Matthew Ross discusses ‘Frank & Lola’
Back in January, I attended the World Premiere of Frank & Lola at the Sundance Film Festival. Frank & Lola was one of two films that starred Michael Shannon and premiered at the festival. Frank & Lola was my favorite of the two because I enjoyed the complicated nature of the story and the performances by Poots and Shannon. I didn’t get to have much interaction with the film during the festival but now 11 months later, got a chance to chat with writer/director Matthew Ross about his feature-length film debut.
Scott: Hi Matthew.
Matthew: Hey, how are you?
Scott: Good. How are you doing?
Matthew: Good, good.
Scott: I just wanted to tell you that I was at the Sundance premiere of this film at the Eccles theater.
Matthew: Oh, no way.
Scott: Yeah, yeah. I’m probably the only site that put it up, but I uploaded the Q&A for Frank & Lola on YouTube.
Matthew: Oh, cool. Wow, man, that was a … I had people tell me about what happened at that thing and whatever hormones or endorphins were going through my system, it’s all a complete blur. I didn’t even remember that we got a standing ovation. Somebody was like, “Oh, yeah. You got …” I was like, “We did?” And I had to ask my girlfriend. I was like, “That happened?” She was like, “Yeah.” I was like, “Wow. I have no memory of that.” I was so nervous. I just wanted to get through it.
Scott: They put you in the biggest theater for your first feature film so, I mean, that’s quite an accomplishment on its own.
Matthew: I know. I used to be a journalist for a long, long time. I was in the audience at the Eccles for, I don’t know, probably 10 Sundance premieres there, and I just remember thinking, “Oh my God. This is really intense. I don’t know how these people are handling it. I’d be freaking out.” You know? Then all the sudden, you’re that person. At the very least, I had a little bit of … It didn’t come out of the blue, but in someways, also, that kind of made it more intense because it’s not like anything that’s going to happen is going to surprise me. I knew how big … Literally, how big a stage that was. Yeah, it’s surreal.
Scott: Yeah, I can only imagine. I always think about that as [inaudible 00:02:07] and especially as a first-time film maker, being there at … I think Sundance is … I don’t know if you agree with me, but I would think that Sundance is still, to this day, the biggest festival around, because it’s pretty much the festival that pretty much started all of the festival circuits. I can only imagine seeing that and then get a standing ovation and then that feeling you must have had.
Matthew: Yeah, that was … It’s crazy, man. It took me so long to get that movie made so to finally make it and then to have it premiere at the best independent film festival in the world, at the biggest theater at the festival, there’s kind of no words to describe that. You sort of have to go with it, you know?
Scott: Yeah, no, no. Totally. I enjoyed the film, so I have a bunch of questions for you. You know, the first thing that kind of comes to mind for me is this is the first film where you actually made a full-feature length feature. You’ve done a lot of short work where you’ve been writing and directing them. What do you say is the biggest difference between the two things, the short film versus the feature length?
Matthew: In the case of Frank and Lola, there was a lot of pressure. You obviously have a lot more budget, so you have more options from a film making perspective, and I certainly had the astonishing talent to work with, both in front of the camera and behind it, which is great. At the same time, it’s playing at a festival or two. I mean, this is, you know, there’s several zeros at the end of the budget, you know? It’s intense, but it’s also exactly what I wanted really.
… Make a film without having to figure out how to take $2,000 and stretch it for three days of shooting [inaudible 00:04:47]. Yeah.
Scott: How many years did it take to actually get this off the ground?
Matthew: We had active, really good producers attached to the film starting in 2006 and that was front and center for me for that entire time until we went into production in 2014.
Scott: Wow. That’s a long time.
Matthew: It was eight years of constant filming. Yeah, yeah. Knowing that, you can imagine what it must have been like when you’re standing on stage at Sundance. You kind of can’t even believe it’s actually happening, you know? Because forever, it was, “No, my movie’s happening.” It’s like, “Hey, mom. Hey, whoever. We’re going to production.” And then it doesn’t happen, and then you say the same thing to somebody 15 times, they probably stop believing you, you know? [inaudible 00:05:56] and then all of the sudden, it really is happening. It is safe to say I embraced the opportunity with a lot of gratitude for what I was given a chance to do, in a way that I wouldn’t have been able to do had it taken a year or two or three, perhaps. There’s nothing like that amount of time to really nail home just exactly how rare and special an opportunity getting the chance to make a film made in a proper way. Hopefully, that gratitude doesn’t [inaudible 00:06:40] because we really worked as hard as we could to make the best thing that we could make.
