FRANK – Interview with composer Stephen Rennicks

We catch up with the composer on Lenny Abrahamson’s latest movie…

FRANK is released on DVD and Blu-Ray this week, so we caught up with the film’s composer, Stephen Rennicks, to find out more about the music in FRANK’S soul… He may have provided the soundtrack before for Lenny Abrahamson, but when it came to the rock’n’roll circus that is FRANK, composer Stephen Rennicks had to think outside the recording booth…

Frank is one of those unashamedly indie movies that you’ll either love or hate, but when it comes to the soundtrack of this bonkers band-on-the-run tale, well, it’s hard not to love the strange brew on offer.
Having provided the soundtrack for Lenny Abrahamson’s earlier movies ADAM & PAUL (2004), GARAGE (2007) and WHAT RICHARD DID (2012), Stephen Rennicks knew he had to come up with something a little bit different for FRANK.

Michael Fassbender plays the eponymous, 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 (think Ted and Dougal trying to compose My Lovely Horse, but on mushrooms). Also in the mix is Maggie Gyllenhaal, as the highly-strung and highly protective theremin ice queen Clara, musician Carla Azar as surly drummer Nana, Francois Civil as the far-from-civil French bass player Baraque and Scoot McNairy as burnt-out manager Don.

Currently delighting American critics and confusing American audiences, having been released here to solid box-office in April, FRANK is out on DVD this week…

The limitations of some of the actors/musicians here – ultimately, a blessing? You end up with something closer to Brian Eno than Mutt Lange…
STEPHEN RENNICKS: The script dictated what characters would play what instruments so the sound had already been decided to the extent that it wasn’t just guitars and drums or an entirely synth based band. Once the film had been cast I spent time with Maggie, Domhnall and Michael individually so I had an idea of their abilities and was writing material that I thought worked with the script and was also capable of being given an identity once the band assembled and began to make it their own. In fact I think the biggest limitation and my biggest concern was the amount of time we had together as a band prior to production which really ended up as being a couple of weeks. I think it’s fair to say that while most of the cast had limited experience of playing in a band they’re all very musical and of course very experienced performers but they still needed something to bring them all together. I think that was Carla Azar. The role of Nana, the film band’s (The Soronprfbs) drummer had always been really tricky and Len and I had lots of discussions about how to handle this. When Carla was cast it was such a gift to the music side of the film and to the overall goodwill and generosity among the cast in that she looked after and encouraged the actors musically in rehearsal and they in turn looked after her when it came to the production and the acting. For me as a musician, working with Carla was a privilege and I learnt an awful lot from just being around her and listening to her play. Her drumming is exquisite; elastic, delicate, raucous, muscular, playful and beautifully musical. I knew she would be the backbone of the band and that allowed me to relax about where we could go with their sound, wherever that might be…towards Enoworld or Muttland.

The Krautrock influence seems to be the most prominent, with a dash of The Fall – were there reference points for you?
SR: The sound is a complete mongrel and other people will notice things in there that I’m not even aware of as I don’t listen to a lot of music. I mainly based the sound on what I knew the actual band consisting of mainly actors could possibly create under the imagined influence of the fictional Clara and Frank who I always felt were the main creative forces in the Soronprfbs so I’d like to think that maybe Clara was influenced by Krautrock or Frank was a fan of the Fall. I’d seen bands far weirder than The Soronprfbs while touring with a band in mainland Europe in the late 80s/early 90s, bands that never made it far beyond a Goth club in Salzberg, Berlin or Paris. The only actual references we looked at were Daniel Johnston, The Shaggs and Smoke but these were as much about what we didn’t want to be or couldn’t be as anything else although I think Michael listened to a lot of Daniel Johnston and Iggy Pop in trying to find Frank’s voice, speaking as much as singing. I knew from working with Michael individually and then with the band during rehearsal that he had a strong baritone voice but I’d no solid idea what particular flavour he was going to give Frank’s voice until I heard the first notes come out of that head on the first music day of the production.

Did a part of you worry that the audience wouldn’t necessarily know – or, gulp, care – that this music was being created organically, that you were going for lightning in a bottle?
SR: No, I had more pressing concerns at that stage like production dates or A-list actors flying in to start rehearsing music that hadn’t been written yet. Part of my job was to have the music fit seamlessly with this group of people we encounter in Frank and absolutely accept that it’s of them. But the music also had to act in different ways at different points in the script, at once being weirdly cacophonic and yet having something in it which Jon and the audience could hear potential in to be reworked into something more accessible and at other times being just ridiculous yet ear-wormy like Frank’s “Most Likeable Song – Ever!”. I think that because we created the music in the way we did it will always have an authenticity about it but of course will not be to everybody’s taste or measure up to many an aficionado’s definition of what an outsider band’s music is but that’s not a surprise. If people think the band’s music is shit then in a way we’ve succeeded in creating the illusion that the actors are actually a band who wrote the music we hear regardless of any objective assessment of it. What does surprise me is the amount of people who are angry that the music isn’t up to the standard of a Hollywood musical…what can you say?

