Talk to Frank: Lenny Abrahamson Interview

We spoke with celebrated Irish director Lenny Abrahamson in advance of the release of Frank, his largest scale and most unusual project to date.

What was the origin of the character of Frank, of a character who constantly wears a giant, fake head?

The idea of the character who never takes his head off was a given. It was the first part of the idea that Jon [Ronson] and Peter [Straughan], the screenwriters, had, as soon as they moved away from any idea of making this about Frank Sidebottom or Chris Sievey, so when I came on board, that was already a given. Frank wears a head. So then you have to wrestle with that. How do you try to make sense of that? In fact, do you try to make sense of it in the film? Do you just take it as this given, that you don’t explore further? In the same way that nobody feels obliged to explain why Charlie Chaplin has, for example, become a tramp. So if you conceive of the film in that way, if you just accept the universe of the film — it’s about this man, in a head — if you treat the film in this way, then that’s just an iconic central character, which everything just bounces off, and you don’t need to interrogate it. But it seemed too rich a seam not to mine and I think the way the film does handle it, without giving anything away, is clever and reasonably low-key: it doesn’t create a big drama out of it.

I was interested in something you said in another interview, that people project their own meaning onto the face, onto Frank, whether that’s characters in the film or the audience themselves, and it seemed to me that the face, is in this sense, an invitation towards narrativisation at the same time as it rejects it…

Exactly. And in a funny way, it accepts it, but the narratives that are imposed keep being inadequate. So in the way that, if you draw a stick figure animation, even with four or five lines, well animated, you can touch on very deep aspects of the human condition. And we accept that narrativisation, or that imposition of meaning. Similarly with the face. What it does is it creates a space for much more of the private fantasy of the projector… it creates a space for that to live, in a way that is perhaps harder with a fully exposed person. But we do it with stars, with famous musicians and actors; we also use them as spaces for our projections. Part of the irony of Frank is removing Fassbender’s mask, by putting this mask on top. So all of those ideas are kind of floating around in the film. And then the other big projection in the contemporary world is via social media. People are frantically projecting more attractive or appealing versions of themselves into this digital space, and those projections differ, of course, from what can be said to exist in the non-virtual world.

Do you think this is a film about the inadequacies of existing systems of narrativisation, or meaning-creation, for conceiving of identity?

I think it certainly questions the bifurcation of people into the person-as-such, and then the person-as-self-marketeer. At the moment you’ve got people quite often making meaning of their lives, narrativising their lives, through social media, and that gets quite messy. It’s full of dangers, because the temptation for this sort of commodification of yourself, even to yourself, arises. I’m fascinated by watching people’s accounts of their lives. And you can’t really say that there are two distinct things, that there’s a you and then a social media you, because those two things are in dialogue all the time. The film exists in that territory. It’s talking about lots of things in that territory, about the ways in which we manufacture identity in contemporary culture, and then also how crude the metrics of that process can be, when it comes down to numbers of followers and numbers of hits.

When I see a close-up of a face in cinema, I think of [Danish director Carl Theodor] Dreyer, and of affect, and [French philosopher Gilles] Deleuze talks about this affective dimension, this affective space that is opened up by the close-up, and by the face, in cinema. It strikes me that this sort of reified face, or this reified expression of Frank’s, is so appropriate for investigating these issues you’re talking about…

In what sense do you mean “reified”?

