It’s not often that you encounter a film described as a “psychosexual noir love story”, let alone one that lives up to that description. It’s bit of a mouthful, but director Matthew Ross’ debut feature Frank & Lola, starring Michael Shannon and Imogen Poots, is precisely what it claims to be – and a little bit more. Not only is the film a complex romantic drama with the trappings of a thriller, it’s also a dark and disturbing portrait of jealousy and the destruction it can reap.
Set primarily in Las Vegas, Frank & Lola follows Frank (Shannon), a talented chef working hard to score a new gig, and Lola (Poots), an aspiring fashion designer who has just returned home after several years abroad. Despite a boatload of baggage, the titular characters fall hard for one another. But when a troubling secret from Lola’s past is revealed, Frank’s attempts to set things right threaten to destroy everything.
We spoke with Frank & Lola director Matthew Ross about the film’s long and bumpy road to the big screen, building trust with his two leads, transplanting the film from New York to Las Vegas, and what he’s been collecting recently.
What can you tell me about the origins of the project? You made a short film about ten years ago called Lola that sounds like it could have been a deleted scene from this film. Was sort of a proof of concept?
Matthew Ross: Yeah, I’ve made a few shorts along the way, but I spent a lot of time on the first one I made after college. When it was done a few people responded to it and were like “Where’s the script?” What script? [laughs] I hadn’t written anything. I try to learn from past mistakes as much as possible, so this time I wrote Frank & Lola and then made a short afterwards based on the script I’d just written. It had similar themes, but it was slightly different. It wasn’t a deleted scene from the movie or something like that, but it was more inspired by the same sort of character, Lola. But then of course it took eight years for the movie to get made. If you look at my IMDB page, you might think that I made Lola and then eventually decided to adapt it, but it actually just took me eight years to get Frank & Lola made. [laughs]
This isn’t the sort of story you see often. An older guy and younger woman trying to make it work, but clearly both coming into the situation with a lot of baggage. What was it about this story that attracted you as a writer and filmmaker?
MR: It was inspired by a personal situation that I’d experienced with somebody who’d just gone through something awful and traumatic – it involved a sexual assault – but who hadn’t been able to unpack all of it yet. As many of these things sometimes do, it became a little bit murkier, in that what happened afterwards wasn’t as easy to understand as one might think. It was the aftermath of that – namely the fact that she’d actually sort of allowed this person to convince her that what happened was alright and ended up sticking around for a couple of months – that’s was what had been incredibly damaging. I think it took her a while to really admit to herself the full nature of what had gone on.
So I was interested in portraying a relationship in which in between the first version of events and the final full version of events, the male character decides to get revenge without knowing the full details of what happened and comes in contact with a truly odious, horrible person who then manipulates them. Her initial version of the facts does not include everything, if that makes any sense.
Do you think the dark and troubling subject matter might have made it more difficult to get the project off the ground?
MR: Certainly. It’s not a film that’s easy to pin down in terms of genre. It sort of straddles romance, drama, and thriller at the same time. Of course we would always try to position it as a thriller to potential investors because they say drama is a dirty word in the indie business. They’re just much harder to get made. There’s some provocative content in there that might have scared away some people, but honestly I think it was just the fact that it wasn’t a high concept film, it was more character based. That’s always a more difficult sell.
I wanted to talk about those characters. Michael Shannon and Imogen Poots are just fantastic. Shannon is obviously one of the most amazing character actors working today. How did he first get involved in the project?
MR: It was quite a long road with Mike actually. I first met him in 2009, the day before the Oscars that he was nominated for [Revolutionary Road], at his hotel in Beverly Hills. He signed on to do the film, but we couldn’t get the money. We couldn’t put it together. He stayed attached. Then two years later we lost him to Man of Steel right as the funding came together. We got the money, celebrated, and then the next day lost Mike to Man of Steel – I’m not even exaggerating. It was the worst break.
So then we started over again. Three years later we had it all setup. We had Imogen and then the other actor we were working with fell out of the project. Imogen’s agent sent over a list from CAA of actors who were available to do the movie, and Mike’s name was on the list. I thought that there was no way. In the ensuing five years his career trajectory had just skyrocketed! But they were like “Nope, Mike has always loved the script, he’s always liked you.” But I think a very key reason we were able to get Mike is that he had never played a romantic lead before. When you’re dealing with an actor of Mike’s caliber – as well as someone as in demand as him – I think you need to give him something that he hasn’t really done before. That’s really the alternate reason we were able to get him. He’s fantastic in the film, he’s incredible.
Audiences have definitely never seen him like this. He’s this vulnerable guy! It was so refreshing to see him play this kind of role.
MR: Well anybody who’s seen him on stage has seen him like that before. He’s as good a theatre actor as there is in the world, especially in Long Day’s Journey into Night which I saw on Broadway. There’s vulnerability everywhere in his theatre performances, but he’s been typecast in a lot of movies for whatever reason. Now that he’s in a position where he can pick what he wants, I think he made a pretty cool choice. To have Michael Shannon star in your first film is a pretty big blessing. It’s pretty cool, man. Not complaining.
I wanted to ask about the film’s opening because you learn so much about these characters in that scene. The viewer is immediately dropped into this situation – it’s an awkward and then ultimately very intense sexual encounter. Obviously shooting a scene like that requires a lot of trust between the filmmaker and actors. What were some of the conversations you had with Michael and Imogen about starting the movie out like this?
MR: Actually yeah, that did come out in post. I had it in my head that we might do it, but it was just the initial scenes that were flipped – they’re at the restaurant and then they go home. But then we decided to just drop the audience right into the bedroom because that’s such a big theme in the film.
