Tips for Shooting Non-Actors in a Small Town with Filmmaker Bob Byington
How the SXSW feature ‘Frances Ferguson’ captures the best out of its stars and locals.
Like many of Byington’s films, Francs Ferguson mixes professional actors (in this case David Krumholtz, Keith Poulson and the film’s titular star Kaley Wheless) with an ensemble cast of non-actors who reflect the feeling and makeup of its setting.
The result is a cinematic world that is both fictional while almost documentary, where we get to meet characters who feel authentic and just in their place. While this may not be the best option for every filmmaker, it works for Byington and creates some amazing scenes for some standout performances Wheless and Krumholtz indeed.
We chatted with Byington about his unique filmmaking process and how he’s found a way to make it work for him and his characters. As well as garnered some insights into how a small town was able to bring Frances Ferguson to life.
NFS: Frances Ferguson is a film very much driven by its eponymous lead character. So, have to ask, which came first? The story or the character?
Bob Byington: The character!
NFS: The film takes place in the (small town) of North Platte, Nebraska. What drew the story to North Platte? And how did the town respond to the project?
BB: Two things. First of all the town of North Platte is a character in the film, a mix of eccentricity and openness. Secondly, there’s a kind of quality of excitement that remains in North Platte the perhaps other towns don’t have that you’re making a movie and it’s a fun experience and it adds both to the ease of making the film and the quality of the film.
NFS: Kaley Wheless gives a phenomenal performance as Frances Ferguson. It’s a very nuanced performance with intricate quirks and well-defined self-defense mechanisms. How long was spent developing the character? Were there any unique rehearsals or exercises to develop the role?
I asked Kaley Wheless, who plays Fran, and she sent me this:
Kaley Wheless: Over the course of I’d say 6-8 months we molded the character, initially from a blasé, IDGAF millennial type who resided in a short to a slightly older, responsibility-encumbered woman with kids and a husband and an unsatisfactory job. Still DGAF, but with a bit more restlessness.
No unique exercises come to mind, but we definitely played a lot with her voice and tone, and recorded bits of video or voice memos and felt that out until we could pinpoint Fran’s voice and demeanor. And the dialogue was kind of always being workshopped.
There were also a few performances / films Bob pointed me to as points of inspiration and reference for her. I watched Barbara Loden's Wanda and that impacted me and how I thought about Fran.
NFS: What were some of the challenges, as well as advantages, of using a mix of local non-actors and professional actors?
BB: I like mixing actors and non-actors, if you can do it I think it gives the scenes a kind of tension they might otherwise lack. Some non-actors will give you things actors cannot. Then, with someone like David Krumholtz, you can get something a non-actor could not touch.
NFS: Tell us a little bit about the process of recording the narration with Nick Offerman.
BB: Gosh, Nick was great to work with, a team player, helpful --always a stunning attitude, always raises the bar.
NFS: What camera was the film shot on? Were there any unique technical challenges to the production?
BB: We had an issue with the C300 Mark II presenting magenta horizontal fixed pattern noise in the shadows of certain shots that couldn’t always be solved by black balancing the camera -- though that sometimes solved the issue.
NFS: For any filmmakers just starting out, what advice would you give someone looking to make their first short or feature?
BB: Set a date to make the movie and make it then. Don't change the date because an actor drops out or because your boyfriend dies.
You can follow Bob Byington on Twitter here.
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No Film School's podcast and editorial coverage of the 2019 SXSW Film Festival is sponsored by Blackmagic Design.