During a cast interview after the premiere of “Frank,” someone asked Maggie Gyllenhaal if she’d ever consider wearing a mask the way Frank does. She pointed to her face and asked a question of her own: “What do you think this is?”
Lenny Abrahamson’s latest film is a riff on Gyllenhaal’s question.
“Frank,” which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, follows the purposefully unpronounceable Soronprfbs, a band whose lead singer, Frank (Michael Fassbender), is never seen without a giant papier-mâché head. Aspiring musician Jon (Domhnall Gleeson) is intrigued both by their music and their frontman, so when the keyboardist tries to drown himself, he steps in to take his place. When Soronprfbs begins to draw attention, the pursuit of making Frank famous sends things spiraling out of control.
The film carries a “theme of the distinction or dissonance between the way we present ourselves in life and the way we feel,” explains Abrahamson. “You end up with this projected, interesting version of one’s self. The film deals with those sorts of ideas, these rich ironies and intentions and contrasts.”
The story, which Abrahamson developed over three years with writers Jon Ronson and Paul Straughan, asks serious questions about identity and performance, peppering them with the comedy and tragedy brought on by a grown man refusing to live outside of a huge, orb-like head. “The film is something more than a quirkfest, but it would be easy to make a cool but pretty empty film out of the same material,” says Abrahamson. “I wanted to be able to retain an anarchic, slapstick thread but also allow the film to move into dark, tender, and difficult territory, and hold those two flavors in the same vessel. I wanted audiences to feel for Frank but never to explain him.”
Naturally, some would want an explanation for why Frank decides to shower, eat, and sleep with his head on, but Fassbender and Abrahamson explain nothing. “I thought maybe I would have to think differently about things like close-ups,” Abrahamson says, “but the logic of how to shoot Frank came out of the character and the drama the way it always does…. You lose some things, expressions, and it moves into abstraction, but you gain this basic language: If he dropped his head in the middle of the scene, you ask, ‘Why did he do that?’ ” Abrahamson feels “the pure intent of [Fassbender] as an actor because of the mask”—it removes the “branding” of his face and reveals a stripped-down performer.
Many directors would have taken this story and turned it into a mockery, but Abrahamson balances the humor with real tenderness. “In terms of my previous films [‘Adam & Paul,’ ‘What Richard Did’] this is more overtly comedic and playful,” he says. “I relish the opportunity to play more than in the previous ones and to try to be expansive rather than what I am very naturally drawn to: this minimalism. For ‘Frank,’ I wanted to kick against that without losing the clarity.”
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