The Shallow Pocket Project is a series of conversations with the brilliant filmmakers behind the independent films that we love. Check out our last chat with Jason Mewes (Madness in the Method). Special thanks to William Dass and the other Dorks at In The Mouth of Dorkness.
The day you purchase a bathrobe is a great day. In the store, before the moment of transaction, the fabric feels warm, soft, and almost loving. The sale is a high-five to yourself. You’ve made it. You can go from the shower to the towel to the robe and enjoy your breakfast like the civilized specimen you know you deserve to be.
Then a few days pass. Then a week. Then a month. Then a year. The bathrobe is no longer a symbol of tranquility but enslavement. Your daughter looks up at you, tossing food and cereal across the floor. She’s alien to your eyes. Your husband remains in his car, refusing to return home until he climaxes with some iPhone porno. You don’t even bother closing the robe around your body. What’s the point? The robe is the only comfort in your life, and it exists to underscore your place of residence in a pit of despair.
Welcome to the hell of Frances Ferguson. As the titular character, Kaley Wheless seeps through the frame, revealing a teacher’s life adrift in the midwest. The kid, the husband, the house, and the job are passionless substitutions secured as a means of distraction from the growing void within. Frances is barely into her twenties, and she’s awoken to a sham. What to do? How about that underage teen making eyes at her across the classroom. Yikes.
Bob Byington‘s latest feature is a savage twist of wit designed to elicit a bristled response from its audience. We’re entering this quagmire with many preconceived notions and a societally ingrained disregard for the type of person who would fall into such tabloid infamy. We look down upon the film, and our gaze carries preemptive condescension.
Thankfully, floating alongside us is Nick Offerman‘s omniscient narrator to guide our contempt through Frances’ sordid act of rebellion and, beating viewers to the punch, provide plenty of spot-on judgment. The empathy lands on Wheless to achieve.
We spoke to both Byington and Wheless over the phone and discussed the zigzag trip that brought Frances Ferguson from bored housewife to sex criminal. The character was born from both parties, emerging from a workshop session as a woman desperate to flee the quicksand of her life. The narrative emerged much later when a copy of the New York Post fell before Byington. Teacher arrested for having a sexual relationship with a student. Bingo!
“We were just curious as to why anybody would do that,” says Wheless. “Seems like a strange choice, and we were looking to explore her rationale, which in the end was trying to get out of that trap situation and not necessarily about the kid at all.”
The headline that Frances finds herself within is not unique, and one can find many similar mugshots staring out of newspapers across many states and several decades. “I judged her, definitely,” she continues. “It’s not excusable or anything like that, but we explore it in the way that you would a family member who makes mistakes or choices you think are terrible. You look at them as the person that they are and try to go from there.”
Their time workshopping Frances was crucial. They built her from the ground up and simply transitioned her to a different environment. “Having worked on her for so long, before the actual film and the script and all that came into being helped make it click,” says Wheless. “Bob has a very specific vision for her voice, and we would play around with that; either look at the dialogue or practice reading it or just talk through it. Is this Fran? Is this not Fran? What is the right tone, and what is not?”
Reaching a mutual understanding of the character could prove difficult at times. How do you possibly determine who is the right Fran? “I don’t know,” says Byington. “I’m kind of in a fugue state, but Kaylee’s told me that I do like a ‘Yes/No’ thing.”
Wheless regularly performed a temperature check with her director, and always found a new goal to strive towards. “We were never quite there,” she confirms, “because it can always be improved.”
The deeper into the weeds of the film Byington submerged, the better appreciation he would have regarding not only the character but the completion of the scene itself. “I would actually call out percentages. I have to get this scene and bring it back on a hard drive to the editor, right? So, I’m like ‘We’ve got 30, 40, 50, 60, 70 percent of the scene.’ I think Kaylee was making fun of me for calling it out,” Wheless certifies with a laugh.
Unpacking the New York Post headlines could have resulted in any number of movies, but Byington was never going to make a legal drama or some sensationalist weepy. “I always just want to make a funny movie,” he says. “I don’t have other real aspirations, unfortunately.”
To that end, once you layer Offerman over the entire runtime, and sprinkle in comedic talents like David Krumholtz, Keith Poulson, and Martin Starr, then the tone takes care of itself.
Wheless is often placed in the difficult position of grounding high-octane personas. “I agonized over that privately,” she admits. “I just wanted to portray her honestly.”
While those around her puff-out in the scenes, Wheless shrinks, pulling as far inside as the narrative will permit. “I was being very muted,” she says, “but they allowed room for me to non-verbally communicate and simply respond to what they were giving me.”
While the situations and the emotions of Frances Ferguson often venture into the extreme, Byington and Wheless maintain a recognizable reality around their hero. Speaking on Byington’s behalf, Wheless refers to his characterization as naturalistic. “She doesn’t feel fake in any way,” she says. “I think Fran had a funny creation process, but it felt fairly organic coming from that New York Post article.”
We encounter baffling news items nearly every minute of every day. As easy as it can be to laugh them off as segments of the latest Dumb People Town, exploring the humanity of the headline can earn just as much humor as it can catharsis. We are defined by our bad choices and they are worthy of celebration.