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Heaviness, with a light touch: Kelly O’Sullivan and Alex Thompson on “Saint Frances”

The Chicago-set comedy-drama sees a VOD release May 5 on AppleTV, Fandango Now, Prime Video, and VHX (Vimeo).

The debut feature from writer-director team of Kelly O’Sullivan and Alex Thompson is the sort of vivifying art that feels so essential and meaningful in these cooped-up times. Saint Frances may wade into familiar territory of the indie comedy-drama, but it quietly overturns assorted cinematic tropes with a deft unconventionality, which is one reason the film took home a Special Jury Prize and the Audience Award for Narrative Feature at last year’s SXSW. For screenplay that, on the surface, is about an abortion, Saint Frances confidently tackles a plethora of interpersonal and social issues—relationships, menstruation, motherhood, child-rearing, postpartum depression, and most importantly, traditions as they have not only been represented in society but have also been depicted on screen.

O’Sullivan, who wrote the film and plays the leading role, penned an open letter about her experiences as a loose audience introduction. With a candid hand and sense of humor, she wished to expel stigmas that can make womanhood lonely, confusing, and isolating. And yet Saint Frances avoids becoming didactic, instead accomplishing its goals with liberating universality and warmth. It channels those feelings into the spacious rhythms of one summer season that many of us will be yearning for in just a few short weeks.

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After the pandemic began to dramatically affect the standard distribution model for independent movies in early March, the film began showing in virtual cinemas as a three-day rental, but now Saint Frances is getting an official video-on-demand release this Tuesday, May 5, through Oscilloscope. Ahead of that, I scheduled a video chat with O’Sullivan and Thompson, who have been self-quarantining in Kentucky. We talked about the collaborative significance of Saint Frances‘ opening scene, its themes of shame and healing, directing breakout star Ramona Edith Williams as the titular character, Max Lipchitz being a model of masculinity as Jace, finding initial musical inspiration in Hal Ashby’s Coming Home (1978), and how O’Sullivan and Thompson have each been coping and adapting in the past two months.

Special thanks to producer James Choi for helping facilitate this interview.


Alex Thompson, James Choi, and Kelly O’Sullivan. Photo by Sally Blood, courtesy of New City Film

Alex Thompson, James Choi, and Kelly O’Sullivan. Photo by Sally Blood, courtesy of New City Film

Tone Madison: Good to meet both of you, and thanks for joining me. I had some ideas for general opening questions, but I kept coming back to the opening scene of the film at the party, and that seemed like the ideal starting place for me. It’s exceptionally written cringe comedy or at least cringe-adjacent comedy.

I’m sure Kelly had brainstormed some potential ways to bring audiences into Bridget’s circumstances, but I’m curious to know how you or perhaps both of you arrived at something so effectively unconventional. The dialogue with Corey (who we never see again, amusingly) shrewdly reveals a lot about Bridget through his own assumptions and anxieties.

Kelly O’Sullivan: That first scene was a pickup. It wasn’t in the original script. As we started showing the rough cut to people, they were like, “Who is this person? How old is she? Why do we care about her?” I had been so adverse to exposition. Alex really gets credit for that first scene.

Alex Thompson: There was a scene that Kelly had talked about but had never written early on in the process—just discussing how it felt to be a thirty-something at social events and parties. It seemed like everyone else was doing stuff, outwardly, beyond where she was or wanted to be. This was good inspiration for Bridget. It occurred to me that you get a lot of exposition [here] and allow it in this one character’s funny, sort of crass perspective on failure. The question was always, “Who would we want to open the film?” Brad Smith is a really good friend of ours, a filmmaker and actor [himself] who we’ve often worked with, so we wrote for his voice.

Kelly O’Sullivan: It was a written collaboration as well. I knew that I wanted him to be describing a literal nightmare that was her life. At first, the scene was really long, and then [Alex] came in and cut it down. That was the most collaborative scene in the whole movie. 

Alex Thompson: The stakes were high, because we had received all this feedback that wasn’t exactly great. People didn’t know—it’s so clear now that she’s 34 [years old]. But without that opening scene, people asked, “Did I hear, towards the end of the film, that’s she in her thirties? Is that real? It seems like she’s in her late-twenties or something. I don’t know why that’s relevant.” Bookending it made it relevant or at least clearer.

Kelly O’Sullivan: I just dread those questions at parties. No matter what they are, I just hate the “What are you up to? What are you doing?”

Tone Madison: I agree. That’s why I avoid most parties. [Laughs] I think what’s great about that scene is that you have Corey describing this nightmare, as you say. He asks you, “What do you do?” Maybe you’re a little hesitant to reveal that. He replies, “Oh, it gets better” after that story that he just described to you. Very well done and surprising, to bring me into the circumstances.

