When you cast Michael Fassbender as your title character, the last thing you’d probably think to do is put a giant mask over his head so you can’t see his face throughout the film, but that’s exactly what director Lenny Abrahamson chose to do in his latest, Frank, and it pays off quite well. Domhnall Gleeson plays Jon, a guy who takes a risk and follows his dream of becoming a musician only to wind up in a remote cabin with an eccentric band called the Soronprfbs, led by a guy who sings with a mask on and never takes it off – ever.
With Frank making its way into theaters for an April 15th limited release, Abrahamson, Fassbender, Gleeson, Maggie Gyllenhaal and writer Jon Ronson all sat down for a press conference to discuss the unusual music featured in the film, performing with that head on, the connection to Frank Sidebottom and more. Check it out after the jump.
LENNY ABRAHAMSON: I just think those characters are usually the ones that are – people who don’t quite fit, those characters are often the characters who are kind of either under an awful lot of pressure or otherwise not acceptable to the mainstream and that tells us a lot about who we are. The people that don’t fit are a great way of reflecting on all of us, I think. And also, they’re just fascinating characters and I’ve always been drawn to them. Well-adjusted people, that’s a hard character to put in the center of your movie. [Laughs] I don’t actually know any, but if I did, I’d find that a hard film to make, so I think I’m just drawn to people who don’t really fit in for all sorts of reasons.
I know that some of you have dabbled in music, so I’m wondering, what were your musical experiences before this movie? Was there a musical boot camp that everyone went through?
MICHAEL FASSBENDER: We did have the great luxury, and thank god we got three weeks or so rehearsal time before Christmas and then we started filming after the Christmas period so that gave us a chance to sort of get to know one another, but also to really try and understand Stephen [Rennicks] and Lenny’s music because I think the really hard task for these guys was to find music that was arty, but not pretensions, that had a real truth to it, that wasn’t commercial, but wasn’t awful, that had moments that were quite catchy, but again, not to be 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 just about us adjusting to that and getting to know and getting familiar with it, but all of us I think are pretty musical people. I’ve always liked music and it’s always been in and around my life, so it was nice to fulfill a fantasy and play in a band. Although last night we played our last gig and I thought I’d enjoy it more; it was quite stressful. [Laughs]
ABRAHAMSON: They’re all musical, and Michael’s very generous about our music, but actually the music was adjusted then around the cast and we cast people who could play, not always the same instrument that they’re playing in the film, but that they have musical impulses and a musicality because we wanted the music to be played live in the film and filmed live because that’s what makes it feel good.
MAGGIE GYLLENHAAL: I also think there really is a difference between being musical enough and acting like you’re excellent at it because I went to see Nick Cave play in Prospect Park the other day. He’s been paying with the Bad Seeds for 20 years and they were so awesome, and we were acting like we were awesome. [Laughs] And then we had to play our gig and we played very simply. For me, it was a little bit easier I think than for you guys because I was making noise. I think the idea was that my character could do whatever she wants with these synths and with the theramine, but for me it was more luck, you know? I knew what most of the knobs did [laughs], and that’s better than most people, right?
GYLLENHAAL: Yeah, but then I went and learned it.
RONSON: [Laughs] Yeah! If that sentence ended with a better word than theramine, you’d have been playing the – viola. In the screenplay we just wrote the music has to be beautiful and ridiculous at the same time, and then didn’t offer any suggestions as to how …
GYLLENHAAL: But it is! That’s what it is!
ABRAHAMSON: Yeah, I have to pay a huge tribute to Stephen Rennicks.
FASSBENDER: And the genius of Stephen is that he did pick the most commercial song ever because that ‘Lipstick, Coca Cola, dance all night’ song, that’s the one that people always remember from seeing the trailer, so Stephen was right.
