JON RONSON GETS FRANK ABOUT FRANK | INTERVIEW
JON RONSON GETS FRANK ABOUT FRANK
Jon Ronson, writer of surreal comedy-drama film Frank, returns to Cardiff to tell the true story of his time with Frank Sidebottom – the musician with a papier-mâché head.
When writing Frank how did you know when to use fiction and when to use real life stories from your time as they keyboardist in Frank Sidebottom and the Oh Blimey Big Band?
The genesis of the story was this really lovely true thing that happened, which was how I was plucked from obscurity. I got this mysterious phone call and after which joined the band. You know the first time I got up on stage with them I was like Alice going down the rabbit hole. We always knew that aspect would stay in the film. That was it. The early scenes in the film when I’m like a s banal, untalented musician trying to write songs and then I get a fantastic break and then it’s like I’m Alice Through The Looking Glass. All that’s sort of basically all true, but then everything after that was pretty much totally made up.
Why did you decide to create a show telling the true story behind the film?
When the film was first announced, the way it was announced was kind of confusing and they accidentally made it sound like it was a Frank Sidebottom biopic.
When the trailer came out and they heard that our Frank had an American accent, everyone was saying “he’s turned Frank Sidebottom American, he’s like the world’s worst monster!”
I was like “guys it’s NOT a Frank Sidebottom biopic it’s really not and the reason why our Frank it American is because he’s not Frank Sidebottom”, he’s just as inspired by Samuel Johnson and Captain Beefheart and these great American artists and musicians inspired our Frank Sidebottom.
In the middle of all of that I started thinking that the actual Frank Sidebottom story, the genesis of the film, it’s really interesting and wouldn’t it be nice if we could do a kind of story telling show where I can tell the true story behind the movie.
Why did you decide to make Frank a film of fiction (and not a biopic)?
There was a couple of primary reasons. The first one was that Chris Sievey [the man behind Frank Sidebottom] didn’t really want it to be a Chris Sievey biopic. He loved the idea that we were making a film, he loved that the whole of the audience would get to hear about Frank Sidebottom but he didn’t really want there to be a character based on Chris Sievey in the film.
So we started thinking ‘do we do a Frank Sidebottom adventure film where Frank Sidebottom goes off on an adventure?’, but I thought that I couldn’t really do that and I wouldn’t really know where to start.
There was also that film 24 Hour Party People about the Manchester music scene – I didn’t want to try and write a film about the Manchester music scene because 24 Hour Party People was great. So that was another reason why I wanted to move it away.
Then the third, main reason was that when I sat down to start writing it, it became really obvious to me that it shouldn’t really be a film about a comedians, about it comic act. It would be much more interesting if the band that we were writing about took themselves incredibly seriously. The stakes would be higher, it would be funnier. I’ve always found that it’s much funnier to write about something that doesn’t seem funny at the time. When something’s funny at the time it’s never that funny when you retell it. So we wanted to write about a band that took itself really seriously, and Peter [Straughan – co-writer] heard all these stories about when Captain Beefheart went off to make his album Trout Mask Replica – he hired a house in the middle of nowhere and he was like a cult leader to his band, he sort of starved his band and made them do all these ridiculous musical exercises. A lot of that stuff in scenes when they go off the make the album is inspired by Captain Beefheart. So for all those reasons it just seemed better to write a film where we were just making everything up.
“I felt a bit inferior to the rest of the band
because they were all just really cool
Mancunians and I was a
young idiot from Cardiff”
Who came up with the band name The Soronprfbs?
Oh I did. For ages and ages they were called The Ghosts and I kept on think in the back of my mind that it’s a shame they’ve got such an ordinary name, and then one day I had like a moment of genius. I thought ‘wouldn’t it be great to give them a name which nobody could ever say or pronounce or understand’. So I just emailed Peter and said can we change their name to The Soronprfbs…and I just typed the first couple of letter I came up with!
You’ve made a career out of meeting and writing about weird and wondering characters – did Frank Sidebottom start that fascination in such people?
Yeah I do actually. I think he was such a mysterious person sitting in the van after a gig, still wearing a big fake head; it was such a strange experience. He was this enigmatic figure and I can’t even see his face. I wouldn’t say I felt particularly comfortable because I felt really out of my depth, I felt like the rest of the band had more of a right to be there than I did. I felt a bit inferior to the rest of the band because they were all just really cool Mancunians and I was a young idiot from Cardiff. But I’ve always felt like that, when I been doing these really interesting adventures I’ve always felt like I don’t quite have a right to be there. But my lack of confidence in those situations I think, when I write the stories, is what makes them stories. I think people prefer their narrator to be a bit out of their depth.
What are you planning next – can you tell me more about your new film script?
No, I haven’t told anybody! Peter reminded me when we were at the premiere for Frank that, years ago in about 2006, he had two ideas both based on newspaper articles that I’d written and one was Frank and one was this other one. Back then he said ‘shall we write Frank or shall we write this other one?’ and we decided on Frank.
I’d forgotten all about it but then when we all had dinner before the big premier, Peter said “do you remember that other idea? That’s what I think we should do next.”
I started writing it and right now I’ve only written 13 pages but I think it’s rather good. Practically speaking, a collaboration with Peter Straughan is really great, mostly because he’s really brilliant, and also because people are really interested in him. Anything Peter wants to work on will get taken really seriously. I mean he’s just written Wolf Hall for the BBC which is going to be a huge costume drama, and he wrote Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy which won a BAFTA and got nominated for an Oscar.
I’ve just finished a new book as well. It’s about people who’ve been publicly shamed on the internet. It’s all about public shaming. But now I’ve finished the book, I’ve started writing the script.
Jon Ronson’s Frank Story, Chapter Arts Centre, Cardiff. Tickets: £10-£12. Info: www.chapter.org