Scott: Yeah, no. I think you did, and especially for Passion Project has taken this on to kind of come to life. I think you did a great job. It obviously looks likes it paid off.
Matthew: Thank you. Yeah, I mean, even if nothing had happened. Honestly, I can say this. Maybe there’s a certain grain of sale there, but I can honestly say that I just wanted to get the chance to fail at this. I wanted to get the chance just to say, “Hey, you know what? If it works out or doesn’t work out, at least I’ve got an opportunity to put myself on the line and see if I can make a movie.” As soon as we got into production, I kind of had already accomplished my goal regarding emotional and psychological reasons, you know?
Matthew: Because I’d been living in their weird existential hell for eight years, you know? Yeah. Hopefully, the next one doesn’t take me eight years long. But it could. There’s no guarantee from the movie business, or in life. But certainly not in the movie business. I just think that … I saw a lot of young directors when I was film journalist. I saw a lot of people make it very early on, in their early mid-20’s or whatever. Often, not all the time, of course, but often I got the sense that perhaps they didn’t understand and appreciate the opportunity that they had. That wasn’t the case with me because after a while … Covering the business as a journalist and then waiting as long to get the film made, I totally appreciated the opportunity that I had. I didn’t want to waste it. And I didn’t want not to enjoy it or take it seriously, you know?
Matthew: You never know when you’re going to get another shot. You just never know.
Scott: That’s true. I mean, the movie game is very difficult to break into, so the fact that you got a shot in the first place is pretty remarkable.
Matthew: Yeah. It’s cool, man. Humbling, for sure.
Scott: You mentioned that you were a journalist before. Where did you write for?
Matthew: I started out Variety, and I was a New York film reporter there. Then I was the Senior Editor of Indiewire for a year. I was the Managing Editor of Film Maker magazine for four years. All the while, doing freelance work for the Village Voice. I probably wrote, I don’t know, 500 articles, 600 articles, for Variety alone, just on the film business. I knew it pretty well from that perspective. Then I branched out later on and did work on professional fighters. Then I did investigative journalism work for Playboy, long-form stuff. Yeah, I was a journalist by trade for a long time.
Scott: Was it hard to break into it?
Matthew: That wasn’t the plan. The plan was trying to be like the new wave, French cinema journalist turned director. They made it pretty quickly after starting. They all made their films in their 20’s, I think. I had to wait longer. The journalism experience took longer than I thought but, at the same time, I was very lucky to get the opportunity to speak with so many of my cinematic heroes and really pick their brains about how to make a movie. I use all of those experiences in the course of making Frank and Lola do it kind of all paid off in the end.
Scott: How long did it take you to become a journalist of successful journals? It seems like you had a pretty good run there.
Matthew: Yeah. This is kind of dating myself but I moved out to LA to become a film editor but this is when the dot-com boom was happening, and basically, if you could complete a paragraph, you could get a job writing for a website, you know?
Scott: Oh yes. I heard the stories about this.
Matthew: I sent in a … A friend of mine had a job at some website he was leaving, to another job, and he put me up for it. I thought I was … I was working as an Assistant Editor at the time. I just started, “Whatever. I’ll give this a try.” I give them a college essay and I got a full-time staff writer job on this website and I just sort of hustled in pretty aggressively. Within a month or two, I somehow got credentialed for the New York Film Festival. Got them to fly me back to my hometown of New York, where I grew up. Literally, two months after writing my first article about digital video editing, I was sitting alone in a room with Bjork and Catherine Deneuve and David Morse for Dancer in the Dark at a New York Film Festival. It’s kind of like, “Whoa. All right. This is pretty cool.”
Then I just … The one thing I was pretty confident after college was my ability to write about movies because I had written about films throughout the … I mean, I studied art and wrote about film throughout my entire time in college, and I’d watch so many films as a kid. I was always just a movie nut. It’s easier than learning how to use Avid and It kind of just took on its own life after that really.
