Director Patricia Frontain completed production on a Lifetime movie starring Mena Suvari in mid-November. Managing about 30 crew, she worked an “incredibly intense” 12-day schedule in Los Angeles to shoot the 101-page script, her first feature. Although the project required Frontain to spend five episodes away from her regular position as script supervisor for Chicago PD, she took a lot of hometown experience with her.
“I could hear a million directors and crew members whose quotes I had been writing down for years,” Frontain recalls. “Ten seasons on Chicago PD hearing these great experts in their field, down to the UPM urging us not to waste time chatting between takes.’”
Since premiering in 2014, NBC’s cop-centric action drama Chicago PD has become a cultural institution that averages nearly nine million viewers per episode. On January 4, the show will begin shooting its 200th episode.
In the yet-to-be-named Lifetime feature, Suvari plays Emily Caldwell, “a very upscale public relations executive running a big PR firm.” Emily is a career woman, yes; but also a very nurturing caregiver who took control of her prestigious family’s affairs after her parents passed away five years earlier. As the story begins, she is confronted by a sister she never knew she had.
Here are some exclusive behind-the-scenes photos from filming, courtesy of Patricia and the production team:
“The biggest thing that drew me to the script was the theme of universal grief, especially the grief of the poor sister who was not raised in the family,” Frontain recalls. “I can relate to that because it happened to my brother. When he was 50, he found out that he had a 27-year-old son he never knew about. They are now extremely close and have made up for lost time. It is bittersweet.”
Suvari first earned box office praise when she played Angela Hayes, a character who went from teenage know-it-all to frightened adolescent, in 1999’s American Beauty. Subsequent roles have included her occasionally hilarious performance as a meth user in the cult classic, Spun, and a parent in the ensemble comedy, Fourth Grade. She is involved in six additional upcoming films (per IMDb), including that of Ronald Regan’s first wife, Jane Wyman, in Regan, starring Dennis Quaid and Jon Voight.
According to Frontain, Suvari is a “consummate professional” and “lovely person.” The director and the actor met for lunch and “ended up spending five hours together” before shooting began. “Mena adored the script. I adored the script,” Frontain adds. “We immediately starting dissecting the character.” One of the things they agreed on was the way that Suvari’s character, Emily Caldwell, would cope with grief.
“Emily Caldwell has 30 employees and she just can’t let the business drop, so she keeps busy, busy, busy.” says Frontain. “Mena has had to work through some personal issues, and that has helped her relate to that idea.”
Suvari’s issues include sexual and drug abuse, as described in her recently published memoir, The Great Peace. These days, she finds happiness with her husband, Michael Hope, and their newborn son. “I never thought that, you know, something so beautiful could happen for me,” she told ABC’s Juju Chang.
Here’s more from Suvari’s interview with Chang…
A DIRECTOR IS BORN
Frontain has profound experience channeling anguish as well: in 2015, her son Patrick was killed in an act of senseless violence. The incident inspired her to launch a nonprofit called Patrick Lives On. With help from several One Chicago actors, the organization hosts variety of shows and film festivals to raise funds for after-school programs designed to keep kids away from gangs, guns and violence.
The first short that Frontain ever directed, Light, starring Chicago PD’s Marina Squerciati and theater veteran Amy Morton, helped the nonprofit expand. “Light is my story of recovery through my loss,” she explains. “Wanting all to see this movie, it inspired me to start a film festival as a fundraiser for the nonprofit.” Light is the vanguard of a cinematic tradition honoring Chicago-made work, and the Patrick Lives On Film Festival will celebrate its sixth annual run in March.
“I feel that the amazing part about me is that out of my grief a director was born — a dormant director, waiting to be born,” she adds. “My films are distributed pro-bono to counseling and detention centers. I have use my talent to help people.”
An abundance of practical experience fuels that talent. During the early part of her career, Frontain was a theater actor who performed at the Cleveland Playhouse, Milwaukee Repertory Theater, the Actors Theatre of Louisville and dozens of other stages. She also taught acting at an all-girls high school in Nashville (“you try to keep 300 hormones in line”) and she founded and operated Long Grove Carriage, a horse and carriage operation that served up to 300 weddings and events per year.
