Writer/Director Matthew Ross and Producers Jay Van Hoy and John Baker on Making the Vegas-set Neo-Noir, Frank and Lola
Longtime Filmmaker readers will instantly recognize writer/director Matt Ross as our former Managing Editor, whose intelligent and probing interviews with directors like Robert Altman, Steven Soderbergh and George Clooney — to say nothing of his sit-down with critic Armond White — were staples in this publication in the early to mid-aughts. In 2006, Ross, who had made two short films and written a pair of scripts left the magazine to go make his debut feature, the darkly compelling Frank & Lola. A Vegas-set psychosexual love story, Frank & Lola stars Michael Shannon as an ambitious, tightly-wound star chef working in the city’s top hotels and swanky private kitchens. The significantly younger Imogen Poots plays, Lola, an aspiring fashion designer with a fresh, innocent beauty. The film opens with them having sex, and one immediately registers his infatuation with her as well as all the power dynamics and imbalances potentially lurking in their relationship. Soon we learn that Lola is on a particularly fragile rebound, and the details of her previous relationship destabilize a jealous Frank. As Frank & Lola progresses, the film expands its setting, moving from Vegas to Paris, while embracing both a neo-noir revenge storyline as well as a deeper plumbing of the complexities of its couple’s volatile relationship.
As you’ll surmise from the above, Ross is both a friend and former colleague, and he was a key collaborator in Filmmaker‘s long-term goal to demystify how movies get made. So, this interview, for which he was joined by two of its producers, Jay Van Hoy and John Baker, is focused less on the specifics of the movie and more on the decade-long road it took to get to the screen. Edited from a conversation occurring before Frank & Lola‘s premiere at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, the talk below covers the film’s initial inspirations, the various financiers and producers who jumped on board, and how the team survived a last-minute financing crisis. Frank & Lola is currently in theaters and available on digital platforms.
Filmmaker: Matt, let’s start by talking about the origins of the script. Where did the idea come from and what was your own path to filmmaking — and to Filmmaker?
Ross: I’ve wanted to make movies my whole life. At Harvard, I was in the Visual and Environmental Studies Department, which sounds ridiculous because it is a ridiculous, pretentious title for the department, but it was really sort of a mini art school within the college that had some really talented people. There were about 10 of us in the intermediate filmmaking program, and two of the other filmmakers were Andrew Bujalski and Josh Oppenheimer.
So, I always wanted to make movies, but it was right when the dotcom boom was happening, and there were these writing jobs everywhere. With a college essay I got a job writing for a website, and the next thing I knew, I had benefits and health insurance and a salary. So that’s how I started in journalism. I was kind of inspired by Cahiers du Cinema, the New Wave French guys like Godard and Truffaut, who all started out as journalists before they became filmmakers. The one thing I knew I could do out of college was write about movies. And eventually, I ended up at Filmmaker. I’d written a few scripts already, one of which I had been trying to get made, but you know, it was a coming-of-age comedy. I still stand by it, but I don’t think it was quite as distinctive as Frank & Lola. Deep down I knew that I needed something to really kind of pop in a unique way as a director that was very much in my own voice. And I finally discovered that [voice] in this story, which was loosely motivated by some true events.
Filmmaker: What were those events?
Ross: A friend of mine had gone through a situation that was incredibly damaging to her. It was very confusing — anything but black and white — in that it involved both a sort of textbook sexual assault and then a relationship that ensued thereafter with the perpetrator, this sort of very depraved sociopathic guy. [The relationship] lasted for a few months, and by the time she got out, she was a mess. It took her years to deal with it — to come to terms with what had happened.
So there was the horrific nature of the assault itself, and then damage from being complicit, to a degree, in the relationship after that. It was an abusive relationship, but it was a relationship, you know? My idea was to set up a fictionalized version of that [story] during the immediate aftermath of what had happened, when she begins a new relationship with somebody else. She is not healed — she’s both still traumatized as well as acting out, to a degree, in a self-destructive way. And it creates a bit of a domino effect, in that [her new partner] is motivated by what she’s telling him [about the previous relationship], and then he starts behaving in a way that’s well beyond the pale of any kind of traditionally acceptable normal behavior. It was about what this character would do as a revenge fantasy, almost, what he would do if he actually got a chance to get revenge on this man who, according to his girlfriend, was sort of the devil incarnate.
Filmmaker: Were you trying to represent her point of view at all in the movie, or do you see this as very much from the male point of view?
Ross: It’s from his point of view. We actually had a scene or two in the movie that occurred totally from her point of view but, in the end, we made the decision that it just worked better [from his point of view]. And there’s a reason for that, too, because there’s a certain amount of weird shame that he has to deal with in that he knows that this person that he cares about very, very deeply has gone through something terrible, right?
