Although Lenny Abrahamson was well-established in his native Ireland—each of his first three features won the Irish Film and Television Award for best film, and the last, What Richard Did, was the top-grossing Irish film of 2012—he was a virtual unknown in the U.S. when Frank premièred at Sundance in January. But Abraham’s outsider status was well-suited to the story of a timid aspiring musician named Jon (Domhnall Gleeson) who falls in with an avant-garde rock band with the unpronounceable name The Soronprfbs, whose singer, known only as Frank, is permanently ensconced in an oversized fiberglass head. (Underneath the disguise is Michael Fassbender, which only deepens the movie’s beguiling oddity.) What begins as a giddy parable of rock ’n’ roll eccentricity deepens into something more profound and unsettling once Jon begins to realize that Frank’s strangeness makes him a marketable quantity, and starts posting the band’s rehearsal footage on YouTube, turning them into a viral sensation and bringing them face-to-face with the success they never sought, and may not be able to handle.
The movie’s Frank, as it turns out, is based on a real pop-cultural figure: Frank Sidebottom, the papier-mâchéd alter-ago of Chris Sievey, whose band co-screenwriter Jon Ronson played in for a time. But though the two Franks look much the same, the movie’s version is a significantly different figure, one Abrahamson uses to push toward a profound statement about the tricky relationship between art and instability. In the process, he pulls off miraculous tonal shifts with an imperceptible lightness of touch. He’ll need it for his next project: an adaptation of Emma Donoghue’s Room.
The Dissolve: You have one of the world’s more recognizable and best-looking men playing a role where he’s inside a giant fiberglass head. How did Michael Fassbender end up playing Frank?
Lenny Abrahamson: That part of the story is kind of fairly straightforward; it’s how we then thought about it, what it did for the film. Somebody in his agency had the script, and had the smart thought that it might appeal to Michael, knowing that he likes a challenge, and he doesn’t take easy projects. He picks things which will stretch him, and which he’s interested in. So then I heard from the producers that he was interested in playing the part, and went to meet him, got on really well—that part of it actually happened fairly smoothly.
But it got me thinking, because I had initially pondered whether we should think about an unknown actor for Frank, so the audience will be in the same position as the people in the film, which is not knowing who’s under the head. But once I started to think about Michael, a whole lot of resonances started to hum. It’s a wonderfully playful, almost subversive thing to hide Michael in plain sight like that, and it’s also thematically connected to the central idea about how hard it is to connect with people, and how we project versions of ourselves. It’s also the fake vs. the authentic, which is the sort of commercial/artistic tension. It was also really interesting to me that, within the logic of the film, the audience still really, really does want to see under that head, even if they know the actor who’s under there. Once you get into the film, you start to become seduced by the logic of the story. And then, finally, it’s a way of experiencing Michael purely as an actor and not as a star, because the branded part of all stars is the face, and that’s gone. But what you’re left with is this amazingly creative, playful actor who reveals himself, I think, in a very different way than we’ve seen before.
The Dissolve: Not surprisingly, Frank took a long time to execute. How long were you attached to it?
Abrahamson: I was attached to it probably for about three years, maybe four years before we made it. And I actually made a film between when we got involved and when we made Frank. We conceived of, scripted, and released another film.
The Dissolve: That was What Richard Did?
Abrahamson: That was What Richard Did. So it was sort of moving in the background.
I think the hardest thing was to get the script right for Frank, because it’s such a tonal high-wire act, and it’s talking about so many things, but at the same time, it can’t appear to be doing that on the surface. It just needs to flow. Trying to create a script that really felt balanced and working, that was the hardest part. Jon [Ronson] and Peter [Straughan] did such an amazing job, and I thoroughly enjoyed working with them at every part of that process. In terms of financing, it was just about finding the people who would want to make the same film as us, who were prepared to read that script and go, “Yeah, we can get behind that,” and weren’t sneaking around to me saying, “You know, have you considered doing it without the head?” Which I kept expecting to hear, but didn’t. We worked with really great people, like Film4 and BFI and the Irish Film Board, and they’re director-driven, and they’re not interfering, and they’re very supportive. So we were right to wait, because I think if we had made the film with the wrong people, or tried to make it before the script was absolutely ready, the film really did have the capacity to be a total catastrophe.
