The Maidstone. East Hampton, NY.
Interview: Rob DeStefano
Actor Frank Whaley has made appearances in hallmark films such as Pulp Fiction and Field of Dreams. Most recently, he had a run on the popular television series Ray Donovan, but his interest in the medium extends behind the lens as well. He completed his fourth feature film as writer/director. We sat down with him to learn more about his experience directing a child actor, a rockstar, and a wildly successful actress in Like Sunday, Like Rain.
Inflatable Ferret: You’ve appeared in so many successful films. What prompted you to step behind the camera?
Frank Whaley: In 1997 I wanted to write a script that was loosely based on my childhood. I had this idea for the character, and I saw The 400 Blows by Francois Truffaut and I thought, “I should plagiarize that script!” So I was heavily inspired by The 400 Blows. I wrote Joe the King, which is sort of my life story as a child. I sent it to every director in town. I was basically banging on doors, but nobody was interested in directing it. So I said, “I’ll just direct it myself. I’ll take my practical experiences as an actor and raise the money.”
IF: Very French New Wave of you.
FW: Very French New Wave of me. I was lucky at that time because very few big studio actors were doing independent films. It’s different now. Everybody does. At that time though, it was hard to draw actors to small films. It’s a whole different business now – actors do television and commercials. I was lucky at that time because I got Val Kilmer, Ethan Hawke, and John Leguizamo. With those three guys attached, I was able to go out with this very small, dark material and get funding.
IF: Is it hard switching into the different gears of each medium you work in?
FW: At this point it’s easy. The hardest part is that when I’m in this mode [independent filmmaking], I’m broke. I spend my own money. And that’s when I’m offered the acting gigs. We’ve been traveling a lot with this film to different festivals like Raindance in London, then Mill Valley, and now we’re here, with two or three more to go to. And of course now is when all the acting roles come out. My agent wants to kill me. It’s hard because I’m not terrifically satisfied with the acting work I’m getting, unfortunately. Most of the interesting acting work is in television these days, but everybody wants those roles.
IF: Like Sunday, Like Rain deals so heavily with music. Do you play an instrument?
FW: I play the drums. I never know whether drummers are true musicians or not.
IF: I would think so.
FW: Yeah I do too. Drummers would be mad. I love music. This movie centers around a woman in her twenties, played by Leighton Meester, who is a struggling musician. She’s a horn player – the cornet. As the story opens she’s living in Brooklyn. Her cheating boyfriend, played by Billy Joe Armstrong, has crossed the line and she ends the relationship with him. She’s fired from her waitressing gig because he comes to her place of work and causes a scene. She randomly interviews for a job as an au pair for a very wealthy family for a 12-year-old cello prodigy. She finds herself in a matter of hours from one side of the world to the other. The story is about Eleanor and Reggie’s summer together. He’s a musician. She’s a musician. They don’t realize that at the beginning. It’s a sweet, lovely character portrait.
IF: You’re directing three very different kinds of performers in this film, from child actor to punk rock superstar. Was there a particular strategy you used to connect with everyone on set?
FW: It was very challenging at times. Julian Shatkin [plays Reggie] had never been in a movie before. It was a good thing in this case since he was a blank canvass. I was able to use my acting experience to really help him and guide him. And as for Leighton, I was constantly – on a daily basis – in awe of what she was able to do.
IF: Did she know how to play the cornet?
FW: No. Neither her nor Julian played. That was really tough because we didn’t have time to take lessons.
IF: How did you pull that off?
FW: Fancy editing. The scenes where they’re playing in the movie are not meant to be completely realistic. The score on the soundtrack and what they’re doing on screen is sort of separate. A lot of it is kind of dreamy. Leighton was an experienced actress – she had been on TV for a long time – so I was able to kind of let her go. She knew this character, and that’s why I hired her. She’s that person. And Billy, he’s got it. He’s a performer.
IF: The idea of a guardian or a mentor coming in to affect and be affected by a young character has been seen before. How did you keep your script fresh?
FW: It’s not an easy thing to do because you can fall into clichés with a story like this. From what I’ve seen through audience reactions, we’ve succeeded at avoiding those clichés. He’s not your typical, wealthy, smart kid. We don’t fall into any of the traps. He’s smart and charming beyond his years without being “that guy.” The relationship is very unique and different. You think it might be heading in one direction but then it diverts to a different place. Audiences like to know what they’re seeing. It’s a story about love and the two lonely people in the world who find one another.
IF: I assume you shot heavily in the NY area?
FW: Reggie’s house was a very important location because a lot of the film takes place there. During location scouting, I found that the places that matched the script were $75,000 a day to shoot in. We would call real estate companies and inquire. It was usually like half a million dollars, which is nearly twice as much as the entire budget. Our budget for 7 days of filming was maybe $10,000 to $15,000 for the location. Probably less. My cinematographer said we should go to Alder Manor, which is an old manor house in Yonkers. It’s still sitting there. You go up a hill and there’s this incredible, huge, manor house with a mezzanine and tons of rooms. It’s a mess. They do photo shoots there and the occasional wedding reception in one part that’s a little bit better kept. Boardwalk Empire has shot there. My cinematographer had worked on that show. So we jumped in a car and went over there, and it wasn’t anything that I had imagined when I wrote the script. There’s a huge empty indoor swimming pool. We had to use it. I ended up re-writing most of the script to fit it into this space.
IF: Do you find that frustrating at all as a screenwriter, to have to conform your original ideas to a new location?
FW: I had no choice. It started as a very modern thing I could never afford. I transformed the setting to become a place the kid’s mother had bought with the hopes of having tiles made in Majorca, but she never did anything to the space. The house had seen better days. This ended up working nicely for the characters.
IF: Does NYC become a character in the movie?
FW: Yes, it does. The thing I’m really happy about is it’s become a different type of New York. It’s not Woody Allen’s New York or Ed Burns’ New York because we filmed in all these different locations – Queens, Brooklyn, Staten Island. We found this old naval hospital in Snug Harbor on Staten Island that’s wide open. We used it for his school and the park scenes. All the scenes in central park, except for one, are shot on Staten Island. You would never know it.
IF: As an actor, what’s one thing you wish all your directors did for you?
FW: Keep things simple. Simplicity. I learned that from my first film in which I had a 12-year-old main character. The best way to direct clearly is to keep it simple. Choose your words. It’s hard to get in front of a camera and take a piece of material that somebody wrote and interpret it. If you mix it up with all kinds of stories and ideas, especially in a limited time frame, it becomes messy. Be direct and simple. That works for 12 year olds and 80 year olds.
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