Journalist and Screenwriter Jon Ronson on Writing ‘Frank,’ Twitter Shame, and His Real-Life Past With Outsider Art

Handsome Michael Fassbender wears a giant paper maché head with a face on it for the duration of the fantastic new movie Frank. That’s the weird selling point for a movie that’s ostensibly about a guy wearing a paper maché head, but it turns out that there’s a lot more bubbling under the surface of Frank. It’s a film about the human urge for creativity and transcendence in the face of mental illness and, well, on the other hand, naive youthfulness through the adventures of the world’s greatest outsider art band. And the best part is that Frank, the character in the movie, is not just a creation straight from the head of co-screenwriters Jon Ronson and Peter Straughan — although you could imagine that was the case, especially if you’re familiar with Ronson’s endlessly curious, wide-ranging journalism for The Guardian, GQ, and This American Life, among others.

No, Frank was a real person: the 80s British pop star Frank Sidebottom (his real name: Chris Sievey), who brought anarchy and nasal wonder to England with songs like “Panic on the Streets of Timperley” and “Christmas Is Really Fantastic.” Ronson played in Sidebottom’s Oh Blimey Big Band in his early twenties, and a Guardian article, expanded into this year’s slim book Frank: The True Story That Inspired the Movie, served as the spark that turned Frank Sidebottom’s life into a Michael Fassbender odyssey. Frank the film is funny and melancholy in equal measures, and one of the best films about rock n’ roll music that I’ve seen.

I talked with Ronson —the author of wonderful books including Them: Adventures With Extremists, The Men Who Stare at Goats, The Psychopath Test, and Lost at Sea: The Jon Ronson Mysteries — over an afternoon lunch at Tavern on the Green. His next book, on the subject of “twitter shaming,” has just been passed in to his publishers and is due out in 2015.

Flavorwire: One thing that’s interesting about Frank the movie to me is that while watching the film, the head seems to take on emotional qualities —

It begins to change a little! I can take no credit for it, because the way we described the fake head in the screenplay was pretty much Frank Sidebottom’s real head. We didn’t give any directions to whether they should stick to the real head or change it. In the end, they tried a whole bunch of heads that were nothing like Frank’s. I saw some just recently, white heads with almost like pencil faces. They didn’t work at all, they were pretty bad.

The head that they chose, when I first saw it on the set, on my brief set visit, I was taken aback because at first it looked so much like Frank Sidebottom’s head. But actually they changed the head, they made the eyes a bit more cat-like and all of this stuff meant that the way Fassbender moves, it feels almost like the facial expression’s totally changing. It’s partially to do with his performance, it’s partially to do with the design of the head. Don’t you think when Fassbender’s happy, the head looks happy, when Fassbender’s confused, the head looks confused? It’s great.

Was the head like that in real life?

No, in real life his head was much more one dimensional. It was just happy mild surprise. That was it. The eyes were round and everything about it was more comic and Betty Boopish, so that aspect of things was less complex.

frank and jon

Was the head always paper mache?

It was until he built a fiberglass version, which was much smoother. I guess he did it to make it more manageable, but I felt that it was jumping the shark, as a sort of head aficionando. I thought the early, battered up, lumpy version was the “real” Frank. That probably sounds like unrealistic expectations, but it’s as if he sold out a bit when he went fiberglass.

Frank the movie is based on your life playing in Frank Sidebottom’s band, but it’s a fictional film. How did that come about?

Fifteen years or so after I played with Chris [Sievey], I got a call from him. He said he was thinking of staging a comeback and he wanted to know whether I could help by writing about my time in the band. It was all sort of came out of me in this rather kind of unexpectedly emotional way, like a coming of age movie. Maybe it was the stirrings of a midlife crisis. I didn’t think twice about it, I was really pleased with the piece and then my editor at The Guardian said I don’t need to change a word of this, so that’s always good and quite rare.