ABRAHAMSON: Jon’s lyrics …
RONSON: I love those lyrics. Funny enough, that’s the one moment in the film that actually sounds a bit like Frank Sidebottom. That one song sort of channels Frank Sidebottom. And that song we were trying to work out, I think it was like trying to imagine somebody had – I mean, it’s never specified what mental illness Frank has. I mean, I’ve got my theories, but in that moment, I was thinking, if somebody with manic depression was trying to write a Katy Perry song, how would it come out? And that was the, ‘Coca Cola, lipstick, ring.
FASSBENDER: Well, and, you know, in terms of his mental state, I think that was something we were looking at, like an extreme bipolar scenario where the manic and the euphoria just comes before the crash and that was the whole SXSW sort of build up.
I’m interested in the differences between Frank in the movie and Frank Sidebottom in real life, and the decisions you made while writing the screenplay in regards to changing his story and how it ended.
RONSON: Well, in real life, I was the talented one. [Laughs] In terms of the movie, I’d say probably the first 10 minutes of the movie until they arrive at Vetno is pretty much real life. We changed bits and pieces, but that’s basically real and then we kind of changed everything from Vetno. The first thing that happened was that Chris [Sievey], who is Frank Sidebottom, told me that he didn’t really want there to be a character based on Chris in the film and we’d pretty much come to that same conclusion anyway. There were two things about Chris’ story that would have made it difficult to write a screenplay; one was that he loved chaos. He loved it when things went wrong. He was never phased when things went wrong and I thought, ‘Well, that’s a fantastically admirable character trait to have in real life, but how can you make that work in the film? There’s got to be things for people to lose. And then the other problem was that I found it difficult to think about writing about a comedy band. I thought it would be much more interesting if the band took themselves incredibly seriously and the fact that we had Chris’ blessing to change things meant that we started bringing in other things. So for instance, in real life, Chris didn’t suffer from any mental illness. That came very much from a personal experience I had with friends and also the story of Daniel Johnson and the documentary, The Devil and Daniel Johnson, which I’m sure a lot of you know is an incredible documentary, and then stories of Captain Beefheart and so on. But I think those are the main reasons why we diverged from the real story.
Maggie, your character doesn’t have a lot of dialogue and I read somewhere that you were given leeway to create your own character on set. How was it collaborating like that for all of you?
ABRAHAMSON: Well, there should always be that leeway because if you think of your character as sort of absolutely fixed, then you just try and find actors to come and do exactly that thing, then you’re not gonna be working with that actor’s own set of internal impulses and who they are, so the best work is always a coming together of the actor and the character. So that would have been true of everybody. Everybody in the film brought way more to the parts than you could sort of engineer in a screenplay – apart from Domhnall. He pretty much just did exactly what he was asked to do. [Laughs] But Maggie definitely brought – because I think there’s a way in which Clara could be played as just a joke and just to – Jon will back me up on this – Clara’s part in the earliest version of the script was called Klaus and he was a German sort of rock, hard core, uncompromising Klaus Kinski type character.
ABRAHAMSON: Maggie brought this kind of, I don’t know, this other dimension of, I suppose, a longing that she couldn’t fulfill for a relationship with Frank and that’s really what her journey became in the film.
GYLLENHAAL: I think whatever is happening in your own self and around the shooting of a movie can just get poured back into the movie and so yeah, every time you work on something it’s gonna be a collaboration with the people you’re working with and your fantasy. You go, ‘Okay, Michael Fassbender and Domhnall Gleeson are gonna this movie and I have kind of an idea of what that’ll be like,’ and then you get there and they’re themselves and the reality of what that is always gonna be different, and the negotiating like, what’s actually happening here and how are we gonna tell this story with this group of people and with this director? It’s always the most interesting part of it, and how things shift and change are different than you thought. I think that’s where the life comes from.
