A powerful, provocative. and frightening film about faith, lost innocence, and the sometimes indistinguishable nature of good and evil in the contemporary world, Frailty (2001) is an artfully-constructed psychological thriller that combines masterful storytelling with ambitious and disturbing themes. The remarkable directorial debut of acclaimed actor Bill Paxton, who also plays the pivotal role of DAD in the movie, Frailty (2001) portrays the destruction of a once-idyllic Southern family, a father and his two young sons who are tested in extreme and unexpected ways. Paxton calls upon his accomplished cast, including Matthew McConaughey, Powers Boothe, and newcomers [Matthew O’Leary] and Jeremy Sumpter, and his crew, including award-winning cinematographer Bill Butler, to create a classic Hitchcockian world that is rich in atmosphere, suspense, and surprise. Written by Brent Hanley and produced by David Kirschner and David Blocker, Frailty (2001) is a Lions Gate release.
The Frailty (2001) screenplay is a masterpiece of storytelling. Part thriller and part mystery, the plot is utterly original every step of the way as it builds to its stunning finish. “Brent Hanley’s script is truly a revelation,” says producer David Kirschner. “One of the qualities indicative of great writing is that, at each read, you get more out of it.” Frailty (2001) has that kind of complexity of plot and theme.
The title itself refers to the frailty of human perception. Screenwriter Brent Hanley turned to classic films, novels, and even music for his inspiration. “I looked at a lot of Hitchcock films when I wrote Frailty (2001),” Hanley explains. “I watched “Night of the Hunter,” and listened to music by Leonard Cohen. Frailty (2001) even references the Bible, offering a modern take on “The Story of Isaac” and elements of the Old Testament.”
Hanley’s script made a tremendous impression on Bill Paxton, an actor best known for his performances in such films as Twister (1996), Titanic (1997), Apollo 13 (1995), and Simple Plan, A (1998). Paxton describes Frailty (2001) as “a movie in the great tradition of Alfred Hitchcock or Robert Aldrich. It is a film that implies very, very dark things.” Intrigued by the script’s complex themes and edgy approach to storytelling, Paxton found himself wanting more involvement than the role of Dad. Paxton began his film career as a set dresser for Roger Corman and has always been at home behind the camera. The more he thought about Frailty (2001), the more he realized he had found the perfect project for his directorial debut. “It’s intricate. It’s complicated. It’s an original Noir /Gothic thriller set in East Texas,” Paxton explains. “ I knew the landscape. I knew the characters. I knew the parameters of this kind of story from my work in Simple Plan, A (1998), One False Move (1991), and Traveller (1997). I learned a lot working with directors such as Sam Raimi. And I thought, I can do this.”
Paxton’s arrived at his decision to direct Frailty (2001) partly because he found himself a little uncomfortable at the thought of being directed by someone else in this controversial
role. “I was a little nervous about committing to play Dad,” he admits. “I was worried that a wild-eyed director would get hold of this material and sensationalize it just to shock people. And that, to me, wouldn’t do the script justice.” Far from sensationalized, Paxton’s interpretation of Frailty (2001) is very classical. “My vision of this story has always been the idea that it is a very edgy script that pushes a lot of buttons, especially because children are involved. But I thought that’s exactly the reason to give it a real, old Hollywood approach, where all of the darkness is implied instead of being explicit. We hear a chop or a scream, but we never see a drop of blood,” Paxton explains. His careful and imaginative approach to dramatizing FRAILTY’S intense and potentially shocking moments elevates the material, making the film a memorable tale of suspense and horror.
Inspired casting is a critical element in FRAILTY’S success. Paxton plays Dad with such strength, conviction, and humanity that even when the character becomes more and more extreme, he is still credible and appealing. There is a fundamental ambiguity to the role of Dad. “He is a great father figure,” Paxton adds, “although he turns very diabolical,” which is one of the characteristics Paxton felt made this role so interesting.
The other cast members of Frailty (2001) faced the same challenges as Paxton and reach the same level of accomplishment. Matthew McConaughey, most recently seen in a lighter mode as the romantic lead opposite Jennifer Lopez in Wedding Planner, The (2001), does a remarkable narration throughout the story as the film goes back in time to his childhood. His account of his strange and terrible experiences with his father and brother is vivid and compelling. McConaughey’s achievement in this pivotal and ambiguous role is to tell this complicated story in a way that engages the audience. He draws them in, provoking them to think. At the same time, he creates a sense of fear and anxiety with his voice,” says Paxton.
McConaughey explains that he was drawn to the extraordinary role of Fenton Meiks for several reasons. “I really enjoyed the story. It is a classic Gothic horror picture and I enjoyed trying something a little bit darker. Frailty (2001) is my brand of scary in that it is a very human story about someone taking something literally and doing something for righteousness sake, and that’s the interesting part of the human mind.”
