Frank Filmmaking: Lenny Abrahamson on Frank

So you've got Michael Fassbender, one of the biggest stars on the planet, in your movie. What do you do? If you're Lenny Abrahamson, director of Frank, you make him wear an oversized papier-mâché head on his shoulders in every one of his scenes

Feature by Philip Concannon | 29 Apr 2014

It might seem perverse for a low-budget independent film to secure the services of a rising, recently Oscar-nominated star and then hide him behind a cartoonish mask throughout the movie, but Frank is not a film that makes conventional choices. Although the large head worn by Michael Fassbender in the film will look familiar to many viewers in the UK, Frank is far from the portrait of Frank Sidebottom that those viewers might expect it to be.

Chris Sievey's comic creation was a perpetually upbeat northern pop star who emerged as one of the most bizarre success stories of the 80s and 90s, but the Frank we meet in this film is a resolutely uncommercial American musician viewed as a visionary by the rest of his bandmates. Instead of taking us back in time, screenwriters Jon Ronson and Peter Straughan have brought Frank bang up to date, using him as the inspiration for a very 21st-century tale of fame, artistry and confused ambition.

All things considered, Frank is likely to be one of the strangest films you'll see at the cinema this year and it seems to indicate a departure from Lenny Abrahamson’s earlier films, all of which were set in Ireland and very much rooted in reality. The director, however, doesn't see his latest as such a big leap from his previous work. "I think Frank and Adam & Paul share a stylistic link," he told me, referencing his acclaimed debut film, "and even though Frank is more overtly a comedy than Adam & Paul, it has its darker or more poignant side. That shape where you can play along with this really pleasurable surface and then find yourself looking down into something much deeper seems to be a feature of both films.”

Having said that, Frank did present Abrahamson with one particular challenge that he had never faced before, namely the fact that his leading man's face is obscured throughout by a large, round head with an ambiguous wide-eyed expression painted on it. This aspect of the movie did give the director cause for concern. "I used to think, what if we're sitting in the edit a month after shooting the film and we look at each other and say, 'Well, the head doesn't work.' I mean, that really could have happened."

Abrahamson and his production team spent a long time working out what this key prop should look like, and Frank's head is different in small but crucial respects to the one worn by Sievey in his Frank Sidebottom guise. "The leap of faith I took was that if we designed the head right people would make an emotional connection to the character, and I think they have," he explains, "People are very good at finding meaning in things, and in fact they impose meaning on things if they can't find it. Rather than closing down the expressive possibilities, it really adds to them and takes you into the territory you get with really great animation.”

It wasn't just Abrahamson who was venturing into unchartered territory with this character, though. Michael Fassbender has established himself as a remarkably talented and versatile performer since making his breakthrough in Steve McQueen's Hunger, but by hiding his face Abrahamson essentially took away the greatest tool of expression that an actor possesses.

Fortunately, Fassbender proved to be more than capable of adapting to these unique circumstances. “With Michael you've got someone who is so physically articulate and so good at adding the smallest tilt of the head, or doing something with the rest of his body or his voice, to create an incredibly rich character,” Abrahamson says. “I thought I would have to do an awful lot more work as a director to make scenes work with the actor's face hidden. What I discovered was, if you just trust the scene and you work with the actor to find subtle ways to use inflections of his body and voice, he's just there. The character just appears. You don't feel you're missing anything, and he's no less expressive than any of the other characters in the film.”

“The films I'm drawn to make are the ones that are very humane and possess a kind of unsentimental tenderness” – Lenny Abrahamson

Abrahamson had to pay close attention to such fine details throughout the making of Frank, from the music (“Quite early on we decided that while the music was eccentric, experimental and unconventional, it needed to be good”) to the way in which this unusual film should be marketed. A running gag in the film involves keyboardist Jon (played by Domhnall Gleeson) and his misguided obsession with social media, which prompted producers Film4 to create real-world Twitter and Tumblr accounts for the character. “Given that Jon's tweets are the narration of the film, it was a lot of fun to create his account,” he says, “and actually it has been running for months. There's a really rich backstory there and now it's actually going to get even richer, because Jon is kind of going to go on the journey of the film and you'll be able to see that reflected in his tweeting and blogging. In a nice way he'll be able to point you in the direction of some of the musical influences that went into our creation of the band, and his YouTube choices will become more relevant. So there's a nice bubble of interconnected content and material that adds to the experience of watching the film.”

It’s a neat idea, but Abrahamson views social media as a double-edged sword and is keenly aware of its pitfalls as much as its benefits. “We're all taught now that we have to be our own promoters and our own publicists, so people don't just make things, they get out there and market it through social media,” he says. “Initially that was meant to be empowering and freeing because you could own that a little bit, you know, it wasn't just about being signed to a record deal, you could get out via social media and do it yourself. But at the same time, those numbers impose their own kind of tyranny. In Jon's case, he's somebody who confuses success with the numbers of hits and retweets and followers, so there's a kind of quantitative metric these days of what counts as success.”

Oddly enough, the fast-moving nature of modern media was made clear to Abrahamson just hours before we spoke on the phone, with the news of Brie Larson’s casting in his upcoming film Room being revealed on Twitter to his surprise. On the surface, an adaptation of Emma Donoghue’s novel is another film that presents a number of fresh challenges to the filmmaker, from working with a child actor in a confined space to capturing the book’s specific tone, but Abrahamson again suggests that it shares the same qualities that have distinguished his work to date. “Above all I find it very moving,” he says, “and I think the ultimate thing for me is that the films I'm drawn to make are the ones that are very humane and possess a kind of unsentimental tenderness. I make my choices in a very instinctive way, but I'm always drawn to something that I don't quite know how to do and something I'm interested in exploring. You can't know it completely at the beginning or there's nowhere to go."

From the Archive:

Can We Be Frank? Searching for Frank Sidebottom

Frank is released 9 May by Artificial Eye

Follow lead character ‏@JonBurroughs83