Saint Frances director Alex Thompson and writer-star Kelly O’Sullivan on depicting abortion on screen, working with child actors, and telling personal stories. Listen to our podcast episode on abortion on screen, including Saint Frances.
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Early in Saint Frances, Bridget (Kelly O’Sullivan, who is also the writer) Googles, “What to do with my life at 35 and no idea.” While her peers are busy having children, she’s working as a server in a restaurant with hopes of snagging a summer nanny position. Bridget seems to understand that she’s intelligent and capable, but the other people in her orbit constantly remind her of the societal pity for anyone living a less than conventional life. When she tells someone about herself — that she’s a server or a nanny, that she only went to college for one year, or that she’s unmarried and unsure about children — they hit her with a smug “oh, sweetie” look.
None of those judgmental jerks are any better off than Bridget, though. They’re simply more practiced at pretending that life isn’t a waking nightmare of confusion commingled with feelings of inadequacy. As Bridget gets to know the family that she’s nannying for (spoiler alert: she gets the job), she begins to realize that everyone is faking it to some degree. To the outside observer, Maya (Charin Alvarez) and Annie (Lily Mojekwu) look like the perfect couple. They have a beautiful house in Evanston, Illinois and a precocious 6-year-old daughter named Frances (Ramona Edith Williams), Bridget’s charge, who constantly keeps them on their toes. The couple seem very much in love and are excited for Maya to have their second child, a boy that they name Wally. I can think of few women who wouldn’t find their outward success intimidating.
Below their veneer of perfection, both women are battling their own demons. After Wally’s birth, Maya experiences postpartum depression that she tries to pray away instead of seeking medical attention. Annie is working constantly and barely has time to see her family let alone act as a source of support for her ailing wife. As a queer interracial couple, they also experience a degree of stigma, even in their relatively progressive neighbourhood. Bridget, who has recently gotten an abortion, is bleeding constantly. Although she doesn’t regret her decision, she does feel alone and unable to talk to her mom, her best friend, or Jace (Max Lipchitz), her partner in accidental pregnancy. As her relationship with Maya, Annie, and Frances deepens, Bridget takes comfort in their flaws and grows more comfortable exposing her own vulnerability.
Saint Frances is more than just a charming indie centered around a flailing millennial who can’t get her life together. It’s a deeply empathetic film about the collective struggles that all women face and the power that comes with sharing them. Outward “success” does not necessarily equate to internal peace and stability. In her first screenplay, Kelly O’Sullivan creates characters who are complex and nuanced, like people you would actually encounter in the real world. None of the events feel manufactured, and there is no drama for drama’s sake. O’Sullivan and director Alex Thompson, who are also romantic partners, understand that every moment doesn’t have to be heightened in order for it to feel meaningful.
I spoke to both O’Sullivan and Thompson about the challenges that come with depicting abortion on screen, working with child actors, and using real life scenarios as artistic inspiration.
Seventh Row (7R): Kelly, this is your first screenplay. Did you always know that you eventually wanted to write?
Kelly O’Sullivan: I think I’ve been secretly wanting to write for a very long time, but I didn’t go to school for it and never had any training. I felt a lot of … not even imposter syndrome, but a feeling that it was something I probably couldn’t do. I wanted to write this because it was the first time I felt like I had something unique to say. I still had a ton of doubt, but it pushed me to learn how to write a screenplay so that I could depict abortion in ways I hadn’t seen before. And also, postpartum [depression], shame, and all of the other things that are in the movie.
7R: I’m impressed with how well you’ve fleshed out each character. Although the film centres around Bridget, the story doesn’t solely belong to her. Why was it important for you to also depict the challenges that other characters were facing?
Kelly O’Sullivan: Coming from an acting background, my favourite plays and movies are typically ensembles. I knew that I wanted to have the audience experience meeting Annie and Maya and getting to know them along with Bridget. They become as equally complex as her over time.
I also think it helps that I wrote with those actors [Charin Alvarez and Lily Mojekwu] in mind and knew how fantastic they are. I wanted to make sure that I had roles written for them that 1) would interest them and 2) be as rich and complex as they are as actors.
7R: The performance from Ramona Edith Williams [who plays Frances] is another great one. She has impeccable comedic timing. What was it like to work with her, and do you have any tips for getting a good performance out of a child?
Alex Thompson: Casting Ramona was sort of a bird in the hand situation. When she walked in the audition room without the lines, she was already someone we wanted to put on screen. Assuming that the lines are just a part of these circumstances, it was easy to just point the camera in her direction.
Most of the notes were more circumstantial and sometimes they were physical, but I think we just created this environment where Kelly and Ramona were super close the whole day, very much like Bridget and Frances were. Maybe a little bit more than Kelly would have liked, as she was sort of babysitting Ramona. We did have a teacher on set, but Ramona loved Kelly.
Kelly O’Sullivan: And I loved her! I felt like I was a nanny again.
