SXSW FILM 2012
By Don Simpson | May 27, 2012
Francine begins with Francine’s last day in prison. It seems she has been locked away for a long time, though the crime she committed is left unspoken. Francine moves into a small cottage near the water and finds a series of jobs — at a pet store, in the stables of a polo club, at a veterinarian’s office…
As Francine tepidly integrates herself back into society, she begins to develop friendships. This is the crux of Francine, a cinema verite portrayal of a woman struggling to become a member of the free world. As awesome as Leo’s performance is, Francine‘s strength is in its uncanny sense of realism — the real people, the real places, the real events.
This is essentially a documentary from the perspective of a fictional character, which makes perfect sense because directors Melanie Shatzky and Brian M. Cassidy come from a strictly documentary background. Smells Like Screen Spirit chatted with Shatzky and Cassidy shortly after being totally floored by the raw, unbridled power of realism that is inherent within Francine.
Don Simpson: Francine is your first narrative film, but it seems as though your approach may not have been too different from the way you would approach making your documentary films.
Melanie Shatzky: It started off as a ten page script, so it was an unconventional way of working. It was a very densely packed ten pages and we didn’t write any dialogue; but we knew what would happen in each scene and what the goal was for each scene. We didn’t really sketch out how the characters would get from A to B, we were really just interested in what the actors and non-actors would bring to the table, how they would bring life to the characters we had sketched out. Melissa [Leo] was the only professional actor we had on board, most of the others were non-actors who were playing close approximations of themselves. We really wanted to have a sense of authenticity in the film. Brian shot it in a documentary style…
Brian Cassidy: For us it is always a combination of chaos and control, that is what we look for. We are really interested in location scouting and finding landscapes and environments and atmospheres that become characters themselves and have their own narrative weight. Within that, the documentary impulse comes in. For example, we did not storyboard, we didn’t really have a shot list and we didn’t do much blocking beforehand. While we were clear about what our storytelling goals were, we wanted to leave room in the moment to react and respond to how people moved through the space while we were shooting. That incorporates a lot of our reactionary documentary instincts.
DS: Were there any specific rules or guidelines that you adhered to in order to achieve a greater sense of realism?
MS: We avoided any kind of rehearsals because we really wanted everyone to feel fresh on set. Also, Brian only shot with one lens…
BC: The film was all shot with one lens and it was all handheld. We were really adamant about a few other things. One was to not have the day planned out visually beforehand. That can be difficult to plan a day around. You typically schedule and prioritize each day of shooting around where you are going to do each shot. You pay attention to where the light is moving. We really wanted to stay spontaneous because we felt like it would translate if the camera was finding the moments as they were happening as opposed to illustrating a preconceived idea. Also, we wanted to shoot in natural light and find situations where our actors were not locked into tight lighting scenarios. We couldn’t shoot 360 degrees, of course, but we wanted the ability to whip around and catch things as they occurred. There were times when the crew would have to dive out of the way because I would want to turn around at the last minute. These were all very conscious strategies that we wanted to employ to create a sense of perceived authenticity.
DS: How much coaching did you provide to your cast?
MS: We did very little coaching to be honest with you. We gave them the script when we started shooting. We really cast people as close approximations of themselves — we were really casting people as themselves. We didn’t want them to think too much about how to intellectualize what we wanted. We just wanted something natural from them. We didn’t have any dialogue; that was to come all from them. Every once in a while, one of the non-actors would come up to us and ask if it was okay to say something. But we told them to not even ask us that.
DS: How many takes did you do of each shot?
MS: Not that many.
BC: Yeah, some of the best shots happened in long extended takes. Like all of the material of Francine in her house engaging with the animals really happened in long unbroken takes that we then edited down and distilled. It wasn’t like we said: “Kneel on the floor and feed the dogs. Cut. This time feed the brown dog.” We just rolled for a good fifteen minutes straight and Melanie would be outside the house watching on a monitor. Occasionally we would break and discuss the scene. I was inside shooting with just a sound man and Melissa. I would whisper some directions off camera to Melissa, but a lot of times it was just silent, unspoken and intuitive. That wasn’t the approach throughout the entire film. Some scenes we did do four, five, six takes. Mostly we did two or three takes.