Then my friend Peter [Straughan, the cowriter of the film] said to me, I always had this idea about writing a movie about what would happen if Captain Beefheart was around in the 1940s, and he said to me that your idea is better. So I thought I have no idea what you’re talking about, and no, I have no “idea,” and I think he thought a man in a fake head [was it]. It wasn’t my idea, but it was Chris’s idea.

That’s part of the crazy thing about the movie, at least for me, you’re like… there was a musician who wore a giant head all the time and it’s a true story? What?

In Britain, since I wouldn’t say most people had heard of Frank [Sidebottom], but a lot of people had heard of Frank [Sidebottom], so there was all this confusion at the beginning that people thought it was a Frank Sidebottom biopic and then people would see pictures of the head, but we were like, it’s not, we changed everything, and then they saw the trailer, and that Frank had an American accent and there was outrage. If we had done what they thought we had done, which was make the Frank Sidebottom story but make it American, that’s the worst lie to British consciousness. I thought you know what, it’s going to be fine, because people will see the movie, and they will get what we’ve done. Most people will like the movie, because it’s good, and we’ll be fine. And that’s what happened. Nobody having seen the movie accuses us of anything bad. Chris’s family loved the movie and Chris knew about it and was happy with it not being a biopic so it sort of worked out fine.

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He knew about it towards the end of his life? [Sievey passed away in 2010]

I saw Chris [in 2009], and I remember saying to him, “God you’ve lost so much weight, you look amazing!” He said, “I know!” Neither of us knew it was because he was dying. He was like, “I know! It’s just falling off me!” And I was like, “Well, whatever you’re doing, you look great.” Then a year or two later he was dead.

We kind of skirted around it, because he loved the idea of a movie, and he knew that whatever happened, it would bring more people to Frank Sidebottom. He was thrilled about that and there was some money for his life rights. He said he didn’t love the idea of there being a character based on him in the film, on Chris, because he kind of drank and was hedonistic. Once he gave us that sort of permission to move away from reality, we did what we wanted, and headed towards what we got.

As research, did you watch every depressing outsider artist musician documentary ever made?

I certainly rewatched The Devil and Daniel Johnston about a million times. I think it’s about my favorite documentary of all time.

There’s so many of them, and the themes tend to be that the music is beautiful, but it’s very hard to be living in one’s head.

Absolutely. The Devil and Daniel Johnston explains it so well, and anybody who’s ever had an experience of having a mentally ill family member as well knows the way that anybody has to adapt to it, and deal with it. It does what I think our film does really nicely, too, which is play with and then dismantle the sort of mythology of the wonderful tortured artist. The fact that Jon has all those feelings about Frank and it’s just not true, it’s not wonderful to have those issues. The Devil and Daniel Johnston, a film called Benjamin Smoke about this guy I’ve never heard of called Smoke…

Oh yeah! He was really confrontational, challenging you, but he could sing like an angel.

I remember a moment where we all went off on a retreat, me, Peter, and Lenny [Abrahamson] the director, and we all watched Benjamin Smoke, and it really inspired the film to get much more miserable. Then, after a little while we made it more fun again, which I’m glad about, because I wanted the film to be, even though it’s a melancholic film, I wanted it to be slapstick and funny as well. For a little while, actually, after seeing Benjamin Smoke, the film moved. I’m glad we got it back again.

Actually, being in Central Park, another thing that influenced us was the story of the Viking of the Upper East Side, who used to busk in Central Park.

I don’t know this guy.

He was amazing, and he was blind, and he used to do this song called “Bird’s Lament.” It was brilliant, as good as any of the jazz greats. He was homeless, he dressed as a Viking, and he was blind… [googles it] Moondog! That’s who it is, he was another person; Captain Beefheart, documentaries about him forcing his band into cult like style in Laurel Canyon. The Shaggs, I went off and met the Shaggs, they were the main ones I think.

