WFFA 2020 : Saint Frances

After her decision to end an unwanted pregnancy, 34-year-old Bridget reluctantly agrees to nanny the bright and rambunctious Frances, forming an unexpected bond with her and her parents.

At the start of the summer, Bridget (Kelly O’Sullivan) has an abortion just as she lands a much-needed job in an affluent Chicago suburb – nannying six-year old Frances (played by the scene-stealing Ramona Edith-Williams). With no time to recover, she clashes with the obstinate Frances and struggles to navigate a growing tension between Frances’ moms. As her personal relationships suffer, a reluctant friendship with Frances emerges, and Bridget contends with the inevitable joys and shit-shows of becoming a part of someone else’s family.


A Q&A With Director Alex Thompson And Writer/Star Kelly O’Sullivan Kelly, where did you begin with this story – what prompted the creation of Bridget’s story in SAINT FRANCES?

I was a nanny in my 20s, and I always knew I wanted to write about that because it’s such an odd, emotional job. You really grow to love the kids that you take care of, and in a way you become a part of the family but also remain outside of it. You’re in the home, sometimes witnessing incredibly vulnerable moments within the family dynamics. But at some point when the job is over, you leave. Then in my 30s, I had an abortion, and I thought what if those two experiences – of having an abortion and spending your days taking care of children – overlapped. So while much of the film is fiction, it began in a real place.

You approach Bridget’s abortion very head on, almost without hesitation. Why?

Kelly: I don’t think there should be any shame in women getting abortions, and there’s a major lack of non-traumatic abortion stories in TV and Film. I wanted, from the moment Bridget finds out she’s pregnant, for her to be 100% sure she’s going to have an abortion and truly never waiver, never once regret it. Which doesn’t mean she doesn’t have complicated feelings about it – it’s just that none of those feelings involve guilt. An abortion can be a part of someone’s story without it being the climax or a defining event. I’m tired of abortions being taboo to talk about, and I thought we could depict at least one woman’s experience in an honest, nuanced, even sometimes funny way.

Alex, this your feature length debut. How did you get involved and what drew you to this story?

Alex: I’ve written and rewritten this so many times, the gist of it really is the script. I was just wowed by it. I had produced several features and directed several shorts, but I had never read something that popped and fizzed so sweetly. It had teeth. I knew that Kelly could do it, and I’m just lucky she trusted me to do the same, and trusted me to bring on my collaborators (Cinematographer Nate Hurtsellers, Producers James Choi, Ian Keiser and Raphael Nash, Key Grip Sammy Hochberg, Composer Quinn Tsan) and to take the position we took on the production, vision and score. I’ll always be a producer at heart, so having that trust early on allowed me to dream about it without that fear of saying or doing the wrong thing. It was a long process from page one to done, but we worked together really well. She’s a generous collaborator.

Why did you decide to cast Kelly as Bridget?

Alex: Kelly simply was always Bridget, there was never any question.

Ramona, your Saint Frances, has an incredible presence on-screen. How did you find her?

Alex: We worked with the incredible women at Paskal Rudnicke Casting and basically set a challenge for ourselves: if we couldn’t find the right actor to play Frances by June 6, we wouldn’t shoot on July 6 (our planned start date). They brought in a huge number of enthusiastic, charismatic actors for the role, but our casting director AJ Links kept bringing up Ramona. She showed us this Swedish Covenant Hospital Commercial, one of those improvised things where two kids talk adorably about something adult. In this case, it was – classic – where babies come from. She was incredibly present, responsive, and genuinely funny. AJ had a “feeling”. When Ramona came in, I remember we stepped outside and told her we needed five minutes. Her response was “five minutes…to dance!” and she proceeded to dance. I left the waiting area, but I assume she danced for five minutes.

As soon as she came in, it was clear she had a special gift, and a presence on-screen. She didn’t feel coached, though we found out later just how supportive her family is, and she had real joy and a true sense of humor. She was also the youngest person we saw – she hadn’t yet turned six. It was a big gamble, but I was certain she was the only person who could pull it off. At the speed, I knew we were shooting, and the way I knew we wanted to shoot, if she had a bad day and I had a bad day, I was sure that we could simply point the camera at her and at the very least she’d be Ramona. Some people can’t do that. She can. I still don’t know if she’s going to decide to be an actor when she “grows up”. She’s also an extremely talented ice skater and a pretty sharp Uno player.

