Frank: Interview with Lenny Abrahamson

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A film inspired by the life of cult musician Frank Sidebottom that sees Michael Fassbender playing an avant-garde artist who never takes off a giant papier-mâché head was always going to be interesting. It also turned out to be rather good. After wowing audiences at Sundance and then receiving a string of fine reviews on its cinematic release, Frank arrives now on DVD.

Ahead of this, Flickfeast had the opportunity to speak to director Lenny Abrahamson about the challenges a giant head bring, the importance of getting the music right in a film about a band and the fine line filmmakers walk between maintaining quality and finding an audience.

Flickfeast: How did you first come to be involved in Frank?

Lenny Abrahamson: Four years ago the script was sent to me by my agent in London who thought it was great. The final film is very different but at heart it’s the same project. I felt trepidation initially about taking it on. It’s such an ambitiously strange film. It really is insane with the papier-mâché head and the music but I was caught by it and couldn’t let it go.

After that script I went to meet the writers (Jon Ronson and Peter Straughan) and they are such interesting people that I got hooked. It’s an uncategorisable challenge full of anarchic playfulness but that was really what drove me to do it in the end.

FF: How familiar were you with Frank Sidebottom before the film?

LA: I’d come across him. I remember seeing him on TV as a kid. I’m a big fan of music hall and vaudeville and I think Frank Sidebottom had that – he had that mix of darkness and comedy although I’m pretty sure I was scared of him when I was a kid. But I wouldn’t have made the film if it was just a straight biopic. Frank Sidebottom is a fictional character and it would have had to have been about Chris (Sievey) and Frank. I doubt Chris would have wanted that. The tangential spark between Frank Sidebottom and this film appealed to me but what really influenced the film and hooked me in is the opportunity to explore outsider genius, something Sievey truly was.

FF: That theme of the individual on the outside of society, often with mental health problems, seems to run through much of your work. What is it that particularly interests you?

LA: I don’t know how deliberate it is but I guess it has to be an interest as it keeps recurring in my work. I’m not drawn to it from any kind of social campaigning impulse. I feel that people that are uncertain in the world offer a truer picture of the inside of us all. That difficulty in understanding, those people that find life hard, that’s the aspect I find interesting. They are the real everyman characters.

FF: Frank gathers a very impressive cast. How did they come to be involved and did you run into scheduling problems?

LA: The schedule was a nightmare. When you have that many successful actors getting them together in one place for long enough is very hard. We just about managed it in the end.

In terms of involvement, they all came on-board organically. I knew Domhnall (Gleeson) was right straight away when he read for the part of Jon. He’s so instinctual but he has an analytical streak as well. Michael (Fassbender) was a real gift. His agent showed him the script and he wanted to do it. Getting someone with his profile involved in the project really helped everyone else to fall in place. Scoot (McNairy) loved the script as Domhnall had shown it to him while Maggie (Gyllenhaal) was my first choice but she had to be convinced. She liked the idea but it’s so off the wall that she had to feel comfortable that it could be achieved.

For the rest of the roles we looked for the most appropriate people. Given the importance of the music, we needed people who could play. Carla (Azar) for example is one of the great drummers in the world at the moment so she was great to get on board.

FF: Music is so important to the film. How did you approach getting the right sound?

LA: Getting the music right was the biggest challenge from start to finish. Great kudos should go to Stephen Rennicks. I worked closely with him as we didn’t want this to be a joke band. They had to be plausibly outside the mainstream but good enough so that the audience could believe they could be successful if the edges were smoothed off. With that brief Stephen also had to adjust to the musical and vocal abilities of the cast as they had to be able to perform it. We didn’t use playback when filming so no takes were the same. Stephen is also one of my best friends and he doesn’t have a CV in the band area but he was the best person for the job and the results are evident in the film.

FF: This is the largest scale film you’ve done to date. How did you find the experience and were there any unexpected challenges?

LA: When you’re making a film you’re always fighting the schedule no matter the scale or budget. There’s almost but not quite enough time so nothing was new from that perspective. Shooting in two countries was different though. It’s hard as you have to prepare each shoot as if they are two separate films. Obviously a lot of travel comes with that.

An unappreciated problem is the cultural and procedural problems that come from working in other countries. Just getting used to working with teamsters and the crews in America was all new to me. The scale of the film unit in the US is so much bigger. When I turned up for the first time I thought I was in the wrong place. I thought I’d stumbled onto the set of Avengers Assemble. But from a directing point of view it’s the same. There’s a camera and there are actors. It’s the circles around it all that get bigger.

FF: The most immediately noticeable thing about Frank is the fake head. How long did it take to get it right?