The Dissolve: Even as you’re watching the movie work, it’s easy to think of all the ways it couldn’t.
Abrahamson: Oh, yeah. I thought about it every day. Believe me.
The Dissolve: Some of the movie is right out of Jon Ronson’s first-hand account of playing with the real Frank Sidebottom. Did you know of him beforehand?
Abrahamson: I did know about him. I remember watching him as a kid on TV. And then when the script was sent to me, I thought, “This is strange, somebody’s sending me a script about Frank Sidebottom.” And then I quickly realized that it wasn’t, because I remember him enough to know that he was this Mancunian performer of outrageous silly songs. He didn’t take himself seriously as an artist; he was a very, very different character. So I knew pretty quickly that we were into fictional territory. For me, it’s a spark of Frank Sidebottom that just ignited a whole other thing. I like that. It’s the same way as the band’s creative process is really hard to categorize. Frank is a hard film to talk about in terms of origins, you know. It’s normally easy to talk about the origins of a film. Our Frank is a real person within a fictional world, and Frank Sidebottom was a fictional person in the real world, so there’s a lot of things to get your head around. I was just very happy that we were free to imagine, because although the film is absolutely inspired by Chris Sievey, the original Frank Sidebottom, we were released from the detail and the actuality, and we could just really imagine pretty freely.
The Dissolve: There are so many stories of bands going off to a remote cabin somewhere to make an album and losing their minds in the process. Were there other bands beside Frank Sidebottom you had in mind as models for The Soronprfbs?
Abrahamson: Oh, yeah. I’ve actually got a playlist on Spotify. The people who inspired it, I suppose, were Daniel Johnston, a lot of his stories. The musical side is different, although there is similarity in some of the simple stuff in Frank, some simple kind of melodic stuff. But also Captain Beefheart, his kind of tyrannical, slave-driving aspect. There’s a famous recording, Trout Mask Replica, where they went off into a cabin and went crazy. We listened to The Shaggs, we listened to a wonderful performer called Baby Dee, this amazing guy called Benjamin who was in a band called Smoke. Do you remember him? Some guy did a documentary on him—amazing, amazing voice. We obviously listened to bands like The Residents, who covered themselves up. There’s an amazing world of music. Some call it “outsider,” but actually some of it’s just straightforwardly great, it just didn’t happen to catch a wave, or it’s just a little too tricky for people. Some of it really is quite outsider, stuff where the players are troubled in various ways, but some of that stuff is really beautiful. I still listen to it now. I think the realization for us that was very helpful was, “We’re not going to make this music a joke. We’re going to try and love the band’s music, however strange it can be sometimes.”
The Dissolve: There’s an interesting progression in the movie, which is essentially Jon’s progression of thinking the people in this band are wild and fascinating and inspired, and eventually realizing that they’re genuine lunatics.
Abrahamson: They are, in fact, crazy.
The Dissolve: One of the things the movie gets at exceptionally well is how with people like Daniel Johnston and Wesley Willis, who are fascinating musicians and also mentally ill, audiences can seize on one aspect of their creative personalities…
Abrahamson: …and warp them. That’s true. I think that happens in the mainstream as well. It’s just that if a person has already got fragilities, then those cracks can be really, really terribly widened under the kind of pressure that fame brings. What Clara, Maggie [Gyllenhaal]’s character, knows in the film is that Frank’s not up to this. Although it appears to be an “art for art’s sake” purism, or a sort of fundamentalism, it’s really just kind of an understanding that Frank is not able to handle this. That kind of attention does affect people, and I’ve rarely seen it affect people for the better. That’s across the industry I’m in, and in music and all those things, it takes a very strong person to resist the damaging effects of fame.
The Dissolve: And you can track your YouTube hits or retweets so easily now, it’s like mainlining attention.
Abrahamson: Well, that’s it. It’s like a little funny hit, you get a little buzz when you see somebody’s retweeted you, or commented on you, or talked about you on social media. Then that buzz goes away, and you want a little more the next time, so you start checking your phone more, and you become addicted to that kind of attention, and you mistake it for presence in the world, and you can live this strange double life, which Jon lives. His social-media avatar is a very different creature than the person we see so much of in the film. That’s part of the fun of the film; that’s where a lot of the comedy comes from. It felt like it was timely, because I don’t think that issue of social-media self-presentation has really found its way into mainstream film yet.
