Brad Coley, the writer and director of the new thriller “Frank the Bastard,” expresses a love for the great novelists, especially the writers of Southern Gothic novels. “Everyone from William Faulkner to Flannery O’Connor to Cormac McCarthy. I always feel that [they] kind of mined the deepest veins of the American psyche. There’s just such incredible richness there,” Coley said when reached by phone for an interview. “I’m someone who, throughout my whole life, has been drawn to sort of the older forms of storytelling, particularly literature and fiction.”
“Frank the Bastard” definitely feels like a Southern Gothic novel come to life. Rachel Miner (“Penny Dreadful”) plays Clair Defina, a New Yorker who just signed her divorce papers. By chance or providence, her friend Isolda (Shamika Cotton) finds a liquidation sale notice for Clair’s childhood home on the Internet. The two women drive to Maine to help Clair reconnect with her past, but there’s more going on in this little town than either of them expected.
“I was at the point in my life where I was trying to make more sense about where I actually came from in terms of my own family history, and kind of coming of age during the 60’s from a multiply-fractured family,” Coley said about writing the screenplay. “And dealing with a lot of demons and a lot of shadows and how, other than psychotherapy, how I might be able to bring those things out into a story. Those two tendencies in myself both happened about the same time when I was writing the screenplay.”
Clair and Isolda are accustomed to the New York City lifestyle, but this small town looks, as the director put it, like the 20th Century has skipped it over. Cyrus Gast (William Sadler) owns the town, allowing his sons to do pretty much what they want. Gast also is brokering a lucrative deal with a natural gas company, making Clair a very unwelcome presence. Though Isolda was the one who pushed Clair to make the journey, she gets nervous after learning what goes on in town.
“I call the place the Wild, Wild East. The fictional setting is an actual county in Maine called Washington County. Even though we weren’t able to shoot there, it’s where I researched all the screenplay. And I was able to actually—miraculously—find a double for it on the Massachusetts coast where they actually had a film infrastructure,” he said.
Despite an undercurrent of malice, the charm of the New England setting permeates the story. It’s easy to understand why Clair feels so comfortable there, even after being gone for years.
“New England is one of the most beautiful places on the planet. I don’t know if I necessarily dwell on the beauty. I think I go pretty much into the shadows pretty quickly. Without the beauty, there wouldn’t be that haunted sense. I think that’s what part of Gothic storytelling is all about: that there once was a paradise, there once was a perfect world that was lost,” Coley explained.
“Frank the Bastard” also is a good example of “dense storytelling.” Like a Gothic novel, the plot has many layers that need to be peeled back, examined and reexamined to ensure nothing is missed.
“I love that kind of storytelling. I think we need to bring it back somehow. Where storytellers are making it happen is in television because again, you’ve got a bigger canvas. When I think of shows like ‘Breaking Bad’ and ‘True Detective,’ they’ve got 8, 10, 12 episodes. They can really flesh things out; they can create that complexity. And people can go back and say ‘Wait a minute. I want to look at that again.’ For features, it’s tough,” he offered.
“Frank the Bastard” currently is playing in New York and Los Angeles with planned expansion into other cities.