FRANK, the new film from Lenny Abrahamson (Adam & Paul, Garage, What Richard Did), is difficult to get your head around. And not just because it features Michael Fassbender, in an enormous fibreglass head, ruling the roost over a contingent of oddball musicians. The film’s zany comedy and wonderful weirdness far eclipse the slender narrative arc. So trying to figure out what it’s about is not really the point. Nevertheless, there’s no harm in asking the film’s director, is there?
“That’s a hard question,” says Abrahamson. “I think the ‘what’s it about’ question can be a double-edged sword. With some films it’s easy to answer. They’ve got a very definite theme or idea. I would say that with Frank the film is as much about the start and the journey as it is about the end of it. Among other things, it’s a celebration of creative freedom. It’s also a celebration of a certain kind of comedy — that freewheeling slapstick vaudeville stuff that I love. It’s about creativity versus conventionality.”
This core concept of celebrating a creative journey informed not just the narrative but the film’s making, too. While every film shoot is a creative venture, there were aspects specific to the making of Frank that kept its production more in tune with the film’s own tribute to creativity and experimentation.
For one thing, Fassbender and his fellow band-mates in the film (among them Domhnall Gleeson and Maggie Gyllenhaal) performed the band’s music themselves, which was recorded live on each take.
“It was kind of wonderful,” says Gleeson. “We were given opportunities to totally go bat-shit, which you don’t always get. And then you had Michael in the centre of it all, with the big crazy head, running around and just expressing himself in a way that most people never get to do.”
Within the film Gleeson’s character, Jon, is a foil to Fassbender’s profoundly ‘out there’ singer and yet also a strange mirror-image of him. He’s a seemingly conventional soul whose ambitions far outstrip his musical abilities. Yet once he has stumbled his way into Frank’s band, Gleeson’s character becomes slightly more insidious, his dreams of success upsetting the delicate chemistry of the group.
“One thing Lenny and I talked about was that he had to be allowed to be a bastard,” says Gleeson. “We can’t apologise for the fact that Jon behaves awfully sometimes — really badly. And I find that really enjoyable. There’s something wonderful in watching somebody fuck things up.”
“Jon is a heightened version of that part of all of us,” says Abrahamson. “Of that ambition and desperate insecurity that causes you to totally fake who you are and aggrandise yourself. We love flawed characters like that.”
Written by Jon Ronson and Peter Straughan, the film was initially inspired by the figure of cult music performer Frank Sidebottom, the alias of the late English comedian Chris Sievey (Sidebottom’s own giant head was the model for Fassbender’s bizarre mask in the film). But Abrahamson conceives of the movie as a tribute to outsider art in general. And this figure of ‘the outsider’ is, in fact, one that recurs in his movies.
“I am fascinated by characters who find themselves with space around them,” he says. “In Garage things recede from Josie (Pat Shortt). He has to manage his own time and days. He is the only person giving meaning to his actions. And you think, ‘How do people like that sustain themselves when the world is that massive?’ In What Richard Did, too, you end up with a person who is utterly, utterly lost. So I am drawn to those people. Even as a kid I was always fascinated by people eating on their own in restaurants. In my own life I sustain myself so much in relation to other people and I keep close relationships. So you wonder, when all those mirrors that reflect you are taken away, how do you retain or make sense of anything as a solo person?”
Abrahamson’s films, then, tends to involve characters who find themselves in a strange headspace. His next project, an adaptation of Emma Donohue’s novel, Room, will no doubt return to the subject.
Gleeson’s next film, meanwhile, is going to involve a different kind of space altogether. As announced last week, the Dubliner is among the cast of the new Star Wars movies. A picture of the cast going through a table-read with director JJ Abrams and Star Wars icons Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, and Mark Hamill sent ripples around the known universe last week.
Predictably, Gleeson has been banned from talking about the project but his excitement is palpable just a few days after the table-read.
“It was all the things you expect,” he says. “It was amazing and bizarre. We settled in very quickly just because you already know this world so well. It was a mad and beautiful way of spending a day. The magic is absolutely alive and that’s what you want from any table-read. You just want a spark of magic to show you the way and it was alive for every second.”
A spark of magic? As Darth Vader might put it, the force already seems strong with this one.