Being Frank is an indie comedy starring Jim Gaffigan and Logan Miller that is absolutely delightful, and I loved it so much that I dropped screenwriter Glen Lakin a note on Twitter to rave about it. To my thrill of thrills, he kindly wrote me back and we had a great exchange about the movie. Given that this is his first feature-length film, I was curious to learn more about his work, as well as the process of what it takes to get a script from the writer's laptop all the way to the cinema. [Spoiler alert: it's a lot of hard work and waiting!]
Below is an email interview I conducted with Glen on June 7, 2019, a week before the project's official release. Please enjoy his insightful answers, and watch Being Frank asap!
What other projects and writing have you done before this script?
This is my first! At least the first anyone would have seen. I worked on NINJAGO: DECODED, which is a webseries/clipshow that attempted to get fans of the NINJAGO movie on board with a TV series with a separate continuity that was already 7 seasons deep. As a lifelong fan of LEGO, and cartoons in general, it was actually a dream project and one of the happiest months of my life. I was terrified of the fan reaction – as I’m generally terrified of the cruelty of young boys – but the response was surprisingly positive.
Like most writers, my career is paved with a lot of close calls, missed opportunities, and projects trapped in limbo. I wrote the first draft of BEING FRANK (then titled YOU CAN CHOOSE YOUR FAMILY) in 2011, which, yikes, seems so long ago. When you have a project continually on the cusp, both you (the writer) and your representation kind of hope this will be the thing that gets your foot in the door or becomes the excuse an executive or producer needs to hire you. Then, suddenly, it’s eight years later. The flipside is that your first movie is a fresh start. No one cares about the middle ground; and all the spec scripts and pilots piled up in different folders on my desktop means I have a sample ready to send for almost any request. You want a movie about a sorority of eco-terrorists that dabble in forbidden magic to take down big business? Sure. Pseudo-incest romcom? I’ve got you covered!
How did you pitch the script? What was the process of getting it from your desk to the screen?
I developed the script while working for the Imagine Writers Lab. The program was the brainchild of Ron Howard, and he wanted a feature writing process that more closely mirrored TV. Nine writers of various levels of experience were hired to pitch and write movies, as well as offer each other notes at the treatment and first draft stages. Karen Kehela Sherwood, one of the producers on the film, was the Imagine Entertainment executive overseeing the lab; she tackled each and every story with confidence and simplicity, and she had our backs in ways I’ll probably never fully appreciate. There is a reason why producers accept the Academy Award for Best Picture!
I remember my first pitch meeting with Karen. I came in with a lot of high-concept, mid-budget family comedy or adventure ideas, but, before I got to any of them, she stopped me and said that she and Ron were looking for modern day John Hughes. As a child of the 80s, I saw that as a tall order. After my panic attack, I thought about what John Hughes’ movies meant to me. Often, they were about rebellion and about understanding a perspective different from your own. And, because Imagine was wary of marketing a teenage movie, I knew it had to include an adult in a major role. Was I nervous about pitching a polygamy comedy? Yes. (I’m still nervous!) I wrote a test scene to sell the characters and the tone that I attached to my pitch. (The scene ended up in the movie almost as originally written, where Philip confronts Frank in his second office and extorts him.)
Getting the script to screen mostly involved waiting for the right actor, which we’ll talk about, but also tempering expectations to adjust to an evolving film industry. Back in 2011, filmmakers still had hope that the mid-budget comedy could be a thriving genre. Hollywood is fumbling back into that market here and there, to some extent, but I think we needed to be honest with ourselves and say, “Hey, this is an indie movie.” Which, again, polygamy comedy; duh! But when there is a flurry of activity and praise around a script, it’s easy to get a little divorced from reality.
The game changer was meeting with Miranda Bailey for an entirely different script I had written, but after hearing more about her company and her tastes as a producer, I decided to pitch BEING FRANK. She asked to read the script, connected with it, and wanted to direct it as well as produce. She’s obviously a powerhouse in the independent film world, and she was able to marshal the forces of heaven and earth to get this made.
How did you get the idea for the main plot point? (We’ve heard about men having secret families before, but I don’t recall ever seeing it done in a film. It’s really fun and clever!)
