Cannes: Marisa Tomei, Ira Sachs Discuss Finding Comedy in Mortality-Themed 'Frankie'

Cannes Film Festival
A still from 'Frankie'

"Death is not always serious," the 'Love is Strange' helmer says in an interview of the ensemble film, premiering on the Croisette Monday.

Though he is something of a regular at TIFF and Sundance, Ira Sachs is about to walk the Cannes red carpet for the first time as a director.

The American independent helmer's ninth feature, Frankie, will have its world debut in competition at the fest, 17 years after Sachs first attended as a member of his friend Karim Aïnouz's entourage, for Madam Satã. (Aïnouz is premiering a new film in the Un Certain Regard category at Cannes this year, which Sachs finds amusing: "Now that we're 15 years older, who are we when we're in Cannes together again?" he asks with a laugh.)

Frankie follows 10 members of a family headed up by an eponymous matriarch and famous actress (Isabelle Huppert) over the course of one day on a vacation in Portugal. Frankie is facing her own mortality as she slowly succumbs to a terminal illness, but has grand plans to realize before she goes, like getting the family together for a luxuriant vacation, revealing what she plans to do with her fortune and setting her son (Jérémie Renier) up with her friend and hairdresser, Irene (Marisa Tomei). Unfortunately, Ilene brings her boyfriend, Gary (Greg Kinnear), which throws a wrench in some of Frankie's meticulously laid plans.

With Sachs' and co-writer Mauricio Zacharias' sprawling storyline, Frankie tells a story of terminal illness, but also narratives of "marriage, divorce, first love, money and inheritance," Sachs says. Combining the melancholy of death with romance and comedy was inspired, he says, by his own recent experiences watching friends and a family member deal with disease: Their life after receiving a diagnosis wasn't totally bleak — it ran the spectrum of emotions. "Death is not always serious," he adds.

Before the film's premiere, Sachs and star Marisa Tomei talked to The Hollywood Reporter about Frankie's buddy- and marriage-comedy aspects, the French films that inspired its tone and Sachs' process of making sure "the character becomes the actor."

Ira, you've said before that you had long wanted to do a story about a family on vacation. Why this story?

Sachs: This story is a very personal one in non-autobiographical ways. It's really about experiences I've had in the last few years around family and illness and thinking about how, when a crisis comes to a group of people, how surprising the ways that each individual reacts to that crisis can be and how unexpected the emotions are. So, for me, it was a film about a family trying to figure out how to deal with someone that brought them to together, but also individually kept them apart. One of the things I think is really fascinating about vacation life is that everyone brings their own story with them even though they seem to be different and foreign, but really they carry their own day-to-day life in that travel. How many times have you been somewhere traveling and you find yourself with your partner, child or mother just talking about the things that are most intimate between the two of you, and not even noticing the landscape or the view or the building? It's almost an excuse to get close.

Marisa, how did you get on board this project?

Tomei: I had known Ira for some time and we had worked together on Love Is Strange and also on Little Men. We're friends and we see each other in New York, but separately from that, he sent me a lovely little text and a follow-up note with what he was planning and what he was writing. He mentioned himself, he mentioned Portugal and he mentioned Isabelle, and I don't think he needed to say anything else.

Oftentimes when you watch movies about a family in such a hothouse environment, secrets are revealed and romance blossoms, but rarely does illness figure into it. Ira, when you were co-writing the story, how did the idea of a terminal illness come about?

Sachs: It's a film very much of many genres, which has probably been the case for most of my films. It is a film about illness and it's also a marriage comedy and a women's buddy picture. Somehow, mixed-genre is what my life feels like in certain times. I think, particularly, in the last five years I have been close to three different women who have gone through terminal illness. One being my grandmother, who died at 103, and then two filmmaker friends who, at different ages, one was in their 50s and one was in their 70s, I saw face cancer. The intimacy with how much they were alive in moments where they were facing death seemed so profound to me, and not what I expected. Death is not always serious. I was very close to a woman named Barbara Hammer, who died several months ago. She was a lesbian experimental filmmaker, and I knew her in the last 10 years in her life. I can't even describe how active she was in the world, how beautiful she looked every time I saw her, the illness almost seemed to disappear in conversation, and yet there was always an awareness. So it's kind of that moment of seeing and then forgetting.

