Are you an undiscovered creative genius? Do you have the soul of an artist but not much work to show for it? If so, Frank, a winningly comical dismantling of 21st century myths about life as an artist, very loosely inspired by Jon Ronson’s recollections of his time in the Frank Sidebottom band, might just the film for you. Directed by Lenny Abrahamson and with a script by Jon Ronson and Peter Straughan, Frank has been selected in more Ones-To-Watch-At-Sundance lists than you can shake a papier mâché head at. Catherine Bray sits down with its director to find out exactly what Frank is all about, and what it really means to be that much-abused term: a “creative”.
There are three things you should know upfront about Frank, Lenny Abrahamson’s follow up to the thoroughly excellent What Richard Did (2012). One: Frank stars Michael Fassbender, but don’t expect to see loads of him – when we meet him, he’s hidden inside a giant papier mâché head. Two: Frank was initially inspired by Jon Ronson’s time touring with maverick outsider musician Frank Sidebottom, but it very much isn’t about Frank Sidebottom. Three: Frank is about a young man’s dream of becoming a true creative genius like his heroes – but it’s not your typical redemptive rags-to-riches tale of rock-and-roll redemption.
Frank is, in short, a complex, counterintuitive and utterly fascinating look at what it means to be creative and all the head-messing that comes with that. It should also be said that it is very funny, a timely riposte to the post-millennial narrative that it is possible to be anything you want to be so long as you really want it and that we should all pursue fulfillment through hobbies that are also our careers. The producer of Frank, Ed Guiney, puts it pretty bluntly: “There is a common wisdom that if you try hard enough and apply yourself and have sufficient self belief then you can achieve anything or be anything you want to be. Its a close relative of the mantra which says that successful creative endeavour is 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration. I think the facts prove that neither of these (nor other related) truisms hold.”
“The real truth is that some people are uniquely and unusually gifted and these gifts can never be emulated. And this is something for us all to celebrate and cherish. So I suppose the film shatters a common myth about the nature of creativity and that’s one reason it was worth making. That and the chance to work with some uniquely and unusually gifted individuals.” Ed isn’t quite saying that you either are creative or you aren’t, but he’s certainly not on the side of X Factor hopefuls whose self-belief outweighs any innate ability to sing or aptitude for music.
Executive Producer Katherine Butler’s take is slightly more encouraging for anyone who might be on the verge of giving up that career in writing/singing/filmmaking: “I think that in the film Frank what we discover is that people are creative in different ways and in different areas, but not always in the way they would wish to be. And the way to be happy in life is to accept your own limitations and embrace what you have a talent for. I think of this film as like Amadeus – where the man who discovers he’s not the genius he always wanted to be is eaten up by jealousy for the great genius he both worships and almost destroys… In the coolest, most beguilingly strange setting you could imagine. With great songs. And a big fake head.”
So perhaps it’s more about finding your niche. Over the course of a ninety minute chat director Lenny Abrahamson shared with me his feelings about the film, what’s at its heart, what makes it tick and why it’s really Adrian Mole meets The Wizard of Oz…
So, who is Frank, really?
Well, the massive head is obviously a huge visual reference to the musician and comedian Frank Sidebottom. But our Frank is a composite inspired by several outsider artists – he isn’t Frank Sidebottom. We felt that the head made a good container for these other people, this strange mixture of people like Daniel Johnston, Captain Beefheart, Frank Sidebottom, Harry Partch, these people who made beautiful, eccentric and very wonderful music and art.
The Venn diagram of our Frank draws several of these people together and he is this very strange, sweet, brilliant man. But we did think it would make a good story to have this guy who has to deal with the outside world by hiding himself in this big fake head. A lot of what the film is about is what it is to be free-form in your creative life, versus approaching art conventionally. We don’t want people going in expecting a Frank Sidebottom biopic, because that’s not what this is.
Can you expand a bit more on what each of those influences and sources brings to Frank?
We’ve drawn on so many different sources, all the great outsider musicians, but I’ll talk you through some of them. Beefheart, for example, went and recorded and album for over a year and they all went a bit mad and it was half commune, half slave camp, which you can see in Frank. And Daniel Johnson has that kind of anxious, boyish, almost childlike quality that our Frank sometimes has. But our Frank can also be sexier in the way that Captain Beefheart was. And then the invention of instruments, the idea of going out and collecting sounds, that is Harry Partch in the mix. Then Frank Sidebottom gives us the physical shape and allows us to play this elaborate joke involving Jon’s projection of what he imagines might be behind the mask. For somebody like me who is a great devotee of classical slapstick, the head gives you this puppet person in the middle of your film, which offers amazing opportunities for comedy.
It’s more about the clash of talent and mediocrity, isn’t it, than a traditional rise-and-fall music narrative?
You’ve got this conflict between someone who is genuinely talented and a person who should have loved that talent but also resents it because they don’t have it themselves. The Jon character, like most people, has a sort of bag of crap theories about what makes people creative, and he buys into a lot of those myths, like the idea that it’s desperate suffering that makes you creative. Like, if only he hadn’t had such a well-adjusted middle class childhood, he too could be creative.
