Frank E. Flowers
Caymanian film-maker Frank E. Flowers is home on Cayman soil, working on his latest movie whilst helping to promote the islands’ budding film industry.
Words by Natasha Were. Photography courtesy of Naomi Johnatty and the Flowers Family Archive.
For the past 20 years, Frank E. Flowers has been living the typical Los Angeles filmmaker’s life – breakfast meetings, working lunches and movie premiers in the evenings. But six months into the pandemic, he decided to swap shelter in place orders, virtual meetings and home-schooling for the safety and security of the island he grew up on.
“Cayman has always been home, my whole family is here, and with everything going on in the world, it just came to a point where we wanted that comfort of being with family,” he says of the move.
It was fortuitous timing as, in February this year, Netflix won a hotly contested auction for The Bluff, a film that Flowers will direct and co-write alongside Joe Ballarini. The story, which will be part historical fiction, part action movie, unfolds on Cayman Brac in the 1800s. Zoe Saldana – with whom Flowers previously worked on Haven, also set in Cayman – plays Ercell, a woman who stands up to brutal pirate invaders.
Flowers is hoping the film will be shot as much as possible in the Brac. If it is, it will be one of a growing number of productions to be filmed on the islands in the coming months. For Flowers, the film is part of a bigger mission to tell authentic Caribbean stories and make them accessible to audiences worldwide.
“I love Cayman and all my experiences growing up in George Town, and I feel that the story of Cayman has yet to be told in mass media,” he says. “Being able to help tell those stories, the culture and history, whether through screenplays, filmed content or even commercials, is at the top of my priority list.”
And this ties in with another matter close to his heart: his desire to nurture local film talent and provide inspiration, training, and opportunities to both students and professionals interested in pursuing a career in the movie industry.
This is perhaps because, as a child, although Flowers felt that movies were unfolding all around him, those opportunities were not readily available. However, he embraced the dramatic arts from an early age, acting in plays at the Harquail Theatre and, by age 14, working backstage on professional productions. At 16, he secured a job with CITV (he told the station manager he was 18) as a news videographer and began to learn camera work.
But it wasn’t until his mother gave him a box-set of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, which came with the screenplay included, that he saw what a film looked like in words. And that was where his fascination with the movie industry really began.
To pursue that meant heading off to the University of Southern California to study film. His parents, although supportive, were also pragmatic about the decision. His father, a successful businessman, encouraged him to think beyond the purely creative to movie-making practicalities. And so he studied business alongside film, which, he is sure, kept him grounded and forced him to plan rather than fly by the seat of his pants.
“It’s a feast or famine business,” he points out. “You could get a job and get paid well, but then not work again for two years. I credit my family with teaching me discipline – to not get too excited and blow it all on a fast car or something!”
Soon after graduating, Flowers wrote and directed his first short film, Swallow, which won several awards at the Sundance Film Festival and was later bought by HBO. Since then, he has penned, produced and directed numerous shorts, feature films and TV shows, but directing, he says, is his favourite aspect of movie-making.
“Maybe it’s because I am a social person and writing is lonely, but it’s also the challenge of bringing words to life with a finite amount of time and resources,” he says.
Earlier this year, he directed a commercial for global technology firm Cisco, filmed in Cayman. The commercial highlights how Cisco helped bridge the digital divide in Cayman during the early months of the pandemic by providing public WiFi hotspots in communities across the three islands. Other than the two producers and one cinematographer who flew in from LA, it was an all-local production.
“We hired 45 local artists and professionals to work as crew, so although it was an international commercial, it had a real Cayman presence. It’s this kind of collaboration that makes true magic.”
And that is something he wants to see more of. “Even back when we filmed Haven, I always said, anyone, even students who have no experience, are welcome on my set,” he says. “I really want to give Caymanians opportunities to come and learn because, with movies, the only way you can learn is to be on set.”
If the Cayman Islands continue to grow as a filming location, Caymanians can look forward to sustainable opportunities in the industry. And these days, he adds, with the technology available, going to film school is no longer a pre-requisite.
“In a lot of ways, the industry has given some of the power back. These days you can make a movie on your iPhone, and you can upload it to YouTube and reach millions. So yes, I got a lot out of film school, and I encourage people to follow that path if that’s what they want, but if you’re 35 and you have two kids, and you want to make movies, then take a masterclass, watch some instructional videos and go out and start telling stories.”
Flowers is continuing to develop his own stories. He will be making a mini-documentary about the Flowers family business to mark its 75th anniversary and hopes to make a film about Miss Lassie’s life whilst working on the script for The Bluff. Whether the move to Cayman becomes permanent, only time will tell. For now, he’s going with the flow, enjoying taking morning runs on Seven Mile Beach, spending time with the family, catching up with friends after work, and finding a far better work-life balance than he ever could in the City of Angels.
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