Lenny talks Frank

In Lenny Abra­ham­son’s lat­est film, Michael Fass­ben­der plays the lead char­ac­ter from in­side a huge pa­pier-mache head. Here, the Ir­ish di­rec­tor gives Don­ald Clarke the low­down on the no­to­ri­ous nog­gin, his ‘Celtic Tiger Tril­ogy’ and more

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - COVER STORY -

The last time I spoke with Lenny Abra­ham­son he had to ex­plain why he took so long with his work. Adam & Paul, his era-defin­ing study of two wan­der­ing Dublin junkies, ar­rived with us in 2004. Garage fol­lowed in 2007. It took an­other five years for the hugely ac­claimed What Richard Did to emerge. Now, like Terrence Mal­ick, our Lenny seems to have found a new gear. The odd, an­gu­lar Frank hits cin­e­mas next week. Abra­ham­son is al­ready at work on an adap­ta­tion of Emma Donoghue’s ad­mired novel Room. Af­ter that, he will move on to a film ver­sion of Sarah Wa­ters’s ghost story The Lit­tle Stranger.

How can I put this del­i­cately? Abra­ham­son is still (by my de­crepit stan­dards any­way) a young man, but time makes con­ces­sions for no man. As he moves into his later 40s, has he be­come aware of a tick­ing clock?

“There is a lot of that,” he laughs. “The de­ci­sion to up the ante was pre­cip­i­tated by the on­com­ing cri­sis that is 50. What’s scary about 50 is not 50 it­self. It’s the prox­im­ity to 60. I am very aware that this goes by very quickly. If you di­vide it into four-year blocks you don’t get to make that many films.”

Frank marks a the­matic and tonal move away from Abra­ham­son’s ear­lier work. All three of his first pic­tures were rooted very specif­i­cally in an Ir­ish mi­lieu: the hard-drug demi-monde; the iso­lated mid­lands; mid­dle-class Dublin. Though much of the new film takes place in Ire­land, its prin­ci­pal lo­ca­tion can be found within the gi­ant cra­nium of an ec­cen­tric rock mu­si­cian on a mis­sion to be­muse. Domh­nall Glee­son plays Jon, a young man who, al­most by ac­ci­dent, gets drafted into an avant-garde band fronted by the mys­te­ri­ous Frank. An un­pre­dictable, men­tally trou­bled in­di­vid­ual, the mu­si­cian wears a large false head at all times. You must take it on trust one Michael Fass­ben­der lurks be­neath the comic pros­thetic.

“We toyed with the idea of hav­ing a com­pletely un­known ac­tor,” Abra­ham­son ex­plains. “But there aren’t many un­known and fan­tas­ti­cally bril­liant ac­tors. Or, if there are, by def­i­ni­tion we don’t know who they are. But the idea of get­ting some­body with a movie star face – a com­mod­ity – and then tak­ing away that com­mod­ity felt the­mat­i­cally cor­rect.” It’s the sort of ab­sur­dist gag that Soron­prfbs, Frank’s un­pro­nounce­able band, might ap­pre­ci­ate. “That’s right. But also, our Jon is a guy who, like many, ac­cen­tu­ates his at­tributes on so­cial me­dia. We liked the idea that, in con­trast, we have this de­sir­able quan­tity and we hide it.”

Frank has a com­pli­cated his­tory. Co-writ­ten by Jon Ron­son, the story has dis­tant roots in that jour­nal­ist’s time play­ing with the faux-naïve mu­si­cian Frank Sidebottom. The Man­cu­nian oddball, a cre­ation of the late Chris Sievey, did, in­deed, wear a head sim­i­lar to the one in the film. All in­volved with Frank are, how­ever, keen to stress that their work is, in no sense, “about” Frank Sidebottom. The char­ac­ter is Amer­i­can. The mu­sic is less cosy. The story veers in en­tirely in­vented di­rec­tions.

