FRANK MERLE, WRITER/DIRECTOR, #FROMJENNIFER
#fromjennifer is released in September,and is the third chapter in the James Cullen Bressack-created film series.
Lets speak to the man behind the film, Frank Merle. and learn more not only about Frank but also the work this talented guy does. Thanks to Frank for the chat and thanks to October Coast for arranging this.
How did the movie come about?
The story started as a conversation between me and Danielle Taddei, the actress who would eventually play Jennifer. She was telling me about how she had lost acting roles due to not having enough of a social media presence, and how, when she goes out on auditions, they often ask how many followers she has. Later that day, the initial story for #FromJennifer hit me: an actress so desperate for internet fame that she films and uploads progressively crazier videos until she eventually goes too far and loses her sanity.
Was doing a film of this type a long-time goal of yours? Its right up your alley as far as taste goes?
I’ve thought about doing a found-footage movie for a long time because I think the format can be great for hyper-realism, but my pet peeve is when a found-footage movie doesn’t justify its own existence… why are we watching this? Why are they still filming? One of my goals with this screenplay was to justify everything. It all comes together at the very end, when it’s explained who has compiled and edited all the footage.
Did it change much between draft and shooting script?
No, but the script did change a lot while we were shooting it. I kept writing new scenes as we went, because the actors were helping inform me of where the story had to go, logically, based on their performances. Ultimately, all of my favorite scenes in the final film are the ones I wrote after we had already started. For those who have seen it already, these include the pool scene, Butch’s visit to his ex, and Jennifer’s climactic confrontation with Ralph.
How close to the character on the page were the actors you chose to play the parts?
Not at all, in fact. I’m not a big believer in the notion of casting the person who’s most like the character. Lots of my characters are psychos, and I don’t want to work with psychos, I want to work with good actors. Derek Mears and Tony Todd are both big, physically tough guys, perhaps even intimidating if you don’t know them personally, but they’re both sweethearts in real life, and a great pleasure to work with.
Anyone in particular that was exactly their character?
Trae Ireland plays a very suave private detective, and he’s just as cool in real life. If his character comes across as a bit clueless, that’s intentional. He never read the whole script, only his own part, so he wouldn’t be aware of anything that happens that his character wouldn’t be aware of.
How do you get actors psyched up, scared and in-character? Any particular direction you gave them on this one?
Good actors don’t need to be psyched up, they show up onset psyched up, having done their homework, ready to deliver. It’s their imagination that gets them to laugh or cry or scream, their imagination is their special skill, that’s what makes them actors. I see my job as director to keep them feeling safe, that they’re in good hands, that the overall vision for the story is in capable hands, which leaves them free to create their performance. There was one particular scene where we had four cameras filming at once, all from different angles, and the actors wanted to know which camera they should favor. My answer was, none of them, forget about the cameras, because I wanted the scene to feel voyeuristic.
Does you think every movie, even a film of this type, have a message?
As a filmmaker, I don’t like to talk about the meaning of my work too much, because I think it’s perfectly fine for every audience member to have their own take-away. There’s no wrong interpretation of a movie, in my opinion. So when a filmmaker says “this is what it means” I feel like that invalidates other interpretations.
How did you pitch the film to distributors? What do you think appealed to them about taking this on?
The pitch is that it’s a very timely film, concerned with the pros and cons of social media, something a lot of people are thinking about these days. It also helped that I had a few well-known actors in the cast. Not just because distributors like “names” that they can sell, but the very fact that well-known actors said yes to appear in it helps the perception that the script and/or the director must have done something right. It adds a level of validation, and helps the film cut through the clutter.
In terms of the story, what was the research involved?
I did research on the legal ramifications of “revenge porn,” which is when a couple breaks up and one partner uploads an intimate video of them in order to embarrass the other partner. As it turns out, there aren’t really many laws in place to protect the victim in these cases, especially when the victim was aware of the taping at the time it was made. I found this pretty outrageous, so I built that outrage into the motivations of the main character.
Are you going to stick to this genre? Or are you shaking it up next?
I don’t think about genre when I write, and I don’t worry too much about genre when I direct, because I think genre is more of a marketing thing. Sure, some stories are funny, some are scary, but I just want to tell good stories. Most of my work ends up having thrilling moments, suspenseful moments, and violent moments, but that’s because I’m reflecting what I see in the world. But there’s also plenty of light in the world, and I hope my work reflects that as well.
Where can we see it? What should we eat while watching it?
As of September 26, #FromJennifer will be available on nearly all cable-on-demand and premium streaming/download services. There will be a DVD release eventually, but instead of waiting, I recommend finding it first on your favorite digital platform, because the better it performs on VOD, the bigger our DVD release can be. So if you like the film, spread the word, because independent film relies on the fan base to help reach a broader audience, since we don’t have the marketing budgets that those big studio movies have. As for what food to eat, I recommend pizza. There’s a pizza scene in the middle of the film. While I was editing that scene, it always made me hungry for pizza, so you can avoid this by ordering yourself a pizza before you start watching. Luckily for the actor who had to eat it take after take after take, we had pretty good pizza on set. Even so, after the tenth take or so, his character’s hunger started to get a bit less convincing, and he needed to start spitting out mouthfuls of pizza between takes. Such a waste! I believe some of those pizza shenanigan outtakes will make their way onto the DVD bonus features, so keep an eye out for that.