Your new movie Family
Obligations - in a few words, what is it about?
is about overcoming isolation and choosing to connect
meaningfully with people in your life. The main character Peter seems
pretty content to remain aloof from the people circling around him in life
until he gets this sense that thereís more to it all. Then, once heís
pulled into peopleís lives, he has to learn another difficult lesson
that relationships are challenging and messy. So, for me, this film is
about that moment of growth and the things that come with it.
Is any of Family
Obligations actually based on personal experiences?
no specific event from my life that is portrayed up on screen in the film,
but several things from my life inspired the overall story. For one,
Iíve watched a lot of people in my life become caretakers of others at
difficult points, and I think that reveals a lot about a person. How we
treat people when theyíre most vulnerable, how we relate to people at
the very end of their lives has always interested me. So I wanted to
portray caregiving in the film the way I have seen it at points. Also, too
often, we donít see the growing pains associated with this sort of
reintroduction to peopleís lives, and I wanted to capture some of that,
sources of inspiration when writing Family
are two specific moments I think about as inspiration for the film. The
first is a newspaper comic strip from Peanuts. Charlie Brown gets a call
that Snoopy is in trouble, so he puts on his coat to go out and get him.
As heís getting ready to leave, his sister Sally yells out, ďThat
beagle is more trouble than heís worth!Ē Charlie Brown, ever so wise,
calls back, ďMost of us are.Ē I thought that was brilliant. This ten
year old boy gets something that we struggle with as adults: people are
inherently difficult. They demand too much of us, they donít make sense
all the time, and they just donít behave rationally as often as they
should. However, the only thing that gives our lives context and meaning
are our relationships. People, no matter how much trouble they may be, are
really the only source of meaning and happiness in our lives.
is a moment I observed firsthand. I was sitting at a Chinese takeout
restaurant (as it happens, the same one we used for a scene in the movie),
and I was waiting for my familyís order with my two daughters. At the
next table was an older man (maybe in his 70s or 80s) and his teenage
grandson. The older man was teasing the boy about something, and the boy
was taking it good-naturedly. Then he said something like, ďOh you kids
just donít get it.Ē I looked at my two children, and I thought about
the things that get lost in translation between generations, the sorts of
things that we donít understand about our parents or our children
donít understand about us. Those two elements informed a lot of the
scriptwriting process for me.
To what extent can you actually
identify with your film's lead character Peter and the situations he's
going through - or with any of the other characters for that matter?
funny to think about that, because Peter and I are diametrically opposed
in many ways. Peter is a loner who manages to keep everyone at armís
length all the time. I am constantly surrounded by my family. Peter has
been alienated from his home for many years, and Iíve never really spent
significant time away from the people and places I grew up with. However,
I think everyone experiences feelings of alienation and loneliness in
life, and I definitely connect with that. Peter talks about getting so
lost in his own thoughts in the shower
that he canít remember if heís washed his face or not. I feel like we
can all spend so much time in our own head, in a world of our own
construction, that we lose a sense of connection to the real world outside
of us, so I identify with that. Iím a parent, so I think I identify with
Melanieís sense of duty to her child. Iím fortunate to be in a better
parenting situation than her, but I think that core sense of what we owe
to our children is still there.
if your film is tackling some sad topics, you've managed to infuse some
comedy every now and again - so could you elaborate on the humour in your
movie for a bit, and how important is the occasional chuckle for a drama
is a great question, because I think I approach almost every story Iíve
told as essentially comedic. The comedy in it was absolutely vital in my
opinion. I had a screenwriting teacher in college who would say, ďYou
have to make them laugh before you can make them cry.Ē I wouldnít say
I was trying to make anyone cry, but I think the principle applies.
Thereís something about making people laugh that brings them in touch
with their humanity, so I think it then becomes easier to ask them to
invest in the characters emotionally. I think if I had gone about telling
this story in an overly serious tone, it would fall flat in front of the
audience. I think that, by laughing at the awkwardness of Peterís
encounters, we acknowledge the discomfort and pain heís feeling. I also
think that humor is vital to Frankís character, because this is
definitely the type of person who would deflect most genuine emotion with
Do talk about your directorial approach to
your story at hand!
had a very small crew, and we had an incredibly tight shooting schedule to
bring this in, so I had to think really hard in preproduction about how I
was going to approach getting what we needed with such constraints. So, in
storyboarding and shotlisting, I made a conscious effort to strip down the
number of setups per scene ó the number of camera angles, inserts,
cutaways, etc ó so that I could give the actors the most chances to
explore the performance. Basically, if it came down to offering the
performers another take versus getting another setup, I was going to defer
to the actors, because I knew that the success of the film would rely on
story, character, and performance, not some visual wizardry that I
honestly wouldnít have been able to pull off in the first place. So that
was a guiding principle on set: get out of the way of the actors. Also, we
did a table read before shooting, and I spent some time after that doing a
final pass on the dialogue to bring the characters more into a natural
voice for the actors, so that they could be as comfortable as possible
with the material.