Scott: I think that’s a fascinating story because I think a lot of people go into journalism, either because they can’t make films or they really want to make films, and they are looking to get their foot in the door.
Matthew: Certainly. I was absolutely in that camp for man, many years, you know? Journalism was something that would, to pay the bills really. I also, I grew to … There’s a ton about it. It’s not like I was miserable doing it the whole time. When you’re getting your chance to sit down with Steven Soderbergh for an hour, Robert Altman for an hour and a half right before he died, to talk about his life and his life’s work. That’s pretty … That’s something that if you don’t appreciate, there’s something wrong with you, you know?
Scott: Getting to talk with so many big names is always exciting.
Matthew: If you love movies. At the same time, I was interviewing people who were doing, what I wanted to be doing but that I wasn’t able to do, so there’s a big level of frustration that went along with it.
Scott: Yeah, but I think you sound like you had a pretty incredible experience with that so I think it almost in a way, almost better shaped you as a film maker.
Matthew: I didn’t tell these guys what I was doing but, of course, while I’m interviewing them, I’m trying to get some trade craft, some tips. I’m trying to get advice on how to make a movie even though they didn’t even know that that’s what I was asking about, you know?
Matthew: You got to talk to some of the greatest people ever to do what you want to do about how to do it. That’s something I’m incredibly thankful for.
Scott: No, sounds like a great experience. Going back to your movie here for a few minutes, there are so many great elements to it. I think the first thing to ask you about is Michael Shannon, of course, an actor who’s pretty much amazing in almost everything. What was it about him for this role, choosing him for the role. He’s not your typical romantic, leading man, so what was it like going after him?
Matthew: I mean, I fell in love with Michael as an actor. I was fully exposed to him. because I hadn’t seen his theater work, but when I saw Bug. I saw Bug in a movie theater when it came out, and I was just mesmerized. I mean, I’m rarely mesmerized by the performance. I just couldn’t get him out of my head. Then, a couple of years after that, the opportunity to work with him on Frank & Lola came up, and it was right when he was nominated for the Oscars for Revolutionary Road. The day before those Oscars is when I met with him, and then we couldn’t put it all together. He was attached for a couple of years and then we lost him too, I think it was Man of Steel. Then three years later, we had set the film up again. I thought that Michael was no longer an option because his workload between 2011 and 2014 and his profile had risen dramatically. He probably gets offered every single independent film leading role.
Scott: It seems like he gets offered a ton of roles now even some mainstream work.
Matthew: I had no illusions about that. I just thought, you know. It also sucked because losing him was heartbreaking, and I know that if I didn’t make it with him, I would always regret it. Then I got the opportunity to do it. He got back on the project in 2014 right before we went into production.
Scott: That’s awesome. Who were you going to use if you couldn’t get him?
Matthew: I’d rather not talk about that.
Scott: Okay, okay.
Matthew: There’s a lot of people who I talked to about the movie.
Scott: Gotcha. Okay. No worries.
Matthew: In the end, the best person for the role got the part. You can imagine over eight years. I’d have to look up in my email to see who else I talked to about the film.
Scott: How about the chemistry between Imogen and him? I feel like they have dynamic onscreen chemistry and they seem like they shouldn’t have. How did you create that and how much time do they have to work together on the set before the actual filming?
Matthew: We had a day and a … Right before we went into production, we had two days in New York, over Thanksgiving weekend, which also doubled as our wardrobe fitting time. We spent, I don’t know, probably like maybe six hours reading the script and then, it was off to the races after that.
Matthew: Yeah. That was intense.
Scott: The topics of jealousy and obsession are huge factors in this story. From a personal standpoint, do you feel that men or women are more jealous? Then, I felt, personally, when watching this movie that it really made a statement about men being more suspicious than women.
Matthew: I try not to generalize across genders, you know? I think, certainly, you can say this man is more jealous than this woman, or this woman is more jealous than this man. I wasn’t trying to make a comment on that. I was just trying to write a story that was from a personal, honest place about two people, you know? I hope the people don’t take it as anything other than me trying to tell a story about two well-intentioned people doing their best and making mistakes. Really. Certainly, Frank has some issues, as does Lola, as do we all, I think, you know? Their issues are cinematic because it’s a movie.