I remember being reminded of one very funny bit in the Adrian Mole books where he’s really annoyed that he’s been born in Leicester because it’s no place for an intellectual to be living.
Absolutely, and I think we all go through it as teenagers when we first read about great artists and feel slightly jealous that our lives are so boring and comfortable. So this was an opportunity to poke fun at those oversimplifications of what makes a genius. Not that we’re trying to say in any serious way that our Frank is a genius – the film is a playful thing – but Jon is able to project behind that mask a series of fantasies of what a genuinely creative person must be like. It’s not that great suffering never leads to great art, because sometimes it does, but the Jon character holds these views in a very facile way.
We discovered while working on the script it’s also a sort of Wizard of Oz story, because it’s the same as the way that people project all these qualities onto the wizard, and when you pull back the curtain, it’s just this little old guy. In our case, when we pull back the curtain… well, people will have to see it to see it to find out what Jon discovers.
So Jon is an example of that type of person – again the Adrian Mole type – who spends more time thinking about his acceptance speeches and what he’ll say in interviews than he does about his creative work?
Yes, it’s that X Factor thing of people who want the lifestyle more than they want to do the thing itself. Jon is clearly not driven to write music, he clearly has a terrible time with it and he can’t do it. Frank has this naive idea that he wants to move people and be loved, but it’s very different; he’s unable to not make music, everything becomes subject matter for him. Jon can’t make a song out of the deepest ideas about love and death; Frank can make a song about a piece of fluff.
So Jon confronts a certain existential brutality: you are not this person, this person has talent, and you don’t. The fundamental fact is that no matter how much he wants to be that person, Jon is not that person.
How far would you go along with this very Calvinist sort of idea that there are the creative elect and then the people who are not creative – as the sitcom Peep Show puts it, “here be beauty, there be pie-charts” – and there’s no grey area in the middle?
There’s definitely a grey area. Experience changes people and you can discover you’ve had the capacity to invent and make and you’ve never used it, but I don’t think it’s something people learn out of nowhere.To use a physical analogy: are you born a runner or are you made a runner? Well, you can certainly train and improve, but people do have natural capacities and abilities. I don’t think anybody can do it if they just put their mind to it.
Then there are people who are naturally gifted but don’t seem to have the will to exercise that, who may end up less successful than a moderately talent person who slogs away and puts the hours in.
That’s absolutely true. People who are lazy or inhibited or desperately lacking in confidence – for every Mozart we know about, there must be some that we don’t. That drive, so long as you do have a very small amount of talent as well, can get you very far.
Frank is of course very funny, but it’s not a straight comedy; there are other elements in there. How do you describe it in general terms?
We’re not completely sure how we should be talking about it, because it doesn’t fit easily into a box. There are several shifts of tone. But we think that actually an audience will come with you if they’re enjoying it, you don’t have to be too rigid, the tone can be elastic. It is a warm film, there is a kind of playfulness and a free-wheeling silliness in places, but it can also be quite moving. But how would you describe it?
Me? Hmmm. I guess you could talk about it as a film for anyone who’s ever failed to express themselves creatively, which is probably everyone.
That’s perfect. Or a film for anybody who has ever wished that they were somebody that they’re not, which again is everybody.
One of my favourite visual jokes in the film is when you pull in close on the giant head, the way you would in another film to show someone’s emotions in close up, but of course we just see a giant head in close up.
Well, I remember at the time thinking, this could be a total disaster, we’re going to film this guy in a giant head, and heck, what if two days into rushes we find, “well, that doesn’t work”? Which was scary. But actually, so far, it seems that people accept this thing. The head in particular seems to be oddly expressive. It’s amazing that the same expression can reflect so much in any given scene. And we got a lot of good close-ups which I thought were never gonna work given Frank’s face never changes. When you go in for a close-up, it’s not like you learn anything new from his expression, but that was something we talked about right from the beginning: wouldn’t it be just funny to obey all the rules of film grammar, but with this giant head?
It’s wonderfully audacious to have put one of the most in-demand stars in the world right now inside the giant head.
We used to joke about that. Because pretty much every script or proposal you get sent at the moment, for any male role from 30 to 45, the wishlist of names for the lead will include Michael Fassbender. Everybody’s desperate to cast him. And we’ve somehow got this man whose face everybody is desperate to film and we’ve hidden his famous face under a giant head. But it’s part of the playfulness of the film. It’s a challenge, it’s a risk, it’s exciting and it’s sort of silly at the same time.
It’s an act of trust for the audience too, maybe – you’re telling us it’s Michael Fassbender and we have to go with that.
It’s worth saying that he was a real purist about that. No doubles, no long shots where a runner pops it on in the distance. It’s always him. Apart from maybe ten fleeting frames where it’s a stunt guy. The rest of the time, you are genuinely watching Michael Fassbender hidden in a giant head.
Frank premieres 17th January at Sundance 2014 and will be released in the UK in 2014.