Can you talk a little about the costumes, especially Clara’s? I mean, obviously there’s a big head …
GYLLENHAAL: I’ll talk about Clara’s costumes. At one point, we met and we were thinking, ‘Okay, maybe she’d be like this electronic music person who had no style,’ you know, like a pony tail and sweatpants or something, and then we thought, ‘No, let’s make her have style,’ because why not if you can? I guess I thought Clara thought she was in like a French new wave movie all the time, except she’s in a muddy cabin in Wicklow. I don’t know how we would have ever washed our clothes, you know, like scrubbing them on a board or something. [Laughs]
FASSBENDER: They would have made a sound out of it.
GYLLENHAAL: Right, exactly! [Laughs] And then not had those clothes anymore. So she’s like a very dirty character in a Godard movie. That’s what I was going for with the clothes.
ABRAHAMSON: You had Farrah slacks that I think you wore the entire shoot. I mean, I’m not suggesting that they weren’t actually changed, but Domhnall, he had a selection of carefully chosen cool t-shirts that would have been – you sort of involved yourself in what shirt you would have been, what he thought was worth liking in music.
DOMHNALL GLEESON: And I think originally in the film there was a scene where they stopped off at a gas station ‘cause Jon just thinks he’s going for a gig and it’s actually for malts and he buys one t-shirt. It’s the only one they sell in the gas station.
RONSON: Yeah, and it was a silhouette of the naked girl hitchhiker.
GLEESON: Which makes Clara hate him so much more than she already does.
FASSBENDER: Yeah, I like the wrestling scene as well.
ABRAHAMSON: Well, that wrestling came out of you and François [Civil] doing weird calisthenics everyday, and that just filtered into that scene.
Lenny, can you talk about directing an actor who has his face covered? Is that limiting at all? And Michael, if you could talk a little about if the head limited you at all or maybe if it brought something out that you didn’t even know you were capable of?
ABRAHAMSON: It didn’t feel different because we’re not hiding Frank. Frank is that person with that big head, and so you just take the scene seriously like you take any scene seriously and think about what’s going on. I [also] learned really interesting things about masks and people have used masks in drama for thousands of years. The mask is unusual. What the audience feels has happened sort of ends up being there somehow because we project our feelings on to other people, and then I think the other thing is, you lose the naturalistic thing of connecting with somebody else’s face, but what you get is, you get a whole lot of other things that you don’t get. 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 it at all, whether he’s offended or if he just takes a little look to one side. Or if he just walks out; that’s funny in a way that wouldn’t be funny if it was 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.
FASSBENDER: Yeah, I found it really liberating. The only thing that it took a bit of getting used to – or never really getting used to – was when we were doing the performances, the sound in there. You know, I would go away and I was learning an accent and I’m practicing it like this and then once you put the head on, there’s a reverb thing that’s going on in there and it kind of puts the hearing off a little bit, and it’s hard to sort of locate some stuff, but that was it. The rest was a lot of fun. It was really cool. It was like, as soon as I put the head on it gave me an element of mischief. It gives it sort of the anarchic quality of Chris Sievey’s original Frank Sidebottom character. I think [he] really sort of came out in that. And also, it’s exactly what Lenny was saying. For the other actors, it never mattered that I couldn’t make eye contact really with other actors because Frank is Frank and Frank lives in his own universe, and so I was hoping for them, it would be the same. Is he listening? Is he not listening? Did he hear that? They’re used to him anyway. Except for Domhnall’s character, which is a new introduction, everybody’s used to Frank with the head on. ‘Oh, that’s just Frank doing his thing,’ or whatever it is. Whether I was engaged or not engaged, both times I think it was a help for me and hopefully for the other guys that were responding to him.
GLEESON: 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. It just depends how crazy you want to be. That’s the only difference I think, as far as I’m concerned.
ABRAHAMSON: Maybe that the film also tries to, in itself, be a bit like the band. The film tries to kind of not go down the tracks that you might expect, so it keeps taking turns and it tries to be creatively freer than a genre comedy would be. That’s a reflection on the ideas inside the film to the extent that it works.
Can you talk about shooting the SXSW scenes? I’m wondering if anyone’s been down there to SXSW for the music portion before doing the film.
