A Profound Exploration of Family: Kenneth R. Frank’s Directorial Debut

Family has a lot of different meanings. It can transcend blood and forge a bond through commitment along with choice. Kenneth R. Frank, a writer and director, delves into this profound concept through his feature film, Family Obligations. With a desire to explore the intricacies of familial obligations, he invites us on a journey of self-discovery and personal accountability. Needless to say, we were excited to sit down with the man himself and pick his brain about his thought-provoking masterpiece.

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1. In your own words, what is Family Obligations all about?

The film is about the power and the pitfalls of involving yourself in other people’s lives. The main character Peter Steele, played by Chris Mollica, returns home to settle affairs after his father’s sudden death. Initially, he tries to push through everything as quickly as possible so he can get back to life as he knows it. He hits a snag when he discovers that his father was actually responsible for taking care of his own brother, Peter’s Uncle Frank.

Slowly, Peter realizes that taking care of Uncle Frank might be the second chance he didn’t have with his father. Frank, however, is a reluctant patient, and Peter finds him a challenge to relate to. Through Frank, Peter also meets Melanie and her young daughter Mia, who live in the same building. Melanie and Peter find some common ground, but Melanie seems to have wrapped her head around living with responsibilities for another person.

So the film is really about this man learning how to (& sometimes how not to) relate to people he cares about, not to see everything as transactional but as something that he actually allows himself to feel.

2. What inspired Family Obligations?

This film was a very personal expression for me. I’m someone who has always thought about and written about family in as many different forms and expressions as I could find. I think the fundamental question I’m always asking myself is how to situate my individual identity in the context of the people around me. Then, building off that, what are my responsibilities to that group of people and what are my responsibilities to myself? Hence the title, Family Obligations.

Ironically, when I’d get up on a stage for Q & A’s after screenings, almost every moderator would ask me if the events of the film were based on personal experience, and they’re not. After seeing the film, most people have assumed that I had a similar relationship with my father or uncle, and I haven’t. But the film’s story is a synthesis of a lot of things I’ve seen and thought about for many years: the misunderstandings across generations, how we take care of the sick and the dying, how we make peace with other people’s limitations, how we forgive others, and how we forgive ourselves (hopefully). So, I developed this story out of a desire to explore those questions I had.

What I hope is universal for people watching is the feeling of being pulled out of your own experience and into someone else’s life on terms you don’t get to dictate. At some point, I think we’re all called to serve some role in another person’s life that we don’t get to control. Whether that’s taking care of someone when they’re sick, dealing with a loss, helping someone through unforeseen difficulties of their own, or something else entirely, at some point we acknowledge that we don’t control all aspects of our lives. So what do we do then? What kind of people are we then?

3. With a lot of great actors in the film, how did you work with the cast to bring out their amazing performances?

I was incredibly lucky to have such a great cast for this, starting, of course, with Chris Mollica playing Peter Steele. Chris and I have been friends since high school, and we actually ended up marrying a pair of sisters, so we’re now brothers-in-law.

Chris Mollica as Peter in 'Family Obligations'

Chris Mollica as Peter in ‘Family Obligations’

I wrote this part hoping Chris would play it, and that opened up everything for me. I knew Chris’s talent, so I knew that whenever I got into a scene, my way out of it could be to just put the camera on Chris and let him carry things. So right from the very start, as I was writing the script, I could lean into creating as complex and challenging a character as I wanted because I knew I had someone to bring that character to life.

Then, as I was working on the script, I helped my assistant director on this film Kevin Wolfring with a short he was making, which starred Chandler Rosenthal. I saw her working, and she really seemed like a natural fit for Melanie. I was fortunate enough to cast her, and now we really had a movie. Chandler is one of those actors who seems to read the scene so intelligently the very first time and make the right choice instinctively. I know it’s a lot of work, but she really does it so effortlessly.

Frank Failla as "Uncle Frank"

Frank Failla as “Uncle Frank”

Then the other large part to nail down was Uncle Frank. I had a specific idea about the type of presence he should be, and for some reason, I thought to myself that someone who did standup comedy would fit that. Fortunately, I found Frank Failla, who was a retired city cop doing standup, taking acting classes, and really trying to get into film work. He, again, paired so naturally with Chris. He’s since gone on to be in a few of our other films and is getting national TV work. It was great to be at the start of Frank’s acting journey and see him do so much since.

In terms of bringing out those performances on set, I think I tried hard to let the actors know that they came first in things. I shot the film myself, and we had minimal crew, so it really was their set. I tried my best to stay out of their way and be as unobtrusive with my lighting and my direction so that they could communicate with each other as needed.

I also think patience was key, as sometimes things took a few takes to gel, and letting them know that that was totally fine, I wasn’t going to pull the rug out from under them and they could take the time they needed to get to where they wanted to. I viewed my job as the director on this as to provide the actors with the best script possible and get out of the way.

4. What was the biggest directing or writing challenge in crafting this particular story?

I suppose the biggest challenges were time and budget, but that will always be the case. We had an incredibly short window in which to make this happen, and it required everyone making sacrifices and working very hard and fast. Fortunately for me, I had a great post-production artist in Jan Klier who did all the finishing work, both picture and sound, on the film. He was able to solve some problems and smooth over some rough patches to make this as polished as it could be.

I wore many hats on this as the writer, director, cinematographer, and one of the producers, and that’s obviously a challenge, but I also really enjoyed it, as it put the decision-making squarely in my hands. Sometimes that leads to mistakes, but it also lets you move at your own pace, which I like.

Peter standing in Long Beach, NY

Peter standing in Long Beach, NY

5. What is the core message or takeaway you hope audiences have after watching this film?

I hope an audience takes away from this that people are worth it. I hope it encourages people to engage with those in their lives, even when it’s difficult. I’m a lifelong fan of Peanuts, and I included a strip on every actor’s script. It actually ran in newspapers two weeks before I was born.

Charlie Brown gets a phone call that Snoopy is in prison, and he has to go bail him out. As he’s going out the door, his sister Sally says, “That stupid beagle is more trouble than he’s worth.” Charlie Brown, quiet genius that he is, replies, “Most of us are.” I think about that a lot. Most people are a lot of trouble. People are flawed, confusing, needy. The list goes on. However, we’re all we’ve got. I hope this film encourages people to take another look at relationships in their lives and find some redemption in that.

6. Who is your favorite screenwriter?

This is, of course, a great and difficult question. I was a screenwriting major in college, which is a very enjoyable way to waste time, so I feel I have the classic answers. Preston Sturges would be one. Charlie Kaufman is another. I love writer/directors, so people like David Lynch, Hal Hartley, and Cameron Crowe. Michael Mills is another favorite of mine. One of my favorite things is how wildly different two screenwriters can be and still exist in the same form.

After his father’s sudden death, loner Peter Steele finds himself the reluctant caretaker of his sick Uncle Frank. Through new friendship with Frank’s neighbor Melanie, Peter begins to see that involvement in other people’s lives might just be worth it after all.

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