In Jean Baudrillard’s The Cultures of Collecting, he states, “The image of the pet dog is exactly right, for pets are a category midway between persons and objects…the poignant devotion to such creatures points to a failure to establish normal human relationships and to the installation of a narcissistic territory–the home–wherein the subjectivity can fulfill itself without let or hinderance.” And it is that same concept—that sense of detachment and self-isolationism—that plagues Francine, the titular character in Melanie Shatzky and Brian M. Cassidy’s narrative debut. Starring Oscar-winning actress Melissa Leo, Francine unfolds in an unsettling haze as we’re given an open view into the life of a woman newly released from prison as she tries to assimilate herself back into the outside world in a small lake town.
There is a grave sense of alienation and disassociation in the silence of the film and the lingering shots that allows us to inhabit her world, watching as she finds solace and passion only in the menagerie of animals that populate her unkempt home. Drawing on their shared and well-crafted knowledge of visual aesthetics and documentary filmmaking, Shatzky and Cassidy create a verisimilitudinous world that’s at once stark and minimal yet filled with a desperate longing for connection. We sat down with the filmmakers and Leo to gain insight into the conception of Francine, the emotionality of Leo’s performance, and capturing moments in feelings rather than words.
How did you come up with initial idea for the film?
Melanie Shatzky: Brian and I work on a lot of projects together; we primarily come from a photo background and then documentary and now we’re working with fiction. With all of our projects, we deal with notions of desperation. We like to look at and kind of empathize with people that are facing desperate circumstances in their lives and we’re interested in the creative ways that people try and counter their own desperation. So for us, Francine collecting these animals and creating this sense of family for herself is a real kind act of creativity. Brian and I are huge animal lovers and recognize something beautiful within them that they’re naive and wise at the same time, and if you treat them well then they’ll be good to you. So for us, it was just about creating this character that hopefully people empathize with and just an intense look at that.
Did you have a full script for it? It was so much about images and sound and feeling rather than just words.
Brian Cassidy: We had a ten-page document that had very vivid scene descriptions. Everything on the page was very clearly laid out, but there was no dialogue written, and that’s how we proceeded.
And you wanted to cast a non-actor for the role. How did you, Melissa, come into the picture?
Melissa Leo: I inserted myself. I happened to see online, because of my friendship with the Woodstock Film Commission, a casting call for the various few day parts of the film. The film’s title was Francine, and it seemed to be a story about Francine. “Were the filmmakers looking for a Francine?” I asked my friend. And they were. They weren’t looking for me in particular, but we met. The notion of working without dialogue—to work in the visual medium of film, primarily pictorially—fascinated me. And the woman herself, I began to build even in our first meeting: ideas of who she was and how she might be and so on. Between Brian and Melanie’s idea and Francine herself, there was no way I couldn’t do it. If they would accept me, I wanted to be there.
BC: And this was of course to our great surprise and delight. We were expecting to draw from within our comfort zone, which was working with finding real people that would approximate a version of themselves. However, what we learned as filmmakers—this process, this transition from documentary to fiction—was, in fact, in order to land this story truthfully and portray this character with the kind of realism and intimacy necessary, we needed someone with Melissa’s tools and talent and ability as an actor to do that. It would have been a very different kind of film with a non-actor in the role. Ironically, the more I think about it, I think you could do something like that, but it would be more stilted or you would have to embrace it more autonomously, you’d have to play with the discomfort and inability of a real person in a fictional world. It can be done, but it wouldn’t be the film that we wanted to make.
MS: It also just required such depth of emotionality, and that’s tremendous skill to be able to do that.
ML: The skill is not an emotion, that’s not what it is to be an actor. The skill is to have technique and to know what is needed to tell the story. If the character needs to be emotional to tell the story, then emotion is called for. It’s not about being in touch with my emotions that makes me an actor, it’s about knowing what is needed to tell story. So for the questions that do not get answered in the film—and the filmmakers and I have different answers for them—I built very specific answers, because when the art becomes incredibly specific it in fact becomes universal. When it’s vague, it’s very hard for anyone to attach to it. That’s the difference between an actor and a non-actor in the role.
There was something about Francine, especially in the beginning when she’s sort of walking around and you can tell she feels alienated and is sort of floating through life, that’s deeply relatable even though her situation isn’t relatable. But everyone has had that feeling of desperation. As you were saying about your emotions, there were scenes where you were just sitting there, and you can just see it in your eyes and you didn’t have to say anything.
