By David Hennessy
Lenny Abrahamson’s 2012 film What Richard Did was an unbridled international success that launched Hollywood’s latest star Jack Reynor and cemented Abrahamson as Ireland’s most exciting talent behind the camera. A character study, What Richard Did charts a privileged schoolboy’s fall from grace after he assaults a romantic rival to find out later the boy died as a result of his injuries.
Ahead of the release of his new movie Frank, starring Michael Fassbender, Abrahamson uses a soccer analogy when asked if he feels pressure or expectation due to his last film’s success: “The first time you make a film, you’re a goalie and you’re having a penalty taken against you so you’re expected to not save it and if you save it, it’s a triumph. If you’re making your second film and your first one’s been successful, you’re the penalty taker and you’re expected to score: That’s the best analogy I can come up with. You’re not going to score every time and if you only care about the scoring, you’ll definitely miss.”
Abrahamson is talking to The Irish World in the lobby bar of The Ace Hotel in Shoreditch. It is the afternoon after Frank’s European premiere in Dublin and hours after he speaks to us, the film will screen in the UK for the first time at Sundance Film Festival. Despite his busy schedule, he is relaxed, chirpy and very warm. In response to a comment about the busy few days, he simply says: “But it’s good, better than nobody giving a sh*t, ya know? That’s the way to think about it.”
In Abrahamson, Fassbender and Domnhnall Gleeson, Frank boasts three of Ireland’s most exciting cinematic talents. Add Hollywood star Maggie Gyllenhaal to the cast and it is not hard to say why it is one of the most eagerly anticipated films of the year. But while most films lucky enough to have the Oscar-nominated Fassbender appearing would make full use of his expressive and recognisable face, Frank sees him fully obscured by a papier-mâché head that his character hides behind.
Asked if he ever thought if it was wise to take away many of Fassbender’s usual tools as an actor, Abrahamson says immediately: “Yes is the answer to that, but that’s part of the fun of it. I think it’s part of the fun of the film: Doing things that people don’t expect. I think the worst thing you can do is go along tram lines of patterns that people have got too used to.
“It’s not like you cast Michael and then say: ‘What will we do? I know, we’ll put a head on him’. That was the story always so everybody just buys into it and you get on with it and do it as well and as truthfully as you can. At the same time, it’s lovely to watch the reactions of people to it because it is, on the face of it, quite a bizarre thing to do.”
But what about the suits? Did any production company people, looking for more value for money, ever ask for Michael to be more visible with absolutely anybody else wearing the head? “No, because I think people were just absolutely delighted that he wanted to play this role. That would have been a funny conversation: ‘Do you know what? Let’s have him play somebody else..’ And then saying to some other poor actor: ‘We’re cool with you being covered, we want Fassbender in every scene’,” the director says with a laugh.
Frank’s story finds Domhnall Gleeson’s musician character Jon struggling until he is invited to join The Soronprfbs, the oddball band led by the charismatic and enigmatic Frank, played by Fassbender. Jon is curious why his band mate has decided to wear this disguise and accommodating Frank begins saying his facial expressions out loud for his benefit. Jon and Frank bond over their shared desire to push the band forward.
It’s a concept that presents many risks: “Early on, you have this character who tells you how to watch the film: You know what? I know it’s a little bit crazy but trust me, you’re going to have to go with it.”
Maggie Gyllenhaal’s aggressive theremin-player Clara does not share Frank and Jon’s desire to get their music heard reminding us that commercial success is not what motivates everyone: “People are so obsessed now with exposure for exposure’s sake and it’s a cliché to talk about contemporary celebrity and how empty it is of any content: It’s fame for being famous. But in much more subtle aspects, anyone who’s creative and does work has to have these questions about themselves, about whether they’re doing what they’re doing in order to gain ‘followers’, speaking metaphorically, or whether they’re doing it because it’s what they’re really driven to do and we all have to negotiate with the fact that there’s a world out there which operates in very un-ideal ways, especially in this business or in creative industries like this.”
Jon sees the suffering of others as great raw material for writing and feels he is at a disadvantage creatively because he didn’t have the harrowing upbringing of Frank: “Frank does want exposure and so does Jon but they both want it in very different ways. Frank has a very naïve desire to communicate his music to people because that is what art is towards and for, that’s built into what you do if you express something: That’s the transaction for him. For Jon, he deeply regrets not having spent any time in a mental hospital or an abusive childhood, his idea of music is purely to achieve fame or recognition or self adulation or whatever and the idea of the film is that in itself cancels out everything.
“It (the film) is never predictable it takes left turns. In that sense, I hope it’s true to that outsider spirit of making the decision that’s the right decision and not that decision that’s the easy decision.”
Did his star take a method approach to his character, wearing the head off camera also? “He wore it in rehearsal because how you play a scene is so affected by the limits of visibility, by the sheer size of the thing but no, he didn’t go home in it, he didn’t go to buy a packet of fags in the petrol station wearing it or anything like that. He’s a person that enters completely into the character but not in that conventional method-y way of staying in character through the whole shoot or anything.
“It’s not a limitation, the head. It’s another expressive language, that’s all. I think the amazing thing is that you just start to read expression into the face as a viewer, you can’t help imposing meaning on things and that face becomes incredibly expressive and it seems to be able to carry different emotional messages just by how Michael works his voice, moves it with small tilts of the head, body language- It’s fascinating to watch. Somebody said his performance is a master class and I think it is.”
Fassbender can have escaped nobody’s attention in recent years with his roles in Hunger, Shame and his most recent Steve McQueen collaboration 12 Years a Slave that earned him his first Oscar nod. Lenny knew of his talent before most though as he directed a younger Michael in a Mastercard advert, one of the Killarney raised thespian’s first jobs: “It’s scary to think about (how long ago it is)- Probably 15, 16 years ago. It was one of the first ads I did and I think probably one of the first things that Michael had done after he was out in the world of acting. We did that and he was lovely and immediately charismatic, great on camera and all the people who were associated with it were saying ‘that guy’s pretty amazing’, so you could see it right from the beginning.”
Many thought German-born Fassbender would win the Best Supporting Actor award at the recent Oscars. His Frank director was one of them, saying: “You just never know how those things work but just as a piece of work, it was sensational so his day will come. Also, I don’t think he’s the sort of person who loses sleep about awards. He’s one of the finest actors out there so I don’t doubt that it will happen.”
For the full interview, see the May 3 Irish World.
Frank is in cinemas from May 9.