Francine, the debut feature from co-directors Brian M. Cassidy and Melanie Shatzky had it’s first SX screening yesterday having recently garnered some great reviews coming out of this years Berlinale. The filmmakers along with their star Melissa Leo, were kind enough to sit down with us before the screening to to talk a little about the film ahead of it’s North American Premiere.
So your film is screening in a couple of hours. I look forward to seeing it with an audience. Can you tell us a little about your picture?
Melanie Shatzky: Well the film is about a woman who has been incarcerated for a chunk of her life. She’s just been released from prison and is trying to readjust to life in the free word. She has a hard time connecting with people and instead finds solace in animals.
And that’s about all the back story that is given to the titular character.
Francine, laid bare then released from prison enters into the world much as a child would and the metaphor of rebirth extends from there. Institutionalized and stuck In a state of arrested development she makes many of the mistakes any youth would if thrown into a world of adults. Boy’s, alcohol, Francine runs the gamut and with each mistake she acquires more and more animals. It’s almost as if each were an account of her failures and disappointment but for Francine the pets offer a respite from the world.
Are you all big animal lovers?
MS: We are big animal lovers, Brian and myself. Both of us find solace in dogs. Part of the idea for Francine was that we recognized that about animals. That you can find a family in them because they’re both naive and wise at the same time. So it’s an easy way to create a sense of family if you don’t have one and we were interested in the point at which you can take that too far.
How did the story come about? You come from a documentary film background, is this something that you stumbled across elements of in your previous work?
Brian Cassidy: Well all of our films come together in different ways. Our films tend to deal with people’s sense of desperation and the various ways in which people try to counter that desperation so we wanted to tell this story. We knew we wanted to make a film that was set in the Hudson valley in upstate New York.
How did you come to meet Melissa? I hear it was something of a coincidence?
MS: Well we were intending to cast the film all with non-actors or with non-professional actors and in casting that specific character it was our intent to go to places like gas stations, dinners, just be out in the community meeting people but Melissa happened to find out about the project.
(she tosses the question to Leo)
Melissa Leo: Yes the Hudson Valley Film Commissioner, Laurent Rejto is a very good friend of mine so I get missives from them and a very interesting blurb came saying that there were two filmmakers that had had success in documentaries and wanted to segue into dramatic features, that they had a female lead and it seemed like I could be of the same age as her. The age was not so specific. It just sounded like a really intriguing project. So I inserted myself and confused the issue to no end!
That’s funny. So did you have to lobby them pretty hard to get the part.
ML: I did! I wrote in to Laurent to ask if they would be interested in me. I think it was pretty soon after that we were talking to them.
Melissa you’ve played quote/unquote broken character’s in the past but what were the things you latched onto to form this character? How did you find your voice?
ML: It was fascinating to do for me because of it’s unconventionality and because of the language that Melanie and Brian speak together. It’s a very tight and honed language.
And many of the element of Francine are unconventional. The movie was filmed almost entirely on one lens using natural light which lends the film a “gritty beauty,” to use the words of the director, and shot from a ten page document with little to no dialogue for it’s characters. All things many would label restrictions, albeit ones that are convenient for low budget film making, but having seen the film it’s clear that the directors transcend any obstacle these limitations impose and instead use them as the parameters in which the character’s world exist. As Cassidy explains “even if we had had all the resources in the world we still have shot it like that.”
ML: It wasn’t like they weren’t filmmakers upon my meeting them or anything but our languages are very different. I would ask them things, for example, is it Wednesday or is it Friday? And they would look at me like I had gone round the bend and what does that matter and if I knew I wouldn’t tell you anyway!
(Melanie and Brian laugh and Melissa continues to joke)
ML: Well that matters! So if they weren’t gonna give me the answer I do what a good actor does, I make it up and hope it flies.
Was it different working from a treatment?
ML: Well, when they would talk about their film it sounded like the same thing as the words that were written. When they showed me the outline of scenes, not with classic dialogue but definitely with a structure and movement to the story, it was always the same thing. So they weren’t confused about what they wanted to do. That’s very important going into independent film. The end result is this film that will have its U.S. Premiere this afternoon and it begins exactly the same way that the first sentence I read two or more years ago said it was intended.
BC: It’s funny because we rarely look back over once we’ve done something but we recently did look over some of the materials and it’s quite amazing how close it is to its original.
ML: You know if you’ve got all the money in the world and all the time in the world you can go ahead and make something and have a few different endings and have a bunch of producers weigh in about what they think it should be, but if you’re going to go short and tight and you’re going to do a film that has a “non-traditional” movement you want everyone to know what you’re doing together.
BC: Well we had an outline for this film. Sort of a clearly spelled out path that we wanted to take but there was a lot of room for interpretation and so we built upon this outline throughout the process of casting and then in location scouting and then in the shooting and again in the editing. So it was a product of these various stages.
They say a film is made three times, in the script, during filming and again in the edit.
Coming from a doc background the sense of fulfillment, having something come from the page to the screen, that must be something of a newer experience. Did you find that fulfilling?
BC: Yeah very fulfilling. In a way working in narrative film gives us the best of both worlds. We can do multiple takes of something for example. We do like to set up situations but then we let life in.
MS: That’s one of the reasons there wasn’t any dialogue. We wanted our characters to find their own voice.
So there must have been plenty of happy little discoveries along the way.
BC: Absolutely and that’s what gives a film it’s specificity and what brings it to life. You plan to a certain point and then you move around and you see what coming back to you. You give yourself the latitude to change.
ML: Which documentary film making gave them an incredible facility for.
BC: I’ll give you an example. There is a scene where Francine gets job at a Horse stable and she’s first meeting this man named Ned who’s showing her around the stable. He’s introducing her to a horse and she’s brushing the horse. He’s on one side and Francine is on the other. They’re trying to have a conversation, or rather he’s trying to access something of Francine in this conversation but the horse is also between them and it’s the kind of thing where I see what’s happening and I reposition to maximize how that translates on to the screen, but it wasn’t something that we had this idea of, that the horse would be a sort of barrier between them. That emerged organically. For us that was the documentary impulse.
ML: In that same scene he captures a really lovely moment from the actor opposite me and I think it was both the character and the actor that simply doesn’t know if I heard him ask me a question because he’s getting no response. It’s such a genuine moment from him. It gives it this awkward quality that money couldn’t buy.
And Francine is a film filled with such moments. Someone after the screening described it as minimalist and that’s perhaps an appropriate description when measuring the film against the standard box office offerings but I’d say it’s a bit off the mark. It is true that Francine the character doesn’t say much in the film(I doubt Leo utters more than a single page of dialogue) but for a film most would describe as a quiet character piece Francine brims with life and sound, and it’s when the filmmakers let the life in that Francine truly breathes.
If you missed Francine the first time you still have a chance to see it. The film screens again:
Tuesday, March 13 @ 1:30PM
Venue: Alamo Ritz 2
Thursday, March 15 @ 7:30PM
Venue: Violet Crown 1