Screenwriter-director Matthew Ross was riding in a cab over the Brooklyn Bridge when he got the text that his film Frank & Lola had landed a spot at the Sundance Film Festival. If there’s an archetype for young filmmakers, this sounds like the most characteristic of ways to discover that the movie you wrote and directed is going to show in the biggest indie film festival in the industry. But while Frank & Lola does have its roots in New York, where Ross was born and raised, this film is no typical Big Apple story. It is, refreshingly, a Las Vegas story.
In 2013, when Ross met with producer Chris Ramirez—owner of Vegas-based movie production company Lola Pictures—he realized that the screenplay he’d been holding onto for almost a decade needed new energy.
“The (Lola Pictures) team took me on a tour to see if I could reimagine it in Las Vegas,” Ross says. “It was honestly one of the great, strange blessings that after living with it for so many years, I could not imagine this movie set in Brooklyn anymore.”
Frank & Lola is a love story with a distinctly local flavor and some major star power, with Michael Shannon and Imogen Poots playing the title roles. Frank is a chef who falls in love with the inimitable Lola, a woman with a dark past that she hasn’t begun to deal with. Lola feels like she’s “in the matrix, in the aftermath of something traumatic,” Ross says.
It’s a film about male jealousy—a modern, psychosexual film noir set against the backdrop of Downtown Vegas, as well as Paris’ Marais District and Place des Vosges, among other locations. It’s nothing if not a unique juxtaposition of the two disparate psychological worlds of its characters, whose names never once changed from the very first draft of the script.
“It’s two lonely people living on the outskirts of the world,” Ross says. “That’s evocative of Downtown Las Vegas. It’s only a mile or so from the Strip, but it might as well be a thousand miles away in so many other ways. It really was the best creative solution for the movie.”
Soon after Frank & Lola had its world premiere at Sundance, Universal Pictures bought the distribution rights to the film for $2 million. For an independent film that was shot in just 22 days, that’s impressive stuff. Lola Pictures’ creative solution paid off.
Ramirez, a lifelong Las Vegan and one of the film’s producers, led the tour that influenced Ross to revise his script. He was also instrumental in providing the settings that defined the film, which include Carson Kitchen, Velveteen Rabbit, Stitch Factory, and the Wynn properties. With his previous work on The Hangover series and the hours he’d logged scouting locations for other major films, Ramirez had acquired a wealth of casino industry contacts, both on the Strip and in Downtown.
But in Frank & Lola, those bright, boisterous locations become part of a muted Las Vegas, one that places more focus on the psychological drama between the two lovers.
“I got to a point where I wanted to tell our own stories about Las Vegas that weren’t bachelor parties or hijinks,” Ramirez says. “I loved working on those other films, but taking Matt’s intimate story and bringing in some really respected people in the industry, then going to Sundance, is what you want to happen, but can’t ever really expect.”
Instinctively, Ramirez knew that Frank & Lola was the kind of local story he wanted to help find its way to the big screen.
“People haven’t seen many intimate stories set in this city,” Ramirez says. “Of course, you can go right to thinking of Leaving Las Vegas, but those characters were visitors, not locals. It’s really cool for me to see that now these characters live and breathe as the people we know in Las Vegas.”
Although Ross had only scarce knowledge of Las Vegas and Paris, this allowed him to look at both locations from a unique perspective, almost discovering them in a way that’s evident in the film. He cites that organic transition, achieved with the help from a largely local crew, as vitally important to the aesthetic Frank & Lola ultimately delivers.
“When you’re doing a movie outside of New York and L.A., you’re always going to have local people working on your film,” Ross says. “We had a lot of great local people help us, almost all of them via Chris. I would love to show the film to these guys because they did a phenomenal job.”
Ross and Ramirez hope they will have the chance to show Frank & Lola at the Las Vegas Film Festival in June, but that’s up to Universal. Either way, Ross wants to thank Las Vegas for all it’s done for the film.
“To be able to tell the property owners that the opportunities they gave us helped us get to Sundance is an amazing thing,” Ross says. “Frank & Lola is a love letter to Las Vegas. There was a lot of energy and love that went into making this film. I think it shows on screen.”