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Melissa Leo, Melanie Shatzky and Brian Cassidy On Blending Documentary With Fiction in 'Francine,' and the "Silent Dance" Between Actor and Director

By Chris Pomorski | Indiewire September 13, 2012 at 8:12AM

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.
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Melissa Leo Francine

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.

Francine poster

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.
 

This article is related to: Francine, Melissa Leo, Interviews







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