Cast in the role of FBI Agent Doyle, Powers Boothe brings a lot of experience and a great dynamic to the production, “Powers Boothe is an actor I have long admired” remarks Paxton. A veteran actor with numerous noteworthy performances, Boothe was immediately drawn to the project by the highly original script and the incredible cast and crew Paxton had assembled. In describing the story, Boothe comments, “I think each character in the film would describe Frailty (2001) differently. For me, it’s a thriller, but that is putting it in very simple terms. The film is so much more complex than that. And certainly, as an actor, when you get some real text like this script, some words that stimulate your intellect and emotions at the same time, it’s pretty rare.”
Casting the roles of young Fenton and Adam presented an enormous challenge. These characters, subject to horrifying developments in their young lives, needed to radiate innocence and vulnerability at the same time that they had to be completely credible. “The character of young Fenton had to carry the cross of the film and anchor the cast, so we took the casting very seriously and did a big search. Luckily, we found a 13-year old boy named [Matthew O’Leary] to play young Fenton. He charmed the pants off of everybody,” recalls Paxton. [Matthew O’Leary] was thrilled to be cast in Frailty (2001). “I really liked the script and it was a fun film to work on. I learned a lot, especially from Bill Paxton,” says O’Leary.
Producer David Kirschner praises both O’Leary and Jeremy Sumpter, claiming “I don’t think I’ve ever been more proud of two kids than the kids in this film. They really had to go to hell and back in a couple of scenes, and they did it beautifully.” Kirschner also expresses great admiration for the way director Bill Paxton worked with his young actors. “There were times when he kept them on a short leash, and times when he goofed around with them,” Kirschner recalls. “ He really knew how to balance what was happening. Bill would have conversations with the boys, taking them through the way he saw the scene, yet never imposing himself as an actor. He always encouraged them to bring something of their own to every scene. It was really fascinating to watch.”
A production with a relatively modest budget, Frailty (2001) had a thirty-seven day shooting schedule and successfully achieved the look of a small Texas town by utilizing unique locations in West Covina, Sylmar, Sun Valley, and even parts of Los Angeles. “I wanted a stark, clean look, like an Edward Hopper painting. You can get all that in L.A. And by working in Hollywood, I had access to an incredible crew” says Paxton. One of the most intriguing locations was an old Phillips 66 gas station in West Covina. “We were so excited to find this great old gas station that was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright to create the perfect backdrop for this southern gothic thriller” recalls Kirschner.
Paxton relied on artist David Ivie to help him achieve the look he wanted. Describing Ivie’s paintings as “little narratives,” Paxton encouraged Ivie to collaborate on storyboards with him to establish FRAILTY’S unique design. “David really was my original visualist. I would do some of the rough drawings and then David would do more of a finished drawing. I wanted the world in the movie to be very beautiful, even though it becomes very horrific. David Ivie’s work expresses this,” Paxton explains. He also credits cinematographer Bill Butler for his contributions to FRAILTY’S stunning visuals.
“I was excited when Bill Butler who was the cinematographer on such classic films as “Jaws” and “The Conversation” came aboard as my Director of Photography for Frailty (2001). And I really picked his brain, always asking “how did you do this shot?” and “how did you figure that out?” recalls Paxton. The respect was mutual, as Bill Butler recounts his initial conversations with Paxton about the script. “I liked the direction he wanted to take and he inspired me to share his vision. It was a great collaboration.”
Frailty (2001) unfolds against a southern rural landscape of farmhouses, rundown motels and small-town police stations. Director of photography Bill Butler worked closely with Paxton on the visuals for Frailty (2001), creating a backdrop of muted and neutral colors in which the characters really jump out of. “In terms of the kind of locales we used, the story had a kind of “Bonny & Clyde” feel to it,” says Paxton.
Paxton sums up the intentions of the filmmakers by saying “It’s a great story with great characters and incredible suspense because you invest so much in this young adolescent boy and what he’s going through and what he’s seeing and what he’s trying to escape.” For Kirschner, Frailty (2001) raises important questions about the viability of faith in the modern world. “Today, if someone says ‘God spoke to me,’ we think that they’re crazy,” he says. “Yet, the Old Testament is based on God’s conversations with Moses. We want to believe that it happened then, but we can’t accept that it might happen today. That’s what so fascinating about Frailty (2001). It suggests that the impossible is possible.”
“I really wanted to make a haunted movie,” Paxton reveals. “Frailty (2001) is scary and suspenseful. But, more than that, the movie has a haunted beauty. I was inspired by movies such as Night of the Hunter, The (1955), Psycho (1960), and Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte, thrillers made with that classic Hollywood approach. We’ve become such a society of exploitation that we’re desensitized to violence. But the mind’s eye, and that which is implied, is so much more powerful than explicit gore. Frailty (2001) will scare you, that’s for sure, but with a big twist.”