Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Interview with Frankie Frain, writer/director of A-Bo the Humonkey

The term "independent film" has been around since the dawn of filmmaking time. The earliest roots of the term go back to the very early 1900's, 1908, to be exact. At the time, Thomas Edison owned most of the patents related to filmmaking and The Motion Picture Patents Company, also known as The Edison Trust, was founded in 1908, in New York, and had all the major film related companies in it... and they all paid him his royalties. They all hung out in the New York area, making their films, doing their thing, then... a bunch of filmmakers decided that they didn't want to pay those royalties and they didn't want to be part of their scene. So, the first "independent filmmakers" packed their bags and went as far away from New York as possible to set up their own scene. Where'd they go? They went to Southern California and, subsequently, laid the groundwork for what would become Hollywood and the new studio system.

Since then, over the years, there's been lots of independent filmmakers that have left their stain on the film world... Walt Disney, Roger Corman, George Romero, Dennis Hopper, George Lucas, David Lynch... I mean, there's revolutionary filmmakers at every turn and, most of the time, they're not considered revolutionary until we look back on them. However, due to the filmmaking process and how film is distributed, being a true "independent" became harder and harder. Then digital filmmaking reared its ugly head and the cost to make a film plummeted. Couple that with a growing number of independent film festivals and the rise of the internet and you've got yourself a perfect storm. So, 100 years ago, independent filmmakers changed the system and set up Hollywood. Now, in my opinion, it looks like independent filmmakers are on the verge of doing it again.

I think it goes without saying that I'm a horror guy. I was raised on 80's horror, but going back and watching 70's indie horror is what really shaped me. Films like "Night of the Living Dead", "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" and "Last House on the Left" pushed the envelope on sex, drugs, gore and violence and changed the face of horror forever. However, I'm also an indie guy. I love watching low-budget movies and they don't necessarily have to be horror. I love seeing what people can come up with on limited resources and there are plenty of non-horror films out there that deserve credit. Take Frankie Frain's films, "I Need To Lose Ten Pounds" and "A-Bo The Humonkey", for example.

First off, if you haven't read the article that he wrote for us on how he made the Tromadance winning film, "I Need To Lose Ten Pounds", do yourself a favor and click
here to read it. After conquering Tromadance, he set out to make his next film, "A-Bo The Humonkey". Now, it isn't horror and may not be the next "Easy Rider", but it's thoroughly entertaining, very well done and, quite simply, a blast to watch. He pushes the envelope on, well, being retarded, I guess. Really, it's a slick film, considering the budget, and it's well worth your time. I think it's filmmakers like Frankie Frain who will be right there the next time that indie filmmakers turn the film world upside down and I'm glad we had the chance to talk with him again. Once again, he offers a lot of insight into the filmmaking process and you should definitely give this a read.

First off, tell us a bit about your background. What are your influences and what got you into indie filmmaking?

I was born and continue to live in a farming community about an hour south of Boston (Westport, MA). I grew up on Ninja Turtles, Power Rangers, Nintendo, cocaine (just kidding), all the usual shit a guy born in 1986 would be subjected to. I think the first time I was inspired to actually pick up a camera and try to make something entertaining was after I learned that the first episode of “South Park” (this is 1997 so I’m a spry 11 years old at this point) was animated with construction paper by two guys. If they could make something funny because it’s crappy, then so can I, I thought. I made my own little construction paper cut outs and would spend hours and sometimes entire nights making little cartoons. Of course the only way to record voices was to shoot the television as it played back the animation and speak over the entire cartoon. As I grew tired of this bullshit, I started becoming a little technology savvy, started doing computer animations with video editing software, and around 2000, a combination of seeing Cannibal! The Musical for the first time and getting totally bored with animation led me into writing I Need to Lose Ten Pounds, which I would proceed to work on for the next 12 decades. Cannibal! was a Troma release, so an ad on the Troma VHS copy advertised Lloyd Kaufman’s first book, All I Need to Know About Filmmaking I Learned From the Toxic Avenger. That was my little bible throughout my desperate attempt at making a feature film at age 14.

Film school: Yes or no?