BEHIND THE SCENES
Production for the Lifetime feature is being handled by The Cartel, a film and TV maker headquartered in the historical Tamarind Lithography Studio campus in Los Angeles. The company boasts an abundance of finished projects ranging from AMC’s Creepshow to Discovery Channel’s A Place in the Sun, with hundreds of titles in between.
Frontain learned that she was a candidate for the job in September. “I went to the first of three interviews on the 25th,” she says. Two weeks later, she accepted an offer and started pre-production.
It began with an analysis of the script and the characters — “studying their arcs, where have they been and where are they going” — and continued with location visits. “Then I sit in my little hotel room and create this movie in my head,” she says. “Writing things as I go.”
The research helped Frontain “justify my ideas” during her first vision meeting with Lifetime. “In network TV, Chicago PD established the vision ten years ago,” she says. “When it’s new, you have to be very, very clear.” Collaborating with DP (and Columbia College grad) Alan Chadowski, Frontain used an “amazing app” to grab frames from “a zillion” existing movies to create a tone for the impending one. Additional departments supported her vision with their own presentations. “It was fascinating,” Frontain recalls.
Pre-production included casting, a task that Frontain completed while emulating the “primo” staff at Chicago PD. “It fascinates me how professionals interpret different scenes, so I tried to go deeper and think of the characters in three different ways,” she explains. “If a doctor should be 40 or 50 with gray hair, don’t just bring in 40-50 grey hairs: bring in the opposite. A good actor can play anything.” She used the techniques of those impromptu mentors so often that it felt like she “was speaking in tongues” during the process.
Joy Nash won the role of the long-lost sister and Mark Famiglietti was selected to play Emily’s husband. Lila Karp-Ziring, an “unbelievably talented and very professional” young actor, will play the daughter.
ON THE SET
On the first day of production, Frontain embraced the challenge of “going to a community where everyone knows each other.”
“I knew from having been crew that the first scene sets the tone for the rest of the shoot,” she recalls. “Who is she? Where does she come from? Have you seen her other stuff? We all do that to directors.” Understanding that it was “imperative to gain everyone’s trust immediately,” Frontain explained what she wanted in a thorough but “slow and calm” manner.
“As a director, everybody’s playing catch-up to your vision,” she says. “I’m fast-paced, but I learned to be on set in that moment, so you don’t have to say it too many times.” She also delivered shot lists to Chadowski the day before every shoot, and to the crew every morning.
Filming allowed her to break new ground. “We had one camera and no zoom lenses and we were rolling the whole time,” she says. “As the plot progressed, it became handheld to make it more and more thrilling.” The situation became especially tricky for filming action scenes, a lengthy process that requires “a lot of angles and a lot of cameras.”
“Once on PD, we took three nights to shoot about an eighth of a page that turned out to be the greatest chase scene ever filmed on television,” Frontain says. “But on PD, we usually have three cameras and a much larger grip and electric crew.”
She got it done by listening to the experts on the set, filming with “a lot of sliders” and staying committed to efficiency. “I made my 12-hour day every day, which was pretty extreme,” she says. “Now I know how to work at this level with one camera.”
For dialogue-heavy scenes, Frontain gave direction but also encourage actors to do their own thing. The technique complemented Suvari’s style remarkably well.
“Mena did one moment where my jaw dropped,” she says. “Her character was having marriage trouble and just learned something about her husband. I envisioned it bigger and angrier, but when Mena played it, she did the opposite. She completely internalized the hurt and the pain. That sucked me in way more in as a viewer. That’s a seasoned veteran.”
The performance was one of many unexpected pleasantries that Frontain enjoyed during her journey, beginning with the script itself. “The first time I read it, I honestly had no idea what would happen at the end,” she says. “I was very surprised.”
While waiting for Liftetime to announce the feature’s release date and title, Frontain is happily back in Chicago with her daughter and her dogs. “That was the longest we’ve been away from each other,” she says. The other things she missed during her time away were her coworkers. “I learned that I’m very spoiled,” she adds. “You don’t get any better than what we have on Chicago PD.”
Frontain’s additional directing projects include the short film, RIP, about an aging married couple coming to terms with one another. Written by Sylvie Sadarnac and starring Sadarnac and Guy Van Swearingen, it is scheduled to premiere on March 11th at the Patrick Lives On Sixth Annual Film Showcase. For tickets and additional info, click here.