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Kelly O’Sullivan: Oh, good.

Tone Madison: I have a kind of long-winded preamble to this next thing, so apologies in advance. It’s kind of my take on this as I would be writing something up, I guess. Like that opening scene, I appreciate how Saint Frances tackles a lot of subject matter that’s tricky to present in a way that doesn’t feel overly generalized or didactic. It shares a certain kinship with films of the past five or six years like Princess Cyd (2017) or Obvious Child (2014), as both of them deal with relationships, sexuality, and abortion in the framework of the “indie dramedy,” if you want to label it that.

The latter, in particular, pertains to a pregnancy that involves two people who don’t know each other well. But Obvious Child isn’t just about the immediate consequences. It’s about a couple sharing in that experience and all the complicated feelings—the confrontations and avoidances—that come with it. The scenario is similar here, but perhaps the feelings lean more towards desperation at times.

What inspired your writing for Saint Frances and its scenario?

Kelly O’Sullivan: It was really important to us that this character [Bridget] wouldn’t wrestle over the decision as to whether or not to get an abortion. She finds out she’s pregnant, and boom, she knows what she wants to do. The abortion happens really early on. Even though I’ve never seen Obvious Child, I think that movie was trailblazing in terms of having a realistic portrayal of abortion that wasn’t just dramatic. It allowed for humor and romance. But it was important to us to have the plot based around this friendship rather than the abortion. The abortion is one event; it’s not the event. So, then I just wanted to deal with it in a way that felt realistic. A person might have complicated feelings that don’t include regret or guilt. That’s the way we wanted to portray the treatment of postpartum [depression] and being shamed for breastfeeding—everything has a light touch, and the plot doesn’t center on any one of them.

Alex Thompson: I think that’s how life is, too. It seems like the job of the screenwriter or filmmaker is to take something that’s true and nuanced and has a lot of gradation to it in life and shove it into a three-act structure and make it serve a resolution or a pattern. We knew it would be a problem with pacing and structure to say, “Well, what do people actually do? What are people thinking at this moment? Are they actually going to spend a week wondering whether they keep it? Is Bridget actually going to do that?”

Kelly O’Sullivan: And I’m sure that people do, but it was important for us to have a character who knew right away. Because it feels like that hasn’t been represented in film as much as it could be.

Alex Thompson: Yeah, I don’t know of any examples. Except for maybe Never Rarely Sometimes Always (2020).

Tone Madison: I was going to mention that, actually. I haven’t seen that yet, but that’s another film that just came out a few weeks ago on “home premiere” or “virtual cinema.” Have you seen that yet?

Alex Thompson: We haven’t, but we’re eager to, because we’ve heard it’s amazing.

Tone Madison: I was just going to add that I agree with Kelly. You’re telling a story about abortion that isn’t using the characters as ciphers to advocate for pro-choice necessarily but rather simply advocating for an individual and her agency. And through that, the politics emerge.

Kelly O’Sullivan: That’s beautifully stated. I’m gonna steal that.

Tone Madison: I’m curious to know more about the titling of the film as “Saint Frances.” Were you hoping to elevate the religious undertones? I mean, the title is a gender inversion of the Catholic figure from the 13th century. Throughout the film, there’s quite a bit of tension between “Christian” values that clash with the realities of living in the 2010s in this Midwestern upper-middle class suburb. Am I correct in assuming this is around Chicago?

Kelly O’Sullivan: It is, yeah. In and around Chicago.

Tone Madison: The second part of this question reflects more on the one scene with the breastfeeding. It’s sort of weaponized against Maya (Charin Alvarez), who is doing that modestly at a public park, and she herself is even a practicing Catholic. The scene lingered in my mind afterward about how shame is ingrained in all of us, especially women, at a formative age. How much of that do you think is connected with religion as it practiced in America, anyway?

Kelly O’Sullivan: Oh my, that’s a million dollar question. I mean, I was raised Catholic, and there’s a certain amount of shame. There’s really no way around it. Women are shamed for making choices about reproduction and their reproductive lives. And so I wanted that to serve as a backdrop for the film without ever hitting it over the head. Because people don’t want to be preached to. It’s not my intention as an artist, but I think people are going to draw their own conclusions.

