Marc Fratello [Interview]

Interview with Marc Fratello, director of “Babyland
By Roberto Rippa

Marc Fratello received his BFA in Drama from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. He studied acting and theater directing at Playwrights Horizon’s Theater School as well as the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London and worked in and around the off-broadway theater community before entering the MFA program at Columbia University. In 2007, he directed Gloss Your Lips, followed in 2008 by The Forum. His thesis film Babyland (2010) won the 2010 Focus Features Award for Best Film.

Roberto Rippa: First of all: Despite «Babyland» winning at festivals and obtaining very good reviews, it’s still not easy to find information about your background. I just got to know that you studied theather both in New York and London. Is this accurate and can you tell me something about what have you done before «Babyland»?

Marc Fratello: I got my BFA at NYU in Drama. I also studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London. After school I collaborated on a lot of theater productions in and around NYC. I directed shows in the Fringe and American Livingroom festivals, and at Clemente Soto Velez on the Lower East Side.
I interned at various production companies as I started to transition into film – Lee Daniels, Killer Films, Tribeca Productions. I briefly moved to LA to work in a development office before entering the Graduate Film Program at Columbia.

RR: What was (or were) the inspiration for the story?

MF: I’ve always been a fan of director’s like Alexander Payne, Todd Solondz, and The Coen Brothers – filmmakers who excel at creating character driven stories, that walk the line between comedy and tragedy. All create extremely detailed landscapes, embracing the flaws and imperfections of their inhabitants. In doing so, they hit upon a complexity of tone – humor, sadness, and everything in between. As I progressed through my studies at Columbia University, I felt very connected to this sort of terrain, but struggled to modulate this precise tonality in my early student films.
During my second year, I came across a news article about a fetal abduction in Missouri. This would become the basis for my first draft of Babyland. The crime is recounted in the film during the cookie party scene. In recent years there seem to be quite a few of these stories percolating in the American media – women driven to murder and kidnapping out of some desperate need to have a child. I felt very strongly that this could make for a compelling protagonist.
I was particularly intrigued by the juxtaposition of such a gruesome act, with its provincial, Middle American backdrop. However, I knew early on that I did not wish to take my character (Amber) down that particular road of brutality. I related to, and enjoyed her too much to turn her into a murderer or sociopath. I was much more concerned with her very human shortcomings; conflicts of identity and alienation – feelings most people have at one time or another.
I was also immediately aware that this world was ripe for that fusion of character, melancholy, and humor I had longed to try. The combination of this universe and a character with such a clear thematic purpose were pretty solid entry points. The first pages flowed fairly quickly at that point.

RR: How long did the writing process last?

MF: I wrote the first draft in one night for a class (without an ending). I set it aside for about a year, and then came back to it when was developing ideas for my thesis production. Originally I decided to pursue it as a smaller project outside of my thesis. I spent about 7 months working on the script. At that point however, it was clear that the scale was much larger than I had originally anticipated. I ultimately shot it as my thesis film.

RR: The script is really carefully written and beautifully keeps the balance between comedy, drama (and eventually tragedy). Did you start writing the story building it around the main character?

MF: Yes – i mentioned a little about this before. It was the character and her surroundings (industrial, snowy, Middle-America) that really spoke to me at first. As well as that tonal universe.
I remember at the time I had revisited some of my favorite female protagonists – Julianne Moore in “Safe” – Heather Matarazzo in “Welcome to the Dollhouse”. I was clearly channelling this kind of disconnected, vulnerable female. Those performances were definitely on the mind.

RR: About the balance between comedy and drama, was it difficult to modulate it during the writing process? And do you think that the use of comedy helps making drama more realistic?

MF: Realistic is a difficult word. It’s very subjective. But i will say I’ve always found it a bit ridiculous that a story had to be one or the other – comedy or drama – black or white. So much of life exists in that grey area. Tragedies often collide with humor or whimsy. And truly, we are always balancing a complex web of narratives in our lives at any given moment. There is a really intriguing tension in that – and most great storytelling knows how to balance both I think. There exists an important truth in that duality.

