On the eve of Frank’s Sundance premiere, Screen talks to Irish director Lenny Abrahamson about getting a different kind of performance from Michael Fassbender in that giant fake head.

After drawing acclaim for Adam & Paul, Garage and What Richard Did, Irish director Lenny Abrahamson returns with offbeat comedy Frank, which stars Michael Fassbender as an enigmatic outsider musician who constantly wears an oversized fake head. Domhnall Gleeson, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Scoot McNairy also star.

World premiering at Sundance Friday (Jan 17) the film tells the story of a wannabe musician who joins Frank’s band and is loosely inspired by cult UK comedian Frank Sidebottom. The film was written by Jon Ronson, who had been in Sidebottom’s band, and Peter Straughan. Frank was shot on location in Ireland and New Mexico with Element Pictures and Runaway Fridge producing. Film4, the BFI and the Irish Film Board backed the film, with Protagonist Pictures handling sales.

ScreenDaily visited Abrahamson in his Dublin editing room to talk about the project’s anarchic playfulness – and working with a lead actor wearing a fake head.

Frank is loosely based on Frank Sidebottom?

Frank was really just an inspiration and then we took the character in a different direction. Something of the film’s kind of anarchic playfulness – there’s a slapstick heart to the film, even though it’s a lot of other things – something of that, which is very much part of who Frank Sidebottom was, carries over into the ethos of the film, the comic tone of the film. But our Frank is an American outsider musician.

What kind of people inspired that?

Daniel Johnston is a real inspiration for it as well….Other inspirations are Captain Beefheart, you know the recording of the famous album Trout Mask Replica. Our band go off to record in a crazy sort of compound in the middle of nowhere in Ireland, to all these buildings in the forest and they have a long session to make this album. Originally Jon Ronson was in the Frank Sidebottom band so the idea of a person joining a band of people who were far more eccentric that he was and having to come to terms with their own place in that band, trying to exert some control: that thread is still there in our Frank. Domhnall Gleeson plays the guy who joins the band and, eventually, through secretly posting clips of them online, they get invited to South By Southwest so the film shifts over to the States and so the last third of the film takes place in the US.

Is seems like something of a departure from What Richard Did?

It is different. There are lots of aspects of the film that people will see links to the other work that I’ve done, particularly Adam & Paul which itself has that kind of quite deadpan, slapstick sort of downbeat comedy. And that strand is in Frank as well. The story is about a guy who isn’t creative, who desperately wants to be. And the mythology of creativity is something that this film kind of explores and tries to undermine…

What appealed to me about it was the potential it had when I read it for a certain kind of very joyful, playful film-making, which I also really love and which I haven’t had a chance to express in the last projects that I’ve done really because they’ve been very different animals. Those expansive possibilities that Frank offered really appealed to me. And I want to continue to make films like What Richard Did but I also have a strong draw towards ideas that need to be made on a bigger scale and Frank is the first of those.

What was your approach to the music in the film?

This was a huge part of development – really thinking hard about what the band would sound like. First of all it had to really come out of the people that we cast because I wanted the music to be played live, and it is all played live by the actors. And it’s recorded live. So it’s not just that the actors made the music in the studio then mimed to themselves: what you hear is what’s played in the room on the day. So that was a big challenge, but it does give the thing a lot of life. So that was one constraint. Having a real drummer like Carla Azar was really brilliant, and Francois Civil, who plays Baraque, the bass player: he’s a young French actor but he’s also a great bass player so that was kind of the core. And actually Domhnall’s very musical. Maggie’s musical, Michael is too. So it all worked.

The music is eclectic, strange, deliberately hard to pin down because we wanted Frank’s character to be permanently exploring musical possibilities.

So you had to write all the songs?

All the songs were written by Stephen Rennicks who has done all the music on my films. And I did a lot of lyric writing as well, and Jon Ronson added lyrics too. And then the band themselves: there are scenes in the film where they just kicked off and we shot it and it really worked and it wasn’t planned.

Michael Fassbender sings and performs in the head?

He sings and plays in the film. So we had a mic rigged up inside the head…There are no doubles used in the film at all. It’s always him. And you’ll know it’s always him. I think people will be very surprised by the performance because it’s probably not what we’ve come to expect from Michael. It’s very funny, he’s very playful, it’s a very different energy.

Performing inside a fake head must be challenging

Not having your face to work with. The thing is, we all know how great puppets can be. We all know how great cartoons can be. And I just had faith. The big risk going into this is that, you know, it won’t work. There will be this kind of dead space in the centre of the scene but it’s not like that. Something about the original Sidebottom head which we’ve modified but not vastly gives it that kind of open puppet-like presence. It’s not a mask, in the way that a Venetian mask is, it doesn’t close the face. And after a while you forget the head. I mean, it is pretty amazing. The other thing we discovered is that you think when you’re filming, well we can shift the dialogue around because you don’t have a lipsync thing, and that will give a certain amount of freedom. But Michael’s movement is so kind of precise that if you try and mess with the dialogue it doesn’t fit.  It’s a challenge for an actor, it’s a challenge for a director. It’s probably the reason why the project appealed…

What we thought of when we worked on the script is the idea that by hiding Frank you allow him to be what other people want to project onto him. And what comes out of Frank is this kind of unfettered creativity. Sometimes it’s ridiculous, sometimes it’s gorgeous and it moves between those two poles.