Certainly shame is a huge part of film. For me, the whole crux of the movie is shame and healing. And so there’s a lot of exploration of how women deal with shame. And then you get to see Frances [Franny], who has not yet. She talks about bodies very openly, because she’s been raised in a household that tries not to teach shame. But then you have the complexity of a household like that where a woman is feeling shame for her postpartum. And so, it was intentionally messy in a way that life feels messy, but it’s not trying to say, “Here’s the black and white of it.” It’s saying, “It’s complicated; it’s layered.” Religion is intentionally a backdrop of that, because it serves a backdrop in the way I experienced life having been raised as a Catholic.


Maya (Charin Alvarez) holds newborn Wally (Ezra Gibson) in a scene from “Saint Frances.”

Maya (Charin Alvarez) holds newborn Wally (Ezra Gibson) in a scene from “Saint Frances.”

Still, there’s some messaging in my head that I have to consciously investigate and break down. So, it’s a big ol’ cocktail. And it’s definitely intended to be that gender reversal that you talked about. Frances serves, from my point of view, as a blessing for Bridget. If I could find a way that doesn’t sound religious… I mean that in a very agnostic, interpersonal way. Their friendship is a blessing in Bridget’s life.

Alex Thompson: For Bridget, she serves as a platonic figure for what many saints serve for those in the Faith. That’s the uncomplicated answer.

Tone Madison: That dynamic between Bridget and Franny is interesting. I feel like it could easily collapse into that “precocious youngster teaches a floundering adult about life” trope, but there are so many other dimensions to the plot and character motivations, as you directly mentioned. Bridget spends so much time in her own head, in the shadow of adult expectation, that the lines of communication are less pressured or burdened and more fluid with Franny. How did you write and/or rehearse dialogue with Ramona Edith Williams? What did you find was key to getting the scenes to gel with her?

Kelly O’Sullivan: I used to be a nanny, so I was just thinking of—I had actual little-kid voices in my brain from girls who I had nannied and really loved. Alex was really great about being the “precocious police.” Do you remember that?

Alex Thompson: Oh, sure. Yeah, with the dialogue specifically. It’s hard to tell what’s going to play on screen as false. We kind of pushed the boundaries of what a smart six-year-old might sound like. Kelly does a really good job of toeing that line. I haven’t done the examination to know what it is about certain characters that ring false for an audience, and certain characters we give a pass to. Paper Moon (1973) is a pass, but Uptown Girls (2003) is drivel. I think it was easy on the day to know what felt right, though. I directed Ramona like I did all the actors. Maybe it was a little harder to get her to stay on her mark between takes, but she took direction just like everybody. Because of her age, I probably talked less, which made me a better director.

Kelly O’Sullivan: She’s great. She was the least coached. We used PR [Paskal Rudnicke] Casting in Chicago, and they were wonderful. The way they talked to her in the room in the audition was a good guide for how we should also talk to her. They never talked down to her. They would say, “Imagine you’re meeting this person for the first time, and you don’t like them.” It was a good lesson for us, and we tried to keep it real.

Tone Madison: From your answer, it sounds like most of her dialogue was written beforehand based on your experience, as you tried to get into the head of a six-year-old. Maybe some filmmakers would approach dialogue in those situations as more improvisitory or tease it out on set. Was the opposite the case here?

Kelly O’Sullivan: I think 100% of her dialogue was scripted.

Alex Thompson: It’s almost word-perfect, too.

Tone Madison: Wow, okay.

Kelly O’Sullivan: And that’s maybe the only actor we can say that about. [Laughs] All of the other actors were amazing, but there was some looseness with them. With Ramona, we realized we didn’t need to improvise. She was all ready.

Alex Thompson: The montage was improvised. No dialogue there. Running to the beach, putting on sunscreen. All that stuff was really fun and caught in the moment, but all the dialogue was from the script.

Tone Madison: Returning to the character of Jace, who’s played by Max Lipchitz: He seems like a sensitive and upstanding person. He’s open in a way that Bridget is not, as she’s often deflective. Was Jace always envisioned as a kind of counterpoint to Bridget’s personality? How was their written chemistry comparable to the one between Kelly and Max in the final cut?

Kelly O’Sullivan:  I always thought of Jace as the exact person you’d want to go through this experience with. That he does everything—even though he may be awkward in moments in the way that she is, he says all the right things. He’s deeply supportive and has a sense of humor in a moment where Kelly is feeling conflicted or vulnerable about something like holding this blood clot in a napkin. He makes a joke in exactly the way she needs. Alex, you were smart in talking about how you wanted to model that kind of behavior.