ABRAHAMSON: No, actually, neither myself nor the designer had been there, or the DP, but we watched a lot, obviously, and we got a lot of footage and material, but we didn’t shoot it in Austin either. We shot in Albuquerque, but what was nice was when we went and showed the film at SXSW, we got lots of questions from people about what it had been like being in SXSW shooting SXSW, which was nice, but we recreated it. In a funny way, we really only show quite small parts of it, but it was brilliant to bring it there and 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.
FASSBENDER: I had been to the one just before. I had been to SXSW literally whenever it is. Is it October? I can’t remember. So I came straight off a movie onto Frank having just been there, so that was pretty cool. It’s an amazing festival.
Where exactly was this cabin and did everybody actually stay there? Was there that communal feeling to it?
ABRAHAMSON: Nobody stayed there. I’d like to say yes, but we did stay near it. It’s in Wicklow in Ireland, so it’s like an hour and a half outside Dublin. It’s quite like it looks in the film. We did some stuff to it. It 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, so it’s a real anomaly. And a lot of those little buildings are there. Once you were down in the little valley that it was in, it was really hard to get out of so actually, people pretty much did hang out there all day playing hoops and messing on their instruments, so that probably did bring people together.
I have a question about the head. How many were there, did anyone else try them on for fun and how awful was it by the end? I’m thinking it must have been like the Times Square Cookie Monster where it’s just really gross.
FASSBENDER: It was hot and sweaty in there sometimes. If you’re running around in there, you can’t breathe as easy as you would without it, but like I say, I enjoyed it. I enjoyed having the head on. I actually wanted to bring it on to my next job. They wouldn’t let me. [Laughs]
ABRAHAMSON: There were about six or seven heads, but really, Michael wore the same one apart from when it needed to be broken or made up, you know, put some makeup on. But really, it was very low tech. It’s got a little skullcap thing in it and you just put it on. It comes on and off in a couple of seconds.
GLEESON: There’s another one for the stuntman that had little bits cut out. The one time it’s not Michael is when the guy gets knocked over by the car.
ABRAHAMSON: Exactly, so it had an open front so that he could actually see. Apparently he didn’t want to be hit properly by the car. I personally thought that was bullsh*t. [Laughs]
RONSON: When I saw the rushes I said, ‘God it’s so lifelike. How can you make it look like the stuntman was hit by the car?’ And he said, ‘He’s hit by the car. It’s real.’ And he did it twice, poor guy.
GYLLENHAAL: [To Fassbender] I think we would have had to know you really well and like you a lot to put that head on. [Laughs]
GLEESON: And we didn’t. [Laughs]
GYLLENHAAL: It seemed like there’d be a lot of you in there.
FASSBENDER: It’s like a beard that’s gotten out of control. There’s crumbs in there. Pretty gross.
ABRAHAMSON: A family of birds living in there. [Laughs] We did have a sort of almost see through one that 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.
ABRAHAMSON: There is a fair bit of film production in Ireland, which is great because it’s a country of 3.5 million people, 4 million people.
GLEESON: Did it just go up by 500,000 as you were talking?
ABRAHAMSON: [Laughs] Yeah, I’m constantly updated by the earpiece. Yeah, it’s good because at Sundance, both Frank and Calvary were there. Ireland’s very small. Films do need to travel. It’s not like, for example, I know a bit about Polish cinema and there, if you make a film for Poland and it’s loved in Poland, that’s a great thing. You don’t need it to travel. Domhnall’s in Calvary actually, so he has a deep link to both films.
Michael, how much of the singing did you actually do?
FASSBENDER: None of it. We got Bryan Ferry. [Laughs] I thought he’d be better, to be honest. He was all of it.
ABRAHAMSON: All of it’s played and sung by the cast. There’s no sort of secret singer. What were they called? Skritty Bilitty. Who is it?
GLEESON: Milli Vanilli.
ABRAHAMSON: Milli Vanilli! [Laughs]