Frank talk: Lenny Abrahamson on his latest film
Director Lenny Abrahamson tells Eoin Butler about his latest film, which stars Michael Fassbender in a papier-mache mask
To the casual observer, it might seem an act of extraordinary self-sabotage. A low-budget independent film, helmed by an Irish director, snags one of the world's most sought after actors for its leading role. Yet that star is unrecognisable, prevailed upon to wear a ludicrous papier-mache head for virtually the entire duration of his performance.
The director in question is Dubliner Lenny Abrahamson, the man behind such acclaimed Irish films as 'Adam and Paul', 'Garage' and 'What Richard Did'. The film is 'Frank', a surreal comedy loosely inspired by Mancunian cult musician Frank Sidebottom. And the Hollywood A-lister going stir crazy in the Wicklow wilderness, with a vacant papier-mache grin plastered where his face should be, is Kerryman Michael Fassbender. (Or at least, we're told it is. For all we really know, it could be Marty Morrissey under there...)
For Abrahamson, having his leading man in a mask for the entire film was a challenge to grapple with, rather than a problem to surmount. "Audiences can be entertained by puppets," he points out. "They can be moved by animation and the simplest line drawings.
"With Michael, we still had his voice. We still had his body movements. He's a really good physical actor and he was able to do so much with his body and the inflections in his speech."
Nevertheless, there were some practical issues on set. Fassbender could only see through one eyehole or the other at a time, hence Frank's distinctive squint. And in scenes where the actor was required to run, he would generally have to run away from camera, with the front of the mask removed, in order to avoid costly injuries.
Otherwise, Abrahamson insists, it was a pretty conventional shoot. "The conversations I had with Michael about playing Frank were the kinds of conversations you'd have with any actor making a film. We'd ask, 'what's happening in this scene? How might it be played?' Just the normal stuff of film-making."
Frank is the story of an eccentric outsider artist and the squabbling cast of musicians who surround him. It was co-written by journalist and broadcaster Jon Ronson (who played keyboards in Frank Sidebottom's band in the late 1980s/early 1990s) and playwright Peter Straughan. They offered the script to Abrahamson, as they were fans of his earlier work, particularly 'Adam and Paul'.
Their story originally straddled three countries: Britain, Sweden and the US. Yet even with a string of established stars (Fassbender, Domhnall Gleeson and Maggie Gyllenhaal) attached, and a €6m budget at his disposal, Abrahamson knew the shoot would prove costly. So he pared the script back, focusing on the sequence Ronson and Straughan had written in which Frank and his band of maladjusted oddballs decamp to a recording studio in the Scandinavian wilderness to make what they assume will be their masterpiece album.
Abrahamson transplanted this sequence to Co Wicklow, where his location manager tracked down some remote wooden cabins built by Bavarian immigrants in the 1930s. ("So they still have that European feel.")
Anyone expecting to learn more about the original Frank Sidebottom from this film, however, should be warned. This section of Ronson and Straughan's script is also the portion that departs most emphatically from the source material.
The original Frank Sidebottom (a.k.a. Chris Sievy) was a comic creation, who eschewed rehearsals and specialised in throwaway cover versions of naff pop songs. In contrast, the film's Frank is a Brian Wilson-esque perfectionist, albeit many times more bonkers, and a relentless studio taskmaster.
"We said from the outset that we weren't making a biopic," Abrahamson insists. "The film was always destined to be a creative flight of fancy, and that's something Chris Sievy had approved of before he died [of cancer in 2010]."
The film's Frank is very much a composite character. Billboards promoting the film mimic famous album covers by the Velvet Underground, David Bowie and Pink Floyd. But in truth, that's only because the artists who inspired Frank aren't nearly well known enough to be parodied in that way.
Frank's most obvious touchstone is Captain Beefheart, whose 1969 album, 'Trout Mask Replica', was recorded in circumstances of considerable hardship for his musicians.
"Beefheart kept his band prisoner for a year in the woods making that record. He was quite a tyrant, whereas our Frank is a much more gentle character. But undoubtedly, both are caught up in what they see as the glorious creation of an album that will change the world."
At one point in the film, Frank admonishes his band for "thinking in the key of C". The line is lifted verbatim from a particularly tortured Beefheart session.
With Bray standing in for the English seaside town in which the film commences, it is only in the denouement, shot on location in New Mexico, that Abrahamson's production finally says goodbye to Ireland. The shift in scenery also signals a noticeable shift in tone. In the first two acts, Frank is a comedy about the tangled relationship between creativity and madness. But once the characters depart Ireland, the dramatic tension is principally between the band's conflicting artistic (personified by Frank) and commercial impulses (personified by Gleeson's Jon.)
"With the great outsider musicians," Abrahamson says, "there is a tremendous ego and a tremendous drive. They're committed to their work, it makes perfect sense to them and they're incapable of compromise. But they have no idea how to fit into the mainstream. That's Frank.
"Jon [Gleeson] is the opposite. He understands how the market works and he would love nothing more than to be in a successful band. But he lacks the creative impulse. He doesn't have the talent."
This aspect of the story was inspired, Abrahamson confirms, by the career of Daniel Johnston, who continues to record and perform to this day.
"Daniel Johnston was this boy who wrote brilliant pop songs from the time he was a kid," he says. "He was a lovely guy, a gentle soul, but, unfortunately, also a very troubled, bipolar character.
"He had a flirtation with the big time. He even made it onto MTV. But he was so manic, and so ill-equipped to deal with fame, it all just fell apart for him."
Happily, in his own career, Abrahamson has proven more than adept at balancing art and commerce. As well as directing a string of accomplished art house films in Ireland in the last decade, he has enjoyed a parallel career as one of the country's most sought after directors of TV commercials.
I tell him I read somewhere that a 60-second Carlsberg advert he shot in 2003 cost twice as much to make as his debut film 'Adam and Paul'. Was that ad shot in space or what, I demand?
He tells me the figures I've heard are broadly accurate, but misleading. The figure quoted for the Carlsberg Dream Flat ad included money spent getting it on television.
Nonetheless, the two shoots must have been wildly contrasting experiences? "Oh, of course," he laughs. "Adam and Paul was shot with a tiny crew, no security and no set. Our production designer had a job to do that was like the loaves and fishes.
"With Carlsberg we were building huge sets. In the nightclub scene we had 100 extras and shot for 18-hour days. It was totally different."
Abrahamson was also responsible for an infamous Meteor Christmas advert, from 2009, wherein an incredibly smug man with a beard instigated a Christmas carol-off between rival buskers. The backlash on Facebook makes him wince even now. "I really felt sorry for the actor," he insists. "He's a lovely guy and didn't deserve the abuse he got."
He hasn't done any commercial work for a couple of years. And with shooting on his next film project, an adaptation of Emma Donoghue's novel 'Room', slated to commence later this year, has no immediate plans to go back to it. But he doesn't rule it out in the long term.
"For me, it wouldn't have been possible to do the films I've done if I hadn't had that income stream at the same time. Right now, I'm managing to earn a living on just my film work and that's kind of the plan going forward. But I may do them again, you never know."
These then, are the duelling priorities anyone who strives to make a career in the creative sphere has to contend with.
"There is a drive to create on your own terms, but also a willingness to bend and mould yourself into what the world requires," Abrahamson says. "Frank and Jon are on the opposite ends of that scale. The rest of us, I think, are probably somewhere in the middle."
- 'Frank' is in cinemas now