Filmmaker: It was a very long road to the production of this movie. Was it difficult keeping the raw emotions of this story alive for so many years?
Ross: It’s interesting. There’s the On the Road sort of style of writing and then there’s the Joe Gould style of writing — you know, the endless book? I actually found that the script got a lot better over time. Initially, in my twenties, I think it was kind of a precocious piece of writing for me. Over time, I kind of caught up to the material. And my tastes changed a little bit, so I would say that, in the beginning, there was a slightly more archetypical, or more genre-based, aspect to the story. Lola was more of a femme fatale type, and Frank was more of an angry man type. Over the time, they both become more layered and nuanced. I’ve been really inspired by a lot of contemporary French filmmakers, specifically Jacques Audiard and Claire Denis, and one of the reasons I love their work so much is that they take these three-dimensional, real characters and put them in these settings that have genre elements to them, like Read My Lips or The Beat That My Heart Skipped. I think over the course of time, Frank and Lola on the page became closer to those people in those French movies that I had loved so much and who were such an inspiration.
Filmmaker: One thing I think you got from working at Filmmaker is an immersion in how other filmmakers got their movies made. When you left Filmmaker, what in your head was your near- or medium-term trajectory? What did you think was going to happen vis-à-vis your projects?
Ross: Well, let me rewind a little bit, because Filmmaker was a huge factor in my education, my sort of personal self-taught film school, I guess. And getting this film made was a direct result of my job at Filmmaker because I interviewed Lars [Knudsen] and Jay [Van Hoy] for the 25 New Faces to Watch. I remember interviewing them and thinking immediately, “I want those two guys to produce my movie.”
Filmmaker: Were they the first people on your movie?
Ross: No. They were brought on by another producer we had on the movie at the time, Jack Turner. I was working with Jack and Anne Chaisson, who was producing my first script, so I brought her on to produce Frank and Lola. And Jack, I had met socially from the film world, he was leaving United Artists at the time to go out on his own. We became buddies, and he said, “I want this to be the first movie that I make.” So I brought Jack and Anne together, and we made a short film inspired by the script, which was called Lola. Then, I met Lars and Jay, and Jack got involved with some film financing funds and became more of an executive producer.
Filmmaker: What role do you think the short film played in getting the movie made?
Ross: I think it played a role in that I wasn’t making commercials that much. Making that short was very difficult. We only had two days to shoot on a half-broken 16 millimeter camera, but all that being said, it turned out okay. I had done the wrong thing the first time, which was to make a short film right out of college that I spent too much money on. It was way too ambitious and long — 30 minutes — so it was hard to program at film festivals. So I tried to do it the opposite way with Frank & Lola, in that I wrote the script, and then I made the short so I could say, “Here’s the script. Here’s the short. I know what I’m doing. Let’s make a movie together.” I don’t think that anybody who saw the short decided not to work with me, you know what I mean?
Filmmaker: When you left Filmmaker and went out to make this movie, what were your first priorities? Attaching cast? Finding financing? Was it finding more producers?
Ross: All of the above. After the economy totally fell apart [in 2008], people were scrambling to figure out how to get a movie made. I think they still are, you know? At the very least, to get an independent movie made you need your leading actors, the money, and a date that works for everybody. Along the way, I would say 90 percent of the time we had one, usually two of those elements in place. But then the actor would become a superhero and you lose him. Right? That’s exactly what happened with Michael Shannon the first time, several years ago. We really hit it off, he wanted to do the movie, and we went out to investors and said, “Hey, we have Michael Shannon. He was just nominated for an Oscar for Revolutionary Road. Let’s do this.” By the time we got the money, Michael had to go and do Superman.
Filmmaker: And you had moved to L.A., right?
Ross: Yeah, for a little. I moved back and forth.
Filmmaker: Did you feel like you had to be in L.A. to get this movie set up the way you wanted to get it set up?
Ross: At first, I did. I signed with some very fancy companies, and I kind of bought into the whole dog-and-pony show that agencies do. They’re very good at making you feel really important really fast, you know? And so, you sort of feel like you have to be out there. But as it turned out, nothing about L.A. got this movie made, except for Michael Diamond, my manager. He’s a co-producer on the movie, and he works for MGMT Management, and he stuck with me over the years. Michael got Killer Films involved. And [executive producer] Kevin Iwashina, who packages and sells movies, is one of [Killer Films’s] Christine Vachon’s best friends. Bret Easton Ellis is an old friend of mine, and he would throw parties at his place two or three times a year. I ran into Kevin at one of his parties just after Christine signed on, and he and I hit it off. He was like, “Do you need someone to finance and package the movie?” So that’s how Kevin came on.