“Jon Ron­son told Chris Sievey that they were think­ing of mak­ing a film,” Lenny ex­plains. “They were in­ter­ested in just spark­ing off this guy in the head and tak­ing it off in these un­ex­pected di­rec­tions. And Chris didn’t want a film ‘about’ him. They were happy that they were mak­ing all this new stuff up. When the film was fin­ished we took it up to Chris’s fam­ily and they were very happy with it. But there are die-hard fans that keep shout­ing: ‘ Frank wasn’t Amer­i­can!’ There’s not much you can do.”

Well, I sup­pose they could have changed his ap­pear­ance a lit­tle more.

“Look, to be fair, our char­ac­ter does wear a big head, he does play in a band and the film is writ­ten by Jon Ron­son. The ref­er­ences are there. Cel­e­brate that. It doesn’t stop people cel­e­brat­ing Frank.”

This is a rod that Abra­ham­son seems to keep man­u­fac­tur­ing for his own metaphor­i­cal back. Two years ago, he had to dis­cuss the loose con­nec­tions be­tween What Richard Did and the tragic death of Brian Mur­phy out­side An­abel’s night­club in Dublin. When Room, the story of a woman and child im­pris­oned by a psy­chopath, is even­tu­ally re­leased, he will be con­fronted with ques­tions about the in­flu­ence of the Fritzl case on Donoghue’s novel.

“I know. It’s very strange,” he says. “I hope that, since Emma’s novel has been around for a while, the re­la­tion­ships be­tween it and sev­eral other cases will have been worked through. That is now part of a fin­ished con­ver­sa­tion. That’s the hope, any­way.”

To be fair, those true sto­ries are, in­deed, con­strained in the very deep back­ground of Abra­ham­son’s films and Donoghue’s novel. But there is al­ways an ex­tra con­ver­sa­tion to be had be­fore he can get to the meat of the project. One as­sumes that it must have been a very dif­fer­ent busi­ness pro­mot­ing What Richard Did over­seas. No glib ac­cu­sa­tions could be made that the film – con­cern­ing a much-loved stu­dent caught up in a vi­o­lent death – was “cap­i­tal­is­ing” on the news story.

“That was dif­fer­ent,” he says. “Of the three films, it’s the one that ended up mak­ing the big­gest im­pres­sion abroad – by far. Adam & Paul didn’t travel so

well ini­tially be­cause of the ac­cents, though people do keep dis­cov­er­ing it. I think it’s maybe a purer view­ing ex­pe­ri­ence if you view it out­side Ire­land. Q and As abroad were purely about the film.”

At any rate, What Richard Did scared up enough crit­i­cal noise to al­low Frank a rel­a­tively unim­peded path to­wards pro­duc­tion.

Dear heav­ens, this is an agree­ably odd film. Af­ter Jon is drawn in as key­board player, Soron­prfbs re­treat to ru­ral Ire­land to record their mas­ter­work. They play tooth­brushes. They em­ploy Dadaist ran­domis­ing tech­niques. A Theremin is in­tro­duced. Fans of Cap­tain Beef­heart will re­call sto­ries of the great man’s tyran­ni­cally odd be­hav­iour dur­ing the record­ing of Trout Mask Replica. But there’s also a sweet­ness to Frank. Fass­ben­der re­ally has con­structed a per­for­mance of great nuance and com­plex­ity.

“We had ob­vi­ously thought greatly about who could be Frank,” Abra­ham­son says. “The dan­ger was that you would end up with a fey cen­tral char­ac­ter, some­body with that wide-eyed Michael Jack­son thing. But there’s no way Fass­ben­der would play it that way. You do get a comedic in­no­cence, but you also have this sense of the Beef­heart-like whip-cracking.”

The film sounds like a bit of a gam­ble. But so far it has paid off nicely for the team. The pre­miere at the Sun­dance Fes­ti­val drew raves. A later screen­ing at South by South­west in Austin, Texas went equally well.