In the sense that, whether we’re talking about an existence being mediated by social media, or desire and projection, or by this process of commodification, that certain relations are reduced to objects, or made fungible by these processes…

Okay. So the idea that we’re losing the noumenal, and that there’s a sphere, or a dimension of realness that can’t be made fungible, yeah… I’m a kind of monist, in the Spinozan sense [17th century Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza’s idea that reality was essentially one substance]. What I look like when I talk about things is a straightforward empiricist, but I’m not really. What fascinates me is the quiddity, the thisness of things: that no matter what you say or talk about or how you narrate or narrativise things, that that reality is a fundamentally un-possessable, continuing, weighted thing. So if you go back to Garage, the attempt in Garage is to say, first of all at a psychological level, that you can’t really know Josie. You think you do but gradually you learn that even a character as apparently simple as Josie is impossible to possess in that way. And it ends by looking at the horse, and there is no doubt when you look at that animal that there is an interior, and that you can somehow experience that interior without actually knowing anything about it. In other words, you can’t translate that knowledge into a set of facts or psychological reductions. And that’s generally how I feel about people. So in the case of Frank, Jon is desperate to know his secret. And what the film says is: “That’s the wrong question.” There are no kinds of springs you can use to blow the lid off this character. If you try to talk about him in terms of narratives of social exclusion or psychological, Freudian ideas of abuse… there’s no real way of explaining. So when they say he’s just a creative person, there is a sort of profound truth to that. It’s not something you can further reduce.

So these processes of reduction are always incomplete, or always fail…

That’s exactly it. Even Jon [Domhnall Gleeson’s character] himself starts as a character starts as someone you think you can know, and then becomes a little bit less reduced by the end of it. It’s funny, everything I do seems to end with, I hope, the audience understanding the character less and knowing the character more – if that makes any sense?

Given that the head was there from the beginning, it attracted a lot of resonances for me. There’s no single thesis of the film. There’s just a decision to explore very openly all these ideas that an image like this can help to illustrate. So there’s the not being able to reify, or to reduce Frank. But at the same time I was also fascinated, in a purely formal way, at how powerful the conventional grammar of film is. We are creatures who constantly, immanently project meaning onto things. I was worried at first that the mask would be a dead thing, on screen. But in fact, the removal of the actor’s face just causes you to tune into lots of other cues. That’s why Frank turns into something like a puppet. With a puppet, you don’t look for the look in the eye. Of course the scene has to be clear enough to give context, but you end up looking for a softening of posture, or even a non-reaction.

Jon and Frank in some crude way make up one person. If Frank is the authentic will to create, Jon is the part that is now actively encouraged: the self-promoting, self-marketing aspect. What’s framed as a kind of liberation, you know, the “you don’t need to have a distribution deal, you can get your films out there yourself, you can Indiegogo it, you can tweet about it” and it becomes this thing. It forces you to split yourself between the primary act of working and then stepping outside of that and becoming your own PR person. And I know I do it myself, although I try to be dissonant when I do tweet. But I see it with writers that I like, I see them being jokey about stuff, and I think it kind of ruins it. It’s this business that you’ve got to be out there… I’m really struggling with the meaning of social media, and a big part of the film is just noodling around about that. I really don’t know what it means, or what it does to the way you go through your day if you’re mining your experiences for publication in that way.

Is the suffering or anxiety that Frank feels as a result of the encroachment of these various systems of meaning-creation then something you feel you can relate to as a filmmaker?

Yes, definitely. What was really extraordinary for me, at Sundance [where the film premiered], was that I was really doing the same thing as the characters in the film: I was bringing my film to a “cool” festival, in the way that they go to SXSW, I was doing lots of interviews where I was projecting — not the sort of interview we’re doing here, but the sort you do at festivals with the Hollywood Reporter where you, you know, sit on a stool and tell anecdotes. And I found that very destabilising, having to be the salesperson, as well as the maker of the film.

This process, of applying meaning to material that resists it, seems to me fundamental to the act of filmmaking, or of storytelling in general: do you feel that that storytelling, to be effective, has to contain a reticence as far as this is concerned?

As in, “Does a film have to be modern?” In that sense?

