By Julianna Mauriello
Arts & Entertainment Editor
On Friday, Nov. 18 Sacred Heart University’s School of Communication and Media Arts (SCMA), along with The Film and Television Master of Arts Program (FTMA), sponsored “A Filmmaker’s Journey: An Evening with Frank Whaley.”
The event began with an interview between Sacred Heart’s Master of the Arts Professor, Justin Liberman and the critically acclaimed actor, screenwriter and director, Frank Whaley. After the brief introductory interview, Liberman introduced the screening of Whaley’s “Joe the King,” the film that served as his writing and directing debut and won the screenwriting prize at the Sundance Film Festival in 1999.
Since his admired debut opposite Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson in the 1987 film “Ironweed,” he has appeared in over 80 films in addition to portraying several roles on television. Some of his most popular work include his roles in “Pulp Fiction,” “The Doors” and “Field of Dreams.”
Before the screening of “Joe the King” began, Whaley first addressed the audience with an introduction to the film and his thought process during the production and writing process.
“‘Joe the King’ is a simple and quiet story that I hope resonates with anyone who views it. I based it on my own sadness and the injustice in the world when you don’t have the means, family or money to support you and your dreams,” said Whaley in his presentation.
The film opens with a scene of young children running around and laughing in a schoolyard. We follow as the camera pans through this playful area until we reach an isolated youngster on the outskirts of the playground smoking a cigarette and looking too stressed to be his age.
The rest of the film follows this opening scene, as the story of a child who was forced to mature too young due to the cruel injustices based on his family’s misfortune and the hand he was dealt in life. With struggles at home, at school and at work, the protagonist, Joe, who represents a young Frank Whaley, just can’t catch a break.
The writing and directing styles throughout this hour and a half of the film have the audience sympathetic for who Joe truly is, despite his acting out right up until the very end.
Once the film concluded, Liberman and Whaley took to the stage again to speak about both the film and all of Whaley’s career and experiences.
“I experienced everything in this film in my own childhood, I felt I needed to write it all down as a form of therapy,” said Whaley.
He went on to explain that he had never dreamed of becoming a screenwriter or a director, but after 11 years of acting, Whaley felt that he knew about each role and wanted to experience each on his own.
“Even though I never dreamed of being a director or screenwriter, it kind of evolved. I started writing this screenplay around 1995 or 1996, and it felt fluid,” said Whaley. “I had a lot of doubts while writing this story, but before I knew it I had over 360 handwritten pages of my story.”
During the interview, Liberman asked about the most important tool Whaley took from his career in acting to apply to his directing of “Joe the King.”
“The camaraderie working on this film was so crucial, especially when it came to trust between myself and the actor who played Joe,” said Whaley. “Since he trusted me, I used my own tools from acting so that Joe was able to be portrayed just the way I had imagined and the way I would have played it myself.”
Whaley went on to explain to the audience that having the responsibility of a screenwriter and director for the same film made it that much easier to see his vision come to life.
“In my head while I’m writing, I think cinematically. I think about the transitions in writing that will help with my directing, and I think about things I will visually want to show that I will just include in my writing. My vision was completely mapped out start to finish, it helped that I played these important roles in seeing it through,” said Whaley.
“Joe the King” was just one of Whaley’s films known for its strong visual language and composition in each shot.
“I took a little more time on the composition of each scene because I wanted to make sure, whether it was simple or complex, that it fit the tone of the story being told,” said Whaley.
Since “Joe the King,” Whaley has written and directed three critically acclaimed independent feature films, “The Jimmy Show,” “New York City Serenade,” and “Like Sunday, Like Rain,” but Whaley claims that none of these films have as much of a personal connection to him as “Joe the King.”
“Honesty makes great art. This story and all my independent work is done in raw honesty for this reason,” said Whaley.