(I doubt people would read a review of the commentary before seeing the movie itself, but just in case…. SPOILER ALERT!!)
Much stronger than its title suggests, Frailty features a strong cast and a story that slowly coils around viewers before squeezing the breath out of them with a twist ending that ranks with The Sixth Sense and The Usual Suspects. With the slew of similar films that have come out since its release, first-time viewers may not get quite as wrapped up in it, but its blend of crime, religion, and Southern Gothic horror still leaves a unique impression.
Writer Brent Hanley’s commentary is one of three offered on the DVD (the others being a production commentary with editor Arnold Glassman, composer Bryan Tyler, and producer David Kirschner, and a director commentary by Bill Paxton) and it complements an interview with Hanley posted at DVDtalk.com. A commentary dedicated to the writer is rare and seemed worth checking out in light of the film’s well-constructed story. Although Hanley occasionally goes off on extended sidebars about casting decisions, anecdotes from the set, and other topics that don’t connect with the actual writing process, he does offer some insight about writing the original script, the rewrite he was asked to do after the script was optioned, and what was required of him as a writer on set.
Perhaps the most surprising difference between the optioned script and the shooting script was the presence of little green men. Hanley, who describes himself as “the sick bastard responsible for this film,” explains that in previous drafts, Dad Meiks (Bill Paxton) had visions of an alien rather than an angel, which Hanley felt would heighten the audience’s disbelief of Dad’s claims. After the film was optioned, he was asked to change it because it would have been difficult to produce convincing imagery, but you have to wonder if any images could carry the audience along with that idea.
Hanley says that he enjoys abstract titles that don’t necessarily tell you what the film is about, and feels that ‘frailty’ reflects both the process of writing the script and the themes of the story. He had trouble keeping all of the film’s twists and turns straight in his head; at times he felt as if the story itself was a frail thing that could fall apart at any moment. Frailty also refers to the shifting nature of morality, perception, and truth.
Fortunately, the quality of the film itself continues to endure.
00:06:45 – “Meat, Texas” was Hanley’s creation, originally from a short story he wrote when he was 13 years old. It was partially inspired by Stephen King’s fictional town of Castle Rock.
Paxton asked Hanley to stay involved throughout pre-production, production, and post-production, which is generally “unheard of.”
As a writer, Hanley doesn’t care if every word is delivered as written; “it’s not about the word, it’s about the function.”
When people ask Hanley where the idea for the script came from, he likes to say that it’s 100% autobiographical. The response is usually an uncomfortable stare.
00:12:30 – Young Adam (Jeremy Sumpter) was meant to be the comic relief throughout this dark story. At first, Hanley really didn’t like Matt O’Leary cast in the role as Fenton, but eventually O’Leary won him over.
00:14:18 – In the original draft, Hanley used an alien rather than an angel. The idea was to mess with the audience even more and really “put the disbelief on.” It was changed in a rewrite because the imagery would have been hard to pull off.
00:16:00 – All the ground rules are laid out in this scene, in terms of both their family’s mission and the tension between the characters.
McConaughey’s voiceover was done in the back of a car. Hanley likes voiceovers because he’s a fan of film noir and feels voiceovers really “punctuate” the scene.
00:19:50 – Hanley liked the idea of the weapons being banal, household objects.
00:20:00 – There are a “shitload” of references to threes (the magic number) and sevens (the holy number) in the film.
Regarding the gloves, some people feel that they are not really weapons. Hanley feels that they are, because they keep the dad from seeing these dark visions when he touches the “demons”, which allows the abductions to go much more smoothly.
00:21:20 – Paxton got “sick as a dog” smoking cigarettes, but stuck with it anyway because men of that era were likely to smoke.
00:22:30 – From Hanley’s perspective, God really did reach out to Dad and give him this task, and angels and demons are real. As a result, Dad is a really tragic figure.
Originally it was an alien hand that reached down, but it was changed to a Botticelli-type angel.
00:24:19 – In the original script, there was a scene in which Fenton tried to use the Bible to support his argument against his father, and his father would use the Bible to fight back. It was cut to maintain the film’s pace, but Hanley really liked how it showed the Bible can be used to support anything.
00:25:00 – This is one of Hanley’s favourite scenes, and it always got a little chuckle from the audience.
00:31:30 – Some people question why an FBI agent would go out with a suspect. For Hanley, the answer is in the film: there are moments when God’s Hands can just reach out and take you.