Scott: Yeah. There is another thing that stands out about this film is you are a male writer, you are a male director. Was it difficult to tackle the subject of rape and did you have to tiptoe around certain elements of it?
Matthew: It’s certainly something I was aware of because it’s a very difficult topic. I just wanted to tell a story that was honest and true to the characters, you know? It’s not a message movie. It’s just a story about two people. If you were to sort of [inaudible 00:21:05], it’s a story about how damaging, and unexpectedly damaging, these things can be. For some people, you know? One traumatic event can affect a lot of people, especially the victims. There’s these reverbs that happen. There are these aftershocks that resonate throughout somebody’s life in ways that are unexpected and something that I had seen, personally, up close in how somebody that I knew was trying to deal with something that she had gone through. It’s devastating, you know? It’s devastating. I wanted to keep telling an honest story.
Scott: No, I think you handled it very well. I was just wondering because it seems like one of those topics that’s very difficult to handle as a male trying to showcase what’s going on inside the mind of a female.
Matthew: It’s not a safe topic.
Scott: No, not at all.
Matthew: I wasn’t doing it to be provocative. It was just something that I thought would be a good film and an interesting film and hopefully something that got under the surface of things, as two characters.
Scott: I think you definitely pulled that off.
Matthew: Thank you very much.
Scott: The setting that you … You chose two settings for the film, mainly Las Vegas and then Paris. It’s interesting to me that you picked these two areas since there’s always this notion of sex underneath them. Is that why you picked those two settings or was there another reason?
Matthew: Certainly, yes for Paris. There’s this traditional American morality, regarding relationships and monogamy that the French aren’t necessarily on the same page with all the time. But I also wanted to play with that conception, you know? Paris as this idea of the sort of loose Sodom and Gomorrah kind of place and how that would figure into Frank’s psychology and how it would threaten his conception of his relationship with Lola and what she had gone through before he met her and what kind of crazy ideas might pop into his head because of Paris. Yeah. Plus, Paris is one of those capitols of cinema, and I grew up watching so many films set in Paris when I was a kid. That’s one of the … Watching those French new wave directors make films throughout Paris is one of the reasons that made me want to become a filmmaker, so that had something to do with it.
Vegas came about purely by happenstance and necessity in that a company had read the script and said, … It was originally set in New York, and they said, “We’ll finance the film if you move it to Las Vegas.” I said, “Well, I need to go check it out first.” Because I’d been there, but I’d only been there as a tourist and had experienced it from a very … That perspective, which is very limiting. I wanted to see what their sort of Vegas was like outside of the world of the casinos on the strip, casino hotels on the strip. I did that, and then I was able to meet some people and see kind of this cool theme in Vegas that didn’t evolve that, and I was able to move Lola over there. Of course, in the end, it’s sort of the perfect place for the film, right? I mean, two kind of lonely, damaged souls trying to make things work and, of course, a chef, in a place where there are more chefs than maybe anywhere else in the world. In hindsight, Vegas is the ideal and perfect place for this movie, so it all worked out, you know?
Scott: Yeah, I completely agree with that, too. I think you couldn’t have picked better settings. They were kind of lost on everything. Like you said, fashion and the chef. It offsets sex, it offsets loneliness. I think it’s a perfect, all-around settings for this type of movie.
Matthew: Yeah, there’s some dark corners in there, you know? There are some dark corners in Las Vegas and the potential that one of these characters might go down into one of those corners, I think, is an interesting aspect in setting the film there.
Scott: For your upcoming projects, I know you were talking about, “Oh, I don’t know what’s going to happen next” but do you have anything planned?
Matthew: I’m developing several projects and hope to be in production on one of them by the end of next year.
Scott: Awesome. Looking forward to seeing what you come up with next. Since you brought in the idea and the overall concept that you were a journalist at one point and a film lover. How about this year? Outside of your own film, what would you say you think are the best movies that you’ve seen this year since we’re coming into that period of time where everyone’s talking about the best and worst of the year. What do you think is the best and what do you think is the worst?