Alex Thompson: I think it was the same approach [with Ramona] that we took with the other actors in the film, which was to help everyone feel comfortable being themselves. At the end of the day, the strongest performances are always going to come out when people feel like they’re able to tap into who they really are. And her comedic timing! She’s naturally very funny and off-kilter. She was great with multiple takes and angles, so the edit is generous.
7R: Ramona is peak funny in the ice cream shop scene. While sharing a sundae, Frances tells Bridget about her friends’ parents who are getting divorced because the mom had an affair with a karate teacher. In a no nonsense tone, she explains, “Henry’s dad drove their minivan into the lake … from sadness.” It seems like Ramona legitimately understands the situation and the emotions behind it. The line reading is very layered.
Kelly O’Sullivan: Her performance in that moment is everything I could have hoped for. Kids really do say things like that where it’s just like, “Oh, yeah … the karate teacher. They don’t live together anymore.” It’s so factual.
Alex Thompson: You can almost see Ramona working through the odd details of that line. We actually shot a previous version of that scene that was a walk-and-talk down the sidewalk, and it was just the wrong mode for a wandering conversation, so we considered what would happen if we put both of the characters in chairs and gave them some ice cream.
Kelly O’Sullivan: There’s nothing funnier than someone saying, “He drove into the lake because of sadness” while taking a huge bite of ice cream.
7R: I’d love to hear you both talk about what it’s like to work so closely with a significant other. Were there any major disagreements or areas where you had to make compromises?
Kelly O’Sullivan: We learned how to do it as we went along. I feel so grateful for the experience because there’s nobody other than Alex that I would have trusted to do this. He did an amazing job. We certainly argued, though. It was the first time I was writing something, so … I’m far less precious now with cuts and things, but we went through the script line by line and argued over miniscule things.
Alex Thompson: I remember sitting down at a diner — this was when obligatory trips to public places were normal — and getting through 15-25 pages at a time. The script was like 168 pages at this point, so it was a real slog.
The whole point of it was so that we could get on set and not disagree about anything significant. We wanted to give each other the room to interpret. There were a lot of moments, and some casting decisions, where each of us were like, “I’m going to die on this hill.” I think we’re both probably proudest of those moments in some cases.
Kelly O’Sullivan: Totally. It’s really cool to have gone through that process with somebody and then want to do it again with them. We’re currently working on another script that I’ve written together. We plan to co-direct. We’re already better at it, which is amazing.
Alex Thompson: We got through the new script in 2 days.
7R: Kelly, I know you’ve said previously that a lot of the details from the Saint Frances script came from your life. Do people ever just assume that you are Bridget because you’re writing from experience? And if so, does it annoy you?
Kelly O’Sullivan: The only time I get annoyed is when people are sort of mean about Bridget. I heard this one man describe the story as like, “It’s about the nanny, and she’s the last person you would ever want to babysit your kid. She’s a total screw-up.” I started taking that very personally.
Alex Thompson: That was one of our investors!
Kelly O’Sullivan: There are definitely similarities, so I don’t mind when people make that assumption. There are a lot of big differences, too, though. We are not the same people. As an actor, I took on Bridget, and so when people insult her, I’m like, “Hey, she’s not so bad.” I’m sort of surprised by how annoyed I become when people are harsh about her.
7R: I don’t blame you. I get the feeling that the characters in the film sometimes treat Bridget poorly because she doesn’t have the societal markers of success, not because she’s stupid or incapable. The first scene of the film with the asshole guy at the party who shames her life choices is a perfect example of this behaviour.
Kelly O’Sullivan: I think that happens to so many people. Our culture really does value people based on what they produce, how much money they make, and their status level. It’s very reflective when people discount Bridget after seeing the movie. When they refer to her as a screw-up I want to say, “You’re that guy at the party!”
7R: I do like that even though Maya and Annie are living a more conventional life — meaning marriage, kids, and financial success — they’re still a queer interracial couple. They’re conventional in some ways, but not every way.
Kelly O’Sullivan: I always knew that the parents in the film were going to be a same-sex couple. I thought there was an opportunity to normalize a lot of things, so why not normalize same-sex parenting? I asked myself about what the audience has been trained to expect when certain things are presented to them.
So, okay, Bridget is going to go interview for a job as a nanny. Let’s immediately subvert people’s expectations of what those parents are going to look like. We’re not going to comment on it or make a meal out of it, but we’ll present it as normal because it is normal.
A lot of choices were made in that vein. We wanted to subvert expectations and make people and situations feel real. People are surprising all the time, it’s just that TVs and movies typically go down one track.
Alex Thompson: I always think it’s funny that’s there’s this idea of making a choice whenever you have a film populated by characters who aren’t white and heteronormative. But making a film with white and heteronormative characters is considered the baseline. We need to start thinking outside of that very narrow box.