Alex Thompson: I don’t if we knew that going in, but in retrospect, certainly, I appreciated that. Rather than try to force a deeply flawed portrayal for men who identify with men on screen who watch this film, there are two models of masculinity to choose from. One is incredibly, uncomplicatedly pleasant, appropriate, and wonderful, and the other is real shitty. There’s not much of a choice, which I actually like, because I could see a twenty-something, like my brother watching this film, and being like, “Oh, I want to be that guy.” And later into his life and stumbling into an experience like [the one in the film] and thinking, “Oh, I’ve got to remember, it’s okay to be sensitive and ask questions. It’s okay to have emotions about this.”

Kelly O’Sullivan: In a way, he serves as a model for Bridget. His openness and willingness to talk about feelings. Eventually she’s able to [do so] on the phone to him. Max Lipchitz is also such a dream of a person and an actor. He is as sweet and funny and charming as he is in the movie. And so, if there is any chemistry between Bridget and Jace, it’s entirely Max.

Alex Thompson: Something I remember us discovering in the edit and on set was that Bridget is quite mean to Jace in the script, consistently. And I remember talking to Kelly about it, and the first reaction was sort of, “Why shouldn’t she be? She has a right to be.” And as we were doing the scenes, Max was so likable that it forced Bridget to soften around him. The meanness didn’t make sense narratively. We’re looking at this burgeoning relationship that’s sweet and genuine, and so it really softened some of the delivery of some of those digs. And we lost a few scenes, actually, that were kind of like mean jokes on Jace. The seizure is one.

Tone Madison: That sounds kind of severe, so I can understand. I mean, I don’t know how the scene played out, but I can imagine leaning towards the severe based on—so, who is having a seizure? Or they’re just talking about seizures?

Kelly O’Sullivan: No, it used to be in the script where she puts those [morning-after] pills in her cheeks and holds them there, that she then starts to fake a seizure. It’s like two seconds long. He’s like, “Oh my god,” and she says, “Just kidding.”

Tone Madison: Oh, okay. [Laughs]

Kelly O’Sullivan: That was too far. We didn’t need it.

Alex Thompson:  Yeah, it’s not cruel, but we definitely realized that while shooting, this was less about Bridget being defensive with Jace and more about using humor and ribbing each other to deepen the relationship. That was more fun to direct, too.


Jace (Max Lipchitz) and Bridget (Kelly O’Sullivan) have a serious talk in a scene from “Saint Frances.”

Jace (Max Lipchitz) and Bridget (Kelly O’Sullivan) have a serious talk in a scene from “Saint Frances.”

Tone Madison: When you said Jace is sort of a model character, I started thinking of the film Eighth Grade (2018), if you’ve seen that. The father, who’s played by Josh Hamilton, is very loving and supportive, and the dynamic with his daughter is not an exact parallel to the one between Bridget and Jace in this, but… yeah.

Alex Thompson:  It is similar, yeah. He does all the right things. And we’re not supposed to be mad at his daughter when she doesn’t respond the way he wants her to. But it’s nice to see a dad who’s trying and never gives up.

Tone Madison: Thanks for going pretty deep into that—the writing process and rehearsal for their dynamic. I wanted to shift to a question about the music that Quinn Tsan wrote. Most of the music has this kind of chamber-tinged acoustic guitar folk sound, which feels breezy and melancholic in equal measure. I was reminded of Belle And Sebastian’s music for Storytelling (2002), Elliott Smith a little bit, and maybe even Jonathan Morali’s “Golden Hour,” from the game Life Is Strange. Could you talk about working with Tsan in creating instrumentals that mesh with the narrative mood? Or was it left entirely to them?

Alex Thompson: Quinn and I are old friends and collaborators. And we knew there was a limited budget, and so we had a lot of conversations before anything [got recorded]. So, for months we would exchange playlists and songs. I shared cuts of the film with her with these ’70s pop icons sprinkled throughout. The initial model for the soundtrack was actually Coming Home by Hal Ashby. It’s sort of a jukebox film. It’s really wall-to-wall pop hits of the era. From [The Beatles’] “Hey Jude” to Crosby, Stills, and Nash… it’s an “everything” soundtrack. Or at least everything that mattered in 1974. 

Quinn had big shoes to fill from one perspective, but she started recording melodies and sending them to me on her iPhone with a few close collaborators. Kelly and I would listen and say, “We like this or don’t like this.” Generally steering the ship. At a certain point, [Quinn] just said, “Okay, here are the cues I’m doing to replace the cues that you have. This is the general composition for each one. I’m going into the recording studio for five to seven days, and when I come out, that’s what we’ve got. That’s the music. There’s not going to be revision.” I couldn’t be too precious with it, and what you hear in the film is very much a fully realized, complete and unified vision on her part. It’s like another cast member. Music served to elevate the film away from the jukebox cues that I had used to edit it, but also introduced a female voice that was so necessary. So, at the end when the violins come in, it really feels like Bridget and Frances are growing up. She brought a certain sensibility that I thought was unconventional.