The Dissolve: Frank is one of a very small handful of movies that get social media right: The way incidental characteristics can begin to dominate because they’re the ones that travel well, the narcotic effect of even small amounts of online attention. How did that find its way into the film?
Abrahamson: It actually came quite late in the process. The version of the script that I got involved with, the beginning was set in the 1980s, and it was told as a series of conversations with an older Jon, with a journalist recounting what happened to him. We were able to use that journalist interview as a voiceover. Then, when we made it contemporary, we dumped the voiceover, but we knew there would be something really helpful about being able to hear Jon talk, and then the idea came, “Well, what about social media?” because that is self-narration that really happens right now in the world. Once we started doing that, all these other lovely ways of integrating it into the film, and the ways it speaks to some of the central ideas in the film, they all became apparent. Like I said when Michael took on the role, I always think you’ve got to stay open to the rhythms and resonances within what you’re doing. That goes right through shooting and cutting, where you listen for those connections, and you try to make them work in the film. But it was great to do that, because it meant even the campaign for the film could use those media really cleverly, because it’s such an integrated part of the film.
The Dissolve: It’s a great running gag that The Soronprfbs has this unpronounceable name, but it’s also so characteristic of who they are, which is a band you literally can’t tell your friends about.
Abrahamson: Oh, yeah. We did The Colbert Report, and he introduced the band, and he had a really good go at it. When you try and name a band for your film, it’s also really almost impossible, because you think, “They don’t exist.” So the idea of a name that could never be said also fitted the band’s absolute lack of commercial interest. You can’t even refer to us if you can’t say our name.
The Dissolve: When you hear them on the radio and the DJ asks how to pronounce their name, they respond as if they’ve never considered the issue.
Abrahamson: Yeah, exactly. Also at South By Southwest when Jon says, “How do we say our name?" and Maggie just shrugs. It’s like, “Come on, don’t be so predictable and boring. Who cares?”
The Dissolve: The issue of social class is central to a lot of your previous movies. Do you see that playing out in Frank as well? Part of Jon’s initial inferiority complex comes from his comfortable middle-class background, which he thinks is too boring for him to be a great artist.
Abrahamson: That’s right, and it’s funny, because Frank is from an almost identical world. Particularly in Britain, self-consciousness about class is a huge thing, and it operates in a big way in terms of employment and trajectory, so generally people are very aware of it. To some extent in the States as well, people must have something like the thought, maybe not in quite as codified a way as they would in Britain, “Why do I have such an ordinary, perfectly nice suburban life? Why haven’t I grown up in some much more sexy kind of biography?”
The Dissolve: It’s like they want a more “authentic” life.
Abrahamson: Yes, “authentic.” It’s that word. You’re looking for something authentic. But of course, authentic is everything all the time, and that’s what Jon learns: It’s not about that. It’s just a very simple fact about his lack of ability, and all the wishing for that to change is not gonna make a difference.
The Dissolve: Part of what’s distinctive about Frank’s songs is that he’s not pretending to be something he isn’t. He’s singing about what’s in front of him, whether it’s a tuft of carpet or a wall.
Abrahamson: Exactly. He’s not singing about hard drinking and the Delta. Most rock ’n’ roll is just absolutely—I mean, I really love some of it—but it’s so fake. It’s so fabulously fake. But if you listen to Blind Willie Johnson singing “Ain’t Nobody’s Fault But Mine,” which is one of my favorite ever tracks, he’s not affecting anything. That is right from the guy. That’s how he sings. I mean, rock ’n’ roll now is just a caricature of something; it doesn’t bear any relation to those roots anymore. But Frank isn’t doing that. He really just loves sound, he loves music, he’s interested in things, he’s exploring in this very sort of sweet, and very unpretentious way. So even though you look at a band like that, and you look at a lot of the outsider musicians, and you think, “Oh, somebody into that music must be really pretentious…” In fact, it’s really, really real, you know? It’s way realer than watching some guy in leather trousers and some tattoos prance around a stage being dangerous. That’s just an awful lot more interesting to me.