Matthew: Well, I just want to preface all of this by saying I haven’t seen as a many films this year as I normally do because I’ve just been a little overwhelmed by all the working on this movie, especially that it’s coming out now, when a lot of really good movies come out, and unfortunately, I haven’t had the time to see them. I will say that my friend, Ben Younger, made a movie, Bleed for this, which I thought was really fantastic. I love that film. I was very lucky that my friend Brady Corbet made a wonderful, wonderful movie called The Childhood of a Leader, which I was very happy to see that nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for Best First Feature, which is just a great piece of filmmaking. Those are plugs for my friends, but they’re also kind of honest plugs in that I thought both of those films were among the best I’ve seen all year. I thought Moonlight was excellent. I thought Arrival was excellent. What did I not like? I don’t know. I mean, there’s so many bad things out there.
One of the things when I was the Managing Editor Filmmaker, one of our mantras at the magazine that was the editor, Scott McCarty, come up with was, “We write about films that we support and if we don’t like the movie, we’re just not going to cover it.” I think that’s a good approach, you know? It’s so hard to make a movie, and if somebody, fails at making a movie, they still made one and I have a massive amount of respect for them. I’d rather single out the things that really move me than things that I didn’t like. I’m not a … I don’t come from this from a perspective of a film critic. I come from this from the perspective of a filmmaker and knowing how difficult it is to get these things done. I don’t like to call out films that I don’t like. I’d rather just single out the ones that I really care about.
Scott: I completely understand that. It’s fine. I agree with you on Arrival and Moonlight. I think they are two of the best of the year.
Matthew: Yeah, absolutely, but there are so many other films that I haven’t seen yet. For years, I went to screenings several times a week, you know? I saw everything that was released in the United States as well as many independent films. You get a little burnt out for a certain time. I just haven’t seen as much as I would like to. So far, The Childhood of a Leader and Bleed for this, I would highly recommend.
Scott: Yeah, I’m going to definitely check out the Brady Corbet movie. I actually haven’t seen that one yet.
Matthew: It’s cool, man. If you think my movie is bold in an aesthetic way, you should see Brady’s film. He goes for it. It’s set is 1918, after World War I, where while they’re doing the Paris to finish up World War I, there’s this kid who’s sort of future fascist in the making. His father’s a diplomat, and it’s the story about how he … The early days of when he became a sociopath, pretty intense. It’s great. It’s great. I was very impressed by what Brady was able to do in it.
Scott: I’ll definitely look into checking it out. Well, Matt, thank you very much for talking to me and dedicating almost 30 minutes of your time with me on the phone. I really do appreciate it, and I hope the film finds new life when it gets released this weekend. One minor question, because I’m really curious about this. Your film is getting a limited release. Is it also getting an on-demand release?
Matthew: Yeah, yeah, yeah. If you could mention that, that would be great. The same day it gets released in theaters, on this Friday, it’s also coming out everywhere digitally. Anyone in the country can buy it, download it and watch it. They don’t need to necessarily live near our house to see the film, so that’s pretty cool.
Scott: What do you think about that? That was my brief question that I wanted to ask you. How do you feel, as a filmmaker, about the whole on-demand thing?
Matthew: I think there’s huge positives and huge negatives to it. The positives are that I made a small, independent film that, on Friday, over 300 million people can watch, which you could never say about any independent film as recently as a few years ago, let alone the films that I saw when I was growing up. The negative is that people might be watching this thing on their phone, you know? That a necessary aspect to the film viewing experience, which is going into a dark room, surrounded by strangers, and experiencing it with others. That pretty much is gone unless you’re watching a giant tent-pole movie. I would love it if everybody who saw my film could see it on a big screen and hopefully appreciate the craft we put into the sound and the image of the film, which was really extensive, but it’s cool that people can get to watch my film and have so much access to it and don’t have to watch it on VHS nine months after it comes out. It’s a double-edged sword. It’s a different world, but I’m just thrilled that I got to make movie, man, to be honest with you. And it’s great that a cousin of mine in a city that isn’t playing the movie can watch the film on Friday. That’s pretty great.
I want people to watch it on a big screen with terrific speakers without looking at their phones and the lights off, but I can’t guarantee that, you know?
Scott: All right. Thank you so much, Matthew. I wish you nothing but success and I hope you have a wonderful day.
Matthew: Thank you very much, man, I appreciate you taking the time.
Scott: All right. You have a great one.
Matthew: Okay. Thank you.
Scott: Bye bye.