Talking Truth and Fiction in 'Frank' with Jon Ronson

A surreal film about a bandleader who wears a fake head on top of his own doesn't necessarily scream "true story," but for co-screenwriter Jon Ronson Frank has one major  element of reality. 

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A surreal film about a bandleader who wears a fake head on top of his own doesn't necessarily scream "true story," but for co-screenwriter Jon Ronson Frank has one major  element of reality. Ronson performed with the Frank Sidebottom Oh Blimey Big Band, lead by the inscrutable Frank Sidebottom—yes, a man in a big fake head—the alter ego of Chris Sievey. Years later, Ronson's experiences with Chris and Frank, became the heavily-fictionalized film, which goes beyond Frank Sidebottom, who had a following in Britain, to explore the world of outsider art and the myth of the troubled genius. Ronson, however, also chronicled his experiences with the real Frank in a small volume entitled Frank: The True Story That Inspired the movie.

Frank, the film, is often charming, with Domhnall Gleeson's Ronson stand-in gazing in wonderment at Fassbender's mysteriously be-headed leader of The Soronprfbs. (The band's name is quite literally a random jumble of letters, Ronson told us.) But the film isn't just twee, and takes the inner life of its titular character very seriously. As Sam Adams wrote at Criticwire there's a timeliness to the fact that movie is a "lesson in why equating creativity and mental illness is dangerous and deadly."

The Wire talked with Ronson about the portrayal of mental illness in the film and the parallels between fiction and reality. Here are excerpts of our conversation.

How connected do you want the film to be with Frank Sidebottom’s own legacy?

Right. That’s a really good question, and having read the book you can see that the film is totally different than the real story. Remembering how amazing the real story is, I didn’t want it to get lost. I wanted to pay proper respect to the real Frank. And also the real story is so amazing, in it's own way, as amazing as the fictional story. I just sort of felt it kind of deserved to live on its own. But I do think that people can watch the movie without knowing anything about the real story. For a little while it was weird because there was a misunderstanding. People thought we were doing a Frank Sidebottom biopic. And I had to explain to people, honestly, it’s not. Then when the trailer came out and people saw that our Frank had an American accent, people were going “this is outrageous,” and I’m thinking, “it’s not outrageous, because it’s not a biopic.”  I thought it’s going to be okay because when people see the movie they’ll understand. And sure enough that’s what happened. When people saw the movie they understood that it was fictional, inspired by the real Frank.

It was kind of tricky because I sort of want people to enjoy the movie without knowing anything about Frank, but at the same time the real Frank’s story is deserving of its own little book too.

Was one of the reasons you made Frank American in the film part of that process of distancing him from the real Frank?

The first time we talked about making Frank American was I think Peter Straughan my co-writer said somebody like  the movie Jon—this kind of suburban kid in that small seaside town England dreaming about being in a band— would be so blown away if Americans showed up. I think that was the first reason we thought about making Frank American. And then when we realized that a lot of Frank’s other influences, other than Frank Sidebottom, were American—you know, the Daniel Johnston and The Shaggs and Captain Beefheart—we thought well that’s another reason to make our Frank American. Of course there’s this whole thing in the movie where when Jon is kind of imagining what Frank’s childhood is like in "Bluff Kansas," and that’s why Frank’s a genius because of this incredible, abusive childhood he must have gotten that Jon is kind of spinning from nowhere. That wouldn’t have happened if it were an English town. The other reason why was it would mean nobody in Britain would mistake our Frank for the real Frank Sidebottom.

We didn’t specify what the voice would sound like. I always imagined it would be sort of high-pitched kind of Michael Jackson type of airy voice and then sort of counter-intuitively, Michael Fassbender gave him this kind of deep Iggy Pop type voice, which I first thought that’s really surprising, but now I think it’s a really great vision because it just makes him more complicated and less cartoonish.

The real Frank and Ronson

I was wondering if you could talk about your process between realizing there’s a movie in Chris’s story to deciding to fictionalize it, and how you came to that conclusion.

It started with me getting this call out of the blue from Frank fifteen years after I last saw him. He wanted me to write something to help him with his comeback, and then I got home and it all sort of flowed out of me in this really kind of emotional way remembering my sort coming of age moment. It did sort of come over a bit like Alice going down the rabbit hole. That was really interested my co-writer Peter Straughan this sort of lovely fairytale quality to it, and I think Peter saw the idea wouldn’t be interesting to do a movie with a central character who wears a big fake head and you never see his face. That’s a really filmic idea.

