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Interview with Lenny Abrahamson, Director of ‘Frank’
08 May 2014 : Deirdre Molumby
Since receiving rave reviews from Sundance, several international distribution deals, and widespread media attention surrounding lead Michael Fassbender wearing a giant fake head, everyone is talking about new feature film ‘Frank’. The film comes from the critically-acclaimed and award-winning (including four IFTAs) Dublin-born director, Lenny Abrahamson, and is out tomorrow.

‘Frank’ follows Jon (Domhnall Gleeson), who desperately wants to be a successful musician. By chance, Jon becomes a member of eccentric band ‘Soronprfbs’, and from then on is determined to find out more about the band’s energetic, mysterious leader, Frank. Here, Lenny Abrahamson talks to IFTN about the production of ‘Frank’, including its ‘Irishness’, the complexities behind its music and post-production, working with the cast, and why ‘Frank’ has caught the attention of the film industry on a global scale.

‘Frank’ is your most international production to date but do you feel you have kept your Irish stamp on the film?
“Well, I tend to not think about it in those terms in that I don’t think there’s a particularly Irish way of making a film. It’s hard to know how you would say something had an ‘Irish stamp’ unless there’s a real content connection to Ireland.

“I suppose what makes this an Irish film, putting it in a different way, is that it has an Irish director, and the two leading actors are Irish, even though they’re respectively playing an English man (Domhnall Gleeson) and an American (Michael Fassbender). There is an Irish producer, Ed Guiney, who worked with counterparts in the UK, the film received support from the Irish Film Board and a big chunk of it was filmed in Ireland. I also used a number of Irish HODs including [composer] Stephen Rennicks who had a huge influence on the film musically.

“So in that sense it is full of Irish qualities, but it’s not like I did something to the film to make it an Irish film – my aim through the film was to tell a story as truthfully as I could. Then it has the Irish connections via the people who worked on it and where we shot.”

What was your relationship to the music in the film and to composer Stephen Rennicks, who has composed all your films to date?
“‘Frank’ is a film which is full of music and is about music. There’s an inventive band in the film, so when you invent the band you have to invent their sound and their music, and it so rarely works in films when there’s a fictional performer or a fictional musician or band, because they usually sound like they’re just doing knock-off songs.

“So, working with Stephen Rennicks was brilliant. I am lucky enough to be very close to him as a friend and a collaborator over many years, which is a distinct advantage because you can work so closely with somebody who you’re that familiar with. Stephen and I just engaged right from the beginning about what this band would sound like and how they would approach their music-making. We listened to stuff together, we gathered references, and Stephen would write and play music for me, then I’d talk to him about it. Overall we had a constant back-and-forth on it.

“We then went into the studio and I would watch Stephen work with really good Irish musicians that we could develop ideas with, and I would have conceptual ideas for the kinds of songs that Frank would write – what the sounds might be like, what the songs might be about, or how Frank might come up with an idea for a song, then Stephen would interpret that musically or he would have his own ideas. I would be reasonably musical, as I was in bands and was connected to a recording studio when I was younger, so I was able to engage at some sort of musical level which was also helpful.

“It was just a long process of back-and-forth and then once we started to cast, Stephen would get to know the musical level of each actor, because we’d want musical actors and want them to play live in the film, not to playback. Stephen would get an idea of what each actor was capable of and then the music was written so that they really could play it. It was a huge part of the process and technically, it was certainly the most challenging to fit that into the drama of the film both in the script with Jon Ronson and Peter Straughan, but also practically for how we were going to film this in such a way that keeps it fresh and real.”

What was your relationship to the film’s editing process and to Nathan Nugent, who also edited ‘What Richard Did’?
“Well I’d always be there. Nathan was assembling right from when we started shooting so he’d send me theme ideas. I’d ask him if such and such was working, and I’d always be in touch with him – whatever thoughts he had, he’d share and I’d bring that feedback into what I was doing, so a very close relationship was there even through the shoot.

“Then in post-production, I was there about 90% of the time and we spent several months in the offline. Nathan is a really gifted editor, he is also incredibly committed, for example, I’d come in in the morning and he’d have worked that night and have something new to show me. He was as engaged with what the film was going to turn out to be like as I was. He’s a great person to work with.”

What was your experience of directing such a high-profile cast, including Michael Fassbender, Domhnall Gleeson and Maggie Gyllenhaal?
“It’s great to work with people who are great at what they do, both in front of and behind the camera. It was brilliant to go to work every day knowing you had these fantastic actors to collaborate with. Actors like that will always give you more than you’ve asked for, more than you can imagine. They’ll throw ideas at you and there’s an incredibly alive feeling on the set. Nobody’s just executing it, everybody’s inhabiting it.

“Scoot McNairy, who plays Don [manager of ‘Soronprfbs’] is worth mentioning as well as he is a fantastic actor. He brought a sweetness and strangeness to Don that turned him into so much more important a character than he even was in the script. Then Michael is immense as Frank, and does something I think is really quite extraordinary with his character. Domhnall, I think, is a remarkable actor, and in ‘Frank’ he negotiates such a complex series of tonal shifts and changes across the whole film. Really, as an audience, you have to be with him even when he does some pretty nasty things, and Domhnall manages to keep you there, even when you really can’t approve of what he’s doing.”

The film has received acclaim and distribution deals all over. What do you think has been the ‘hook’ for the film?
“You know it’s interesting, I think people take different things out of it. It’s got loads in it. It’s a really rich film to watch. I think there are many hooks to the film – the first one is that it’s a film with Michael Fassbender wearing a fake head, which is something that’s worth talking about and it’s been an endless fascination for journalists. It’s a pitch that you can make without talking too much about the film!

“We just released a song from the film via Soundcloud, it’s already got in the tens of thousands of listens, so the music is another thing that people hold onto. The film has also got loads to say about social media, and that’s another thing people are really interested in at the moment. Then it’s funny, and it’s also sad, so there’s a lot of material.

“It’s a film that a lot of people are talking about, certainly here and in the UK where it is being released. Magnolia, which is a great company, are releasing the film in the USA in August, and then it will go all around Europe and other parts of the world, like Australia and Japan. It seems to have really caught hold of people’s interest and the hope is that will continue when it hits the cinemas.”

For production credits, see the 'Frank' filmography.

Distributed by Element Pictures, ‘Frank’ is released nationwide tomorrow, Friday 9th May.

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