I wish I could say that my dad had a second family… Actually, I don’t wish I could say that! After I met with Karen, I thought about the existential dread(s) of my childhood. I love my family, but we’re small, and I obsessed over other households and hung on every word when my friends described large holiday gatherings or vacations. I see BEING FRANK, partially, as a grass is greener tale. It’s about idolizing families other than your own because you can’t see the cracks in that perfect façade. Of course, in this case, that other family that Philip covets is also, kind of, [ironically] his family.
The other baggage I brought to the film is my sexuality. Most closeted gay teenagers dream about getting out of their hometown and reinventing themselves, as if a change of scenery is going to magically solve every problem. Neither Frank nor Philip are gay, but both feel suffocated by expectations they see as beyond their control and make the absolute worst decisions because they view escape as the only possible solution.
I think the thing I heard most when the script got sent around is that a lot of other writers or producers had been wanting to do a film about second families but never quite cracked that nut. The only reason my script survived that initial “yuck” factor is because it’s actually Philip’s story. He’s our in. You are more willing to forgive a teenager’s bad decisions because, by their very nature, teenagers are idiots. And selfish! The script works because I viewed the story through the very narrow lens of a father/son relationship. I didn’t burden myself with resolving any of Frank’s other relationships, because, honestly, how could I? I wanted to be fair to the wives and the other children, and there’s no redemption there for Frank.
I didn’t expect the film to be an invitation for strangers to tell me about all the secret families they know about!
Did you write the main character with Jim Gaffigan in mind? If not, were there other actors you imagined playing the father?
I first pictured Frank as a young Bill Murray. But, lacking access to a time machine, we considered the charming rogues of the early 2010s, with Paul Rudd and Jon Hamm being mentioned most often. We initially approached the role from the perspective of, “Okay, who could pull this off?” We decided a father with a secret second family would have to be someone so charming that you never ask questions. We’ve all had people in our lives who so disarm us that we make excuses for them and ignore the obvious red flags. That probably would have been a different movie.
Then Gaffigan read the script (and liked it!), and everyone saw the story in a slightly different light, because, above all else, Jim is likable. You don’t handwave his version of Frank because he’s tricked you; you do it because, even at the core of his deception, you find this spark of warmth. Of course, that spark is flamed into an utter dumpster fire, but the goodwill Jim brings to the screen buys that extra inch of likability to get us over the finish line.
Are there any films that had a similar feel to Being Frankthat inspired anything about your film?
I’ve already mentioned John Hughes’ role in the film’s inception. I also drew a lot of inspiration from comedies of the 80’s and 90’s. MRS. DOUBTFIRE and TOOTSIE are both extremely successful examples of hanging the plot on an elaborate deception while still preserving the audiences’ goodwill for the lead. I think THE BIRDCAGE is another film that achieved a manic but endearing energy as the lies spun out of control.
I grew up on sitcoms, so tonally, at least when writing comedy, I tend to manufacture a veneer of surrealism between the audience and the film, which is something I need to be constantly aware of. I want viewers held at enough distance to allow for hijinks and coincidence, but not so far as to divorce them from the emotion of the moment. It’s a juggling act, and not always a successful one.
Are there any plot points or dialogue inspired by real life?
Boringly no. And I should probably say again, for the record, that my dad does not have a second family… that I know of!
What are your inspirations, in film and writing?
I like challenges. I don’t know if it’s intentional or not, but I always find myself writing unlikable characters with motivations that require a great deal of finessing. I have a pilot called CURSES, about a support group for the magically-afflicted. The characters are punished by karma for sins many of us commit without a second thought, and writing it let me explore my fascination with right/wrong, as well as the moral compromises we make just to get through the day. Obviously, you see that in BEING FRANK. Jim’s character knows he’s doing the wrong thing but ultimately believes it’s for the right reasons. You get away with a lot when you view yourself as the hero of your own story.
I’m probably way too introspective, so most of my scripts start from a place of wanting to understand and process my own failures and disappointments. I’m sure it would be easier to just go to therapy.
Were you present for filming? What was it like working with Miranda Bailey and Jim Gaffigan?
I visited the set a couple of times, but I’m from the Midwest originally and polite to a fault, so I was mostly a fly on the wall. By the time cameras were rolling, my job was done, and all I could really do was get in the way. I’m sure Jim thought I was some money-man’s trick.