Yes. Emerson College, Boston. I work full time there now (come by the IT department and ask for Frankie any day of the week, I will be there and would be happy to bullshit about movies with you) and I am pursuing my MFA degree right now actually, and plan on teaching indie filmmaking a couple years down the road. I’d love to focus on how to keep your production cheap – one of the main problems I had with film school was, because everyone was paying (or trying to pay) exorbitant tuition, the professors assumed everyone was wealthy.

We know all about your film "I Need To Lose 10 Pounds,” but let's talk about "A-Bo". Tell us a bit about the film and explain, exactly, what a humonkey is.

A-Bo the Humonkey is, at its heart, a concept comedy. It plays itself out as a bad drama with shitty characters, and thusly is a comedy. The film follows a humonkey, which is a human/ape hybrid played by yours truly, who kinda looks like Sloth from the goonies, but with down syndrome and hepatitis B. He can’t speak or function really, and his birth was a total fluke and his survival an anomaly. He’s sheltered in a small New England town until a douchey college student (Ted) decides that he’s going to obtain civil rights for A-Bo for his thesis project. So we have a lot of fun making the peripheral characters appropriate their political agendas onto the unsuspecting and non-character of A-Bo.

"A-Bo" is a huge step up from "10 Pounds", in many ways. Talk about the leap from one to the other. What did you learn from the first film that you applied in the second one?

Oh man, everything. I’m fortunate that Ten Pounds got some small, Troma-based recognition and is embraced the way it is, but if it didn’t, it still would’ve been worth making. Even if it turned out to be a big piece of shit, forcing myself to make a large scope feature length film for no money or resources…I mean, that is film school, for free. I think everyone will learn their own lessons doing this, but more than anything I learned how to convince people to do things. Need a beautifully ornate cathedral to shoot your homo-erotic sword fight in? Need your main actress to felate a butternut squash in front of a supermarket full of extras? If you can pull off this kinda crap for free and not get arrested, you will know all the tricks when it comes time for film 2. And even more importantly, in the name of efficient filmmaking, just fucking do everything yourself. You can’t use computers? Learn. You need a musical score? Become a musician. I’m exaggerating of course, I got incredibly talented people to contribute their crafts to both my films, but after Ten Pounds, I learned to use them very sparingly, because as you all know, people are pains in the asses, even your best friends. It’s best if you can find an incentive for them to work on your project, which is why students are always best –they need experience and portfolios. I actually worked with a DP (my roommate at the time) on A-Bo, and that was incredibly helpful for me – I was able to answer so many questions and focus on so much else rather than concentrating on framing or shot design. I left that up to him, but gave him general ideas as to how I needed the scene covered. We would go over our scenes the night before, just briefly, and man, that just made things go a lot smoother. He also happened to have the steadiest hand I’ve ever seen, and could get sweeping shots on roller blades and often didn’t need a tripod. Light weight filmmaking my friends, it’s the way to go – if you ever bring more equipment or crew members than needed just to give yourself a sense of professionalism or legitimacy, I will personally punch you in the nuts. But going back to the question, Ten Pounds was the real challenge, because no one necessarily believed I was serious about finishing it. Once I showed them the kind of filmmaker I am, and was able to cite a completed feature to newcomers, my legitimacy went way up and more people wanted to lend a hand.

What was the budget for the film and how did you go about securing it?

A-Bo’s budget was a puny $1500 (a lot less than Ten Pounds in fact), and sometimes I think even that was too much. My girlfriend and producer/co-writer, Nina Szulewski, provided the cash. It was actually her scholarship money she earned for studying nursing at UMass Dartmouth – she earned exactly $1500 more in scholarships that year than tuition required, so, a movie was made by her retarded boyfriend.

What did you shoot on and how long was the shoot?

We shot on the Canon HX-A1 (in HDV) and began shooting in mid-January 2007 and wrapped up around Spring. For me, the whole film was really efficient (compared to the Apocalypse Now experience of Ten Pounds). But that’s probably because we did a solid year of pre-production, whereas Ten Pounds was just this rolling ball of shit. Nina and I actually uncovered our A-Bo pre-production portfolios the other day, and I have to say, I was shocked by how organized we were. Contacts, audition tapes (which, by the way, we just went to www.nefilm.com and posted casting calls for free – and the headshots came pouring in. There are a lot of actors out there friends), shooting schedules, the whole sha-bam. I remember we all were on Christmas vacation at the start of the shoot, so we knocked out about a third of the script in the first week (where we wrapped our child actress, which if you’re working with children, is a good idea. Wrap them quick). From there we broke into weekends and of course were cutting and scoring right along. Most of it’s documented in the video blogs, which you can check out on abothehumonkey.com.

