Signs of Love

Dylan and Hopper Penn and Zoë Bleu unpick the beauty and emotional strife at the root of their new film
By J.L. Sirisuk | Film+TV | 29 June 2022

Signs of Love recently had its world premiere at The Brooklyn Film Festival and is the first feature film from writer-slash-director Clarence Fuller. The narrative follows Frankie (Hopper Penn) as he struggles to control his fate in a town pervaded by violence, crime, and substance abuse. Set in the Port Richmond area of Philadelphia, Frankie wavers between sensing an inability to steer away from generational cycles of trauma, and the hope of severing chords from decisions made as a teen. He tries to nurture a normal existence for his nephew Sean (Cree Kawa) while seeking to escape the influence of a substance-abusing father (Wass Stevens) and alcohol-addicted sister (Dylan Penn). The unexpected gift of potential is found in Jane (Zoë Bleu) who is deaf but presents Frankie with hope – for love, for a future to be paved by ambitions instead of cycles of trauma.

Shot in twenty days on location during the height of the pandemic, the making of the film was a true labour of love. “It just hammered home again this vicious cycle and how to break that and not have things became generational – all of these fractures and these flaws,” shares producer David Michaels of the film. The cast of Signs of Love, along with Fuller and Michaels discussed the film in advance of its premiere at The Brooklyn Film Festival.

J.L. Sirisuk: I was very curious about this project. How did it come to your attention and what made you commit?
Hopper Penn: It came to me from David [Michaels] who I worked with on my first film. Having already worked  with him, and then reading the script, I fell in love with it. Meeting Clarence (Fuller) on the screen-test and speaking to him before, I had full trust in both of them and it turned out well. David [Michaels] was like, “What about Dylan [Penn] for Patty?” and I was like, “Yes, this would be perfect.” I knew she would kill the role.
Dylan Penn: I think Hopper was the first to mention it to me and told me a little bit about the backstory between Frankie and Patty. I was pretty excited about it before I even read the script and also to work opposite my brother is something I’ll always jump at.

JLS: Clarence, what was the writing process like for you on this script?
Clarence Fuller: It’s funny because I originally wrote the first draft in 2011 and never shared it, and then in 2019 I said to my wife, “I need to make a film, so here are the scripts I have.” She picked this one to be the first, which was a good choice. Diving back into it was really easy because it was based on my own relationship with my nephew and, I don’t want to say my sister, but somewhat of that three-way relationship. It was really easy after that, and then obviously a no-brainer to have Dylan and Hopper.

JLS: To commit to a project during the pandemic must mean it was quite special. How was it to shoot during the height of this strange time?
HJP: It was definitely different for me, with all the masks and testing you had to do constantly. But it felt very easy to come to set, I was already so much in the Covid world so getting used to that didn’t really feel any different.
DP: I just felt really lucky to be working, period. And to get out of quarantine.
Zoë Bleu: The biggest challenge was dealing with the fact we had been in isolation for so long. I was celebrating that I got to be around people and it was the first sense of community I felt since the pandemic hit. I had no complaints, I didn’t mind testing all the time. It was nice to be around people and have human connection. It felt like real life again, but a lot of it was make-believe interactions. We had to wear masks the entire time until right before we went in front of the camera – and then I was like, “I get to see someone’s facial expressions when I speak to them!” That’s also essential for my character because I read lips. Being able to see people’s faces and see them smile was nice. The pandemic was traumatising for everyone, so I’m grateful for this experience.

Everyone is always making a ruckus, and I think the most beautiful stories are sometimes the quiet ones that don’t need words.

