While a bad date gave Annabelle Attanasio plenty of time to think about what her next film might be, it wasn’t until after it was over that she reflected on the whirlwind of words that had been thrown her way, none of any import except the “goodbye” that ended it, perhaps because that was the only time she had the opportunity to respond with a farewell of her own. There had been nonverbal cues to for the guy to pick up on over the course of their 90-minute cocktails, had he been paying attention to anything besides the sound of his own voice, but not even a sneeze Attanasio faked just to see if he’d budge warranted a “gesundheit.”
“It was only in the aftermath of the date that I started noticing the all-too-common instance of a man talking over a woman,” says Attanasio, of the inspiration for her latest short “Frankie Keeps Talking.” “A man talking over women is not some phenomenon of the moment: it is more ordinary than a man who listens. When do men ever really see — and I mean ‘see’ as in acknowledge the full presence of — women? As my mind trailed off, I fantasized about what would’ve happened on my date had I got up from the table, or thrown coffee in my own face, or started making out with a bystander.”
Although Attanasio doesn’t speak much in “Frankie Keeps Talking,” recreating her experience to some degree with some fantastical flourishes, her distinctive voice as a writer/director comes through loud and clear. A series regular on the CBS drama “Bull,” Attanasio’s acting chops come in handy to play as demanding a role as she crafted for herself, exhibiting the full array of emotions as a young woman stuck sitting across from a hipster (Alex Hurt) in a cafe who never seems to run out of things to say about the provenance of coffee beans or his thoughts on nature versus nurture. Confronted with the likelihood this will be a one-way conversation when she had come to make a connection, she goes to increasingly great lengths to grab Frankie’s attention, to little to no avail, and since its premiere at the Palm Springs International Shortsfest, “Frankie Keeps Talking” has generated plenty of talk of its own. After being unable to get a word in edgewise onscreen, it was our great pleasure to give Attanasio the floor as the film makes its debut on NoBudge today and can be seen below, with our Q & A conducted via e-mail right after the jump.
What’s it like to get into the head of this narcissistic lunatic you were once sitting across?
My writing process has a lot to do with scavenging material from things I hear or see in daily life. I’ll hear something that sounds a little off-kilter, or a little funny, or a little disturbing, and I’ll take a mental note for later. By the time I sat down to write this speech, I was brimming with so much juicy material from so many instances of being talked down to by men that I was giddy as I wrote out this speech. For better or for worse, I take a lot of joy in writing self-absorbed, self-aggrandizing men. There’s a lot wrong with the way our culture perpetuates this ideal of masculinity. bell hooks has an illuminating piece called “Understanding Patriarchy” that unearths the way American culture systemically teaches young boys to be violent, aggressive, and narcissistic. I like to blend a foundation of sympathy for the male experience with a great deal of satire to try to laugh at how ridiculous the crisis of masculinity has become.
How did you find Alex to play the worst date ever?
Alex and I met in an acting class with Bob Krakower, a brilliant teacher and fellow cinephile who I’ve studied with for years and recently started shadowing. Alex oozes presence, and he is one of the most alive and spontaneous people I have ever met. Immediately, you can tell from his voice he has a strong background in theatre. A seven-minute monologue would be a piece of cake for him. I had only met him that one time before offering him the part. For whatever reason, I just knew he had this guy in the bowels of his soul. Turns out, he is ingenious at playing assholes.
Did you know you’d be starring in it from the start?
I always envisioned myself in the short. I have a background in Commedia Dell’Arte, and a penchant for Buster Keaton and his films. Tonally, I always wanted the film to exist on the level of a farce, blending a heightened realism with an absurd surrealism. As an actor, nothing is more exciting to me than getting to do crazy stuff like slamming cake in my face or getting drenched by a sprinkler. My face smelled like butter cream for days after we wrapped.
The camera takes on real character as well as it moves in and around you throughout the date – what was it like to figure out the blocking?
Leo Purman, our [director of photography], would attend almost every acting rehearsal and block out the camera movements in step with our movements. Later in the process, he shot some of the rehearsals on a DSLR, and we’d dissect the frames and images until we had everything charted out to a tee. We were shooting this film for hardly any money and after scouring Manhattan and Brooklyn, our producer Zach [Nutman] found a location right on his block in the East Village. Ciao For Now resembled some of the 1960s French cafes I’d wanted to shoot in — nothing says “perfect first date” like being trapped in a scene from “Amelie,” and had a big enough floor plan to accomplish our choreography. [We] could only get our location for one night, which is why everything was determined ahead of time. But I have always believed that true creativity comes out when you are logistically and monetarily limited. I really like films that take place in one location, and that can be — more or less — run from top to bottom with virtually no cuts. I grew up doing theatre, and that background really influenced my filmmaking style.
Since this is our first time talking, did you actually come to writing/directing through acting or the other way around?
The filmmaking was an outgrowth of the acting. After this film, I decided to step away from acting in my own films, and now, in general, at least for the next while. This film pushed me to realize how I love the process of working with actors, and my deep appreciation for the mercurial process of acting. For me, it is so much more liberating to generate a story, cast the right people for the world, and then simply act as a guide and support system for those people.
Sadly, this would’ve been timely no matter when you released it, but since premiering in 2016, has the meaning of it changed given the greater attention to elevating women’s voices in recent months?
The film has only become more relevant since we shot it, but I actually see that as a positive thing in the wake of the feminist movement of this political moment. Of course, the male silencing of women by ‘man-o-logue’ (coined by Julia Baird in “How To Explain Mansplaining”) is as prevalent as it ever was. But now, more and more, we as women have begun to speak our minds and have stopped apologizing for it.
Without fail, whenever I get to attend a screening or showcase of this film, it sparks fervent uproar amongst the women in the audience. We have all been on the other side of this kind of interaction — whether it’s with our boss, our boyfriend, our father, or a random dude on the street that decides we are his personal sounding board — so on some level, the film resonates with a collective female experience. My only hope as a filmmaker is to continue making work that evokes both resonance and laughter in female audiences.
“Frankie Keeps Talking” is now streaming on NoBudge.