RR: The character of Amber appears to live in the middle of nowhere and the place where she lives is not identifiable. Do you think that Amber’s character is defined not also by her (creepy) family (or the lack of it, except for an uncaring mother) but also by the environment she lives in? Have you experienced growing up in an environment like the one depicted in the film?

MF: I often refer to the world as her antagonist, and yes that absolutely includes her family situation. I don’t think she specifically wants a baby or even Craig for that matter. She craves the sense of relevance that those things will give her – she seeks any kind of connection to the world around her. But that world doesn’t really offer her the perspective to know herself. I think that is the essence of her dilemma. She’s so driven to be a part of this existence that really has no place for her. She doesn’t have the tools to to grasp that truth.
I borrowed a lot from my own experiences growing up, but my life was entirely suburban (not rural or small town). Actually that was my original concept for the setting – total American suburbia. So many of these communities are indistinguishable from one another. I grew up in one of them. They are just covered with sprawl – chain restaurants, corporate archetecture, gated “Mcmansion” communities, strip malls, etc. They are ubiquitous. You could be in California or Texas or Ohio and they all look the same. I thought this was an ideal backdrop for the themes of disconnection and identity that occur in the film.
Ultimately however, we chose a location that departed from this concept in many ways. We absolutely highlighted a bleakness that came from the original vision – but the world took on a life of its own. There was certainly a profound realization in that – because truthfully the ideas we were discussing aren’t confined to suburbia. And in this case, being open to change really enhanced the final vision.

RR: In fact, your story has a lot to do with the theme of identity. Amber looks like she’s desperately trying to fit in anything, in any way, no matter how. Do you think this lack of identity has anything to do in general with life in small, working class towns in the US?

MF: Well identity is a huge part of the story as I spoke about before. In respect to your question though – I don’t think this dilemma is specific to small, working class towns. I think this conflict of identity could happen anywhere. I think many people in small towns are very comfortable in their skin and life, and I think New York City is filled with people who feel disconnected/alienated like Amber. As I said – I originally set the film in a much more suburban location. The fact that we wound up shooting in rural upstate NY was a very last minute development. I really think this speaks to how universal the theme is.
Certainly though, there is a specific quality to this landscape that is stifling to Amber. We absolutely tried to capture this. But it’s much more about her subjective reality than any objective truth. And as much as I find parts of America to be a bit lacking in soul (i spoke a certain suburban existence earlier), I don’t think you can make huge generalizations. I think the reality is much more complicated.
The town we wound up shooting in (Hudson, New York) is quite amazing, and filled with so many fascinating people. We had to work hard to play down it’s character and beauty. And honestly I think it still looks quite beautiful.

RR: How did you work with actors, especially the great Marielena Lodgson (who was awarded for her role Best Actress at the Brooklyn Film Festival)?

MF: I wish I could say we had a very calculated process – but we were pretty much shooting from the hip throughout. So honestly casting was 70% of the job.
We worked with an agency to find Craig and Amber. In both cases I cast very much against the types I had conceived. I was much more concerned with finding actors who connected organically to the script, and who could handle switching between the comic and dramatic elements (much harder to find than one might think).
This was completely crucial with Amber, and Marielena was absolutely the only choice. She was much younger than I had imagined, but she is just effortlessly funny, and very naturally tapped into Amber’s fragility/instability. We cast her immediately.
We only rehearsed a few times before shooting. I encouraged the actors to take hold of the language and characters and make them their own. I really wanted to achieve a quality akin to Robert Altman or Cassavetes – where the dialogue flows in an almost verite kind of way – fragmented, overlapping, imperfect. Much of my role involved stepping back and relieving the actors of too many formalities. I didn’t want the performances to feel controlled or choreagraphed at all. The script was absolutely written with this kind of style in mind, but there was an improvisational quality to the shoot the really helped connect the dots. Many my of my favorite moments came out of this sort of exploration. The cookie party could never have been achieved in a super-controlled environment. We handed the steering wheel to the actors and shot it almost like a documentary. This applied to a lot of the shoot.
Marielena was in every scene of the film and obviously – she had the heaviest load to carry. The darkness of the film was particularly difficult for her. Her background was in sketch comedy and she was much more accustomed to broader, comedic fair. She was also vulnerable in every way possible – allowing us to play down her natural attractiveness. We padded her clothes to make her look heavier, and the hair/make-up was consistently unflattering. She really took huge risks, and sometimes I needed to look after her emotionally. But she managed to channel every bit of her anxiety/fear into Amber. She is the most consistent compliment I get on the short. The film rides entirely on her shoulders.

