In the last few years, Melissa Leo has played a woman driven by poverty to human smuggling in Courtney Hunt’s “Frozen River,” and claimed an Oscar for her turn as the chain-smoking boxing matriarch Alice Ward in David O. Russell’s “The Fighter.” On a recent episode of comedian Louis C.K.’s show “Louie,” Leo appeared as the the tough-talking Laurie, who very nearly rapes Mr. C.K. in the cab of a parked truck. It seems fair to say that at 51, Leo — who began her career in the 1980s with a recurring role on “All My Children” — has developed a taste for grit.
With the title role in “Francine,” the first full length feature from documentarian duo Melanie Shatzky and Brian Cassidy, Leo returns once more to hardscrabble environs, as a newly-released convict. In contrast to Alice and Laurie, neither of whom ever suffered a moment’s shyness, Francine remains nearly mute for much of the film. Deeply alienated by her prison experience, she struggles to find her place in the rural lake town where she lives.
Hardly able to mumble the pleasantries required by everyday interactions, Francine retreats to the world of animals, filling her increasingly filthy home with cats, dogs and rodents. She takes work first in a pet store, then in a stable and a veterinary office. Among these caged, dependent creatures–to whom she grows dangerously devoted — Francine feels unburdened of grief, if only for a time.
Leo delivers an affecting performance full of anguished looks and dejected postures, wringing power from the silences in Shatzky’s and Cassidy’s script. The pair’s documentary sensibilities lend their camera a voyeuristic gaze, and though Cassidy has spoken of South African novelist J.M. Coetzee’s influence on “Francine,” the film’s starkness more often recalls the submerged desparation of Raymond Carver stories. Indiewire spoke with Leo, Shatzky and Cassidy in downtown Manhattan a day before “Francine”‘s September 12 opening in New York.
Melissa, I understand that you approached Brian and Melanie about working on this project. At this point in your career, especially after “The Fighter,” you must have a lot of options available to you. What drew you to this project?
Leo: Well, it’s a funny old business. When we shot, “The Fighter” had not yet been released, and taken the world by the storm that it did. I’d shot it. I knew it was coming up, but, that’s even beside the point because I think that I’m led by the project more than the size or shape. And yes indeed I saw in a Woodstock Film Commission missive on the email that they were looking, actually for the other players in the film, but this fascinating lead character [was] described and [I] got in touch with the film commissioner, Laurent Rejto, and he put me in touch with Brian and Melanie. And I think I sort of begged them to be Francine. (Laughter) And they agreed to it, because they like to make their decisions. And that’s how it came. And if it came up tomorrow, I don’t think I’d play it any differently.
And originally, Brian and Melanie, you were searching for a non-actor to do the part.
Was there any trepidation about switching to a professional?
Shatzky: No. I mean, our initial intention was, yes, to find a non-actor, maybe someone who was actually an ex-con, or a woman working in a gas station, or as a waitress in a diner, but then we got this opportunity out of the blue.
Cassidy: We were also coming from a background in documentary film, so that’s the world that we knew going into this, and why we thought we might cast a real person. It was in line with our kind of documentary thinking.
Shatzky: Yeah, and when this opportunity came from out of the blue, you know, we were ecstatic, because, you know, Melissa is so talented and brings so much, you know, and can impart so much emotionality with very little, that for us, now it was the only option. In looking back, you know, at what she was able to bring to the role, we could never have brought with a real person.
Cassidy: Yeah, the film would not have worked without Melissa and the tools that she brought.
Leo: I mean, when you have a subject in a documentary, the documentarians build the story around the information that the subject brings. When you have an actor in a film, my job is telling story, so I’m acutely aware of how to help the film — aid and abet them — in telling their story, which was perhaps the advantage of an actor versus a non-actor in the role.
What was your approach bringing Francine to life in the near total-absence of dialogue?
Leo: Well, I think for me as an actor, dialogue is only a small aspect of portraying a character or telling a story. And it was in fact the clearly stated intention to lack dialogue and be visual in this visual medium of film that in fact excited me the very most. I can act without speaking words. And to have that chance to go in there and do that, be guided not from a conventional script but from an outline and the input of the two directors and the exchange between the two of them, and divine from that what they perhaps needed. It was a fascinating process to be a part of.
Did you have an imagined idea of Francine’s interior life that you talked about expressing?
