In "Francine," Melissa Leo offers her first lead performance since winning an Oscar last February for "The Fighter." Quietly striking, the film gives Leo quite a bit to work with. As a troubled, unbalanced woman recently released from prison, her titular Francine copes with her demons through forming unhealthy bonds with a group of cats and dogs she starts collecting from around her rural home (and stealing from her workplace at a pet store).
Premiering in the Forum section at the Berlin International Film Festival this week, the film also marks the directorial debut of Brian M. Cassidy and Melanie Shatzky.
"Brian and I have always been interested in stories about desperation and people's sense of desperation -- women in particular," Shatzky told Indiewire. "We wanted to create a story about this women who finds family in these animals. She has the best of intentions, but she's clearly a flawed person."
Leo said the film offered a unique opportunity to develop a character very much on her own terms, as the script was largely formed from an outline as the month-long shoot went on.
"I think building Francine was trying as best I could ascertain from the filmmakers who they needed her to be to tell the story." Leo said. "And that then coupled with my imagination as how I might land that as truthful. That builds the character."
Leo also noted there was another "secret ingredient" to her experience on the set.
"Which is a silly above-the-line sort of thing," she explained. "But I did my own hair and makeup. I've been an actor for 30 years. And makeup trailers have gotten to be more and more of an impediment to the art of acting. Makeup has a place in the world and in my industry. It's a tool of my industry. It gets used in a very by rote sort of way that by and large filmmakers big and small have little to do with."
In both "Francine" and previously in "Frozen River," Leo took on this role herself.
"I understand continuity and what is necessary for an editor to make a story believeable," she said. "And I the actor am following not only the internal beats of the character but externally the appearance of the character. It's in my hands. And that's a golden opportunity I'm not often afforded."
Another opportunity that Leo has not often been given is that of working with dozens of animals as her co-stars, an experience she called "delightful."
"They got in the best animals in the Hudson Valley," Leo said excitedly. "They weren't trained animals in a sense. I bring up 'The Artist' because there's that little dog in it. How did they possible doing that? Well, the film was shot MOS so the commands could constantly be barked at the dog. And that's how they shot 'The Artist.'"
In "Francine," it wasn't quite so simple. People offered their animals and time to the film, including a real-life veternarian who is featured in the film as a fictional character that hires Francine.
"So we were just there and he'd allow Francine to be in the room with him and even participate in what he was doing," she said. "There was also a family that had a rescue in their own home and most of the cats and dogs inside Francine's house lived in that rescue together. So there was no trained animals."
Compared to "The Fighter," "Francine" is a remarkably tiny movie with a very little budget. But for Leo, the difference between working on films big and small doesn't really affect her process as an actress.
"That doesn't matter as far as the work is concerned," she said. "The convienience and comfortableness and the trailer and the makeup people... There's as much of an impediment in the big machine as there is in the small one. It's just different impediments. But the joy is equally the same. It's different ways of working."
As for the future of that joy, Leo said that things haven't actually changed much since she won the big prize a year ago.
"It's not in my hands how I progress as an artist," she said. "I've had an amazing 30 years working. I hope for things in my future. We'll see what the future brings. This past year has not seemed incredibly different. I think that the truth of the matter is that nothing ever happens overnight. But there was one little thing that happened over night, and to take that golden statue home meant things inside of me that I could never find the words to explain. The sense of self and belonging and inclusion by my peers. It was extrordinary. My outer life, not so different. You might find me at the Berlin aiport lugging my own suitcases in my sweatpants."
You might find her doing the same in Austin next month when the film has its US premiere at the SXSW Film Festival, and you also catch Leo back on that Oscar stage when she presents the best supporting actor award on February 26.