Taking whatever means necessary to achieve your life-long dreams is often an emotional struggle people are willing to take in order to realize their goals and desires. But not everyone truly has the talent they believe they have in order to succeed, which makes the seriousness at which they take themselves much more comical and intriguing. That’s certainly the case with the musical comedy-drama, ‘Frank,’ in which the main characters, who are in a band together, aren’t able to achieve their musical aspirations, as they’re not as talented as they believe.
But award-winning Irish director, Lenny Abrahmson, who previously helmed such films as ‘Garage’ and ‘What Richard Did,’ effortlessly engaged audiences with another film about the unique antics its oddball characters take, in an effort to achieve the fantasies they want. Writer Ron Ronson and his ‘The Men Who Stare at Goats’ co-scribe, Peter Straughan, reunited to create the latest story about outlandish characters for Abrahmson to direct. The two created a fictional story that was loosely inspired by Frank Sidebottm, the persona of cult musician and comedy legend Chris Sievey, as well as other outsider musicians, including Daniel Jonston and Captain Beefheart.
‘Frank’ follows alternative band The Soronprfbs, a group of outsiders who share a passion for music. The brilliant, but barely functioning, band is built around the eponymous Frank (Michael Fassbender), an unstable yet charismatic singer who always wears a large fake head with painted-on features. His closest collaborator is Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who is against all mainstream aspects of music. The band also features drummer Nana (Carla Azar) and Baraque (Francois Civil), a French bassist.
Jon (Domhnall Gleeson), an officer worker who longs to be a part of a band, finally realizes his musical ambitions when Frank chooses him to replace The Soronprfbs’ original keboardist, who is hospitalized after he attempts to drown himself. This is the break Jon, who views himself to be a creative maverick musical force, but is really only an ordinary young man trying to escape his small-town life, has been looking for. As the band takes residence in a remote cabin in Wicklow, a rural area outside of Dublin, to record their album, Jon realizes he lacks the one thing he needs to achieve his musical dreams-genuine talent.
As the group spends 18 months in the lakeside cabin, as well as all of Jon’s savings, they argue how to best record their album, but Jon doesn’t give up hope on his dream. He becomes infatuated with the enigmatic and talented Frank, and is curious to discover what truly drives the singer’s creative abilities. As The Soronprfbs finish their album, Jon released their music on YouTube and promotes the group on Twitter. His internet promotions helps make them a viral internet sensation and gets them a coveted slot at South by Southwest (SXSW). As the group gets closer to securing the fame they so desperately desire, Jon’s struggle with Clara for control of both Frank and the band leads to the destruction of the one thing he’s come to cherish.
Fassbender, Gyllenhaal and Gleeson were joined by Abrahamson and Ronson at a press conference at The Crosby Hotel in New York City to talk about shooting the independent comedy-drama. Among other things, the cast, director and writer discussed how they had a three-week rehearsal period before they began shooting the movie, which not only helped the actors bond, but also understand the songs the director and Stephen Rennicks, who worked on the film’s music, created; how the movie’s story and characters take a similar artistic process as The Soronprfbs, as they not only wanted to prove their talent in their work, but they also try to be creatively unpredictable; and how having a main character like Frank wear a mask throughout the entire film loses the naturalistic physical bond the protagonist forms with the people around him, but how it can also add a comic physicality to their reactions.
Question (Q): Lenny, is there a particular reason why you choose to direct films that always focus on peculiar or odd characters?
Lenny Abrahamson (LA): I just think those characters are usually people who don’t quite fit. I’m drawn to these characters who are either under an awful lot of pressure or otherwise not acceptable to the mainstream, and that tells us a lot about who we are. Looking at these people who don’t fit in is a great way of reflecting on all of us. I think they’re just fascinating characters and I’ve always been drawn to them. Well-adjusted people are hard character to put in the center of a movie. I don’t actually know of any well-adjusted central characters, but if I did, I’d find that to be a hard film to make. I’m just drawn to people who don’t really fit in, for all sorts of reasons.
Question (Q): Some of you have already dabbled in music, so what were your musical experiences before this movie? Was there a musical rehearsal period you had before you began filming?
Michael Fassbender (MF): We were very fortunate to have a three-week rehearsal period, so we did have that great luxury. We had that rehearsal time before Christmas, and then we started filming after the Christmas period. So that gave us a chance to get to know one another, as well as also understand Stephen (Rennicks) and Lenny’s music.
