It ain’t easy being a gay man in the 1970s rural south. Just ask Frank Bledsoe, the titular character in Uncle Frank, the new film starring Paul Bettany as a New York University lit professor who ditched his South Carolina upbringing for the big bad city to the North. And while geography lets Frank cloak his sexuality from his family, that changes when his naïve but observant young niece Beth (Sophia Lillis) begins matriculating the hallowed halls in which he teaches.
On some level, Beth always knew her favorite uncle was different. After all, no one else in the family wore cologne, recommended classic book titles, or generally offered the promise of something greater than the humdrum of small-town life. So, when Beth gate-crashes Frank’s faculty party and meets his, ahem, “roommate” Wally (Peter Macdissi), all but forcing Frank to finally come out to her, Beth is more than just accepting—she’s downright intrigued.
Of course, the rest of the family is still in the dark, with the exception of Frank’s bible-thumping father Daddy Mac (Stephen Root), who never forgot catching his teenage son in the arms of another man. Mac wasted no time condemning Frank to burn in hell for all eternity. Nice. Is it any wonder Frank paid that trauma forward by callously dumping his young lover, who subsequently took his own life? For Frank, fleeing the scene of such torment was a matter of survival.
Now nearing 50, as Frank reluctantly road trips back home for his dad’s funeral, the film observantly details the delicate dance gay men did to maintain their secrecy—including fabricating pretend girlfriends. But the film also reveals another pertinent truth: Most people ultimately don’t give a single crap who you’re sleeping with.
Uncle Frank was penned by Alan Ball, the Oscar-winning writer of 1999 suburban psycho-thriller American Beauty. Ball subsequently achieved television royalty with the HBO black comedy Six Feet Under and vampire drama True Blood. But Uncle Frank—Ball’s directorial debut, is by far his most personal effort.
Ball sat with Script’s Andrew Bloomenthal to tell us more.
In writing this film, you cobbled together a mosaic of real-life experiences. What was your entrée into the writing process?
This movie was percolating in my head for about 25 years before I sat down to write the script. And the instigating factor occurred when I came out of the closet to my mom, who told me she thought my dad might have been “that way” too. I don’t know if that’s true because he was already dead, but I later learned about a friend of his who drowned and how my dad accompanied the body on the train back to their hometown of Asheville, North Carolina. So, for about 25 years, I had all of these “what if?” ideas floating around in my head. What if that was true about my dad? What if there was something between him and this young man who drowned? How might that have played itself out?
Did you outline the plot of the script before writing it?
I don’t outline film scripts. I outline TV scripts because you have to. But I don’t outline features because it’s more interesting to write them and see where they take me. So, Uncle Frank ended up being an amalgamation of those “what if?” scenarios, but it was also a coming of age story for Beth, as well as a story of Frank confronting the trauma from his youth. That said, writing without an outline doesn’t always work. There are tons of things I started that never went anywhere because I couldn’t figure out how to end them. But with this one, I trusted my instincts and went with it because it came from an emotional place.
I read that some scenes you shot were jettisoned for time issues. Were there any scenes that you were particularly sad to leave on the cutting room floor?
There was one scene that was really beautiful where Frank is standing at the edge of the pier after the reading of his father’s will, and he takes off his clothes and jumps in the water where he and his lover used to swim. And the beautiful way it was shot made it feel like a baptism. But in test screenings, it felt like we were setting it up to look like Frank might have tried to kill himself, so that when he subsequently showed up at the hotel, it looked to the audience like an “Aha! We fooled you!” moment, which felt manipulative, so we got rid of it.
Those early swimming scenes featured some nice close-up shots. Did your cinematographer achieve them by placing the camera on sticks on the pier’s edge?
Well, the water wasn’t that deep, so we actually put the cameraman, Khalid Mohtaseb, in the water, with a lifejacket wrapped around his waist and crotch, so that he was floating, to create that beautiful look for the movie. It was one of those free-form moments, where the actors were taking their time splashing each other and then realizing there was a sexual energy between them. That’s one of my favorite moments in the movie because it captures that youthful innocence and discovery. Those young actors were so good.
And the beauty of that scene was countered by the moment when Frank’s dad discovers them having sex, and he stares at them like he’s demonically possessed. Did you direct Stephen Root to adjust the levels of wrath, over the various takes, to give yourself editing choices?
Not in that scene, but I remember giving him more direction in the scene where he’s sitting in the chair and Frank’s standing behind him, and he says all of those horrible things. I remember saying, “Let’s do a take where it really hurts you to say these things,” and I’m pretty sure that’s the take that ended up in the movie. In the original script, I used what had happened with me when I came out to my mom, and in fact, there was a line in the movie where Frank’s mom, played by Margot Martindale, suggests to Frank that his dad might have also been gay. But we got rid of that line after the first test screening because it just didn’t work, but Stephen played the part as if that were true, where he never allowed himself to fully be who he was when he was younger, which is the subtext behind Mac telling Frank he’ll be cast into a lake of fire and all that biblical bullshit.
People only fervently oppose the things that tap into their own unresolved baggage.
Let’s shift to a casting question. Did you worry that Paul Bettany—a Brit, would be able to pull off a convincing period Southern accent?
Not really, because I saw him do an American southern accent in The Secret Life of Bees. But I was more interested in Paul’s emotional connection because I always saw Frank as a middle-aged Atticus Finch character—someone profoundly decent, with a lot of dignity. And Paul’s father was gay. He came out of the closet when he was 63 years old and then had a 20-year relationship with another man. But once that man died, Paul’s father went back into the closet because he was afraid he wouldn’t get into heaven because he was a staunch Catholic who believed homosexuality was a mortal sin. So, Paul viewed this script as a way to consider what might have happened if his father could fully accept who he was. And to me, that personal connection was much more important than Paul’s ability to do an accent.