ML: It’s so fabulous as an actor to work with such simple and human ideas.
In a lot of the characters you play, you really transform yourself. Is there anything you did to prepare for this?
ML: There’s no story I can tell you about going and spending a few nights in a prison or anything like that. That’s not what preparation is for me, but there is something that happens almost unrequested by me, where each moment I spend with the filmmaker or script or another actor, etc., every moment begins as soon as I know I’ll be playing her to inform this thing along. Unfortunately, innately, in every character Melissa comes along. So it’s not about Melissa disguising her or anything, it’s about discerning the character and inviting her into me so as I work, I’m aware of what is her, how would she. It was a mysterious process. As you say, I know a loneliness and I know an isolation, and a wondering if I fit in, do I even care; I know those things in my life and I’m sure that they come along in my Francine.
Did you have a backstory for her or did you want it to be more intuitive?
MS: Not specific details of certain things that had happened to her at different points in her life, but more specific in the terms of, you know, Francine has a deep distrust of men. Francine doesn’t like to touch things. Francine is sexual. Francine loves animals. You know, those types of things. And then it was a real act of creativity for Melissa to then create specific details of what had happened to Francine along her path.
ML: Which is what actually brings it the closest to any other job, in that way. There’s these things to fulfill, whether I needed to speak them or not or tell that story in the movie, those questions inside of me, as I work, are answered. So I have solid ground in which to have Francine walk.
I thought what was very revealing about her character was the way Francine was so open and sexually impulsive, but the second there was something actually intimate she shut down. That’s something that felt very human.
ML: And this is exactly why that would be so for Francine, I knew. And that distrust of men is a pretty broad subject. I know in my heart what her answer is for that, whether Francine knows it or not or you need to know it, I as an actor, a very element of it for me is I need to know those answers. Whether they’re going to jive or not. And then if it’s not jiving then I have to go make up another story that gives them what they want.
And what was the shooting style? Did you have a lot of takes, or did you sort of just go in and capture things in the moment?
BC: The whole film was hand-held and we did multiple takes, but we didn’t run through too many takes.
ML: We shot what we needed to of what we needed. Sometimes we would go over things more than once. To have these incredibly long takes we would do was one of the most wonderful experiences for me. Sometimes Brian would just shoot for five minutes straight, just kept the camera rolling, which is usually unheard of. And there were other times and we’d restart and go, “Oh that’s it,” whether it was hitting a mark or the light being right, those kinds of other technical other film aspects. We did it as we needed.
BC: For me, some of the most gratifying moments were the ones where we could let the camera roll for the whole time and just stay in it, stay in it and say, “That piece we got, that we’ll come back to,” and just keep moving through. And then, for us, we’re kind of living in that moment, in a way, and I suppose it’s just a different kind of way to make a film. You shouldn’t feel that you have to suspend your own disbelief as a filmmaker in order to make it work, but it was a delight to have those things happen.
ML: Or we’d get in intimate settings where it was literally just Brian and me, and we’d go, “Oh that was great, we got it all,” and Melanie would come running in and go, “No, no! You have to go back in!”
BC: And that’s one of the things about two directors: it has to meet all of our approval, really. So that sort of approval process can sometimes come up against the more organic nature of doing things, but that’s filmmaking.
MS: And almost all of the stuff you see with Francine in the house with the animals, most of that was one take, like five to ten minute long takes that were just amazing because we didn’t know what the animals were going to do, Melissa didn’t know what the animals were going to do. So it was this dance between Brian, Melissa, and the animals. Those were some of the most magical moments in the film.
There’s something interesting about how you lingered on moments, like your feet were in the water or those moments with the animals. When you do that, you stay to feel the film in a way rather than just watching it.
ML: And that was some in the shooting but also, finally there in the edit where their sensitivity towards what’s happening on the screen, what kind of thing. In the edit, that’s where they could really shape the film to land with you the way they intended it to land.
Melissa, you’ve done a lot of films with larger ensembles. How did it feel to carry this yourself?
ML: Oh, it’s much more interesting for an actor to work in a way when you’re carrying the ball. It’s just so much more interesting. For the supporting actor to fit their character into the story of the featured character is a trick; it’s actually much harder than leading a film. There’s so much you have to leave behind because it’s not telling the lead character’s story. And absolutely my first interest in it was that if the film was called Francine, it might actually mostly be about Francine’s experience. That’s what sent me to work with the two of them. So to spend a month’s time invested in a character and see her through every beat of building this story…that’s when an actor’s happiest.