I was really proud of the amount of care and sensitivity that we all, as a group, put into making that scene work. Imogen had never done nudity before either, and I was a first time director. You have to get them to trust you so that you can do it, but also so they can really go for it when it comes to shooting the scene. So much of that was creating the right atmosphere on set. I think we did things differently than how most people do it. For example, I wasn’t in the room, our first AC wasn’t in the room, neither was our First AD; it was our cinematographer Eric Koretz and our boom operator Dylan Goodwin. I was watching from a monitor in a room next door whispering camera directions into Eric’s earpiece and our AC was pulling focus from a monitor in the bathroom next door. As soon as we called cut, we turned the monitor around so we couldn’t see anything. Imogen had our wonderful costume designer Kameron Lennox and makeup artist Amy Forsythe there. She wanted that support there very close. They were all there with me. It takes a tonne of guts to show your naked body to millions of people, to put it and your performance up for judgement like that. I couldn’t be prouder of Imogen – and Michael too – for trusting me in the way that they did. It was wonderful.
It’s really a compelling way to start the movie. I wanted to ask a bit about the film’s setting. You don’t often see Vegas portrayed this way – as a place where people simply work and live. I understand the film was originally supposed to be primarily set in New York, but I wonder if you could talk a little bit about why the film ended up in Vegas and the process adapting the story to the new setting.
MR: We moved it to Vegas for practical reasons. A Las Vegas-based production company called Lola Pictures said they could find the financing for the film if we moved it there. I was reticent of course, simply because I’d been living with the film as a New York-Paris film for so long and because Vegas is such a specific place. Moving Frank to Vegas wasn’t difficult because there’s probably more chefs there than anywhere, but moving Lola was more difficult because pretty much everyone I’ve ever met when I’ve been in Vegas is either a tourist or in the service industry.
So I needed to spend some time there and I did so with the help of Lola Pictures. Both Chris Ramirez, who runs it, and Charles Cantrell, who’s a development executive and who ended up being my assistant on the film, grew up in Vegas, went to UNLV and studied film, and were part of a crew of kids out there in downtown Vegas who were very much part of a little cultural community. I got to know that world because I needed to find a Lola that I could believe. The New York version of Lola got a job at Harper’s Magazine, but there’s no literary/magazine world in Las Vegas obviously, so I had to come up with something that she could do. So I made her an aspiring fashion designer because I visited a big incubator in downtown with 20 designers working there. We actually shot there in the film, that’s where she works. So that felt like an interesting way to do it. I have to feel like I know these people in order to write something or direct something. I have to feel like I’m in the world.
There’s a lot of contrasts in the film, both in terms of characters, locations, and tone. Frank and Lola. Vegas and Paris. People and places that couldn’t be more different on the surface. I wonder if you could talk about the contrasts and shifting tones that you go through as we move through the movie.
MR: I wanted to play with French culture as this kind of libertine culture with different values from our traditional monogamous, protestant culture which the US is founded on. As opposed to Europe which is much more liberal – and in this case also kind of scary and terrifying. So I wanted Paris to both work as a symbol as well as an actual place.
Paris is incredible. There’s so much film history there. I don’t know any filmmaker who grew up watching the great French movies who wouldn’t want to make a film there – that was selfish reasons! [laughs] But in terms of designing the film, we put a tonne of work into creating two different atmospheres and tones. Everything is different visually and tonally. For example, everything in Vegas is shot on a handheld camera with longer lenses. Even when the camera was moving on a dolly, Eric was holding the camera on the dolly so we’d get that motion. Everything is locked off or on a steadicam in Paris, there’s not a single handheld shot. We used much wider lenses to create a more ominous and intimidating effect for when Frank goes there. Vegas is very blue, Paris is very red and yellow. So we spent a lot of time trying to create two very different worlds, but also in a way that wasn’t screaming at the audience “These are two very different worlds!” It was about finding the right balance of distinction but also subtlety so as not to call too much attention to ourselves.
Food and its preparation is a huge part of the film because of Frank’s occupation. Are you a foodie? There must have been a huge learning curve as a filmmaker to depict this sort of haute cuisine properly, no?
MR: [laughs] I hate the word foodie, but yeah I’ve always been into it. I cooked for a while myself – of course not at that level – but one of the reasons I chose to make Frank a chef is because I could relate to it. I think there’s a lot of analogues between being a professional chef trying to start a restaurant and being an independent film director trying to make a movie. The chances of failure are gigantic, the chances of success are tiny. You have to have there right balance of creativity with respect for the bottom line. You have to be able to deal with all varieties of people from all varieties of background and empower them creatively so that they come to work with the right attitude and do their job. And you have to delegate responsibility in a way that ensures that things are going to come off in the way you want them to. You can’t chop every vegetable! [laughs]
I’m good friends with a chef named Frank from New York. He’s become quite successful with this Spuntino empire in New York with his other partner Frank. So I named Frank after Frank as a hat tip. As it turns out his restaurant, Frankies Spuntino 457, is right near Michael Shannon and it’s Mike’s favourite restaurant. So it’s kind of cool how that worked out. Frank was our chef consultant on the film. He also trained Mike before the film on some basic techniques so that was could make the food and the prep look real. Whether it’s the meals themselves or the atmosphere in the kitchen, it was very important to me to make a film in which a real chef could watch it and say “Yeah, that’s how it’s done.” Hopefully we did that.
I was alternating between hunger and suspense in those Paris scenes!
MR: [laughs] Food prep is no joke, man! It’s hard to do.
So the name of our site is DorkShelf.com, so we always like to ask what people collect or have on their shelves at home. Do you collect anything interesting? What’s the thing you have that you like to show to people when they come over?
MR: Over the last year it’s been film festival badges that I’ve been collecting. I’m not a big collector outside of music, but I have the full Tintin collection and I have a bunch of film festival badges. They’re all on a corkboard in my office. I have a pretty good sneaker collection too.