“Frank” is a peculiar movie. Michael Fassbender plays the lead, but before you swoon know this: He wears a gigantic paper mache head throughout the movie. He plays the title character, an avant-garde musician in a band called the Soronprfbs (a deliberately unpronounceable name). At times “Frank” feels like one big acting class exercise made up of friends who have inside jokes, like you’ve walked into a room and missed something.
That’s not to say that it isn’t enjoyable. Many have found it so. Of course, one could argue all day whether or not Jackson Pollock was a brilliant painter while others just sit there scratching their head. As with many indie films, some people get it, but others not so much. It comes down to taste and whether or not you’ve heard of the singer-songwriter Chris Sievey and his alter ego Frank Sidebottom.
Sievey was the founder of a British rock band called The Freshies. He died in 2010 and although this movie isn’t about him, it’s a nod of the head — a big fake one — to him. The character Sidebottom wore a gigantic noggin on stage.
Fassbender has a very likable baritone voice a la Jim Morrison. On drums is Carla Azar, the drummer for Jack White’s band, and French actor/musician Francois Civil plays bass. Gyllenhaal plays the synthesizer and an odd instrument called the theramin. “Frank” is directed by Lenny Abrahamson and written by Jon Ronson.
I caught up with Fassbender on Aug. 7 in a hotel in SoHo in New York City.
Dorri Olds: Was there a musical bootcamp to get you actors in sync?
Michael Fassbender: We were really fortunate to have a three-week rehearsal period. That was a great luxury, and thank God we got three weeks rehearsal time before Christmas, and then we started filming after the Christmas period, so that gave us a chance to get to know one another, but also to really try to understand Stephen [Rennicks] and Lenny’s music.
How did they choose the songs?
I think the really hard task for these guys was to find music that was arty but not pretentious, music that had a real truth to it. Music that wasn’t commercial but wasn’t awful. The genius of Stephen is that he did pick the most commercial song ever. That lipstick Coca-Cola dance all night song, that’s the one that people always remember from seeing the trailer. So Stephen’s instincts were right.
They wanted music that had moments that were quite catchy but not in the vein of pop music. It was really a huge undertaking for them, and I think they did a great job. Then it was just about us [the cast] adjusting to that, getting to know it and getting familiar with it.
I know Maggie Gyllenhaal has a singing background, but had all of the actors been musical before the film?
I think all of us are musical people. I know I’ve always liked music, and it’s always been in and around my life. So it was nice to fulfill a fantasy and play in a band. Although, last night we played our last gig, and I thought I’d enjoy it more. It was quite stressful actually. [Smiles]
What kind of mental illness does Frank have?
I think we were looking at an extreme bipolar scenario where the manic and the euphoria just comes before the crash.
What was it like acting under that huge head?
I found it really liberating. The only thing I never got used to was when we were doing the sound. It was different in there. I mean I’d go away, and I was learning an accent, and I’d been practicing it, but once you put the head on, there’s a reverb thing going on in there that puts the sound off a bit. But the rest of it was really fun. It was cool as soon as I put the head on. It gave me an element of mischief, an anarchic quality like Chris Sievey’s original Frank Sidebottom character.
Was your inability to make eye contact with your cast members a problem?
For the other actors, it never mattered that I couldn’t make eye contact because Frank is Frank, and he lives in his own universe. They’re used to him anyway, used to wondering: Did he hear that? Did he see that? Except for Donald’s character, everyone is used to Frank with the head on.
The band’s trip to South by Southwest (SXSW) was an important plot point. Had you been there before?
Yes, it’s a great festival. I’d been to one SXSW and then came straight out to shooting the movie after that.
Is it a relief to be out from under that head?
As time went on, my hygiene represented itself in the head. It was hot and sweaty in there. Sometimes if you’re running around, you can’t really breathe as well inside it, but I really enjoyed having the head on. I actually wanted to bring it on to my next job but they wouldn’t let me. [Grins]
“Frank” opens in select theaters Friday, Aug. 15 and opens wide nationally on Aug. 29. Rated R. 95 min.
Watch the trailer:
Watch the Soronprfbs perform “I Love You All” on “The Colbert Report:”
Dorri Olds is a contributing journalist for TheBlot Magazine.