He may have been the only pop star in the world with a bigger head than Bono’s, but Frank Sidebottom was never destined for the mainstream.
Like Neil Young, if Sidebottom – the creation of the late Mancunian musician and comedian Chris Sievey, who died in 2010 – found his music going anywhere near the middle of the road, he made a quick swerve into the ditch. It’s this outsider spirit that his old bandmate and now best-selling author, Jon Ronson (The Men Who Stare At Goats), set out to capture when he wrote the script for Frank alongside his long-time working partner, Peter Straughan.
Michael Fassbender plays the eccentric Frank Sidebottom, forever hiding beneath a giant papier mache head, and regarded by those in his band as a certifiable genius. When the band head to the wilds of Ireland to record the album that is going to change the world, and finally give Frank the recognition he deserves, along for the ride is their new wide-eyed keyboard player, Jon (Domhnall Gleeson), our eyes and ears for some serious cabin fever.
Okay, first up – completely bonkers concept, on so many levels. At what point did you decide, yeah, I can make this madness sing? I frequently woke up in the middle of the night, even during the shoot, thinking, my God, what have I done? This will be a spectacular waste of two years of my life. I’ll be handing in my notice after this. My first thought about that script was that it was going to be a big, big leap to get that up on screen. That first script was actually quite different to the one we shot – it was more convoluted, it was a bit unclear as to what it wanted to be, and I just felt it wasn’t working. I just didn’t want to commit two years of my life to it, but I kept thinking about it. And then my agent told me to read it again, stating that these are really good people. And when I read it this time, what struck me was, when they’re living in this remote cabin, putting together the album that Frank believes will change the world, and it was written with such kind of flair and playful, creative madness – some strange texture there that I hadn’t seen before – that it really appealed to my love of comedy, and just those enclosed worlds that can be so intoxicating.
There are shades John Shuttleworth, Daniel Johnson and Andy Kaufman in here, all stubbornly, proudly acquired tastes. That’s the strength of its flavour. The film itself is about that. Do you push everything towards the comfortable middle, to try and win over lots of fans, or do you just go out with something that knows what it is, and just wants to be that? There are lots of right turns that the film could have taken where the audience would feel on much safer ground, but for me, the challenge was to just go, no, let’s just take it where it really should go.
The actors play their own music in the film and deliver some wonderful grooves. Did you forcefeed them Krautrock? The Fall? Throbbing Gristle? The Residents? There was a lot of that. And shooting it live made the whole thing really hard – there’s a reason most people use musical playback. We were lucky that everyone here could play, and we wanted this to feel like a band. The music had to feel as though it was created on the spot, so, major kudos to Stephen Rennicks, because it did feel a bit crazy but also sweet.
Did it take Fassbender long to find his feet here, acting under this big mask, being such an enigma, all things to all groupies? We talked about it early on, and early on, that fey voice was there, but quickly he realised that would be too predictable. There were other aspects to the role too, such as learning to play guitar an awful lot better than he could beforehand, and then how Frank would sing, how he would move. So, Michael would just go through his process, and it was such a pleasure to work with him. He’s got such a good instinct about things. And people ask me if it was difficult to convince him to wear the mask, but it was always there in the script. It’s not like Michael hadn’t read the script.
People have high expectations when they see names such as Michael Fassbender and Lenny Abrahamson – that must make you proud, and scared. It’s not something you can be unaware of. The first film was such an amazingly pure experience. No one is expecting anything of you, and the reaction to Adam & Paul was so incredible, and pure. After that, people expect stuff, and you go from being the goalkeeper – if you can stop the ball going in, that’s a bonus – but suddenly, you’re the striker. You’ve got to score with each shot. For me though – and I’m not in any way being chauvinistic about where I’m from – I’m really proud of the fact that this initially very British film became very Irish.
Did you give Michael and co. a list of films and artists to listen to? We had lots of playlists, and movies too. There are no movies that are really like it, just bits here and there. And there were some really mad references – bits of kids animation, for example. Stuff I’d seen my 4-year-old looking at on Nick. Two little weird characters that just moved in a certain way that was kinda funny. When I showed it to Michael, I did feel it could be a turning point for him. He might just walk. I can’t remember the name of the cartoon now, but it this fox, this squirrel and a bear, and they were just banging things in the forest, making music. There’s also a Finnish filmmaker I love, Aki Kaurismaki, who did Leningrad Cowboys Go America, and there are a few of his films which have this strange, deadpan funniness about them. That was the comic territory I wanted to be in, especially as it moves on. I didn’t want it to be just a gagfest. I wanted it to evoke the feeling of what it would be like to be on such a mad adventure for someone like Jon, who kind of represents all of us. So, it couldn’t just be straight broad comedy, because if it was, you wouldn’t get any of that flavour.
Maggie Gyllenhaal said recently, “It took me a while to understand the tone,” says Maggie Gyllenhaal, having initially turned down the role. How long did it take you to understand the tone? A lot here of the Monkeeing around here seems very improvised… I think she took a leap of faith eventually because, like me, some aspect of this story just stuck in her head. I went over and met her in New York, and she’s very nice, hanging out in her house, chatting about references, etc, but it was also about trusting the people who are making it. It is a real risk, because there are lots more ways for Frank to turn out badly than there are for it to turn out well. And so I can see why she was reluctant, but after we spoke, a few weeks later, she rang me and said, ‘Look, I’ve changed my mind. Is it still open to do it?’. I was really surprised, because that never happens with actors, but I’m glad it did in this case.
I’m guessing the true shape of a film like this happened in the editing suite? It would be so easy to change the beats here, and make a scene completely different. Totally. A film like this, we also shot an awful lot of stuff, especially in that central section. A lot of that could be re-ordered, chopped and changed. We had scenes where the smallest of changes would have a very big effect on the tone of the film. We spent a lot of time in the edit, myself and Nathan Nugent, who I work with very closely. It was hard work, but it was very exciting, because you felt that you could remake the film at any point. And all comedy is musical. It’s all about the pauses, and the slightest tweak can change the whole tone.
Talking of music, the guys playing live here manage to deliver some wonderful grooves. Did you forcefeed them Krautrock? The Fall? Throbbing Gristle? The Residents? There was a lot of that. And shooting it live made the whole thing really hard – there’s a reason most people use playback. We were lucky that everyone here could play, and we wanted this to feel like a band. The music had to feel as though it was created on the spot, so, major kudos to Stephen Rennicks, because it did feel a bit crazy but also sweet.