Lenny Abrahamson's comedic genius

The director of Frank digs into what makes America beautiful and how he squeezed the funny out of Fassbender

Lenny Abrahamson
Lenny Abrahamson directing Michael Fassbender in "Frank" Courtesy of Artificial Eye UK

The kooky, far-out tale of musical genius Frank Sidebottom – the laconic prodigy who hides under a papier-mâché head – is in cinemas today. We're celebrating the musical caper with Frank Day, an in-depth look at how the comic persona and frontman of The Freshies made it to the big screen.

Despite studying physics and philosophy at university, Irish director Lenny Abrahamson had always wanted to be a filmmaker. After graduating with a first in Philosophy, he went on to direct several shorts, the first of which (3 Joes) won awards at the Cork Film Festival and the Oberhausen Short Film Festival in Germany. Starting out directing TV commercials, Lenny went on to make his first feature, Adam and Paul, in 2003, which was followed by the award-winning Garage and Prosperity (for TV) in 2007 and What Richard Did (2012). Ambrahamson's latest film Frank marks his first time filming professionally in the USA and his first to feature with a big name cast including Michael Fassbender, Maggie Gyllenhaal and rising star Domhnall Gleeson.

Why incorporate Frank Sidebottom's persona into a fictional tale?

Lenny Abrahamson: I think people like to have their categories clear. They want to know if it's fiction or fact, biopic or not. What we've got is a fantasy sparked off by something that was a creation of another person. Chris Sievey created Frank Sidebottom with this beautiful comic delicacy and seriousness, so we took the spirit of that and went somewhere. Chris never wanted a film made about him and his character but loved the idea of a crazy concoction that was like a Frank inspired hybrid, madness. 

Was this your first time working in America?

Lenny Abrahamson: Yes, it was. The thing about America – it's different everywhere, but visually, it's amazing to shoot in the desert in the New Mexico light. It's really hard to shoot in that desert and make anything look not amazing. You can point the camera anywhere. I loved it, but it's a little bit different, the crews work a bit differently in the US. I had to learn the patterns of who does what and how do you get your instructions to where they need to get to. It's quite rigid, I thought it would be much more kind of free-wheeling in terms of roles. But it's really, really strict so I had to kind of get my head around that.

How was it working with everyone while on the road? 

Lenny Abrahamson: It's like running away with the circus for a couple of months. People form very intense relationships. On your first film you think these are going to be your closest friends for the rest of your life. You form a bond but then you go back to the rest of your life. There was an extra element on this film which was playing music so the cast spent a lot more time together before we shot than they normally would have. 

So there was a lot more of a creative community growing as well.

Lenny Abrahamson: Yeah, especially when we were shooting in the Vetno location in Ireland because that was tough to get to. It was really in the middle of nowhere. It was really cold. It snowed sometimes. You couldn't get the trailers down to that location, so everyone was really mucking in and that was really helpful.

And it's a bigger, more starry cast than what you had been used to working with.

Lenny Abrahamson: Yes, certainly bigger and much more starry, but once you get past the initial stage of setting things up, people are wondering whether or not they have made a dreadful mistake and wondering if the director really knows what he's doing. Once they get a sense that they are in safe enough hands then they're just like anybody else. Established actors will challenge you if they don't agree with the way you are taking it and you have to argue it. But with a younger cast they are more likely to wonder whether what they are doing is okay instead of trying to second guess the director. That helps push you.

“Once you get past the initial stage of setting things up, people are wondering whether or not they have made a dreadful mistake and wondering if the director really knows what he's doing. Once they get a sense that they are in safe enough hands then they're just like anybody else”

Do you have any favourite actors you would like to work with?

Lenny Abrahamson: I love working with actors and there are a lot of great actors around at the moment. I would've loved to have worked with Phillip Seymour Hoffman; it's such an incredible tragedy that he is gone. I think Joaquin Phoenix is an amazing actor but there are actors that have sides you don't see very often. I think Jim Carrey is a great straight actor but there are countless people whose work I really love. Jennifer Lawrence is an amazing actress.

With Frank, did you find it challenging developing such a concealed character from a visual perspective?

Lenny Abrahamson: It was, but everybody is really good at interpreting all sorts of cues that aren't just facial expressions and the great thing about Frank is, I don't thing he comes across as a character minus something. He comes across as a character plus something – a kind of added vocabulary like you take from cartoons. The small movements that Frank does, little dips he makes with the head and sighs can have a comedic and even sinister quality to them. Abstraction doesn't always reduce the expressive qualities. 

Did you have a distinct visual style in mind for the film or did you go into production open for inspiration?

Lenny Abrahamson: I always stay open because I feel you should always be watching and listening and not just imposing but I also have strong instincts. I looked at quite a lot of photography from the 70s, books published about self-built houses and commune living. I also watched a lot of those great 60s documentaries about the Rolling Stones and Dylan on tour, but style is such a deep thing, you can't really define it. You've got to be sensitive within the scene and at the same time think about the overall flavour of the film.

Frank is released in cinemas on 9th May.

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