JLS: Which parts of the characters you play that you felt yourself connecting with?
HP: Oddly enough I’ve never had a brother, but I very much connected with Cree [Kawa] who plays Sean. With Patty’s character, it was so different but because I was working with my sister, it still felt somewhat real. With Zoë, we got along so well. Every aspect felt very genuine to me. We all got along. We were all buddies and hung out the whole time.
CF: I actually love the scenes between Dylan and Hopper because I could see them take turns going at each other in the scene, and Hopper loved throwing in an extra, “Bitch,” or something like that, or flipping her off whenever he could. It was great.
DP: I was going to say that I don’t connect with who Patty is, but in the way that I don’t feel similar to her, I feel for her. I can’t imagine being a young mother with a fifteen-year-old kid and struggling with addiction. I felt for her.
ZB: I feel like I brought a lot of myself to Jane. We’re different because I’m a hearing person and she’s a deaf woman, but it was really important work for me because right before I got cast as Jane, I finished writing a ballet. It’s a silent film and it’s Butoh-inspired, about body language and reacting to other people’s body language. I had to really keep track of how everyone spoke each word. My character, Jane, is seemingly silent as a person, while I’m notoriously loud, like I’m a tornado of a person, but that’s probably because there’s a lot I’m silent about. How I relate to Jane is, although I’m seemingly silent about something, there’s still so much, there’s a story to be told and there is love. Everyone is always making a ruckus, and I think the most beautiful stories are sometimes the quiet ones that don’t need words.

JLS: Zoë, how was it to play a role without lines, was that challenging or exciting?
ZB: It was really difficult. I’m not gonna lie. I was really nervous because I want to do the signs correctly. I want to do Jane justice, but I didn’t have that much time to learn sign language. I wish I was a pro but I’m not as good at memorising body movements as I am at lines. 

JLS: It was interesting earlier when Clarence mentioned Hopper throwing in lines with Dylan. There are definitely family ties in the film: Hopper and Dylan, Zoë and Rosanna [Arquette]. Were there ups and downs to working with family?
HP: I had the best time working with Dylan – it was the second time I’ve worked with her. I look up to Dylan as a person and definitely as an actor because I think somebody got those genes and that was her. She can push me and go so far, it inspires me. Working with her is so much fun, it’s like the best time I could have – it doesn’t feel like work at all.
DP: I can echo that. It was just really easy and to play opposite Hopper as this character who is really so far from me, was so much fun and then as we said earlier, Clarence created this environment that was really free.
Zoë: I really enjoyed the space that Clarence made for us. It was like a funny circus of different families, and we’re all family friends. It was a really cool experience to be able to see all these dynamics interact with each other. I didn’t get to work with my mom [Rosanna] but I got to watch Hopper and my mom work together, and that was really nice. I respect Dylan and Hopper so much as actors. It’s a family affair and you can feel the love.

JLS: What can you say about the women in Frankie’s life since they have such an influence on him?
DP: Patty is a really multi-faceted character with a lot of trauma she hasn’t faced. Also, being a young mother has its complicated history, which you can see from the get-go – and obviously losing your mother effects a woman in a huge way. I think the influence she has on Frankie can be so detrimental, but thankfully he has this strength in him to overcome and not follow the pattern she’s created. It’s interesting to see this complicated family life he lives in.
ZB: I’m gonna echo that. Frankie’s heart is so big because he’s experienced so much pain, so much loss. He really is the caretaker. Seeing this pain in his family dynamic made him as a man, so he could bring joy to others. It’s almost like he’d been harvesting all of this love. Jane seems airy, like you don’t really know what’s going on with her. I feel like she does give him that love in a really quiet but profound way – she takes care of him in the sense she sees that broken part inside and is willing to give up her life to take care of him. It’s not a Cinderella story where they end up happily ever after, it’s a sacrifice, and you recognise she would sacrifice for him as he has for his family, and he doesn’t allow her to do that.

JLS: The story deals with generational trauma and there’s so much emotional depth – what did you each take from the experience of making this film?
DP: I think acting can be very therapeutic and often surprising. Whatever you’re holding onto can come out under this veil or guise of the character. Hopper and I, we’re in a really good space in our personal relationship but to play this really chaotic hostile dynamic was really interesting because we have our own trauma we can bring up when acting and release it within that safe space.

It’s not a Cinderella story where they end up happily ever after, it’s a sacrifice.

JLS: What impact do you hope this film has on audiences?
ZB: I want people to walk away with love in their bellies. This is a movie about sacrifice and the sacrifices you make for the people you love. Especially with the pandemic and war happening in the world, so many people have sacrificed things that are important to them every single day for their families, for the people that they love. It’s a real story and a lot of people sadly will be able to relate to it. It’s a testament to how strong hearts can be no matter how painful it is to let go of things you want in life. People who make those sacrifices can make big differences and ultimately help other people have better lives.
DP: It just shows how important it is to take care of each other and get outside yourself. I think that’s really difficult for people right now.

Signs of Love is out now at select cinemas.

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