With so many stories going on, were you both trying to maintain a certain tone or cohesion throughout the film?

Sachs: I think that happened at each stage — I would say it's a writing and editing process, in which you achieve balance. We were very inspired by Rules of the Game, [Jean] Renoir's film, which is scary to mention when you're going to Cannes. It was just a film in which you could veer from comedy to tragedy swiftly, and hopefully with agility. Part of it is also being at a certain age where everything seems both more serious and less. When I was younger, I felt like everything mattered in a more melodramatic fashion. When you're in your 20s, you live life as if you're in a melodrama and I think in my 50s, I feel there's more balance, so the highs don't get as high, and the lows don't get as low, it's kind of that mid-range emotion.

Tomei: [Ira] did reference some films stylistically, which I knew would be some of the elements. One of them was Pauline at the Beach and then Rules of the Game. When we got there, I knew from working with him previously that everything has to be 100 percent real, subtle, true to human nature, but also in my character there was a lightness. [Ilene] herself has a bit of a wisecracking comedy to her, so that element was also floating through the characterization. But when we did the tone, he really has it all up in his head, so he can really guide the scenes and dial them in in real detail when we're shooting. It ended up being a Chaplin-esque feeling; it's so true that it's funny.

Ira, I understand that to build out this big ensemble cast, you wrote some roles for particular actors.

Sachs: We started writing this character of an American DP working on a Star Wars film, wanting to do something more serious with his life, and it was a character that could have gone towards satire. And as soon as we started writing for Greg Kinnear, who I worked with on my last film, I knew there would be authenticity there: He could bring something which would make the character still funny but real and emotional. In general, I feel like the character becomes the actor, because I'm not looking for transformation, I'm always looking for what the individual person brings and who they are. There's a sensitivity and tenderness and modesty that I have seen in Brendon Gleeson that I have seen both onscreen and offscreen that I think are very much part of the character he plays in the film. Nothing can get too big, so it requires a lot of precision.

Marisa's performance serves as a counterbalance against the things in the film that are very serious. Not that she's not serious, but she's full of joy and passion. She's an actress who's always so alive, and I think since the film has questions about death and mortality, it's really wonderful to have at its center this performance which is electric — it is like life captured.

Marisa, what else was personal about this film for you?

Tomei: There was a funny thing, where I said, 'you're calling her Ilene Bianci. I have an Aunt Ilene and an Aunt Arlene, and I love them dearly, and my mother's maiden name is Bianci.' I said, 'Did you just make that up?' He said, 'I don't know, maybe I knew that at some point.'

What do you both hope people walk out of this film thinking or feeling?

Sachs: It's been interesting showing the film in that it's like a litmus test for a wide variety of different audience members in terms of what they bring into the experience, who they identify with, whose story ultimately it is for them. I hope that people find identification, entertainment, pleasure — I think there's a lot of visual pleasure and also the pleasure of fine performances. The way the film is shot, you're watching characters but you're also watching actors in very long takes, so you're also seeing actors perform: The frame is almost like a theater set, in a certain way. On another, more thematic level, I think the film touches on a lot of very personal experiences that I've had, that my co-writer Mauricio has gone through, that the actors I believe are sharing with the audience, so I hope there's a feeling of intimacy the audience leaves with.

Tomei: I feel there's a lot of life in the film, in the midst of someone dying. She really is giving a gift for people to love each other and find each other. Isabelle's character allows people to not get stuck in the grief as much as it's definitely part of the process and they can't skip it. In this film, the way she chooses to die and handle her death is a gift to the future.

Marisa, you're currently working on the All in the Family live event. Ira's, what's your next project?

Tomei: I am working on a new film script with Mauricio. It's about a family, a father and his children and it's set in Los Angeles and New York.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.