Friday, June 14, 2019

TwoOhSix Interviews - Bob Byington and Kaley Wheless - Creators of Frances Ferguson for SIFF 2019

Frances Ferguson is a film about an unhappy young woman who goes to extreme lengths to escape the metaphorical prison that is her life by doing something that sends her to real prison. With screenings of the movie scheduled during the 2019 Seattle International Film Festival, director Bob Byington and  lead actress Kaley Wheless were on hand and set aside some time to sit down with me so that we could discuss this very particular creation.

Kaley Wheless and Bob Byington on set during filming of Frances Ferguson (Photo from IMDB)

Marc: First off, thank you for being here today. Where did the idea for Frances Ferguson come from?

Bob: We had been working on something that was going to be a short film and then we kept reading about the teachers in the New York Post and I guess one day decided to change the character from one we had been working on into one of the teachers. I think we remember it a little bit differently, it was a bit blurry for me, it was a slower process. Did I tell you we were going to do that?

Kaley: Yeah, I think you were reading a New York Post article one day and you said "This is the future for Fran."

Bob: Her name was Parfait at that point and then we changed that to her daughter and then yeah, one thing led to another and there we were.

Did you draw a lot of influence from the similar types of stories that have been out there in the world like here in Washington we had the famous story of Mary Kay Letourneau?

Kaley: I think so. Maybe more casually than formally, we would send the stories back and forth when we would see them and I think just the vast number of them was intriguing. Bob had said that the mug shots looked similar, similarly aged, and it just seemed like a phenomenon of sorts.

Bob: A lot of them were like 24 which was Kaley's age and there seemed to be a connection to them being able to pass for a high school student on some level if they wanted to that gave the crime a different dimension than it otherwise would have had. The male teachers have a different demographic and I think the subtext is that the women could be in high school.

Kaley Wheless as Frances in Frances Ferguson

The film has a very distinct style stemming from Fran's personality and continuing with Nick Offerman's narrative style. Can you talk about how that tone originated?

Kaley: It's similar in the vein of tone of your other films, wouldn't you say?

Bob: Yes and no, I mean it's the first time I took on a female protagonist in a film. Fran is not disconnected from Kaley's personality, she just took some of the things about herself and exaggerated them. To me it's more like a document about this woman playing this part and a little less about any plans or ideas about saying something. Nick is just a guy I've worked with and we've just gotten really good at writing Nick and so a lot of that voice over is me and the writer and sometimes Kaley just working and figuring out stuff for him to say.

How was the cast put together? It seems like everyone fit their roles perfectly.

Bob: David Krumholtz is a guy I wanted to work with again. We got lucky with David because he's just so good in the movie and so what I dreamed he would be when I thought maybe he would work with us. I discovered Keith Poulson, he was in Registered Sex Offender and he was so good that we made him one of the big parts in the next film (Harmony and Me) and he's the lead in the film after that (Somebody Up There Likes Me). He's an actor I like a lot. Kaley's kind of the fulcrum so her chemistry with everybody, she had to make all that work. I still don't know how she did it.

Kaley: Some of the people were just local to Nebraska. It was actually an interesting mix of people you'd worked with before and we knew what they would be like in the parts that were planned for them and then there were people that just magically kind of appeared.

Speaking of Nebraska, I understand you had targeted the specific town the movie is set in as a location you wanted to use.

Bob: Well, I was in Seattle in 2017 and I had to get to Oklahoma City so I decided to fly to Denver and then drive through Western Nebraska to get to Oklahoma City. Part of the reason was I had some family friends who owned an outdoor mall in Western Nebraska that I wanted to see and I also wanted to visit the prison in the town. Once I visited those two places, I knew that it made a lot of sense to try to make the movie there. It wouldn't make any sense to try and make the movie in a town of any size because the idea is that everybody knows. We could pretend in a bigger city but I didn't want to do that.

Were there specific things about the town aesthetically that appealed to you as far as what what made you say this is the location?

Bob: That's a good question. The town was so amenable to our filming and there was a picture book quality to the idea of shooting a film there. They had the prison where they were really amenable, they had a court house they all but threw at us to shoot at. They had all the stuff just waiting for us to shoot and it was, I don't know, I couldn't get over it really. I had made a film in Austin before that and they're pretty grumpy about filming in Austin. In this town, they opened their arms to you whereas Austin jumped the shark like ten years ago.

Kaley Wheless star of Frances Ferguson (Photo from SIFF)

Kaley, was there any special type of preparation to prepare for Fran since she is such a distinct personality?

Kaley: Well, we would read and we did a couple test shoots.

Bob: Had you seen Jack Nicholson with the ax before he shoots that scene in The Shining?

Kaley: No. Did I do that? (Laughter)

Bob: Well, we keep hearing that it's a specific performance which it is but it's not as deliberate as it might seem. You're a very skilled actor but she seems to be received a little bit as more constructed than I think she is.

Kaley: Well, I remember us doing readings and trying test shoots and being like that was Fran, that was not and just kind of like practicing Fran, I guess. Just picking and weeding out what was her and what wasn't her. Some of those things were elements of me and some of them were written or things Bob was suggesting.

Bob: Do you remember something you did that wasn't Fran in the rehearsal?

Kaley: I remember you saying things weren't Fran or saying something was Fran. You know what I mean? I think the special preparation was kind of like accidental in that we had already work shopped the character for a different environment. You had said she was meant to be claustrophobic in the relationship environment in the short and then in the movie she's still claustrophobic but she upped the ante by going to prison.

Bob: I wanted to make a movie where going to prison is the same as your wedding as an event and you're not able to tell the difference about what type of time you'e supposed to be having.

Kaley: I remember you saying there a news story about some guy who tried to rob a bank for two dollars so he could go to prison because he was so unhappy in his marriage.

Bob: That wasn't me.

Kaley: Oh yeah, that's not exactly what I was accusing you of. (laughter) Didn't you tell me about that though?

Bob: No, I'm saying I didn't tell you about that nor was I the guy. (more laughter) I was in an argument with a woman once and I said I would prefer being incarcerated over being in the argument.

Kaley: Either way, that stuck in my mind about how Fran's normal life might actually be worse like she doesn't mind prison and actually everything else was prison.

Bob: I knew that she would have a relationship with mom and the relationship in the marriage and a relationship with their daughter and they were all going to be relationships that left room for improvement when we met them. That was meant to move the narrative toward the affair with the boy.

Bob Byington and Kaley Wheless creators of Frances Ferguson (Photo from

Was there any other type of messaging you wanted to get across in making the film?

Bob: Kaley, I'll send that one your way.

Kaley: Do you think I have a good answer for it? (laughter) For me, I've said this and I know you don't like this word but I think it's interesting exploring unlikable leads and unlikable female leads and the decisions they make. She's obviously not perfect in any way and then seeing the act of turning inward is like her big step even though it seems very minor and subtle.

Time for one last question. What is the plan for the film moving forward?

Bob: Yeah, to go to the festivals and play the film and then release it probably late fall in a streaming environment like maybe the good folks at Amazon.

Perfect. Well good luck with the upcoming festivals and thank you for letting me pick your brains about the film, I appreciate you taking the time. Any last thoughts before we wrap it up?

Bob: No, just thank you.

Kaley: Yeah, thanks for having us! review of France Ferguson.

Frances Ferguson is an official selection of the 2019 Seattle International Film Festival.

To see more reviews, interviews and festival coverage please go to:

TwoOhSix at SIFF 2019

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