from the beginning, Jimmy is almost a comic character type. Brendan was brilliant at balancing that moroseness with joy and pleasure and humor. He knows how little he can do and do a lot.

He brings a depth of emotion and insight. He's a good listener, as an actor. And he can do no wrong with your text, which is an amazing skill and a tremendous asset for me as a director.

This is the second time you've worked with Marisa Tomei, who co-starred in LOVE IS STRANGE. Was the role of Ilene written with her in mind?

Yes. Because Mauricio and I had worked with her before, we intimately knew what she could bring to a role. Marisa does a different thing than Isabelle or Brendan does. She goes for broke emotionally and will not stop until something truly authentic emerges. She's like a live wire. She also emanates passion, as well as pleasure in her work that sort of transcends the dialogue.

This is also your second film with Greg Kinnear, who plays Ilene's cinematographer boyfriend, Gary. As Ilene says, Gary has big plans but they don't exactly pan out.

Gary gets a lot of pie in the face in this movie. He's not always likeable but in the end you realize he has depth. For Mauricio and I, the moment the character clicked was when we decided to write for Greg Kinnear, hoping he would do the part. Which I'm happy to say he did, because Greg can pull a lot of the really difficult turns in a character like Gary. Greg's not afraid to look bad and he really makes you feel for Gary, who has his own awakening over the course of the film.

You cast Jeremie Renier as Frankie's son, Paul, who seems to be in an ongoing state of complaint and/or discontent. Tell me about this character and what Jeremie brings to the role.

I knew Jeremie from the early Dardenne films, of course, but Olivier Assayas's SUMMER HOURS was where I first saw him as an adult and saw what a natural actor he was. Like Greg Kinnear, Jeremie's not afraid to look bad. Paul is an instigator and a troublemaker. Jeremie wasn't afraid of the comical elements of the character and he wasn't afraid of the dark, kind of sadistic elements of the character. He turned towards them, not away from them. I think that makes him so lively in the film, and so interesting. It's happened to me once or twice before on a film: where I'm so surprised by the choices an actor is making that I'm initially frightened. Then as the dailies start coming back in, I realize he knows more than I what he's doing. That was the case with Jeremie.

It truly is an extraordinary ensemble ... as well as Huppert, Gleeson, Tomei and Kinnear, you worked with Pascal Greggory, Vinette Robinson, Ariyon Bakare, Carloto Cotta and Sennia Nanua.

I think casting is directing, and I feel very fortunate to have had this cast. I feel like I was able to create a vessel for these actors to share with us what's so wonderful about them as human beings and as actors. Because each of them does both at the same time. They are themselves and they are performers. That's to me what makes a great movie actor, is being able to shift between the two without losing the audience. Tell me about working with your director of photography, Rui Pocas. How did the theatricality that you discussed earlier figure into your cinematic approach?

Rui and I made a strong commitment to a specific method of shooting the film, which depended a lot on the actors performing their scenes without a lot of cuts. So in a way, it's a realistic movie with a pretty theatrical style, both in the construction of the story and also the acting style. That's because the takes are long enough that you're simultaneously watching the actor and the character.

We made a pretty rigorous study of the work that Eric Rohmer did with Nestor Alemendros, particularly PAULINE AT THE BEACH and CLAIRE'S KNEE, as well as later Rohmer films. We decided we would never be able to cut without a character moving into a new frame. So there were no cuts that were motivated by our desire to get closer. As a result, the actors go through everything in front of your eyes. I think that created an interesting tone for the film that is both naturalistic and playful. Because you're observing this rich ensemble who are performing with and for each other.

FRANKIE has a breathtaking setting in Sintra, a UNESCO heritage site that is one of the most gorgeous places on earth. Against a backdrop of fairy tale castles and misty forests, you have this group of people grappling with the human issues we all face.

Sintra is a town of discovery. If you turn a corner, you don't know what you're going to see. The characters in the film are only partially interested in what they see; almost never do they talk about what they're observing. That's part of the dichotomy of the film, which is they're in a foreign place but they're not losing themselves to that place. In fact, they barely notice it sometimes. They get up to the top of the mountain and what do they do? They turn around and go. Life doesn't stop for a view, or, as they say in Portugal, a miradouro. Interview by Meredith Osborne

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