Was her character always meant to be this titular anchor? Why the title?

Kelly: Yeah, Frances was always the titular character. I’d love for people to see the movie and then have their own interpretations of the title, so stop reading if you don’t want spoilers! But for me, Bridget needs healing – not from her abortion, but from her overall self-doubt and feelings of disappointment in her life – and she gets that healing from Frances’ completely nonjudgmental friendship and love. The summer with Frances is a huge blessing for Bridget, and I mean that in the most agnostic, non-religious way.

How did you decide to go with a lesbian couple for Frances’ parents? Was there anything in particular you wanted to convey by presenting a queer couple to the story?

Kelly: I always saw Frances’s parents as Annie and Maya. Queer parenting is normal and should continue to be normalized. What Annie and Maya are struggling with in the film isn’t their sexuality, it’s the challenges of parenting that many couples deal with: that Annie has to work all day to support the family while Maya wrestles with postpartum depression.

It’s uncommon to see a coming-of-age story about a 34 year old woman. The film finds Bridget questioning her own definitions of success and failure. Why choose to explore that within a 30+ year old, as opposed to a teen or a 20 something?

Kelly: I mean, I don’t think you can really fail in your 20s. Floundering is expected and even celebrated while you’re in your 20s. In your 20s you hear, “you’ve got time!” In your 30s, you hear, “you better hurry up.” The conversation amongst your peers switches from, “God, I hope I’m not pregnant” to “if we’re not pregnant in 6 months, we’re seeing a fertility specialist.”

There are things people expect you to have have figured out and be “successful” at in your 30s, namely career, marriage, and kids. Bridget doesn’t have any of those things, and because her peers do and there’s a societal expectation that she should as well, she feels like a failure.  think that’s rich and relatable ground to explore.

The film brings up a number of timely topics: feminism, racism, homophobia, classism, “the contemporary family”… millennials. Was it important for you to portray more than Bridget’s story?

Alex: We made a conscious decision to try and approach every character with as much empathy as possible. We didn’t want the world filled out by quirky “supporting” characters, but rather real people honored with real lives. Those ism’s are built into the foundations of our society. They’re bound to show up if you have even the slightest interest in pursuing truth in storytelling.

Alex, you also edited the film. How did you decide on the pacing? Did you know this was the flow you wanted from the beginning, or did you choose this pacing while in the editing room?

Alex: Though I think it seems fast-paced, the film has a great deal of what Gordon Willis called “shoe leather” built into it intentionally – characters walking in and out of frame gives the film a momentum, even as it allows scenes to breathe. I knew I wanted the film to move, because then any moment of stillness would be that much more relevant. So I was thinking often of where a scene begins, and with what sound and picture, and where it ends, and with what sound and picture. Building in the framework for what would become the incredible work done by our team at Skywalker Ranch – Tom Meyers, Zach Martin and Tony Sereno, as well as our Chicago sound editor Malika Gumpangkum. The edit was meant to give as much impact to the cuts as possible, and we worked hard to build up the sound of Bridget’s world – trains and dogs, cars and disruption – and its foil, the peaceful suburbs of Frances’ world. When Bridget begins to affect Frances’ world, those sounds begin to invade. The pacing reflects that.

Truthfully, though, if there’s any genius in the film’s edit, it’s shared with Sofi Marshall (Wild Canaries, A Teacher, and Villians). When Sofi got her hands on the film as a consulting editor, I had exhausted my own perspective. I knew there had to be montages and momentum, but I couldn’t see how it all added up. The temp soundtrack was a glorious mishmash of Jeff Buckley, Simon & Garfunkel and Burt Bacharach, but despite its groove, the first cut was a monster – slight, but overlong and heavy. One of our EP’s Haroula Rose was finishing up what sounded like an incredible stretch of editing with Sofi on her film Once Upon a River, and she connected us.

Sofi came back with suggested cuts and changes that eventually shaved over twenty minutes off the film. We lost ten speaking roles, including some good friends and great actors. But no it sings, and it moves, and because of that I got to slow down and have fun with several montages that harkened back to our 70’s influence.

What do you hope audiences take from this film?

I hope people leave with less judgement and more empathy. I hope people laugh and find themselves loving the characters. I hope some women feel seen in ways they haven’t been before. I hope it inspires more honest conversation about abortion, postpartum depression, periods, parenting, and anything else for which people might feel shame, but shouldn’t have to.