I’m guessing FRANK differed greatly because of this live, organic approach from pretty much all of your other film work…?
SR: Yes, I would normally only be involved writing the score in post production though I’d know the scripts and maybe even have visited the set. My involvement in Frank started at a very early stage, prior to pre-production, casting even and was as song writer, musical director, musical coach and then later in writing and producing the score. Although now that I think of it I did write a school hymn for the schoolboys in WHAT RICHARD DID, Len’s previous film, which I had to coach during the production – hardly outsider music though.

How much music was recorded for the movie? I get the impression some songs would have went full Grateful Dead here, lasting well-beyond the 3-minute pop song…
SR: There was a lot. I wrote about 70 pieces for Frank, songs and score, many of which are indeed rambling but on the other hand some of them are only as long as they would have been on screen, 15 or 20 seconds.

What sort of feedback did you get to the music?  I thought it was beautiful, but then again, I’m a deep, soulful musician with incredible taste.
SR: The film has been critically really well received and often the music has been mentioned as having contributed which is a really nice thing to hear. As I mentioned earlier there had been some comments, though mostly online, about the versions of some of the tracks which have made it to YouTube where people don’t understand that the music is from the world of the band in the film and doesn’t have the slick production or usual structure of what they may expect from a Hollywood musical…that’s nice though in itself.

Given all the goofy goodwill involved in a film like FRANK, were there ever times when the music didn’t work? Times when Lenny just shook his head and sent you back to the drawing board?
SR: Yeah, of course – I depended on him to do that just as he depended on me to do the same when the designers would ask about what guitar Frank would have or synths Clara would play. There was lots of goodwill during the production but that doesn’t happen by accident. Behind the apparent goofy goodwill there is a rigorous process led by Len. His own dedication to the project, the risks he takes, his remarkable knowledge of every detail in the world he has to fashion sets the bar very high but also creates an atmosphere of confidence that you’re involved in something very worthwhile. It’s not an egoless collaboration by any means and there were a few times when we would have snarled a bit at each other but I think when you know that the other people you’re working with have the ability to get you what you want then the best way to access that is by trusting them. I think Len’s belief in me to be able to come up with the music and songs for Frank was the biggest reason that I managed it. The back and forth between us was essential in trying to discover the overall feel of this imaginary band. There was only one time when I knew I’d nailed it and that was when I wrote ‘I Love You All’ at about 2am in my studio having spent the previous day in rehearsal freaked out about the last song and it not having appeared yet. I went into the rehearsal the next day and played an mp3 of it over the speakers for Carla, Domhnall and Francois and Len was there too. When it stopped playing Carla walked over and held her hand out to shake mine – I think she knew immediately it worked musically. Len knew that it would be strong enough to carry the last scene, fitting with what might come out of Frank at that stage in his story and yet be consistent with how they worked as a band, playing off Frank’s lead as we’d seen them do before earlier in the film. That’s the stuff you get lucky with – you could be waiting ages for something like that to come into your head and film production doesn’t hang around, it’s much more about nuts and bolts than muses. If you build it – they don’t always come…

You made the move into features after four shorts with ADAM & PAUL – quite possibly the finest Irish film of the last 10,000 years – change the picture for you? You’ve been working pretty constantly ever since.
SR: I have been working consistently but I think that’s more to do with me being one of only a handful of people in Ireland writing music for film over the past 15 years than anything else.

Where did this all spring from – abandoned rock stardom dreams…?
SR: I did play in bands but always hated performing, shyness I guess. I never wanted to end up doing this but one thing led to another…studying architecture, not leaving Ireland in the 80s, building a recording studio with friends, playing in bands (sometimes with friends), making short films (sometimes with friends), writing music for the short films and then just going from one project to the next.

You wrote and directed Public Toilet back in 1992 – experience too painful to repeat?
SR: Which incidentally has no music in it. No, painful though it was I tried to repeat it but maybe the experience of watching it was too painful for others to let me do it again. I’ve had some ideas get to certain stages of development and even had a comedy series which I wrote with Len for BBC almost get commissioned but with hindsight there’s only one thing that I think I’d still love to make. I haven’t given up on the idea of directing but I think a really great director has to have a rare set of skills and I think I have a few of them but not a couple of the really important ones.

You have Laura Fletcher’s African Pride documentary out this year too – what’s next?
SR: I know Lenny is America-bound – he’s taking his old buddy Stevo with him, right? Apparently he is though I won’t physically get to go with him this time. I’m currently working on a Channel 4 TV series and I’m attached to a few other feature projects which I hope to have completed by the end of the year.

FRANK is released on DVD and Blu-Ray on September 12th 2014

Words: Paul Byrne