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SXSW '08 Interview: "Present Company" Director Frank V. Ross

by Erik Childress

The “Present Company" Pitch: It’s about being in a place during your life that you don’t want to be in–the consequences of “we are a couple because we have a child together.” And laughing at selective behavior depending on who you’re around.

How did this film get rolling at the beginning? Give us a brief history from writing to production to post to just last night.

FRANK: The circumstance in the picture is the same as an aborted idea that I wanted to write years ago. A large, long, and labored outline was there for me and I tried to strip out any sentimental scenes i.e. Chritsy coming home from work to find Buddy and the baby have fallen asleep on the couch. And, strip out any direct dialogue about what one another needs. That drove the structure and the baby was not allowed any close ups; forced an aesthetic idea. Tammy really got the ball rolling because I never knew who’d play Christy and not type-a-fie her, picturing her in the roll locked it and once Sasha entered my life she was Sam from the get go. Then there’s a good amount of people I’ve worked with before that I wanted to scoot into different types of parts. Let Anthony ‘steal’ the movie in a small roll. Let Lonnie talk for once. Make Allison yell at me. Be a jerk to the Swanberg’s and make Joe yell at me. We used Tammy’s real parents because they are awesome and owned every scene they were in. Al my slightly older plumber buddy, I’ve wanted to “task” with in film for a while. He built that opening scene set in his garage without me asking for anything like that. It was fun for him. Then it was lonely cutting it together, Anthony scored it with a brilliant stroke in about two days he was finished. And last night I deleted everything from my hard drive.

Back when you were a little kid, and you were asked that inevitable question, your answer would always be “When I grow up I want to be a …” what?

FRANK: “Scientist.” Now I know I meant engineer. I Always liked to build things.

How did you get your real “start” in filmmaking?

FRANK: Depends what you mean. I actually started because Anthony and I wrote a script longhand the summer after high school. Lost ambition and went to Jr. college. Hated college: made the movie. Why we wrote it or did it in the first place I don’t know. We’re those kind of people: Like attention, or “creative types.” And that was some time ago. Then I guess the trick is not to wait around for things to happen. I really love doing what I do so it’s easy to keep doing it–starting is the hard part

Is this your first trip to SXSW? Got any other film festival experience? If you’re a festival veteran, let us know your favorite and least-favorite parts of the ride.

FRANK: Haven’t had that much festival exposure for the films, and never a festival quite this big. I’ve attended SXSW before and been to a few fests and screenings in my time; sometimes audience members ask questions that aren’t really questions. And sometimes at social gatherings it’s hard to hear people talk and I’m embarrassed to keep asking them to repeat themselves so, I get lost with what people are saying. And I hate waiting to talk to someone while someone else finishes talking to that person. But I’ve met a handful of the coolest people I know at SXSW and other film-related travels. And seen some amazing work that has had lasting affects on me. I’m hoping, of course, for some more festival play this time around and really I can promise I won’t have any complaints. I like all the volunteers at festivals too.

Do you feel any differently about your film now that you know it’s on “the festival circuit?” During production did you ever find yourself thinking ahead to film festivals, paying customers, good & bad reviews, etc?

FRANK: No. One, I’d never finish–the real thinking ahead to festivals that I do is in shot composition. I like to shoot as if it’s going to be seen on a big screen, which isn’t a guarantee.

Of all the Muppets, which one do you most relate to?

FRANK: Fozzie.

If you could share one massive lesson that you learned while making this movie, what would it be?

FRANK: You don’t know what you’re doing.

What films and filmmakers have acted as your inspirations, be they a lifelong love or a very specific scene composition?

FRANK: My filmmaker friends really make me feel like this is worth doing, that inspires me. Mike Leigh’s work sets a bar for me–that guys stuff is as close to divine as anything I’ve seen. But, looking at the panoply of filmmakers I admire, Chaplin, Monte Hellman, Bergman, Wiseman, Fellini, Cassavetes, Albert Brooks just an obnoxious number of them; it becomes clear that individual creativity is what makes you a filmmaker and that inspires me.

Did you watch any movies in pre-production and yell “This! I want something JUST like this …only different.”?

FRANK: No. I do the preproduction alone, and keep crew down to camera man. So I don’t really need to convey aesthetic ideas, they’re just practical. And, if you tell an actor something like “do this like in this movie” they’d be put out at least. When you shoot in real locations you’re limited to good places to put the camera and stupid places, the choice is usually simple.

What actor would you cast as your favorite cartoon character?

FRANK: Anthony Baker as Pepe Le Pew and John Leguizamo as Daffy Duck.

Say you landed a big studio contract tomorrow, and they offered you a semi-huge budget to remake, adapt, or sequelize something. What projects would you tackle?

FRANK: I’d do a musical inspired by the work of Langston Hughes.

Finish this sentence: If I weren’t a filmmaker, I’d almost definitely be...

FRANK: A plumber.

Who’s an actor you’d kill to work with?

FRANK: Jackie Gleason.

Have you “made it” yet? If not, what would have to happen for you to be able to say “Yes, wow. I have totally made it!”

FRANK: Selling out. I’m going make films until I die no matter what, so, once in a position to sell out: I done come up.

Honestly, how important are film critics nowadays?

FRANK: For blockbusters? Not important at all. For Will Ferrel movies, or those big-budget spoofs? Useless. But I think folks in the nill-advertising budget should have you guys at their disposal. Everyone who is going to go see “No country for Old Men” is going to see “No Country for Old Men” despite the criticisms that are written, just put it on the top ten list and save the writing for the little movies that people need to be told to see.

What would mean more to you? A full-on rave from an anonymous junketeer or an average, but critically constructive review from a respected print or online journalist?

FRANK: I love compliments so it doesn’t matter. Take it where I can get it.

You’re told that your next movie must have one “product placement” on board, but you can pick the product. What would it be?

FRANK: Coffee mugs with inspirational quotes.

You’re contractually obligated to deliver an R-rated film to your producers. The MPAA says you have to delete a sex scene that’s absolutely integral to the film or you’re getting an NC-17. How do you handle it?

FRANK: Hey look! “I’ve made it.”

What’s your take on the whole “a film by DIRECTOR” issue? Do you feel it’s tacky, because hundreds (or at least dozens) of people collaborate to make a film – or do you think it’s cool, because ultimately the director is the final word on pretty much everything?

FRANK: I use “film by” on the poster cause it looks and sounds better, in the movie’s credits I don’t use it cause it’s a little redundant. I don’t have a problem with it though it’s all word play.

In closing, we ask you to convince the average movie-watcher to choose your film instead of the trillion other options they have. How do you do it?

FRANK: I’m not very good at that but here it goes: I love you. Seriously.


Frank V. Ross' Present Company will have its world premiere at the 2008 South By Southwest Film Festival on Monday, March 10 at Austin Dobie Theater (5:00 PM). It will screen again at the Dobie on March 12 (9:00 PM).

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originally posted: 03/01/08 02:55:19
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