All this week Paste is continuing to bring you interviews with filmmakers who are taking their new films to Sundance. Lenny Abrahamson, isn’t a first-time director; he’s actually had six feature films before. But his new film Frank is his first at Sundance, and it stars Michael Fassbender and Maggie Gyllenhaal. It was picked up by Magnolia Pictures for US distribution. We spoke with the Irish director about the film, working with Fassbender, what he’s looking forward to from the Sundance experience, and much more.
Tell me about the origins of the project here.
Lenny Abrahamson: Well, its got a long history. I got involved three and a half years ago probably, and I spoke to the writers, John and Peter, who had this script about an extraordinary character. The title character is an extraordinary composite of my favorite outsider musicians, not consciously constructed in this way, but as he’s emerged from the film he’s like, there are bits of Daniel Johnson’s kind of gentleness and vulnerability and his strange melodic gift. But on the other hand there is quite a lot of Captain Beefheart in him, kind of growlier, Fassbendier qualities to him too. He’s always trying to create musical, kind of trying to push the boundaries make music and make things and build things and hear music in everything.
And the title, the name Frank comes from this extraordinary British character Frank Friedbottom. He was very big in Britain in the 80s but I as an Irish kid saw him on Top of the Charts. He wore this kind of mad fake head and visually he bears a strong resemblance to Frank. So where this all came from, is John Ronson one of the writers, had been in Frank Friedbottom’s band, so that started him thinking about characters. He was working on another film with Peter Straughan called The Men Who Stare at Goats, which is based on a John Ronson book. They started talking about this and they came up with this kind of fabulous character of Frank.
So park this character Frank for a moment, the other main character is John, who for in every way that Frank is extraordinary John is kind of ordinary, and the way that Frank is effortlessly creative John is effortfully not creative. He wants to be cool, loving, all the things that go with fame, the credibility the life that would come with it, but he doesn’t quite have the thing he needs to get there. He doesn’t have the time. And it’s like somebody said, he spent a lot of time writing acceptance speeches even if he would never win. So our John is the guy who is more interested in what it would be like to be that guy than in the music itself.
So anyway, what our film does is it takes John, who is the wannabe guy and drops him in the middle of this mad band that is fronted by Frank. And it’s like as far as he is concerned in the beginning, he’s going through the looking glass, finally getting a chance to live the dream, to realize his fantasy and see these maverick characters that he finds himself with. The film takes him on a journey where he is going to learn maybe this isn’t the life he is cut out for. So that the kind of the really, really, most general outline of the film.
It sounds great. Tell me about, I think a lot of audience members are going to want an answer to this question. If you were just describing the movie to me in a vacuum, you said its playing at Sundance, its about a musician who wears a giant fake head all the time, I think that nine out of ten people would roll their eyes and say “Next.” I know just from talking to you for two minutes that this is not a gimmick. But tell me some of why, despite the possibility of it being misconstrued, why that feels like a very important aspect of the film to you.
Abrahamson: It’s a really playful film, it’s a comedy, its funny. It’s also quite poignant, but it’s playful. And part of what attracts me to it is I love classic, really great classic from the sort of classical Hollywood hertitage up through you know, a contemporary comedy. One thing I love about Frank’s image is that he is the person in the center of the film, but also a kind of puppet. He’s a canvas onto which other people can project ideas and what we do is we tease what the characters in the film want to do, particularly the John character. John is fascinated to think “Who is this guy, who is this guy underneath the mask, what is he like? What is the person who can make this music really like?” And so John speculates, he imagines, does he have some incredible deformity, was it the pain of that that caused him to hide himself and gave him the depth he needed to make this amazing music? Or what’s the mystery?
So the film plays with ideas of what makes somebody creative. And it hides the main creative force of the film behind the mask. And encourages us to make our speculations as well. I won’t say where the film goes in the end, but it’s just something interesting with those ideas I believe, and kind of turns them on their head.
It’s amazing how much you can invest in this character. First of all we are not saying if you see behind the mask or not. The thing that’s also amazing about it is, very quickly you forget about the head, and then you really, really feel for the character. And what’s great about it is you always have to kind of try to find out what he’s feeling. From the little clues he gives you, from the things he says. And that allows you to play for gags but also, a way of both having a character in the middle of the film and kind of keeping him mysterious. That’s really good fun and really interesting.
Michael is such a great physical actor that through just the little things he does he really makes the mask work for him. He describes it as liberating. He would be able to do things he otherwise wouldn’t be able to do. Tiny moves he makes and physical stuff he does really tune you into the character. You really love Frank pretty quickly in the film; you really care about him. When we were starting to work we could look at the dailies from the first day and go “The head doesn’t work.” At which point we’d have to make a new film. But actually it does, and it’s remarkable how well it works. And you take a face that people want to see and photograph and you hide it.
The script itself is very rich, there’s loads of texture in it. It’s dense with stuff that’s lovely to chew on as an audience. So I think while one could have made a film like this which is very gimmicky, this isn’t that film.
Well I think that’s a damn great answer to that question. And I think that if anybody reads the answer to that question and doesn’t go see the film, you don’t need them in your audience. Where were you when you got the call that the film had gotten into Sundance? What was your reaction? Of course you’re an old festival hand with Berlin and everything else, but tell me about that moment.
Abrahamson: Okay where was I, that’s a really good question. You know there are those people who can say oh yeah it was February 6th and it was hot. I’m terrible, I can’t remember. I think we got the word that it was looking good, I think when it was officially confirmed I was home, and when we found out what our slot was that we were in premieres, it was a Friday night slot, my reaction was that I couldn’t imagine a better place. I thought if I was dreaming a launch film that would be the dream. Then it was oh shit, we have to finish it in time.
And my last question for you is tell me about someone on your crew that is your MVP, someone you look back on the film and say oh thank god we had that cinematographer, that producer, whoever it was.
Abrahamson: I think there are a few people. It’s probably a tie between the editor and the composer. But I’ll talk about the composer because it’s a music film, so this person is kind of central to the whole thing. When I sort of got on board the film, I thought about a lot of very established composers and I thought about splitting it between a composer who would do the score and somebody possibly a band that would write the music of the band in the film. But in the end I decided to have faith in the guy that I’ve worked with on everything that I’ve done so far Stephen Rennicks. He was working on some demos, he was helping me thinking up names together, we went through a process of commissioning some demos from some amazing people. Some pretty great stuff came in, but none of it was quite right. The stuff Steven was doing was more sensitive to the heart of the film. I said right we are just going to do this.
Steven did an incredible job; he wrote all the score and all the band’s music and he worked really closely with cast, and he taught them to play their parts. All the band music you hear them playing in the film, they are really playing, there is no playback. Nobody presses a button and they mime, this was all really played. That made shooting really difficult but it does lead to this sense that what you’re watching is really real. So that was a massive job. I knew he was incredibly talented but he delivered in a way I didn’t expect.