How were you able to get social media into a movie in an accurate form, and what was it like writing it in when it’s the most visually boring thing in the world?

I’ve gotta say I feel quite proud of our prescience because we started writing this film in 2008/2009, and social media was just starting. Everybody loved it. We were all like Eve in the Garden of Eden, bantering unselfconsciously. I remember, I’ve got this in the book that I just delivered, somebody said, “Facebook is where you lie to your friends, Twitter is where you tell the truth to strangers.” Twitter is not where you tell the truth to strangers anymore. So when we started writing the film, when it was still the Garden of Eden, we sort of had the sense — even I, who loved it and still love it — we kind of got the sense of a darkness beginning to grow.

frank

Domhnall Gleeson, he’s sort of playing a character that’s kind of you, but he’s also not playing you?

He’s playing a sort of more grotesque me. [In real life] Frank/Chris wanted to make the band more mainstream, because he was sick of everyone around us getting famous, and he was getting sort of embittered and jealous, and Chris had this stab at making us more mainstream which was totally doomed to failure. In the very first draft of the film, I kind of wrote that situation as it happened, and I remember Peter said to me, ‘I think it should be Jon who tries to make the band more successful, not Frank.’

To me, it was a mindfuck because as a journalist, you never make those big leaps, and I just thought, Peter, you’re like a genius and you’ve got a whole different set of skills. I don’t know if I can learn those skills, and eventually it took years for me to feel confident to match Peter’s talent at making things up. Once Peter had sort of imposed that idea, you start thinking about “me” [Jon in the film] in a completely different way. I can be this kind of monstrous, kind of cancer in the band, kind of eating the band away at the inside. In real life, I like to think I was not so terrible.

He was also able to be so sweet, too.

This was a project of me and Peter and Lenny, spending days talking about this, how aware is Jon of his malevolence? Is Jon this sort of villainous figure, this Salieri, then we sort of decided, it was really right to say what if Jon’s sort of like all of us, like the audience? We want Frank to do well, we want Frank to find an audience. Let’s make Jon’s malevolence much more ordinary and relatable. That was a really smart decision. I was really frustrated at times, we’d go off to these places and just talk about the movie. I just thought god, this is hard, and it’s tiring, but that’s one thing that came from it and that really made the movie better.

So it was a Frank-style retreat [the band in the movie goes to the country to record their album] to talk about Frank the movie?

It was a disused Victorian railway station in a disused railway track in northern England. It was so scary. There was one night — I have never believed in ghosts so much as I believed that night. Nothing’s more frightening than a disused railway station. Every time you walk into the waiting room, you’re just imagining seeing these men in these tall Victorian hats.

Are you going to be writing more screenplays?

I’m writing one now with Peter, we’re doing it the same way. I’m writing until I can’t think of anything else to write, and I’m going to send it to Peter, and he’s going to do what he does until he sends it back to me. We’re writing it on spec so there’s nobody waiting on it which was a really nice feeling. The book I just delievered was really kind of exhausting and kind of stressful — I love it, it could be my favorite of my books, but meeting these people whose lives have been ruined, and then trying to make it work as an entertaining narrative is really not easy. And I did it, but it took me about three years. With this screenplay, we just decided to make it fun and easy.

Does screenwriting feel like a completely different muscle?

With journalism I just know how to do it and I know what the end point is, but with a screenplay what you try to do is reach the same end point in a completely different way. You’re making things up so you’re creating your own rules, the characters can do anything, unlike in journalism, so it feels like you get a board game through the post and it doesn’t have any rule book, so you have to kind of work out the rules, or invent the rules. But now this is like the second time, I feel much more comfortable this time, I feel like I’m not flailing around in the dark like I felt the first couple of years on Frank. I feel like I know how to do it now. Also I sent 20 pages to Peter and he said “They’re great,” so I have to keep going.

Frank is out in limited release on Friday, August 15, where Ronson will be doing a Q&A at the New York screenings.