I think a really hard task for these guys was finding music that was art-y but not pretentious. They also needed to incorporate music that had a real truth to it, but also wasn’t commercialor awful. The music also needed to have moments that were quite catchy but wasn’t anything that’s in the vein of pop music. So it was really a huge undertaking for them, and I think they did a great job. So then, it was about us just sort of adjusting to that and getting to know it.
But all of us, I think, were pretty musical people. I’ve always liked music, as it’s always been sort of in and around my life. So it was nice to fulfill a fantasy and play in a band.
LA: Like Michael said, they’re all musical. Michael’s very generous about our music, but actually, the music was adjusted around the cast. We cast people who could play, and it’s not always the same instrument that they’re playing in the film. But they have musical impulses and a musicality. Since we wanted the music to be played live in the film, that’s what makes it feel good.
Maggie Cyllenhaal (MG): I also think there really is a difference between being musical enough, and acting like you’re excellent at it. I went to see Nick Cave play at Prospect Park recently, and he’s been playing with The Bad Seeds for 20 years, and they were so awesome. We were just acting like we were awesome.
We had to declare to just play very simply. For me, it was a little bit easier than for you guys, because I was making noise. I think the idea was that my character could do whatever she wants, and did, with the synths and with the theremin, but for me, it was more like luck. I knew what most of the knobs did.
Jon Ronsonv (JR): The whole reason why Clara plays the theremin in the film is because I just love the line, “Stay awake, my f**king theremin!”
MG: Yeah, but then I wouldn’t have learned it.
Domhnall Gleeson (DG): Scary parallel there.
JR: If that sentence had ended with a better word than “theremin,” you’d have been playing the viola. In the screenplay, we were no help: we just wrote, “The music has to be beautiful and ridiculous at the same time.” I didn’t offer any suggestions as to how to do that.
MG: But it is amazing.
LA: Yeah. I have to pay huge tribute to Stephen.
MF: The genius of Stephen is that he did pick the most commercial song ever: that “lipstick, Coca-Cola, dance-all-night” song. People always remember who see the trailer. So, Stephen was right. That is the most commercial song. It’s the song that people do remember.
JR: Funny enough, that’s the one moment in the film that actually sounds a bit like Frank Sidebottom. In that song we were trying to work out, and I think it was like trying to imagine that somebody had. It’s never specified what mental illness Frank has, but I have my theories. In that moment I was thinking, “If somebody with manic depression was trying to write a Katy Perry song, how it would come out?” That’s how we came up with “lipstick, Coca-Cola.”
MF: Well, in terms of his mental state, I think that was something we were looking at. It’s an extreme bipolar scenario where euphoria just comes before the crash, and that built up to the South by Southwest (SXSW) situation.
Q: Do you find a similarity between the creation of alternate music and what actors do as they collaborate with each other the set?
DG: Yeah, it’s all just creating something by being with other people. It’s all trying to make something. So I guess it’s very similar, but it just depends how crazy you want to be. That’s the only difference, as far as I’m concerned.
LA: Maybe the film also tries in itself to be a bit like the band. It tries to not go down the tracks that you might expect, and instead it keeps taking turns and tries to be creatively freer than the typical genre treatment. That’s a reflection of the ideas inside the film, and to an extent, it works.
Q: What are the differences between Frank in the movie and Frank Sidebottom in real life, and the different decisions you made in the screenplay?
JR: Well in real life, I was the talented one. I’m kidding. In terms of the movie, the first ten minutes until we arrive in County Wicklow in Ireland is pretty much real life. We changed bits and pieces, but that is basically real. We couldn’t change anything from Wicklow.
The first thing that happened was, Chris (Sievey), who was Frank Sidebottom, told me that he didn’t really want it to be a character based on Chris in the film. We had pretty much come to that same conclusion anyway. I mean, there were two things about Chris’s life that would’ve made it difficult to write a screenplay, and one was that he loved chaos. He loved it when things went wrong. He was never fazed when things went wrong. I thought, well, that’s a fantastically admirable character trait to have in real life, but how can that work in the film? You know, there has to be things for people to lose.
The other problem was that I find it difficult to think about writing about a comedy band. I thought it would be much more interesting (to take) that band incredibly seriously, and about how that craft works. The fact that we had Chris’s blessing to change things, allowed us to start bringing in other things.
For instance, in real life, Chris didn’t suffer from any mental illness. That came very much from what personal experience I’ve had with my friends. It’s also the story of Daniel Johnson and the documentary “The Devil and Daniel Johnston,” as well as stories of Captain Beefheart, and so on. I think those are the main reasons why we diverged from the real story.