I did a couple rewrites after bringing the script to Cold Iron Pictures. Miranda had a personal connection to the subject that I didn’t, and she had a specific vision for the third act setting. I remember a meeting where she, Amanda Marshall, and I sat around a table drawing layouts of fictional lake communities. Because Miranda is also an experienced producer, the rewrites could focus on practicality.
Were there any happy accidents on set that got incorporated into the film?
I don’t know if it counts as an accident, but I remember walking onto location (the house where Frank’s second family lives) and being shocked by how perfectly it matched the layout in my head when I first wrote the scene. I panic easily, so I don’t know that anyone on set would have texted me, “Jim broke his arm, but we think it works!”
How involved were you with the film, post-script?
I handed off my last draft in August or September of 2014. I actually hadn’t seen a shooting script when I arrived on set, so I had no idea what to expect. I was lucky enough to visit the day they were shooting the opening scene (the practice interview), which had been in the script since the very first draft. And they were still my words! This is my first movie, so that was a magical experience for me. And, as I watched the dailies and the cut that went to SXSW, I kept being surprised to hear my dialogue, to see scenes where I left them, to feel how I wanted the viewer to feel.
Filmmaking is a collaborative art, and it’s important to divorce yourself from the project and trust that the director, producers, and everyone involved want what is best for the movie. But, and I don’t think I appreciated this at the time, the writer is on set – in the script. Unless your script sucks, in which case ten other writers will be “on set” fixing your mistakes.
What is your background in the industry?
I studied Radio/TV/Film at Northwestern University and got my MFA in Screenwriting from the American Film Institute. I love school, and I’ve taught some classes, so I gambled that that a degree or two would give me solid footing in the industry. Some of the people I studied with are ridiculously successful that it’s almost stupid, so they’d be better examples of that path. But I’ve never been an assistant and my networking game is pretty weak. A writer has to do two things – write and survive, and industry jobs don’t always lend themselves to the former.
What are your upcoming plans in writing and film?
Right now, I’m working on a pitch for a dream project that I can’t talk about, and I’m co-writing a scripted podcast that’s sort of a sci-fi soap opera in the style of an old-timey radio serial. I just finished a horror script that, at least in my weird brain, I see as the mother/daughter companion to BEING FRANK. It’s called IF YOU LEAVE ME NOW, and it’s about an expectant mother who provokes the wrath of a supernatural predator when she tries to escape her unhappy marriage. I’m also working on two comic books, but that industry is flooded by wannabe screenwriters adapting their failed film or TV projects, so I’d feel like a poser if I didn’t draw at least the first one myself… And I’m a slow drawer.
Tell us about your fabulous podcast, Gayest Episode Ever!
My cohost and producer of the show, Drew Mackie, will be thrilled you asked! Each week, Drew and I discuss episodes of classic TV sitcoms that deal with LGBTQ themes, some successfully, others not so much. We just recorded a conversation about THREE’S COMPANY which, a lot of people forget, was about a straight man pretending to be gay to get a sweet apartment. I’m pretty sure watching those reruns was my first exposure to the idea of being gay. On the whole, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the depth of these typically one-off stories and characters. Yes, there’s problematic language and offensive portrayals by today’s standards, but you also see an earnestness to represent a marginalized community for broad audiences. And I love sitcoms. I grew up on sitcoms. I think one of the reasons I got into film and entertainment was to justify the hours spent in front of a TV. Drew does most of the work and research, I just get to sit down and overanalyze plots and dialogue. Gayest Episode Ever is a TableCakes Production, and Drew and I are planning another show for that podcast network.
Anything else you’d like to add?
I feel lucky – and thankful! BEING FRANK is my first film and Miranda’s directorial debut. I hope there’s a certain magic to that. I’m honestly curious how the film will be received. I’m prepared for people to hate it, though I hope most will give it a chance, even if it feels cruel to laugh at the situation. I get asked if the film is an endorsement of Frank’s behavior. I personally think art is divorced from intention, so I just tell people to think about the one relationship Frank manages to save. The film world and our political climate have changed a lot since I pitched the idea, and I doubt I’d be brave enough to pitch it today.
What I really want to add and end on is that I’m glad you liked it and that you gave me an opportunity to talk about this film’s long, weird journey. (And everyone go see it!)