Well, Chris wanted us to change stuff, so that was kind of permission for us to start changing things. And I never liked the idea of making our band kind of comedic, and Frank Sidebottom is kind of comedic. It sort of felt like the stakes were kind of lower if it was comedy. I thought it would be more fun to write about people who took themselves incredibly seriously like Kraftwerk or something. I thought that would be sort of funny to write about. And then we started thinking about all these other outsider artists that took themselves incredibly seriously, like Klaus Kinski. I was sort of thinking about what movies are out there were the central character was sort of comedic and chaotic and didn’t really care when everything went wrong and enjoyed chaos. And I remember there was that Andy Kaufman movie, Man on the Moon. That was one good example of getting right. I sort of thought it would be more fun and also more of a page turner if the stakes were higher and the way for the stakes to be higher would be to change the music of the band and the kind of attitude of the band. Then we start bringing in influences like Daniel Johnston, which is quite clearly a story about people who have had a clash between their talents and their mental illness, and how their inner life is a battle between talent and illness.

There's a quote in your book from Daniel Johnston's friend Louis Black that "we spend our lives with the notion of the crazy artist."  For some of the film, Jon has a fascination with mental illness and thinks it's is the key to creativity. Meanwhile, in the book, you describe thinking excitedly that a squatter you lived with before meeting Frank was “SO mentally ill!”  How did you choose to explore those impressions of mental illness, how did you want the movie to portray them?

I’ve written about this stuff in the past with The Psychopath Test, and it just interested me so much, that kind of beautiful naïveté when you’re young and see the tortured artist as being fabulous, and then when you’re faced with the reality of being with a tortured person and it’s not at all fabulous. It’s not fabulous to the person and it’s not fabulous to the people around the person. I’ve known that from my own life, and also this brilliant documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston talks about that too, about how awful it is to be Daniel Johnston’s parents, the hand they’ve been dealt. It’s heartbreaking, and there’s nothing romanticizing about mental illness that documentary. It wanted to kind of de-romanticize it in that way, so I love the idea of Jon, exactly like I say in that book when I’m watching Shep my flatmate, and I’m just exciting thinking, “he’s so mentally ill”—I really like the idea of playing with Jon’s naïveté, which isn’t stupid, it’s kind of human.

Also, Peter was very like, “you can’t make this a film about how amazing it is to be mentally ill because it makes you so talented, we can’t do that.” So that’s why we wrote that scene at the end where Frank’s mother says, “the torment slows him down.”

It becomes very clear in that scene that his music doesn’t come from his illness.

Exactly. It felt like it probably would have been irresponsible to make this film that says you should aspire towards torment and mental illness because that’s where the great art comes from, when usually it’s the opposite of that.

You’ve mentioned the influence of The Devil and Daniel Johnston

And personal experience too, and the fact that I’ve written obviously about the same subject. People have kind of strange relationships with mental illness. Like I noticed just now somebody alerted me to this Twitter feed called OCD Nightmares. That kind of turns OCD into a comedy illness, which it isn’t. I’ve just finished a book about public shaming, in it I say that we love nothing more than to declare other people insane. We always want to turn [mental illness] into something that it isn’t, so one thing I really wanted to do in the film was turn it into something that it is. The reality of what it’s like. Toward the end of the film Jon gets everything that he wants, he gets Frank to himself and it’s like What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? It’s really bad. He’s stuck with this damaged person and it’s not like the way he wants it to be at all.

In the book you talk about looking into The Shaggs and other marginal musicians. What was your research process?

As a journalist I much preferred going off and doing research than just sitting at my desk. I just felt like that was a kind of skill that I understood. That’s why I went off and met The Shaggs and read as much as I could about other people. There’s a great book out there called Songs in the Key of Z, which tells a lot of these stories too about The Shaggs and Tiny Tim, people like that. I did the same thing with the screenplay I’m writing with Peter now, but I realized I really like trying to find inspiration in real stories because it feels more like the kind of skill that I have, which is journalism. Also there’s a kind of a authenticity in that. I made this documentary about Stanley Kubrick, and I remember Kubrick got his nephew to go around London taking photographs of people’s bedside tables and the various crap that people have next to their beds because he said no art department could ever invent it, could ever make it up. So I think that’s another reason why I did that. You’ll find these little details.