Q: Maggie, your character doesn’t really have a lot of dialogue, and you were given a little collaborative leeway to create your own character onset. How was it working with a director who allowed that leeway? Lenny, how was it working with Maggie to create this character?
LA: Well, there should always be that leeway. If you think of your characters as sort of absolutely fixed, and you just try to find actors to come and do exactly that thing, then you’re not going be working with that actor’s own set of internal impulses and who they are. So the best work is always the coming together of the actor and the character.
That’s also been true of everybody in the film. All the actors, apart from Domhnall, brought more to the parts than you could engineer in a screenplay. Domhnall pretty much did exactly what he was asked to do.
But I think there’s a way in which Clara could be played just as a joke. Clara’s part in the earliest part of the script was called “Klaus,” and he was a German crag-rock, hardcore, uncompromising Klaus Kinski-type character.
MF: (In German accent): I v-ould have done it like this.
LA: Maggie brought this other dimension of a longing that Clara couldn’t fulfill for a relationship with Frank and what her journey became in this film.
MG: I think whatever’s happening in your own self as you’re shooting a movie can just get poured back into the story. So every time you work it’s going to be a collaboration with the people you’re working with. In your fantasy, you go, “Okay, Michael Fassbender and Domhnall Gleeson are going to be in this movie,” and you have an idea of what that’s going to be like. Then you get there, and they are themselves, and the reality of what that is is always going to be different.
Negotiating what’s actually happening here, and how we’re going tell the story with this group of people and with this director, is always the most interesting part of it. How things shift and change are different from what you thought, and I think that’s where the life comes from.
Q: What was the process of creating some of the costumes in the film, especially for Clara?
MG: At one point we met and we were thinking, maybe she’d be like this electronic music person who has no style, and she just has a ponytail and sweatpants. Then we thought, no, let’s make her have style. So I thought Clara thought she was in a French New Wave film all the time, except that she’s really in a muddy cabin in wet clothes. So I don’t know how we would have ever washed our clothes, unless we scrubbed them on a board.
MF: We would’ve made a sound out of it.
MG: Right, and then not had those clothes anymore. We would have just had a very dirty character in a Godard movie. That’s what I was going for with the clothes.
LA: Michael, you had slacks you wore the entire shoot. But I’m not suggesting that they weren’t actually changed. Domhnall had a selection of carefully chosen cool t-shirts. (Abrahamson turns to Gleeson and said:) You involved yourself with what he would have liked, and what he thought was worth liking.
DG: In the film, there’s a scene where they stopped off at a gas station, and Jon buys one t-shirt. He just thinks he’s going for a gig, and they actually stay in the cabin for months. The shirt he buys is the only one they sell in the station.
JR: The shirt had the silhouette of a naked girl hitchhiker…
DG: Which makes Clara hate him so much more than she already does.
Q: Lenny, what was the process of directing someone who had his face covered-is that limiting at all? Michael, did the head limit you at all, or did it help bring something out of you you didn’t even know you were capable of?
LA: It didn’t feel different because Frank is a character. We’re not hiding Frank, as he is that person with that big head. So you just take the scenes with Frank seriously, like you take any scene seriously, and think about what’s going on.
Of course, I think I learned very interesting things about masks. People have used masks in drama for thousands of years. The mask isn’t mutual: what the audience feels is happening ends up being there somehow, because we project our feelings onto other people.
I think the other thing is abstraction. You do lose the naturalistic thing of connecting with somebody else’s face, but what you get is a whole lot of other things that you don’t get (without the mask). So, Frank just stares at somebody; somebody asks Frank a question and Frank just looks back. You don’t know whether he’s thinking about an answer, whether he’s heard the question at all, if he’s offended or if he just takes a little look to one side. If he just walks out, that’s funny in a way that wouldn’t be funny if his expressions were revealed. So I think it just brings a whole load of other things that you can do that you couldn’t do without the mask.
MF: I found it really liberating. The only thing that took a bit of getting used to was the sound in there. I was learning and practicing an accent. But once I put the head on, there’s a reverb thing that’s going on in there that put my hearing off a little bit, and it was hard to locate some stuff.
But the rest was a lot of fun and really cool. As soon as I put the head on, I got an element of mischief, and it gave the anarchic quality of Chris Sievey’s original Frank Sidebottom. That character really came out in that.