00:35:00 – Demon imagery was much more prevalent in early versions of Dad touching the demons. In the script, it’s clear that the images are just supposed to be “what Dad said he saw,” but in the movie it becomes a more literal instance of “what Dad saw.” Showing the demon imagery too early presented a problem in that the viewer was likely to believe that Dad was telling the truth, which robs the film of much of its impact. James Cameron, Paxton’s good friend, came in and watched the movie once and suggested moving the demon imagery to the end.
00:35:26 – Hanley makes a distinction between a “twist” ending and a “flip” ending. Frailty and The Sixth Sense are examples of the latter, in which a piece of information provided at the end changes the meaning of everything that came before. A twist ending, in contrast, is just an ending that takes you by surprise.
00:36:20 – To help an audience get invested in a character, you can have them learn things with that character. Doyle (Powers Boothe), the FBI agent, is the audience surrogate.
00:37:55 – The fact that Adam (Matthew McConaughey) doesn’t let Agent Doyle touch him as he gets in the car was meant to be a clue that Doyle is a demon. There were originally three such clues in the script, but only two were kept for the film because more were unnecessary.
00:49:45 – It’s while digging the hole that young Fenton (Matt O’Leary) really starts to become a demon: while he works, he decides to hate God.
00:51:50 – Adam (McConaughey) is telling the story the way he thought it was, the way he wanted it to be. Adam and Dad were deceived by Fenton; they really didn’t believe he was a demon until he killed Dad. In this scene, Fenton deceives the audience in the same way he deceived his father and brother: you feel sorry for him, as they did.
00:56:15 – It was Paxton, not Hanley, who decided to put a name on the axe handle and chose the name.
00:58:35 – Hanley was really worried that the audience wouldn’t understand that the sheriff’s house was right behind the office, but has never heard an audience member question it.
00:59:33 – Paxton and Hanley wanted to make sure that the sheriff could disappear without it being traced back to them. At one point they overdid the explanations in the dialogue by having the sheriff mention that he didn’t have a wife, his kids lived thousands of miles away, and he had plans to go fishing for a few days. They eventually scaled it back because they felt the sheriff was basically screaming, “Kill me! Kill me!”
01:02:30 – For Hanley, this is the shot that reveals that Fenton really is a demon.
01:04:55 – In earlier drafts, Fenton went through his father’s things and found a list with his name on it, but Hanley felt that having Dad tell Fenton worked just as well.
01:05:45 – At the cast and crew screening, a lot of women got up and left when Dad puts Fenton in the cellar.
01:07:45 – In the original script, Fenton was afraid of the dark. Paxton talked Hanley out of it because it would have made the cellar scene too dark. Similarly, Fenton originally pissed and shit himself during his seven days in the basement, but this was cut for the same reason.
01:10:15 – This is the Night of the Hunter head shot, a movie that Hanley loved. Originally, there was a page and a half of dialogue spoken over a completely black screen. The producers cut it before it even got to Paxton.
01:22:10 – People ask Hanley why Fenton didn’t kill Adam then. According to Hanley, it’s because they were separated, and Fenton was clever as a demon.
01:26:30 – Adult Fenton doesn’t turn around because he knows Adam has him. There’s no reason to turn around.
01:27:20 – Hanley had the demon imagery soaked with blood in the script, but it was toned down in the film.
01:29:00 – Originally, Hanley had Agent Doyle kill his daughter, but that was too disturbing and Hanley agreed to change it to his mother.
01:31:20 – This was shot on the first day.
01:32:30 – Hanley wrote the script before The Sixth Sense came out. He finished the script in December of ’98.
01:34:15 – Hanley didn’t have a specific message with Frailty. He just wanted to scare people. It’s just a “what if” movie. What if the Old Testament God was real? What if demons were loose?
01:36:40 – Hanley’s influences for Frailty include Hitchcock in general and Shadow of a Doubt in particular, Night of the Hunter and Stephen King.
Entertainment – 3.5/5
Filmmaking Tips – 3/5
Writing Tips – 4/5
Trivia – 3/5
Frailty (2002) | Directed by Bill Paxton | Written by Brent Hanley | Starring Bill Paxton, Matthew McConaughey, Powers Boothe, Luke Askew, Jeremy Sumpter, Matt O’Leary | DVD Release Date: 2002 | Commentary by writer Brent Hanley