(Marc Fratello. Photo: Nicole Davis-Fineman)

RR: Your film is 28 minutes long. Has it been difficult to make such a complex story fit in such a short format? And have you ever been tempted, in the process of writing, to trasform it in a full feature length film?

MF: As film students we are strenuously encouraged to make shorts under 15 minutes, so I certainly had a bit of an issue with the scale of the piece. There is very good reason to shy away from that particular length as longer shorts are very hard to program on the festival circuit (particularly in America). But I always put the needs of the story first. And that didn’t translate to a feature either.
In the end I made the film exactly as long as it needed to be. I only thought about what worked best for this particular story. 28 minutes was the right length. I never thought about adding or subtracting from it.

RR: How long did the shooting last?

MF: We shot 8 days total.

RR: How was the filming crew composed?

MF: My DP Dan Sharnoff was recommended by a classmate. He was the first cinematographer I met with, and I hired him immediately. I needed a crew that could move quickly and competently through extreme conditions (snow, multiple real locations, sets full of extras). Speed and efficiency were priorities, and Dan really delivered.
I felt it was important to surround him with a crew he knew and was comfortable with, so I was happy to spend the money on his entire team. Honestly it was the best money I spent on the entire shoot. We could never have tackled that many locations if the crew was not in sync. We wound up shooting a lot of the film in the same improvisational way it was acted. Dan is pretty amazing handheld so it really freed us up a bit. We’d do a lot of exploring in the moment – it relied heavily on their relationships and trust in each other.

RR: Tell me about the choice of music in the film.

MF: This is a tough one to answer. I can only say that I am very obsessive about music in film and I spent hundreds of hours scanning through my itunes and the internet to find what I needed. I wanted the feel of something like Harold and Maude, or Basquiat. I love the vibe of using established music, and artists to drive the narrative.
I went through everything from Beirut, to Vashti Bunyan, to Boards of Canada. I landed on a mix of indie folk and electronica. One piece in particular was very integral to the writing and kinda set the tone for a lot of the scoring/soundtrack. I unconsciously leaned towards vocals with a child-like/babyish quality – they seemed most evocative of Amber’s spirit I suppose. I also used certain music in to inform on the character of the world – hence a bit of 80’s glam metal.
I really adore the way it came out. Music is such a huge part of my aesthetic. It’s such a massive part of the film. However, using established artists is a huge risk because of all the licensing – and it’s really stalled the film in respect to broadcast/distribution.
Honestly I can’t really talk specifically about the pieces because I don’t know what will stay in the film permanently. If “Babyland” has a life outside the festival circuit – a lot of the music will most likely have to change. Its kinda up in the air right now.

RR: Your film won Focus Features Best Film Award at the 2010 Columbia University Film Festival and many other prizes. It was also included by IndieWire between the «best of the best shorts» among those shown at Sundance. Is this helping you in actual facts in working on a new project? And can you tell me something about it?

MF: The festival circuit has opened a tremendous amount of doors – absolutely. I’m just finishing the screenplay for my feature, so hopefully that’s the next chapter.

November 2011

Read the article on “Babyland” in Rapporto Confidenziale

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