What can you tell us about your key
cast, and why exactly these people?
we start with our main character Peter, played by Chris Mollica. Chris is
my best friend, my brother-in-law, and my collaborator on numerous
projects. I wrote this script knowing that Chris would play Peter, and
that made life much easier. Chris is an incredibly talented actor, and I
knew that I could write this part however I wanted, and Chris could pull
it off. So, having that confidence that you could take the character
wherever you wanted and it would play well on set really helped make this
come to life. So having Chris meant we had to go out and find Frank. I
needed an actor who could believably play his uncle, and we discovered
Frank Failla. He is a retired cop who now acts, but I first saw him as a
standup comic. That was great, because seeing his persona on stage as a
comic, it fell right in line with
how I conceived the character Frank on the page. The final major piece was
Melanie. My assistant director Kevin Wolfring had just shot a short film
with the actress Chandler Rosenthal. I had met her on his set. She gave a
great performance there. Sheís incredibly smart, and I think she got
what the script was trying to do right away. The extra wrinkle for these
actors was that the character Mia was going to be played by my daughter
Eleanor, so I had to ask these professional people to tolerate a complete
beginner and a child on set. And, of course, not just any child, but the
directorís child, so all kinds of lines would be crossed. To that end,
they were all incredible. You canít have this film succeed with any weak
spots in these roles, and the actors all worked under significant time
pressure to make this film work. Iím very grateful to them for their
professionalism and their artistic talent but also their warmth and their
A few words about
the shoot as such, and the on-set atmosphere?
as I said, we were tight on time, but we certainly had a lot of fun, as
well. Shooting this was truly a dream come true for me, and I think about
it all the time now that itís been a year since we shot. The title is Family
Obligations, and it really is a family film. My wife is the
executive producer. Our parents appear in the film. Both of our children
appear in the film. Our lead actor is my brother-in-law. My assistant
director is a former student of mine. Another of our actresses was a
student. My kids were around the set on their off days. We shot some
scenes in our familyís apartment, others in my mother-in-lawís
apartment, others in a friendís house. So, the actors who were new to
our set really got brought into the family very quickly. Meals on set were
like family dinner (a lot of times actually at our dinner table). We
managed to involve so many people in our lives, and I really feel like we
got everyoneís support behind this film.
you can tell us about audience and critical reception of Family
our festival run and streaming distribution, weíve been able to pick up
some very positive reviews from both critics and everyday viewers, which
is great. Probably the most satisfying thing for me has been people
approaching me after screenings and saying how the story resonated with
them and connected to their personal experience. Theyíve taken care of a
sick relative or reconnected with family after a long absence, and this
film has rung true for them. Itís very gratifying to hear that the film
has touched people in that way.
Any future projects you'd like to
are about to start production on a new feature called Sofa King: or, No
Man Is an Island, Even If He Has a Cooler Full of Beer. The script was
written by Chris Mollica, the lead actor from Family
assistant director on this film Kevin Wolfring will direct. I will serve
as director of photography, and Shawna will be our E.P. again. Iím also
writing another script that I hope to produce within the next year. That
one is called My Sisterís Wedding and takes place at a dysfunctional
familyís home on the day the youngest child is to be married. Both are
more straightforward comedies.