It's as Troma-esque as it gets. When watching it, I was reminded of "Sgt. Kabukiman", "Toxic Avenger" or "Class of Nuke 'em High", all classics. Talk about being part of the whole Troma Universe and making 'that type' of film.

Which is funny that you (and everyone) says that, because Troma’s noted particularly for its violence and sex, neither of which is really present in either of my films. A-Bo is almost PG-13 in its content. But I think my films tap into a Troma feel rather than making a point to do all the things Troma always does. I think classic Troma films (Troma’s War, for instance) made honest attempts to make traditional horror, comedy, superhero, action, etc. films, but Lloyd Kaufman is just so twisted and out of sync and short attention spanned (and loves tits too much) that those attempts, mixed with small budgets, turn into these ironic, midnight, what-the-fuck-am-I-watching films. I too both love and hate normal genre films. I still frequent wide release films, and I recognize them as being transparent and shitty, but still, I grew up on this stuff. So when I go to make a film, I start with those story instincts I have from growing up on Hollywood cinema, and end by shitting all over it. Lloyd also always points out that, while his films don’t take their content seriously, the effort of making them is taken immensely seriously. The same is true of these two films – so at its essence, what you’re watching is a really dumb film that clearly has a huge heart. You totally get that you’re watching a labor of love…except it’s about a fucking humonkey and is retarded. I LOVE that. That’s where I thrive – when the very making of the film is attached to such great irony.

Sort of a part II to the previous question... Troma films cater to a very specific audience... How have audiences reacted to A-Bo?

I’m really glad you felt the Troma-ness of the film, but a lot of Troma addicts that I know were expecting A-Bo to be a far more perverse, gory, mind fuck of a movie. And ironically, just recently James Gunn of Troma fame made a film called Humanzee (and as a result, a lot of people brought A-Bo to his attention, and he even e-mailed me claiming he’s never heard of or seen my film, which was really funny), and while I haven’t seen this film, the trailer made it seem like it was much more violent, sex driven, over the top, etc. Ours is more campy than anything – the film itself thinks it’s a family film about important issues, but the audience knows better, and that’s the fun of it. We also role reversed the hero and villain – the “protagonist” is a total cock and the “villain” is a halfway reasonable guy. As a result, the audience doesn’t know who the fuck to root for and, if they don’t get that as a joke, they get a little pissed off. A lot of folks have told me they wish there was more A-Bo in it, to which I’m like, “he doesn’t do anything!” But yeah, people love A-Bo, which I didn’t expect at all. They also seem pretty fond of the character Willie, which I think it’s solely because of the brilliant performance Ben Fisher gave. But it’s been really well received – I’ve had a lot of people tell me straight out that it’s their favorite independent film they’ve ever seen. Between that and some folks telling me that I Need to Lose Ten Pounds made them want to be filmmakers, I’m pretty flattered. Maybe it’s because in a world of YouTube and Twitter and webcams, too many indie films are low aspiring personal pieces, or shit platters served by the offspring of hugely successful filmmakers (fucking Coppola, fucking Cassavetes – did you see Broken English? That piece of shit…), and in the case of A-Bo and Ten Pounds, which are just aspiring to be so much more than they really are, there’s just something fun about that.

As the main character is a humonkey... there must be a few stories of how the public reacted when seeing you shoot. Anything you can share?

