If you're lucky enough to score an audition with writer-director Scott Frank, there's one thing he wants you to know: Don't be afraid to challenge him. "I love actors who can talk about the story and who can interpret something in a way you don't expect to find," Frank says. "Or just when someone finds some little, tiny moment within the script, something you never thought about. I love that." While some writers might not like to hear actors going off script, Frank insists he's never insulted. "I find it exciting. And I can always adjust an actor, if need be. What you're looking for is 'one and one makes three,'" he says of the elusive chemistry of matching actors to roles. "You don't want someone who is just able to recite the lines. Rather, you want someone who can inhabit them in such a way to make them better. And it's hard to find."
Frank was able to find several great fits for his directorial debut, The Lookout, a crime thriller hitting theatres March 30. The story centers on Chris Pratt, a small-town athlete who suffers a severe head injury and must struggle through what used to be the most mundane daily tasks. Though he comes from a wealthy family, he works as a night janitor and lives in a run-down apartment with his blind friend, Lewis. Chris' life seems to improve when he befriends the charismatic Gary, but he soon discovers that his new friend has plans to rob the bank where Chris works. While the setup might sound like a standard heist film, it's important to remember that Frank is the clever scribe who penned Out of Sight, the offbeat thriller that all but revitalized the careers of Steven Soderbergh and George Clooney. The Lookout crackles with the same sharp dialogue, characters who feel vitally real, and unexpected twists. It's a major accomplishment for any director, let alone one stepping behind the camera for the first time.
Frank wrote Little Man Tate while he was still in college; his résumé features such credits as Minority Report and Get Shorty. He says the decision to direct The Lookout had less to do with the script and more to do with the timing. "I was really bored with myself and wanted to try something new," he says with a laugh. Though he always intended to eventually direct, he found himself content with writing. "I think I'm the least bitter writer out there," he notes. "I assumed I would direct at some point, but then I had a family and three kids and was happy at home for a long time. There was a real nice rhythm to my life. Recently I decided that a nice rhythm is one thing, but it can get boring. Creatively, I wanted something more exciting."
The script for The Lookout had been bouncing around Hollywood for 10 years; at one point it seemed American Beauty's Sam Mendes would film it for DreamWorks. It finally ended up at Miramax with Frank attached as director, but there were further delays. "The weather wasn't right to begin shooting, so I had to wait," he recalls. "But it was actually great for me in a couple of ways: One, I could really look for the right people and take my time. Two, it enabled me to get comfortable working and dealing with actors."
Frank praises his cast for making the film work. "It's a tricky movie. It's not upbeat; it's a grown-up movie," he observes. "It's all the things most movies aren't. It's not high concept. It's a thriller without a lot of action. It's a suspense piece. And I don't think studios make those movies, as a rule." For the pivotal lead role, Frank knew, he needed a talented young actor who could pull off Chris' mental disability and still make him compelling. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, best known for his six years on the sitcom 3rd Rock From the Sun, might not have seemed the obvious choice. "I didn't hesitate, because I've never seen one episode of 3rd Rock," Frank says. "My first real experience of him as an actor was watching Mysterious Skin. I had a conversation with him in my office, before he auditioned, and I knew I was in the presence of greatness." Matthew Goode, so natural at playing a wealthy playboy in Match Point, is virtually unrecognizable as the dangerous Gary. "It's so different from what he's done before," the director says. "I was blown away by the work he did."
Though Frank usually has good instincts in casting, there was one case in which he happily admits he made a mistake: He didn't want to see Isla Fisher, the scene-stealing redhead from Wedding Crashers, for the role of Chris' girlfriend, Luvlee. "I said, 'She's totally wrong.' I didn't want to cast her," he recalls. "My producer said, 'You just have to meet her.' So I did, and she read, and she was spectacular. Then I paired her with Joe, and they had amazing chemistry."
Some actors had an easier time landing their roles. Former MadTV star Alex Borstein, known mostly for comedic work, is a neighbor of Frank's; she pops up in a small part as a bank employee. "I just kept thinking about her," Frank says. "I really wanted to work with her; I love her face. She's also one of those actresses who has the ability to be really funny but also quiet and serious. I'm going to put her in every movie I ever make." And Frank credits Jeff Daniels—who, in the role of Lewis, continues his recent string of superb character work—with helping improve the script. "To get Jeff to do the movie, I threw out an idea for a scene that just occurred to me while we were sitting there having lunch," Frank says, adding that the new scene involved Lewis confronting Luvlee. "He said, 'If you put that in, I'll do the movie.' I went, 'Fuck. Now I have to write that.' So I wrote the scene and sent it to him, and he committed, and it's just about my favorite scene in the movie now."
Frank adds that working with the actors was his favorite part of the filmmaking journey. "I learned more about writing and directing through the actors than any other part of the process," he says. "Since I'd written the script 10 years earlier, I was trying to find a way to reconnect with the material. The way I rediscovered the material was through the actors' enthusiasm. Through their own process of discovery, I rediscovered the movie and was reinvigorated."
Frank spends about eight hours a day in his office; he estimates he writes for about two of those hours. "The rest of the time, I'm doing the crossword puzzle, taking a nap, pacing, thinking about writing, eating, on the phone," he says. "The first two hours are very disciplined. It all goes to hell after that. It's amazing I ever finish anything." Asked what motivates him to finish, he says, "I have three kids in private school. And I'm just so disgusted with myself at a certain point, that gets me motivated."
Currently, Frank is working on two new scripts he hopes to direct. One is an original screenplay called Forty-Four that he refers to as his "midlife-crisis movie." He is also adapting the Jonathan Tropper novel How to Talk to a Widower, formerly called After Hailey and due out in July, for Paramount Pictures.
Asked if he ever writes with actors in mind while working on a new script, Frank offers up an unusual method. "I write with dead actors in mind so that I'm not disappointed," he says. "You're always disappointed if you think about someone around now, because you never get them; even when they're signed on before you start writing, you never end up with who you started with. So I write everything for Steve McQueen. Male, female, kids—they're all Steve McQueen."