Director Matthew Ross Talks Low Budgets and Big Stars With 'Frank & Lola'

Director Matthew Ross talks about making his directorial debut with the romantic drama Frank & Lola
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Director Matt Ross is a lucky guy. It isn't often that you make your feature-film debut with stars like Michael Shannon and Imogen Poots. And yet Ross takes Shannon and Poots and puts them through their paces, with the end result being the smooth, confident romantic drama Frank & Lola. Ross talked with me about shooting on a low budget, working with big stars, and reveals how great an actor Michael Shannon truly is.

With all the emphasis on food and watching Michael Shannon cook I was pretty hungry afterwards!

Mike doesn’t cook at all in real life. My friend who is a chef, who I named the character [Shannon plays] after him as a hat tip, is the owner and restaurateur of Mike’s favorite Brooklyn restaurant as it turns out. So he was our chef consultant and got Mike in the kitchen and taught him a thing or two so when we filmed it seemed authentic.

Well I bought it! That's why he's such a great actor. You made the short prequel for this, Lola in 2006. Both character’s stories are so compelling that you could make two movies based on their individual perspectives. What were the challenges in balancing Frank and Lola’s stories?

We ended up, even more so in the editing room, telling the story from Frank’s point of view not because we favored him as a character - in terms of sympathy - but because it’s Frank’s understanding, lack of understanding, and the fact he’s somebody who acts quickly and impulsively based on the information he’s been given which shifts over the course of the movie. He gets one piece of information, he reacts a certain way; the the information changes and he acts the opposite way. In the end, as it turns out, he doesn’t get the full story until it’s too late. It was really a narrative choice. If we knew what Lola’s perspective was it might not be as suspenseful or tense as it would be if we kept it from Frank’s point of view and a process of discovery.

As a female, I found there’s some great gender discussion about how people are perceived regarding their past, and how miscommunication and societal expectations play out.

I would certainly agree with that. I especially wanted to make a character who was an old-fashioned, masculine character like Frank and have him confront his more animalistic desires and impulses, being at war with himself over that. In all relationships there’s a strange balance of power there. Michael and Imogen bring such specific kinds of power and energy to the movie that’s unexpected and I wanted to play with that.

We’ve seen the dark side of romance in other movies and how some relationships make people “rotten” for each other. Were there specific trappings of the genre you wanted to avoid?

I wouldn’t say I wrote it in reaction to other films. I wanted to make something that I hadn’t necessarily seen before, and explore relationships in a way that’s different from most American mainstream films. I wanted to explore the role of sex in a relationship because thats often not acknowledged in mainstream films, and it plays such a huge role in how relationships work; your sex life is a huge part of your relationship. I wanted to see how that played out on-screen. It was a process of discovery for me, too. I wanted to explore it in the writing and making of it, and understand it.

Why the jump to turn this into a feature in comparison to your short film work?

I was very passionate about the concept, the idea, the story. It was something I wrote in a fit of tremendous inspiration, at least the first draft. As soon as I wrote it, it felt like it was something that was different than other things, that I could use to establish my own voice. I had written things that were similar in story to other indie films out there, genre-wise, and I thought this was more unique, [something] that only I could make. It’s always good when you make a film only you could make, as opposed to one that five or ten or fifteen people could make.

You have these worldly characters. How were you able to make a low-budget independent film in Paris and shoot it in Las Vegas?

A ton of hard work from an incredibly dedicated group of people who all bought into what I wanted to do with the movie, and a certain level of uncompromising demand for what was right. When you’re in pre-production with a limited budget, your options are limited, but it’s on you to push those options and create more of them and maximize every penny you had, and that’s what we did. Getting the Wynn Hotel and the Encore - they’re combined hotels - to let us film for free, to getting some of those incredible Paris locations, that was the result of all of us putting in a tremendous amount of hard work and not settling. We could have settled for more inferior locations had we said yes, but we decided to say no and keep going. I think the result is on the screen. I’m very proud of how the film looks and the locations we were able to get.

It’s beautiful! Just looking at the interiors, everything is expansive. I was blown away.

It wasn’t just the locations. It was wonderful lighting from cinematographer Eric Koretz. I can’t give the locations all the credit. Our great production designer Gerald Sullivan, our whole team, costumes, everything. They maximized those locations. They had an incredible creative team.

There’s a smoky, hazy quality to this that’s reminiscent to film noir, from the locations to Kameron Lennox’s costumes on Imogen. The whole thing feels like a 1940s/1950s noir. Were you influenced at any point by specific works or directors?

We were influenced by tons of movies and used those films in developing the look of the film. I actually created a list of twenty different movies that I sent to every creative person on the film that broke down everything specific, from the lighting to the camerawork to the acting and music. I come from a journalism and film-history background; I’m an obsessive film watcher. If you can’t take from the people who came before you, you’re doing yourself a disservice.

I have to ask about working with the cast you’ve assembled. It almost felt like watching a play with just Michael and Imogen who are fantastic. What was it like working with them and shaping their performances?

To have those two actors star in your first film is a tremendous blessing and honor. Working with them was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had, challenging in all the good kinds of way. Mike and Imogen have two different backgrounds. Mike’s an indie-film superstar, older with more experience; Imogen came from a different background, but she’s also been a professional actress for seven years. You have to build trust. You have to ¬†get them to trust you, and trust you not in a manipulative way because they’ll smell bullshit a million miles away. You have to get them to genuinely trust you so they can then expose themselves because it’s a very personal and intimate movie.

It was really about trust, talking with them about the story, answering whatever questions they had, sometimes adjusting things here or there because they came up with a good idea. You write a script and direct a movie, those are two very different things. A film is a living thing and my whole approach from the beginning, whether it was cast or the creative team behind the camera, was to bring people onto the film who understood what my vision was but could then bring something to it that I couldn’t bring. I’m massively grateful to everyone in the film because everybody in that movie was more experienced than me. It’s a very intense process and you have to know what you want, have a vision, but you’re also grateful that these wonderful, experienced people trust you. It was a fantastic experience for me.

The last question I have is there’s a point in the movie where you can see everything change. Was there a moment for you, either in the writing or directing process, where you said “This is where everything comes together?”

Without giving anything away, there’s a monologue at the end of the film that Lola gives explaining to Frank the full story of what happened to her before they met, which touches on everything. Even though it’s incredibly painful for her to recount, it’s also the first time she’s told anyone that story and maybe the first time she’s even told that story to herself. It’s very painful but also cathartic and empowering for her. That moment for me is a very special one.

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