We just walked around Boston shooting stuff with a lightweight crew, and I was in make up all day. Way more people than I could ever have predicted thought I was truly deformed, which is a testament to the brilliant makeup work of Mark Santos. Let me just take a moment to point out that Mark was a guy from my neck of the woods who I was referred to, and at the time was studying at Tom Savini’s school in PA. He did all the work on A-Bo for free, and for anyone who’s seen the film, I think you’d agree that if the mask didn’t work, the character and the film wouldn’t have worked. And to make it worse for him, it’s not like we had the luxury of having hours before the shoot to apply a multi-piece prosthetic – I told him it had to be a one piece that could be slipped on, stuck together with some spirit gum and foundation, and ready to shoot. So without a dime in his pocket, Mark made this flexible, beautifully crafted full head piece that I abused throughout the shoot (he had to make a second one a few weeks in). One of A-Bo’s eyes is completely encased with eyebrow skin, he’s got a nipple growing out of the top of his head, and the scarring on the back of the skull is modeled after a picture we found of syphilis attacking a man’s body. If you stare at the back long enough, you may vomit. To boot, A-Bo wears suspenders and a helicopter beanie, and shorts that are just sweat pants cut at the knees. What I’m getting at is, if you saw this on the street, I would hope you would know it was a costume. But nope – people would sigh in relief when they saw the camera emerge from around a building, or see me remove the mask, because they were convinced that I was this horrifically deformed guy. At the time, Boston had just implemented its new payment system for the subway, and so with a trench coat and travelling fedora (I looked like a fucking Ninja Turtle in disguise), I approached an MBTA employee and made him answer asinine questions for about fifteen minutes, hoping he would crack and make a comment about the costume. But it never happened. People would often divert from staring, trying to be polite. It was pretty amazing. Mark is to thank.

Talk about the indie filmmaking scene. Where do you think it's at now and where do you see it going?

It’s getting kinda blurry, when films like Cabin Fever do so well at the box office and Peter Jackson and Sam Raimi are at the top of Hollywood, and everyone has a camera and can be a filmmaker and has a mode of distribution. Internet distribution has actually been pretty amazing for me – some of you might have seen my cartoon short “Lord of the Rings by George Lucas,” which got a few million hits and scored me an interview in the upcoming documentary People vs. George Lucas (produced by Cannibal! The Musical star and DP Robert Muratore – funny how it all comes full circle, isn’t it?). But as great as that is, there seems to be this quest to get internet famous by a lot of people my age and in my creative life, and it seems the quickest way to do that is to ride on the success of something already in pop culture. My cartoon is an example (riding off the success of Star Wars AND Lord of the Rings), “Angry Video Game Nerd,” the “Chad Vader” series, etc. And because of this, attempts to make great feature length films on shoe string budgets seem to be dwindling a little. I think people are under the impression that feature length filmmaking is still a hugely expensive, resource heavy operation, and I just don’t think it has to be. What is true is that feature lengths have an almost impossible time getting programmed at festivals (A-Bo had great difficulty) and internet audiences are less likely to watch something so long. But I still think that most filmmakers have the desire to make a feature in their lifetimes, and I don’t think it should be looked at as such a daunting task, because even if it sucks, the education you gain is so valuable. I think sometimes there’s too much concentration on what the tools are – for instance, having gone to a liberal arts college, we have artsy faculty who believe that, in a decade or so, there will be some inexplicable evolution in technology that will completely transport storytelling out of straight narrative and into some abstract visual art that we can’t even comprehend. These people are completely full of shit and I think, with filmmaking being so democratized, there’s never been more people who want to give filmmaking a shot. I’m just wondering how long these emerging students of film will limit themselves to making either a.) 16mm narcissistic crap about themselves or b.) 4 minute Batman parodies that get uploaded to YouTube a couple hours before The Dark Knight comes out. But with camera resolution getting larger and portable devices getting smaller, man, I have no idea where filmmaking is headed.

Do you have any other projects in the works?

Always. I’m writing a film quite unlike my last two called Sexually Frank, which is essentially my little thesis on sexuality and the sexual insecurity a lot of us walk around with. It’s heavy on the comedy, but is stripped of the irony my last two films contained. It’s about real people, real problems, real feelings, as opposed to the cartoon worlds my last movies took place in. I’m really excited about it, I think people are going to love it.

Where can people find out more about A-Bo and get their hands on a copy?

abothehumonkey.com is your one stop for all A-Bo shit – you can purchase a copy for ten bucks through the site, and the DVD includes 3 commentaries, a cool little short film, over an hour and a half of making-of video blogs (so if you don’t give a shit about the movie but just want to learn how to make your own, these are great for that), and the trailer. All that stuff, including the film itself, it’s viewable online for free – all I ask is that you e-mail me at JVCFelix@yahoo.com and tell me what you think! You can watch the movie on the website, and all the other stuff is linked through the site to my YouTube channel (search JVCFelix), which also has a feature length A-Bo blooper reel.

And for those of you who haven’t caught Ten Pounds, check out ineedtolosetenpounds.com for all the same kind of stuff.

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