There’s a line in the movie where Frank says somebody’s thinking in the key of C. And Jon says it’s me, and then Clara [Maggie Gyllenhaal] comes to him. Captain Beefheart would ban people from thinking in the key of C.

One of the things that struck me in the real Frank Sidebottom story and in the movie was the relationship to fame. It’s a two-pronged question: how did you see the real Frank’s relationship to fame factoring into the film Frank’s? 

Of course in real life it was Frank who wanted to become more famous. Everyone around him was becoming famous we’d gone from innocently loving playing for 300 people a night to in Bradford and Sheffield and Leeds and Liverpool to thinking it wasn’t enough and we should be aiming higher because everyone around us was playing to like 20,000 people a night. We’d been happy. We were kind of corrupted by the success of other people. I was really interested in that. Especially because everybody's got a slightly weird attitude towards failure. People tend to see failure as only being a positive thing if it’s a stop off on the road to success. Like a little boy who the baseball and then finally hits the baseball out of the park. That’s kind of the American dream: you get another chance and you succeed.

I was sort of thinking about what about those people who never succeed? Are they doomed to feeling bad about themselves? I wanted to write something which sort of said you know what it’s okay be a bit of a failure, it’s okay to be marginal.

I love the fact that the happy ending of Frank is them finding no audience.

And I thought the film’s use of social media was really interesting, can you talk about that…

The whole social media thing was I’m really interested in the way that people on social media we turn people into freaks. We reduce people to the worst tweet they ever wrote. Which is kind of weird because we don’t see ourselves being those kinds of people, but it turns out that we kind of are those kinds of people. I really love in Frank the way that Jon thinks he’s doing the right thing by secretly filming them and putting them YouTube and stuff, and then when he meets the people who only learned about them from YouTube they’ve got the wrong end of the stick and they only think that the band is just kind of hilarious freaks. We started writing the screenplay when Twitter was really in its infancy. It was sort of like the Garden of Eden back then everybody thought Twitter was about a golden future so everyone could be unselfconscious. I kind of like the fact that we spotted quite early on that actually it could be a bit darker than that.

Did Chris ever see a draft of the film or did he know what direction he was going into?

He knew the direction we were heading in. He knew it would be a kind of fairytale between a character based on me and a character based on him and it would be fictitious. But no, by the time he died nobody had seen a draft of the film. It just wasn’t good enough for it to be presented out to anybody.

Have you heard anything from anyone else in the band or what they think he might have felt about it?

We’ve been in really close contact with his family. They all love it. We put on a special screening for the family. I think it was the day after the Sundance premiere. They all loved it. They knew by then what it was trying to do. I did this tour of England giving the true story that inspired some of the movie and in some of the shows we’d call on the old band at the end of the show to perform and play like six songs, and we got Chris’ 18-year-old son to be the vocalist.

Did he use the head?

No. We brought the head out. It looked a little bit like a severed head so I’m not sure that was a particularly good idea.

The head in the film very much resembles Frank Sidebottom’s head. Did you always want to keep the head pretty much looking the same?

We sort of left that to the design department and they didn’t involve us at all so I didn’t know anything until the day I arrived on set for my set visit and I saw the head for the first time. I didn’t realize just how close to the head it would be. The way that they changed it was really quite brilliant. His facial expression seems to change even though it never does. When Frank’s happy the face looks happy when Frank’s depressed, the face looks depressed. And that’s partly to do with Michael Fassbender’s acting, which I think is brilliant, and that’s partly to these little changes they made to the head, which I think is incredible. It’s so subtle and it’s so kind of small that you really notice.

You chose to go in the very fictional direction with the film. Do you ever think you’ll return to the story of Frank Sidebottom?

I don’t think so. It’s just in the 11,000 word book that I wrote. And then I did the stage show, and it was lovely. I kind of feel that’s kind of it now. That is the way it felt best, and it’s time to move on to other stuff. To me it was like a fairytale memoir like Stand By Me, but instead of a dead body it’s a man with a big fake head. I think that kind captured that in the short book that I wrote and I think that we capture that in a lovely, strange fictionalized version in the movie. I sort of think my work is done on this now.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.