What got you into filmmaking in the first place,
and did you receive any formal training on the subject?
undergraduate degree is in Screenwriting from NYU, so I got to work with
great professors and learn surrounded by other talented writers. I always
loved film, but I really thought it was something impossible to do on my
own. I really did my undergrad degree because I was passionate about
writing and wanted that experience, but I immediately went into a teaching
degree after that and got a job in a high school. A lot of people I went
to school with went into the industry in more traditional roles, but I
taught and continued to write when I could in my spare time. Basically all
the developments in digital filmmaking started making it possible for
people like me to take the reins themselves and make films.
can you tell us about your filmwork prior to Family
did the usual pursuit of some short films in the early days, but our first
feature film was called The Mix, which played festivals in 2016 and was
distributed on streaming platforms by Comedy Dynamics in 2017. I wrote the
script for that with Chris Mollica, and he directed it along with a very
talented guy named Greg Townsend. We shot that in Los Angeles, where Chris
lives and works as an actor. With Family
Obligations, my wife Shawna and I
really wanted to bring production back to Long Island, in New York, where
we live. This feels like a great time to be a small production company
doing work that you love.
Do talk about your company
In the Garage Productions
for a bit, and the philosopy behind it! And
what led to its creation in the first place?
the Garage Productions started as Chris and me trying to make movies
together. Really, the philosophy was ďletís do this ourselves.Ē We
saw a growing opportunity to tell the kinds of stories we wanted to tell
and share them in increasingly meaningful ways. That sounded ambitious
back in 2000 when we were in college, but now the technology has really
grown in that direction for us. When Shawna and I got married, she really
took over the logistics of In
the Garage, and she is our main producer.
She handles contracts, paperwork, schedules, festival submissions, and a
lot of the day-to-day operations. Several years ago, Chris married
Shawnaís sister Brett, and she also produces with the company. So now
the company is essentially the four of us, trying to launch these
projects. Weíve managed to work with some great artists that weíve
brought into the fold as collaborators. We hope to keep on moving.
you describe yourself as a director?
approach direction from the writerís standpoint, since thatís really
my training. I see the writer as the filmís first director and the
director as the filmís first audience. In that regard, I think of
directing as responding to what is working or not working with the script
and making adjustments accordingly. The final piece of that is editing
(there, the editor is the filmís final writer ó if I can abuse my own
analogy). Basically, I see the whole process as being a good steward of
the story youíre telling. Youíre responsible, at every turn, for
making the choice that best tells the story. I believe in trusting my
collaborators as much as possible ó whether those are your actors, your
crew, your composer, whoever ó and then letting them deliver their work
to you. I hope that lets everyone do their best work.
great question. The high-minded answer would be Yasujiro Ozu. When the
colorist for the film Jan Klier and I were developing the look of the
film, I referenced Floating Weeds. That film really influenced me in
previsualization when I was storyboarding, particularly his low angles and
static camera. The more mainstream American answer is John Hughes. Movies
like Planes, Trains, and Automobiles really form the way I think about
comic characters with touches of sadness to them. He wrote the script for
a movie called Career Opportunities, which is another reference point for
me in creating characters like Peter and Melanie: people trapped in lives
they wish they could change. I also really like Mike Mills and his work,
especially Beginners. I think his films are very unique while still being
Your favourite movies?
the type of person who can rewatch things endlessly, so Iíve really
refined my favorites list over the years. Over the past few years, Iíve
watched and rewatched a lot of George Roy Hill films over and over again,
particularly The World of Henry Orient. He directs films in a very
classic, old Hollywood style, I think. The director doesnít really come
out and put his stamp on things. Everything is in its place, telling the
story. On the other end of the spectrum, I love Wes Andersonís movies,
particularly The Royal Tenenbaums, and he is about as individual and
stylized as you get in todayís movies, so thereís that. Iíve
mentioned the Hughes movies I love, and I should also throw Wong
Kar-Waiís films in there, particularly Chungking
Express, My Blueberry Nights, and In the Mood for Love.
and of course, films you really deplore?
gets me in trouble with people, but Iíve never been a ďgenreĒ movie
fan. Iíve never connected with horror and sci-fi (which I would like to
say means that I donít ďhateĒ them so much as I donít watch them
because it doesnít do anything for me). I also have a problem with the
only movies in cinemas these days being comic book movies. I think
thereís a lot of missed opportunities there.
Feeling lucky ?
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The links below
will take you
movie's website, Facebook, whatever else?
Movie website: http://familyobligationsfilm.com
Iím on Twitter at @KennethRFrank
you're dying to mention and I have merely forgotten to ask?
would just like to say thank you for supporting independent film by
reviewing the movie and having this interview. I would love if people
could gain more access and become more aware of the great independent
content out there available to them. There are a lot of great stories and
voices out there that arenít necessarily found in more commercial,
mainstream entertainment, and places like this celebrate them. Thatís a
great thing, so thank you.
for the interview!