We had the pleasure of meeting Kenneth R. Frank, the writer/director of Family Obligations, through one of our long time film contacts and I’m really happy we were able to connect. Kenneth has perfected not only the art of making indie films, but forging human connections through his films. He took us on a deep dive for his directorial debut Family Obligations, and his passion really shines through.
Family Obligations is the second feature film from In the Garage Productions. I wrote the film, directed it, and shot it. My wife Shawna Brandle is our lead producer who handles budgeting, scheduling, paperwork, works as SAG liaison, and basically oversees all logistics for our projects. Her sister Brett Brandle also serves as a producer and does a lot of the design work on the films. Chris Mollica plays the lead in the film Peter Steele and was one of the editors. Kevin Wolfring was my assistant director on set who doubled up as sound man most of the time, as well as being the other editor. Those are the key people in our company. Chris and I have been best friends since high school, and we ended up married to a pair of sisters. Kevin is a former student of mine from my teaching days, so it’s a very tight-knit group. The only way I could have launched a film like this and got it made at the budget we could handle is knowing that I had these people along for the ride with me.
Of course, even with this core filling the biggest roles, a film still needs many more collaborators, and we were able to find so many great people to work with on this. In front of the camera, we cast Frank Failla to play Peter’s Uncle Frank, and he was perfect. Frank is a retired cop who I first saw doing stand-up comedy and learned he had been acting for a few years. He took to the role so quickly, and it was great to see him paired with Chris in these scenes. We saw our lead actress Chandler Rosenthal in a short film that Kevin had written and directed. She joined the cast to play Melanie, the single mother who lives in Frank’s apartment building that befriends Peter and starts a relationship with him. The rest of the cast is a mix of veteran actors in New York like Jerry Colpitts and Brian Silliman along with some new faces. My older daughter Eleanor plays Melanie’s daughter Mia, who has some fun scenes with Chris’s character. My younger daughter Peppa also appears in a small but important moment in the film. She was initially reluctant to be a part of this, but has since negotiated for more time on screen in future projects.
To fill out the crew, we were very fortunate to find our colorist Jan Klier before production began. I knew that getting someone very knowledgeable and experienced to produce the final image was critical. I had some very specific ideas on how I wanted to tell the story through color, but I also knew that I was shooting this myself and needed to work very quickly, so whoever handled this task would also be fixing a lot of my mistakes, so I needed to trust that Jan could deliver. Not only was he a great colorist, but he was so easy to work with that we ended up asking him to do our final sound mix and delivery of master files, as well. He’s going to be my director of photography on my next script that I’m directing, My Sister’s Wedding.
From start to finish, the theme of a successful film is finding collaborators you trust, and that’s also true in the distribution end of things. Family Obligations is available through MBUR Indie Films Distribution. We have dealt with a few distributors in our time, and MBUR has been the most communicative and transparent of any we’ve seen.
The film tells the story of an isolated person who is finally drawn out of himself and into meaningful relationships for the first time in his life. It’s about the power and the pitfalls of involving yourself in other people’s lives. The main character Peter Steele, played by Chris Mollica, returns home to settle affairs after his father’s sudden death. Initially, he tries to push through everything as quickly as possible so he can get back to life as he knows it. He hits a snag when he discovers that his father was actually responsible for taking care of his own brother, Peter’s Uncle Frank.
Slowly, Peter realizes that taking care of Uncle Frank might be the second chance he didn’t have with his father. Frank, however, is a reluctant patient, and Peter finds him a challenge to relate to. Through Frank, Peter also meets Melanie and her young daughter Mia, who live in the same building. Melanie and Peter find some common ground, but Melanie seems to have wrapped her head around living with responsibilities for another person.
So the film is really about this man learning how to (& sometimes how not to) relate to people he cares about, not to see everything as transactional but as something that he actually allows himself to feel.
The film is set and filmed on Long Island, where my wife Shawna and I live with our family. In fact, much of it is in our hometown, even in our apartment building. We shot in the Chinese restaurant we order from. We shot in an office building across the street from the school where I taught for thirteen years. We shot in a laundromat around the corner from our home.
We made our first feature film The Mix out in Los Angeles, and that was a great experience working with an amazing cast and crew located out there, but we really wanted this to be a product of where we lived. I wanted to show the places I knew. I wanted to work with people around here. Incidentally, people were so kind to us in making this. It really felt like the community embraced us and helped in ways great and small. Some locations gave us a break on their rate or didn’t charge us at all.
People were generous with their time and knowledge. It was a great experience getting to make this out of our home.
We shot the film at the end of 2018, played festivals throughout 2019, and released the film through MBUR in 2020.
The film is set in present day, but we did some conscious things to give the film a little “age,” if that makes any sense. First, we shot on a digital sensor the size of Super 16mm film, and our color grade emphasized those qualities with lots of grain and a general warming of the colors. Secondly, the settings for most scenes are older brick buildings with sort of outdated decor and design choices that hopefully evoke what would have been this character’s childhood. He has come back home to where he grew up, and I wanted it to feel like the places hadn’t changed since he left. There’s a throwaway joke about him having this antiquated cell phone in an early scene, and I think that a lot of this character is frozen in time when he probably should have been evolving out of this lonely state.
You’re also alone with these characters in this film. There are no real cultural references or intrusions from outside their lives. To me, that was very important. You, as an audience, needed to be inside the world of these kinds of lonely people whose lives go on, day by day, largely unaffected by pop culture moments around them. So, in a way, I hope that as the film ages, it would become harder to pin it to any specific time but you would instead just feel a mood of these characters’ world.
This film was a very personal expression for me. I’m someone who has always thought about and written about family in as many different forms and expressions as I could find. I think the fundamental question I’m always asking myself is how to situate my individual identity in the context of the people around me. Then, building off that, what are my responsibilities to that group of people and what are my responsibilities to myself? Hence the title, Family Obligations.
Ironically, when I’d get up on a stage for Q & A’s after screenings, almost every moderator would ask me if the events of the film were based on personal experience, and they’re not. After seeing the film, most people have assumed that I had a similar relationship with my father or uncle, and I haven’t. But the film’s story is a synthesis of a lot of things I’ve seen and thought about for many years: the misunderstandings across generations, how we take care of the sick and the dying, how we make peace with other people’s limitations, how we forgive others, how we forgive ourselves (hopefully). So I developed this story out of a desire to explore those questions I had.
What I hope is universal for people watching is the feeling of being pulled out of your own experience and into someone else’s life on terms you don’t get to dictate. At some point, I think we’re all called to serve some role in another person’s life that we don’t get to control. Whether that’s taking care of someone when they’re sick, dealing with a loss, helping someone through unforeseen difficulties of their own, or something else entirely, at some point we acknowledge that we don’t control all aspects of our lives. So what do we do then? What kind of people are we then?
Family Obligations is available on Blu-Ray disc at many sellers online. It streams free on Tubi TV and Plex, and it is also available for rent or purchase at AltaVOD and Amazon. The movie just became available on HooplaDigital.