The notion that the actor who revealed all in his portrayal of a sex addict in Steve McQueen’s Shame should cover up his gorgeous moosh in Lenny Abrahamson’s UK-Irish co-production, Frank, might seem incredulous. Yet Michael Fassbender has done just that, encasing himself in a papier-mâché head with unblinking Pac-Man eyes and painted-on hair to recreate the appearance of English comedian and late cult musician Chris Sievey and his character Frank Sidebottom.
Sievey took on the character from 1984 until he died penniless from cancer aged 54 in 2010, not long after he supported John Cooper Clarke on a UK tour. A pauper’s funeral was avoided when crowdfunding produced £21,631.55 from 1,632 donations from fans.
Recently Oscar nominated for his role in McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, Fassbender, who is of the Irish-German descent—and even speaks some German here—keeps himself out of the celebrity spotlight as much as possible. Maybe Frank's mask holds an extra layer of meaning for the actor, who has never betrayed the sense that an Irish upbringing truly allows you never to get too carried away with yourself.
“You know, pretty remarkably, I think Michael hasn’t changed,” says Abrahamson, an Irish director best known for the 2007 Irish tragicomedy, Garage, starring Pat Shortt. “I worked with him on almost the first thing he ever did, a commercial I directed for MasterCard, and he was lovely then and he’s still the same guy. He’s a very strong character; his head is not easily turned, ha ha. That’s impressive.”
Fassbender has said that his priority in choosing films, big or small, is the story and then the director, and that was very much the case here.
“Michael read the script and he seemed to really love it,” says Abrahamson. “We met and talked about it and we had the same picture of it in our heads.”
Frank is an oddball outsider not unlike Sievey, yet that is mostly where the similarities end. Based on a screenplay by Jon Ronson (a former band member friend of Sievey and the author of the book The Men Who Stare at Goats) and co-writer Peter Straughan (who adapted The Men Who Stare at Goats and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), the film follows Frank and his band of misfits, the unpronounceable The Soronprfbs, as they attempt to record an album while tucked away in rural Ireland. We watch the action from the point of view of the new talentless keyboardist Jon (Irish actor Domnhall Gleeson), who at least funds what turns out to be a lengthy sojourn and helps orchestrate an invitation for the band to play at South by Southwest Music Festival in Austin Texas. (Though, they filmed in New Mexico). During this period, Frank never removes his fake head, not even to shower or sleep, and incredibly Fassbender was so dedicated to the role that he attempted to keep the head on as much as possible.
“Michael was actually pretty comfortable in the head, which was amazing,” notes Abrahamson. “He couldn’t see out very well because the eyeholes are too far apart so he could only look out with one eye which is sometimes why he gave sidelong glances at people. He did all the running around almost blind. He kind of liked acting in the head.”
Texan actor Scoot McNairy (who after filming wrapped in Ireland went directly to Moree, NSW, to be in David Michôd’s The Rover) plays the substance-abusing band manager who had met Frank when they were patients in a mental institution. Like many of the cast, McNairy was keen to work with Fassbender.
“Michael’s dedication to the role was incredible,” he recalls. “I tried on the head and couldn’t see anything. You had to look down so you could see where you were walking, so it must have been really difficult for him to do anything.”
Gleeson, son of Irish national treasure Brendan Gleeson (who stars in another Sydney Film Festival entry, Calvary), like Fassbender, was not in Sundance where I first saw the film.
“It’s interesting how neither Michael or Domnhall are playing Irish,” notes Abrahamson. “Michael’s playing an American and Domnhall’s playing English, but it was great to have those guys with me, people from the same place. There was a big Irish connection in the film even if there’s no Irish character.”
Interestingly, Gleeson was in Australia working on Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken while Fassbender was in Scotland starring in the much-anticipated Macbeth for Australian Snowtown director Justin Kurzel. Those Irish-Australian links are clearly still in tact. So well may be our senses of humour, and our mutual sense of the ridiculous. In Sundance, the Irish and the Aussies were clearly the ones who got Frank.
“There’s a playful humour at the centre but it’s also kind of moving,” Abrahamson notes. “It’s about things people can easily recognise, like to desperately want something that you can’t have. That is truly what the film is about. I think it has a very fresh approach. I don’t think people will have seen a film quite like this before and I’m proud of that. It has its own personality.”
Maggie Gyllenhaal may seem an unlikely piece of casting as the band’s sometimes violent theremin player—and indeed the American actress was reluctant at first.
“I didn’t understand it at all and I at first said no,” she recalls. “It took me a while to understand the tone, though once I was in it, I was in it. The way to do it was to pretend that Michael wasn’t doing anything out of the ordinary by wearing a head, which actually was confusing me because I thought the movie was about the connection between these unusual people in this band. That he wears a big head created a whole different kind of relationship.”
Ronson, who has been described as a gonzo journalist, was once the keyboard player in the Frank Sidebottom band. He has published a memoir Frank: The True Story that Inspired the Movie in 2014.
“I used to be in Frank Sidebottom’s Oh Blimey Big Band and Frank wore a big fake head, though Chris did take if off sometimes,” Ronson recalls. “My favorite memories are of us speeding down the motorway at 2am with him with the head on. Nothing made us feel more alive. Another adventure! Then he fired us all for tax reasons: he owed £30,000 in back taxes and decided to go solo. He rang me a few years later and said he was staging a comeback and did I want to do something.
“Eventually, I wrote a piece in The Guardian remembering my time in the band and it had a sweet coming-of-age element. For the film we decided to fictionalise it completely and make it a kind of fable, mainly because Chris didn’t want himself in the film. He thought it would spoil the image of Frank. Ultimately, the film is a tribute to people on the music margins, I suppose.”
The tributes keep coming. A feature length documentary about the life and art of Sievey, entitled Being Frank: The Chris Sievey Story, will be released in 2014, while a book on Sievey’s life has been written by Manchester author Mick Middles.
Frank screened at the 2014 Sydney Film Festival and will be released nationally on 19 June. Watch the trailer for the film below.