“It’s an ex­tra­or­di­nary of­fer to people,” he says. “But I think it’s my most con­ven­tional film. It’s cer­tainly my most commercial film. We are largely happy. About 80 per cent of the re­views were re­ally pos­i­tive. The people who like it re­ally like it. The rest don’t get it at all. That’s quite good. It’s a strong flavour. It’s not an­other bland film in the gloop.”

Rather neatly, the pic­ture emerges a decade af­ter Adam & Paul. By 2004, Abra­ham­son, a fran­ti­cally ar­tic­u­late Dubliner from a Jewish back­ground, had al­ready es­tab­lished a rep­u­ta­tion in the world of ad­ver­tis­ing. A full 14 years be­fore that, shortly af­ter grad­u­at­ing from Trin­ity Col­lege Dublin, he had made some noise with an ex­cel­lent short en­ti­tled 3 Joes. A brief spell at Stan­ford re­search­ing a PhD in phi­los­o­phy fol­lowed, be­fore, in what then seemed like a slightly lu­natic move, he re­turned home to make movies.

There is a lot of non­sense writ­ten about the poor qual­ity of Ir­ish film in one or two pa­pers. Most of it is not good, but that’s true of all cin­ema. We only see the Dan­ish films that make it out­side the coun­try”

“I watched Adam & Paul for for the first time in seven or eight years re­cently and I re­ally en­joyed it,” he says. “There are these emo­tional res­o­nances that re­sult from it be­ing a first film. It is still the film people know best. If I get a taxi and they ask me what I do they all know Adam & Paul. Kids on the street know it. It’s a cult film.”

As Abra­ham­son moves on in new di­rec­tions – Room is be­ing made in the US – those first films now look to form a neat an­thol­ogy. In­deed, an aca­demic of my ac­quain­tance re­cently, talk­ing rapidly as if the phrase was com­mon par­lance, de­scribed the films as “Lenny Abra­ham­son’s Celtic Tiger Tril­ogy”. This does make a kind of sense. Adam & Paul ex­am­ines those left be­hind dur­ing the boom years. What

Richard Did stud­ies those who sur­vived the crash. Garage goes among those liv­ing out­side the fi­nan­cial con­fla­gra­tions.

“Were they maybe the wrong way round?” he says. “No, that was a com­plete ac­ci­dent any­way. It’s very easy to ret­ro­spec­tively im­pose a nar­ra­tive on these things.”

There are lessons for the Ir­ish Film In­dus­try in Abra­ham­son’s suc­cess. For those of us who re­mem­ber him as a hairy youth, it is sober­ing to re­alise that he is, for many young film-mak­ers, now some­thing of a se­nior fig­ure. One can think of few bet­ter men for the job. In my ex­pe­ri­ence, Great Un­cle Lenny is never afraid to ex­press his opin­ions.

“Oh, what should I say?” he asks, pulling on a mis­chievous grin. “There is a lot of non­sense writ­ten about the poor qual­ity of Ir­ish film in one or two pa­pers. Most of it is not good, but that’s true of all cin­ema. We only see the Dan­ish films that make it out­side the coun­try. We see all Ir­ish films. So of course we’re go­ing to be more aware.”

He’s get­ting some mo­men­tum go­ing. Where are we go­ing with this?

“Hav­ing said that, we should be harder on the films we make. Crit­i­cally, that’s changed a bit. We should also be tougher in how we make them. I don’t think enough work is done on scripts. I think we prob­a­bly make too many films. I think it should be harder to get one made.”

Abra­ham­son will ad­mit that it’s some­thing of a lux­ury to be able to have this con­ver­sa­tion. When he started out, Ir­ish fea­tures were as rare as Ir­ish space­ships. His gen­er­a­tion helped turn an am­bi­tion into an in­dus­try.

“It used to like be Bear Grylls try­ing to get a fire go­ing,” he laughs. “If there was a spark ev­ery­one would hud­dle round in case the wind blew it out. We can be tougher now.”

Head case: Michael Fass­ben­der in Frank. Clock­wise from be­low left: Adam & Paul; What Richard Did; Lenny Abra­ham­son; Garage

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