Tone Madison: I really like that piece of music during the credits [“Bridget’s Theme]. I think it’s probably the most affective. Is this your first feature film, Alex?

Alex Thompson: It is, yes.

Tone Madison: That was my impression from your IMDb page. I was just wondering what was most challenging to handle directorially, or, if you want to talk about what was most exciting or refreshing to experience during the more prolonged shoot than you’re used to.

Alex Thompson: Luckily, I have produced two independent features before this. I was used to the long process, and itching for a chance to do it myself. Itching to get out of video village. So I didn’t really think of it as a first film, and that’s probably just because I was so concerned with doing justice to Kelly’s script. That was a much bigger hurtle than overcoming the first of it all. For me it was just being able to work with these specific collaborators. To get to do it untethered to another vision, to get to commit wholeheartedly to the story. And to have it be such a strong story just opened up possibilities. It’s exciting, because when you’re making a movie, everything you watch and everything you listen to could end up in the film.

Tone Madison: Had you planned for a longer feature than like 95 minutes initially?

Alex Thompson:  No, I guess we really didn’t think about it that way. The script that we shot was like 109 [pages].

Kelly O’Sullivan: The first cut was like two hours. The goal was to get it down to like 95 [minutes].

Alex Thompson: Yeah, I think it was—just shoot what’s on the page, and in the editing room we’ll find the rhythm. It’s pretty easy to tell when something is working or not when you start cutting it. So, it was just about that balance between getting things on time, and getting them up on their feet in the edit and seeing how they play.

Tone Madison: My last question is maybe an expected one. I usually like to conclude by asking what you’re working on next, but there are some things impeding that currently, so I just wanted to ask how the two of you are holding up especially during the past month and half. How has your work been affected in the wake of COVID-19? 

Kelly O’Sullivan: We’ve both been writing a lot. That is something I’m grateful for: the time to write. At first it was a real struggle to have any sort of attention span, which is something I’ve heard a lot of artists say. But it is a different experience for everyone. At first it was hard for me to focus on something, because I just felt so overwhelmed by what’s going on. As we’ve settled in, I finished another draft of a feature.

Alex Thompson: We’ve been hoping, in this extended downtime, that folks are more available to read things. I’ve been watching a lot of movies, doing a lot of writing, and trying to continue the momentum of future projects, but do so in a respectful and safe way. In some ways, the world has been put on pause in the entertainment industry. It feels like some video game bonus level where the game is going slowly, but you’re able to get more rings or jump around at superspeed. Within a single slow-motion day, it seems that you could do a lot.

Tone Madison: It sounds like you’re using Sonic The Hedgehog as an analogy. [Laughs]

Alex Thompson [while Kelly laughs]: Does that happen in Sonic The Hedgehog? Does the world slow down, and Sonic bounces around?

Tone Madison: It’s been so long. I know there’s a feature film, the “live action” one with Jim Carrey that came out before this [pandemic]. But there are rings to collect in that game, and you move around at superspeed, so…

Alex Thompson: It’s been since middle school, so that might be true. [Alex and Kelly laugh.]

Tone Madison: Were you planning to shoot anything this spring or summer, and has that been disrupted at all?

Alex Thompson: I had planned to shoot a short film in Greece in April, so that’s been put on hold. But luckily that’s a very small project, so as soon as it makes sense and is safe, I think we’ll be picking that gauntlet back up. That was somewhat disrupted. It’s a Greek-language film set on the island where my grandfather was born in the 1970s with a young boy and his father. It would have been cast entirely with local actors and produced by the Saint Frances team: Nate Hurtsellers, Ian Keiser, Raphael Nash, and Kelly, of course.

Kelly O’Sullivan: I was just going to PA. Go to Greece and hang out.

Tone Madison: Like in Before Midnight, the Linklater film? [Laughs]

Alex and Kelly O’Sullivan: Yeah. A great Greece movie.

Tone Madison: Is there anything else you’d like to add about promoting Saint Frances or what you hope people will take away from the film?

Alex Thompson: I hope people find their way to it. I’ve been very impressed with the number of virtual cinemas that have taken up Saint Frances as a cause. Next week [May 5] we’ll be on TVOD on iTunes, and then we’ll be streaming soon after that. I’m excited to see more audiences get to experience the film; it’s always different. And especially in this time, people need to laugh.

Kelly O’Sullivan: I do think it’s a movie about connection. And that’s a nice thing to watch in this moment.

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