LA: We had a clear model to work from but it had to be a bit different. It’s both inspired by and derivative of Frank Sidebottom’s head. Our designer Richard Bullock worked very closely with me on a range of designs. He made up scale models that went from a pure white ball to a more sculpted mask before ending up with the wide-eyed circular look. There’s an interesting archive with all the models we made.

FF: What’s it like directing an actor when you can’t see their face?

LA: In this case you do see his face as his face is the mask. We all quickly got used to working with it and Michael ended up with a lot of energy to play with. Tiny movements have a big impact in ways you can’t manage with a normal face. It was all a natural process though. We fell into a rhythm on set and it works for the audience as well. The most important thing was that we did it properly. I had two rules at the start; the music must be recorded and performed by the cast and it would always be Michael under the mask. You can tell it’s him. It simply wouldn’t work if we put someone else in and dubbed over. It you switched it’s obvious as the body movements are so connected to the voice.

FF: Frank brings out the fine line between reaching an audience and compromising quality and integrity. Is this something you’ve experienced directly?

LA: There’s a constant backwards and forwarded and a tension around artistic integrity. I admire people who do their own thing but I like to have an audience so it’s a debate I end up in all the time. And the film industry is one with norms and ideas that have to be factored in. When you’re in a room with industry executives, the temperature warms up when mainstream ideas are on the table and cools back down again when something more artistic and less commercial is presented. Sometimes we have to be content to work in a slightly colder environment and sometimes a warmer one. That tension never goes away. I will say this about genuinely popular filmmakers though – those that makes continually successful films. They can only do it because that’s where their taste lies. That’s what makes those films work so well. I couldn’t as I like things a little more off-piste.

FF: Frank opened at Sundance and you’ve taken your previous films to festivals. Are there any similarities between that and Frank’s experience at South by Southwest?

LA: There have certainly been times when I’ve felt a little like Jon putting on an act and trying to impress the right people. Bringing your work to market is a key aim at a festival. The first press day is frothy and that’s where I most feel like Jon. Getting noticed is important and intoxicating when it happens. It’s easy to get caught up in things like the number of hits on Youtube.

FF: Unlike your other films, Jon learns something at the end of Frank. Have you consciously avoided characters like this before?

LA: I’m very squeamish about doing this so I only let a bit in at the end of Frank. I’m nervous about learning life lessons as that’s not life and it’s not truthful. It’s certainly a respectable storytelling device but it’s not my thing. I’m happy that the ending is not sentimental but there are strong expectations in the industry that it should be. I mentioned the temperature in the room when mainstream ideas are discussed. If you argue for an open ending and letting the audience make their own decisions it’s like someone’s turned the air conditioning on full.

Ultimately, to avoid this I’ve kept budgets small. If there are tens of millions invested it’s perfectly understandable that you’ll walk into a room and be asked to make changes. That’s fair when people have invested that much.

FF: Would you ever want to work with a bigger budget?

LA: My next project, Room, is based on a bestselling novel in the US and will have a bigger budget. I also have a future project that I can’t say any more about that would have a much bigger budget. I’m talking in the tens of millions but still with a serious story that happens to have a commercial argument behind it. I think that’s my limit. When you start to get into the hundreds of millions mark you’re in the preserve of superheroes and monsters and I have no interest there.

FF: There’s a lot said recently about the difficulties in funding those kind of serious films that fit into the $5-50m category. Is this something you’ve noticed?

LA: It is a problem but I’d say $5-15m is the real difficulty. There’s no real formula to making a successful film which is why it’s hard to raise funds. At the most bloated end you can almost engineer a success but it’s hard below that. However, a lot of box office successes have come from serious but well-budgeted films which shows it can be done. So I’ve seen the problems but I have to say I’ve been very lucky in my career so far.

FF: You mentioned Room. Is there anything else you can tell us about this at the moment?

LA: I don’t think there’s anything new to add at the moment that isn’t already in the public domain. We’ve cast Brie Larson in the lead role as the mother with a child who has been held captive and tries to return to the world. We’ll be casting for the kid and the other roles soon and then shooting will begin in Toronto. I hope to be able to take it to festivals for the end of next year.

FF: Finally, the reception Frank has received has been very positive. What had you hoped for when you first signed up to make the film?

LA: In my heart I hoped it would find an audience and that the people who might like this kind of film would love it. And it’s achieved that which is great. I also hoped for a US release which we’ll be getting soon. Perhaps most importantly, I wanted it to be the kind of film that has a long life and I’m feeling pretty confident that it will.

Flickfeast would like to thank Lenny for taking the time to speak to us. Frank is out on DVD on 15th September.

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