I agree with what Lenny was saying. For the other actors, it never mattered that I couldn’t make eye contact, because Frank is Frank, and he lives in his own universe. So I was hoping for them, it would be the same questions, like “is he listening? Is he not listening? Did he hear that?”
The other characters are used to him anyway, except for Domhnall’s character, which is the new introduction. Everybody’s used to Frank with the head on, and think “oh, that’s just Frank doing his thing.” So, whether I was engaged or not engaged, I think it was a help for me. Hopefully it was also helpful for the other guys that were responding to Frank.
Q: How many of the head were made? Did anyone else try them on for fun?
MF: My hygiene went downhill. It was hot and sweaty in there, and sometimes if you’re running around with it on, you can’t breathe as easy as you would without it. But I really enjoyed having the head on. I actually wanted to bring it onto the next job, but they wouldn’t let me.
LA: There were about six or seven heads. But Michael really wore the same one, apart from when it needed to be broken or made up. It was very low-tech; it had a little skull-cap in it that you just put on, and it comes on and off in a couple of seconds.
DG: There was one for the stuntman that had little bits cut out. The one time it’s not Michael wearing the head is when Frank gets knocked over by the car.
LA: Exactly. So it had an open front so that he could actually see; he apparently didn’t want to be hit properly by the car. I personally thought that was bullsh*t.
JR: I remember seeing the stuntman and thinking, how can they make it look like he’s hit by a car? They said, “with a car.” He ended up doing it twice, the poor guy.
MG: (To Fassbender) It seemed like there’d be a lot of you in there.
MF: It’s like a beard that’s got out of control: there were crumbs in there, and it was pretty gross.
LA: You had birds living in there.
MF: (whistles like a bird)
JR: Didn’t you have a head, where you can actually film inside?
LA: We never had an internal camera, but we did have an almost see-through one. If you shone a bright light in it, it would be like his head was glowing. But we never got to film that gag, so we didn’t use it.
Q: What was the process of shooting the SXSW scenes? Had anyone been to SXSW before doing the film?
LA: No, actually: neither myself, the designer (Richard Bullock) nor the DP (Director of Photography, James Mather) had ever been there. But we watched a lot of footage and material. We also didn’t shoot in Austin (where SXSW is held); instead, we shot in Albuquerque.
But what was nice was, when we went and showed the film at the festival, we received a lot of questions from people about what it had been like being in SXSW shooting SXSW. But it was really just that we recreated it. In a funny way, we only really showed quite small parts of it. But it was brilliant to bring it there. The audience seemed to really like it; they responded to it, and they didn’t mind that we were taking the piss out of the festival to some extent, in a pretty gentle way.
MF: I had been to SXSW once before. I came straight out of a movie onto Frank, having just been at SXSW. So that’s pretty cool. It’s an amazing festival.
Q: Did everybody actually stay at the cabin where the band recorded their album?
LA: Nobody stayed there. I’d like to say yes, but we did stay near it. The cabin is in Wicklow in Ireland, about an hour and a half outside Dublin. It’s quite like it looks in the film, but we did do some stuff to it.
The cabin was built by a Bavarian man who came to Ireland in the ‘30s. He was a carpenter, and then he made lots of money and he built himself this place. It’s a real anomaly. I know a lot of those little buildings are there. Once we were down in the little valley that it was in, it was really hard to get out of. So people pretty much did just hang out there all day, and would play hoops and messing around on their instruments, so that probably did bring people together.
Q: What was the process of filming in Ireland? Are a lot of the films shot coming over to the United States, or are the filmmakers who shoot there primarily keeping their movies there?
LA: There is a fair bit of film direction in Ireland, which is great for a country of three-and-a-half million people, four million people.
DG: Did it just go up by 500,000 as you were talking?
LA: Yeah, I’m constantly updated by an earpiece. “4,180,000.” But it’s good, because both ‘Frank’ and (last month’s indie drama) ‘Calvary’ were there. Ireland’s very small, so films that are shot there do need to travel. Domhnall’s also in ‘Calvary,’ so he has a deep link to both films.
Q: Michael, how much of the singing did you actually do, including for the recording of the soundtrack and your scenes in the movie?
MF: (jokingly) I didn’t sing any of it. We got Bryan Ferry to sing Frank’s songs. I thought he’d be better, to be honest.
LA: All of the songs were played and sung by the cast, and there weren’t any secret singers. What were they called?
DG: Secret squirrels.
LA: Squidgey Palidgey? Who was it?
DG: Milli Vanilli.
LA: Milli Vanilli. Scritty Paditty.
Written by: Karen Benardello