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Nine years old and deaf, Frankie (Jack McElhone) and his mother Lizzie (Emily Mortimer) have been on the move ever since he can remember. Not wanting her son to know they've run away from his father, Lizzie says his dad is a sailor. She writes letters that supposedly come from him, telling Frankie of adventures in exotic lands. However, with the ship that is supposedly his father's arriving in a fortnight, Lizzie must choose between telling Frankie the truth and finding another way to pacify her son's need to see his father. Feature directorial debut for Shona Auerbach.

 Dear Frankie

I was a blackbird at three-and-a-half. I don’t remember much about it but what I do remember is that if I peeked through the curtains before the dance and waved at all the enthusiastic, eager mums and dads then I got a laugh. This, I suppose, was my first experience of a captive audience. For years after this I was involved with the stage. I always seemed to be so busy with performing; it was most definitely my passion. Then on days off my best friend (who is now a dancer) and I were always putting on shows. I remember one summer laying out deck chairs in the garden and inviting lots of kids from our street to come and watch our latest show. We charged them all an entrance fee (if any of them are reading this, I am sorry about that!) and then in return, they got our show and snacks in the break. Only looking back now I realise how this passion and need to tell a story to people was so deep in me.

My dad has always been a keen and talented photographer and for my eighteenth birthday I was bought my first proper camera. He has always encouraged me not to just take a photograph but to really look into it. I therefore found photography gave me something very similar to performance. It allowed me to tell a story, but through an image. The camera seemed so intimate and I could get close to my subject. The wrinkles on the face, the depth in their eyes told me so much. I ended up studying photography and I think the people who I was surrounded by opened up my mind. They wanted that one image to have an effect on people. However, I realised that it wasn’t enough for me to have the one image and this is really when my performance background and love for images seemed to naturally move together and form my curiosity for film. After going to film school I was given the opportunity to complete my training at the Polish National Film School. That was most definitely my most inspiring time. There I made my short film Seven, which I photographed and directed. On returning to Britain I was completely out of work but my batteries were charged. I remember filling in the forms for signing on. When the woman at the job centre asked me what job I was looking for, I replied “film director.” She looked at me as if I was mad and asked me if I could do anything else. My mind went blank, there was a short silence and then she reluctantly wrote down film director. Around this time Seven started doing well on the festival circuit; it went on to win the Best British short at the British Short Film Festival and because of this I then found myself spending the next six years directing commercials.

Dear Frankie came to me as a short script by Andrea Gibb. I was looking for a writer to collaborate with for an idea I had for a feature. The story of this short had such a big effect on me. I showed my husband who commented what a fantastic feature it would make. He was right, I couldn’t get it out of my head and I found myself bubbling with excitement about this idea. Thankfully Andrea wrote it into an inspiring screenplay. Fast forward six years, two children and lots of commercials later and we are in pre-production of making the film.

My mum is Scottish and when I was ten (around Frankie’s age) my gran came from Scotland to live with us. I drew a lot on the Scottish elements I was surrounded with and familiar with whilst growing up. Also, having three generations in our home gave me an insight to these relationships, giving me something very concrete to draw on. I became completely absorbed in the story and found I really did care for Lizzie. She has so much on her mind and her love for her son is unconditional. Something as a mother I recognise. We do our best for our children and we don’t always get it right. I love Emily Mortimer, who plays Lizzie. I love the way she plays Lizzie and all the little things about her: her mannerisms, her eyes, her intensity. She has been very patient with me. I wanted Frankie to be both spirited and confident while also having something that he keeps inside him, just for himself. Jack McElhone is already like this and so very naturally adapted to being Frankie. Gerry Butler, who plays the stranger, was fantastic. When I met him for the first time it was unbelievable, it was so strong. Here was the stranger standing in front of me; immediately I had absolutely no doubt in my mind. I felt this way about Sharon Small and Mary Riggans too (Marie and Nell). It has made me realise how important instinct is and how you must follow your heart.

Although at times it has felt a struggle, I have loved making this film. I have learnt that directing is not only about having a vision of the finished film but also not allowing yourself to be distracted by other people’s visions. People will always have a different take on things and it is important to remain focused and not have your vision clouded. I know that what kept me so focused and determined was my love for the story, the script and working with such fine actors. It has been an incredible long and winding journey for me. As a first-time director I think you have to deal with problems tenfold and the optimist in me tells me it will get easier. So now I feel I am a blackbird at three and a half again. Dear Frankie will be screened for the first time. This time it is not at a small stage in a village hall but at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York and again I will nervously wait in the wings in anticipation of the reaction.