7R: When you approach film outside of that narrow box, it can help make conversations and conflicts feel less constructed. For example, Maya has a confrontation at the park when a homophobic mom shames her for public breastfeeding. That conflict, along with Maya’s and Bridget’s reaction to it, felt like something that would happen in real life. It ultimately turned into a triumphant moment, but it wasn’t artificially heightened for the sake of drama.
Kelly O’Sullivan: Absolutely. I have very few triumphant movie moments in my life. The times when I do feel triumphant are usually the result of some small action that I take. It’s not a huge thing for Maya to stand up to that woman, but she claims her power in a moment of vulnerability. The more that actions feel true to life, the more authentic the film feels.
7R: The dynamic between Bridget and Jace was also more true to life than traditionally cinematic. I think Saint Frances is the only film I’ve seen that fairly depicted both partners who need different things after an abortion. Usually, when a film tries to make the man seem sympathetic, it makes me want to puke, but I understood why Jace wanted to express his emotions and was dismayed that Bridget wasn’t receptive (and vice versa).
Kelly O’Sullivan: In real life, it’s so rare that there’s a bad guy in a situation. Something that we wanted to do is have max empathy towards every character. If you do that, then people make good points! There’s nothing wrong with him saying that he wants to talk about the situation just like there’s nothing wrong with her not wanting to. You feel for both of them. They’re coming from opposite sites, and I think that’s why it hurts when they go their separate directions. They don’t have a totally communicative conversation about it, but that’s what happens a lot in life. People are just coming at it from two totally different points of view.
Alex Thompson: And I think your storytelling gets stuck when you work with archetypes or cliches, whether they’re good or bad. Like okay, who won this conversation? Does this lead to a break up? When do they reconcile? Something I really love about this movie, and that felt like a risk when we were making it, is that there aren’t any Hollywood beats. We sort of make up for it with what is basically a romcom airport scene at the end, but I don’t know. I think it let some of the nuances shine through where in other screenplays, in other genres, you might be asked to make a choice and clearly say who’s right and who’s wrong.
Kelly O’Sullivan: Or even just to make it more “dramatic.”
7R: There’s definitely pressure for filmmakers to manufacture moments that seem especially poignant or dramatic on a big screen. At Seventh Row, we did a podcast episode on abortion in film that made me think about how difficult it is to strike the right balance when depicting that event. When you were writing and making the film, what elements did you know you wanted to convey in that scene at the clinic?
Kelly O’Sullivan: I knew that it couldn’t be all of the things that we’ve seen before. Like, the woman changes her mind at the last minute at the clinic, which is what happens in Blue Valentine, Juno, and Sex and the City. I love those movies and that TV show, I should say, but I think we’re trained as audience members to think, like, is this where she changes her mind? Is this where she cries?
Most important was that I wanted it to reflect my actual experience. I knew, no matter what, that I could always lean back on what happened to me. Women have so many different experiences with abortion. It’s as individual as the person getting it, so I wanted to make mine really specific to me, down to … the technician said to me, “Do you want to know if it’s twins? It’s not.” Even in that moment, I felt like that was the funniest line that I had ever heard. It’s so weird, and I couldn’t write it. I wanted that clinic scene to just feel super real in the way that life is … you think there’s going to be some big dramatic moment, but it ends up being totally different and sort of pedestrian, maybe even a little absurd.
It was also important to me that we show the mechanics of the abortion. We show Bridget taking these pills that dissolve in her cheeks, and then, 20 minutes later, she starts to have physical symptoms. How long the post-abortion bleeding lasted was very specific to me; not everyone has that experience. I knew that I could depict it in a way that was specific, authentic, and unlike the other ways that it’s already been represented on screen.
7R: The little details made it stand out to me. Things like Bridget taking a photo of the sonogram, not because she had any regrets but because she wanted to remember this thing that happened in her life.
Kelly O’Sullivan: Yeah, she’s just marking the moment.
7R: And obviously, I liked the Dumbledore spoiler that she gets before she goes into the examination room. That felt fitting for the moment.
Kelly O’Sullivan: I was reading Harry Potter as I was writing this script, and I definitely had that moment where I was like, “Come on! This can’t be happening now.”
7R: You mentioned the post-abortion bleeding, which reminds me of how prominent blood is amongst the women in this film. Even Frances makes a comment about how she’s going to call Bridget when she gets her first period so that they can discuss it. Why did you choose to depict it so frequently?
Kelly O’Sullivan: To me, this movie is all about shame and healing, and blood is a very vibrant, real example of something that women are made to feel ashamed for, even though there is no reason to feel that way. One, I felt like if we were going to portray abortion realistically, we needed to include blood. But then two, it goes into the earliest messaging that we receive about our periods. We’re made to feel like they’re something that we should probably hide and keep discreet.
I wanted to show what it’s like to have sex on your period and how other people might react to it. And just … what a physical experience it is to be a woman and have a female body. When it comes to menstruation, but also childbirth and motherhood, and how that changes your body and the chemical changes affect mental health. The whole desire was just to put it on screen in a realistic way instead of continuing to make it this shameful secret by neglecting to depict it.
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