Shatzky: Not so much specific details — this happened to Francine when she was 12, and this happened when she was 24 — not so much that, but a profound sense of loss. You know, we were dealing with those grander notions of loss. I think that Melissa, in creating the character, was coming up with some of her own, you know, backstory about the character, but for us it was, you know, it really had to do with loss and loneliness and trying to start again.
Leo: So as a sculptor might ask of their artist’s model, you know — I need to see Diana and give you just Diana as the information–then the model, if she’s any good at it, is going to know exactly who Diana is in her, very specifically, right? So although there are questions that don’t need to be answered to “get” the film, they are questions I needed to answer to play Francine. So it was a very interesting meeting of two worlds of film. And I think in the final analysis, taking the strengths from both the documentary world and the acting world down to the bone, and only having that in the film. It’s I think exactly where the film works its finest.Could you give an example of a question you answered for yourself that wasn’t explicitly addressed in the script?
Leo: A question but not an answer, because that would betray my filmmakers: What was she in prison for? How long was she in prison? What had her life been prior to that? Those were all questions I had answered for myself. Very important for an actor to know where they are coming from. In the context of Francine, not so important to know where she’s going, because she don’t know where she’s going.
Cassidy: Yeah, and I’d say for us it’s important in writing this character, creating this character, to have an understanding of the interior life — the backstory — to some extent. So it’s not that we were without an understanding or knowledge of that going in, but it’s also not–
Leo: Not the story you were telling
Cassidy: Right, exactly.
Shatzky: Not the specific details, but like, Francine has a deep distrust of men, you know, Francine doesn’t like to touch things; Francine doesn’t like–you know, so, little details like that, but not that this happened when she was 12, this happened when she was 24, not that kind of stuff, but more interior stuff.
What was the meeting of the minds like between the three of you?
Shatzky: Well, I’ll start with Brian and I. It’s very fluid. Brian and I wrote the story together. And we direct together. However, Brian was shooting, so a lot of his direction to Melissa was from behind the camera. And, you know, tone and where she would be and how she would move, whereas I would speak to Melissa beforehand. You know, we’d have conversations about how Francine was feeling, you know, what had happened in the prior scene, what was gonna happen in the next seen. Maybe her fears or trepidation within that scene. That type of thing.
Leo: Yeah, there was some way to sort of get what I could of story more from Melanie, and it was more about language exchanged between us. Tossing ideas, trying to find the one that would help them the most. Ideas being tossed from both sides. And with Brian–it’s funny because I had this experience very differently with Louie C.K. on the show, because he’s directing and he’s almost shooting it, right, because he’s got such a thing with his shooter. There were times when there was no language between Brian and I. My understanding of the lens and what it’s seeing and his understanding of what he’s seeing through that lens, his frame, there was a silent dance that would occur between us sometimes. Which I think captures some of the most beautiful pieces of the film.
Cassidy: That was marvelous. I completely agree
Leo: You know, so it was a combination of language and of this. And sometimes I would listen to them talk to each other: “No no no it’s this — Oh yeah! Oh remember we wanted the–” and I would ascertain from there too. There was, again, no script — as I’m fond of working with. So I had to take from wherever I could — even if I wasn’t getting a response, the way they were thinking about the question — ascertaining the answers to the questions I needed. And I think in some degree, then they’d watch me work and ascertain what I was giving them and make adjustments. So it was like the film itself: some in a verbal way but some in a more intangible way.
Brian and Melanie, did you draw a lot on your sensibilities as documentarians in making this movie?
Cassidy: Yeah. We were constantly looking for what was in front of the camera to come to life on its own, in a way. And react and respond to that. But then also to consider the frame and the balance and the composition and these kinds of things. But I think that the way that the film functions, which is interesting, is that we wanted the viewer experience the film the way the camera does. Which is that sometimes it’s trying to catch up to the subject. It’s behind. It’s following the subject. Things are happening and then the camera’s finding them, and in turn, the viewer then finds them. So, this interplay, this complicated interplay in the realm of fiction and this kind of construct of the specificity needed to bring that to life.
This film grew out of a short Brian and Melanie made five years ago called, “The Delaware Project,” about a similarly silent woman whose alienation is closely linked to the rapid suburban development of a rural community. Is “Francine” similarly modern? Is it tied specifically to the present moment in America?
Shatzky: You know, I don’t really think of the film as particularly sociological, and even less so political. So for me it really has to do with just loss and alienation, which I think probably has always occurred with people. I think, for us, we’re not really interested in specific time periods, but about feelings. Just intense distilled feelings that for us seem universal.