MS: As Brian said earlier, we didn’t have any kind of a shot list, so everything was captured in a more intuitive handheld documentary kind of way.
BC: And then sometimes something would present itself in the moment — whether it was me repositioning myself, or Melanie repositioning the actors — that would give us some new ideas. It really was not a free for all. For all that we are saying, it really was not an improvised film. The film is very, very close to what it was in its inception, the working document that we gave our actors and the crew. We just allowed room in the process to breath life into it.
DS: Once Melissa Leo signed onto the film, did that alter your strategy for the film or your approach to the character of Francine?
MS: We originally intended to populate the film with non-actors, but then Melissa found out about the project and asked if she could be our Francine. We were not used to working with someone as experienced as Melissa. We come from two different types of backgrounds. She has lots of experience working with traditional narrative screenplays and we have more experience working in documentary filmmaking and capturing things on the fly. So we had to bring the two styles together and try to understand each others’ approaches. That was a challenge.
BC: Though we didn’t have rehearsal time we did have several meetings with Melissa to discuss the script and talk about character background. There were things outside the margins of the film that she had questions about in order to help build her character. There were also things that we thought would be best to withhold, because we felt that Francine should not always know what she should be doing or what it means to be in a certain environment. So there was this back and forth between sharing and withholding. The non-actors were different. They were just happy to be on set and at our service. They just did what we told them. Melissa is an accomplished actress and she has her own process and brought some of her own ideas. In the end it was very productive for the film to have the back and forth.
DS: How did you approach casting the non-actors?
MS: They are all basically locals. We approached the local film commission — the Hudson Valley Film Commission — and we held auditions. We were very clear in our casting calls that we were looking for people with experience or no experience, anyone was welcome to come.
DS: The scenes that you shot in the veterinarian’s office are shocking — maybe too graphic — to some people. How did you approach what you were going to shoot?
MS: Everything you see in vet’s office is an actual procedure that we are documenting. Those were all scheduled appointments at that vet’s office. We didn’t know what we were going to get on that particular day. We just incorporated Francine into everything that was happening. In terms of the dog that is being put down; that dog is actually being put under anesthesia because he was going to have his teeth cleaned. So, the dog doesn’t actually die. That scene is a lot more intense than the actual procedure.
BC: There was really no hesitation on our part to show that. We really try to make good choices about what to show and withhold. To be with Francine and that dog in that moment is very important to the storytelling of the film. Sure we could have used strategies to cut away and be more elliptical about it, but I really think that is a moment that you need to be there and experience with Francine — and with each other because I think there is something that happens as an audience while witnessing something like that. The collective energy of what it feels like to be in that moment, that could be very difficult and emotional, but if you are all together then something is transferred in that moment. Incidentally, not long after we shot that scene, our beloved dog had to be euthanized on our front lawn; we found ourselves in the same position as Francine, holding our dog down for his last breath. It was one of the most absolutely devastating things I have ever experienced in my life. Maybe that scene prepared us for that event in a way?
DS: I like your music choices a lot and I admire that the music always comes from an on screen source, thus maintaining the sense of realism.
BC: We care a great deal about sound in general. Music being sound and sound also being music. For Francine we didn’t want the music to be guiding and leading in a very soundtrack-y way. We wanted it to feel imbedded in the world of the film. There are times when the music exists in an in between state, between diegetic and non-diegetic. Like in the hardcore scene, when Francine comes upon the hard core band playing the field — at first we think the music is being overlayed as soundtrack music but then it catches up to itself and we discover that it is part of the next scene. We like to involve the viewer in that way. There is something about the territory between music that feels native to a scene and music that feels like soundtrack, and how you can play with that…
DS: The hardcore scene is also one of a few scenes in which Francine reacts directly to music. It changes her — it literally moves her.
BC: Right. And in the bar where she is dancing and the romantic encounter she has at home… Music has that kind of raw power, a sonic stimuli. These are true moments of release for her.