Filmmaker: And how did the film wind moving its location from Brooklyn to Las Vegas?
Ross: Kevin had met Chris Ramirez, who was hooked up with this guy Tony Hsieh, who owns Zappos, and they had a mandate to make movies set in Nevada. Initially, I was reluctant [to work with them], but then I spent some time [in Las Vegas] with Chris and his amazing development person, Charles Cantrell, who gave me a tour of Vegas for a few days. All I’d ever been to was the typical Strip experience, and I wanted to know what people were like outside of the service industry there. Frank was an easy character to move, because he was originally a chef in Brooklyn, and obviously, there are a zillion chefs in Vegas. But Lola, I kind of needed to find a way into her character, and Charles showed me what civilians were like there.
Filmmaker: And then what happened?
Ross: We moved [the setting] there, and while I was doing the rewrites from New York to Vegas, [Ramirez and Shea] financed another movie, a Gerardo Naranjo movie produced by my friends Alex Orlovsky and Hunter Gray. So [with that film] these guys proved that their money was real, because, as we all know, a lot of times, the money is never real. [Their commitment then] allowed us to then jumpstart Frank & Lola in a real way. We could call up agents and say, “Hey, we’ve got financing. These guys are legit, check it out.” We started getting it setup over the course of 2014.
Filmmaker: Let me bring in Jay here to tell us what happened next.
Van Hoy: It was clear that part of the way that Chris [and Tony] work was for them to take the lead in the producing. And so, there was a period there where it looked like they were going to be the basic producers, with John Baker front and center, day to day with Chris. And Lars and I were going to be more executive producers on the film. We were all trying to be generous to the process and to get the movie made If you would’ve asked me when the project was six months out from production how I thought it was going to work, it was actually very different than what resulted.
Filmmaker: What happened?
Van Hoy: We were in prep, and I’d like to say this was unique to this film, but it isn’t. [Chris and Tony] had some changes concerning their ability to finance [within] the timeline for our production dates. We were locked into the dates with Michael Shannon and Imogen Poots, running at a fall shoot, and they couldn’t finance it. We were six weeks out from production, two weeks before our hard prep was going to start.
Ross: And the last day before we would have had to shut down.
Van Hoy: Yeah, we were facing a shutdown. And it was then that John and I spoke with Robby Halmi, who has a company called Great Point. They were introduced to us by Ben Kramer at CAA. He loved the script and could really see this film with Mike and Imogen playing the leads. They jumped in within a 48-hour period. It felt like it was this “Hail Mary” touchdown for the film, because I think Matt was probably going to recreate Leaving Las Vegas.
Ross: Oh man. Yeah, I mean, Scott, I really went fully all in on this. I moved out of my sublet in Manhattan, and I was staying at my assistant’s house in downtown Las Vegas, which is really the end of the road — sleeping on an air mattress in his house.
Baker: I’m not quite sure what you would’ve done, Matt, if you didn’t make the film.
Ross: If Robert Halmi hadn’t come on board at the last minute, I’d be living in my mom’s apartment in Morningside Heights. I probably would’ve stopped trying to be a filmmaker, I think. That would’ve just crushed me. It had been such a long time. To come that close, the thought of it all falling apart at the last minute was just so insanely devastating. But the last day or so I had this weird Zen peace. I was like, “Okay, it’s not going to happen. I’ve done everything I possibly could’ve done. I’ll just move on. This is just pain at this point.” And at the last second, I got that call from Jay: “I just found us all the money. I’m going to be a full producer on the movie now. I’m flying to Vegas tomorrow. You go into pre-production on Monday and don’t fuck it up.”
Filmmaker: And, for you, John, give me your sort of perspective on what were your thoughts during this period. How did you handle the indecision of the shoot about to happen and not happening and about to happen again?
Baker: I mean, for me, Frank & Lola is the biggest film I’ve been a part of in terms of scale. Every day felt kind of like a new challenge or a new surprise or a new breakdown. It was really useful to try and just keep perspective every day. If something falls out, there’s a new opportunity to find a path forward. Matt and I were in Las Vegas [during pre-production], and I think both of us had to take a leap of faith, especially when we were scrambling in those last moments for financing, to keep everything together. And I think other than just sort of the belief that all the hard work and the efforts of all these people that helped get it to that place weren’t going to go just into the ether, the most important thing was just being surrounded by a really great team of people and knowing that everybody was working 24/7 to try and keep it afloat. It was just one of those moments that was kind of amazing and unbelievable, but also not, as Jay said, uncommon in the way that these films come together in the independent landscape.