As in, you’ve talked about things being in a process of becoming, in a constant state of becoming: it seems to me the reason that the character of Frank works is that, in a sense, it never really arrives…

Yes. Going back to the earlier part of our discussion, Jon’s quest to understand is really a quest to reduce. And it’s functional: so that he too, as well as Frank seems to have been able to do, can gain the necessary parts to assemble into a creative whole, for himself. And so he thinks there’s a way of decoding Frank’s ability. But what the film says in its own sweet way is that he just is this kind of person. To be clear, I’m not any kind of radical relativist. I don’t think we are prisoners of our ways of perceiving things. I think there is an external world that resists our interpretations, and that our interpretations approximate towards it, but that they can’t fully get there. Now, that’s different to saying that there’s nothing to get to, that it’s just an ongoing series of texts that are self-supporting: I don’t believe that. So initially there are all these versions of Frank that you’re projecting that will explain him, and what you eventually find is a version of Frank that doesn’t explain anything.

Do you think that the character of Frank in the present that the film is set in, can be said to be the way he is at least in part as a result of similar, past efforts to narrativise or explain?

Yes, Frank’s desire to make himself fully anonymous, somehow, is his way of trying to avoid getting caught up in those nets. One of the targets of the film is the idea that you can make sense of human suffering in terms of a glib causality. Or the Freudian idea that you have to look early… I mean, I really believe it when Frank’s parents say it was a good home, because I don’t believe there’s any easy answer. I’m very skeptical of that kind of analysis, or of the Laingian idea [after Scottish psychiatrist R.D. Laing, who wrote extensively on mental illness] that the family is always the root of these issues. It’s interesting, because most people who are kind of physicalist, who are fans of this idea of the existence of an independent, persisting, external world about which things can be absolutely true or absolutely false, like I am: that often goes with a naive epistemology that says: “Yeah, and you can know all about it too!” But I split the two. Often those that hold the intellectual position that is most antithetical to the Western scientific view of an external world, to there being matters of fact, are also quite happy to perform quite ad-hoc explanation and analysis of situations like Frank’s. Does that make sense?

You’re saying that though you believe in the theoretical possibility of an explanation, that any attempts towards it are necessarily deficient…

They’re always deficient, yes. So you have Jon’s view that something awful must have happened to Frank to make him the way he is. Well, that would only be true really in a universe where a god exists. I absolutely believe that we are caught up in a deterministic network of cause and effects, but the level of description at which they operate doesn’t often mesh with the events and attributes we’re interested in. I think of course there must be reasons why Frank is the way he is, but it does not necessarily follow that those reasons are locatable in the discourse of family history, for example.

Do you think that this is an optimistic film?

I think it’s a humane film, and that it does finally reassert the value of the relationships that it has shown. If you’re making a bowl, it’s always going to have a lower bottom than sides, you know, and this is a certain kind of film, one which needs to close. I don’t think it’s a film that could have stood an open ending. Now, it’s still very open by the standards of many films, but there is a sense of closure to it, which in itself just formally creates the feeling of this internal world making a little bit more sense at the end of the film than it did three minutes beforehand. And that’s just as much a function of the type of film it is as it is of my philosophy of life. But I think that there is a kind of optimism to Frank, that there are ways of living for people like Frank. You know, even Jon, and I’m almost ashamed to say this, it’s the first time I’ve ever done it, but he learns something. And Frank is allowed to find a sort of viable, fulfilling place to be at the end, so yeah, more than anything I’ve done before, I’d say Frank is an optimistic film. It’s the sort of optimism that I can stand over. Had the last scene involved a crowd gradually drawing towards the stage, saying “Wow, this music is great!” and everybody starts to clap — no, they’re still totally ignored, they’re still going to fail by any standard measure of success, and it’s still just a tiny blip of warmth in an otherwise deeply indifferent world… but it is nevertheless a blip of warmth, and that’s not undermined in the film, in fact it’s valued and presented in a first order sort of way. In that sense, it is an optimistic film.

Lenny Abrahamson’s Frank, starring Michael Fassbender, is on release from Friday 2nd May.

Words: Oisín Murphy-Hall

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