With the news that Lenny Abrahamson’s much anticipated Frank has been selected to screen as part of the Premiere’s section at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, we publish online Ross Whitaker’s interview with Lenny Abrahamson, which appeared in Film Ireland magazine earlier this year.
Read on to find out about Abrahamson’s evolution as a filmmaker and his latest film Frank.
What Richard Did, Lenny Abrahamson’s new film, fully five weeks into its theatrical run in the Screen Cinema in Dublin and was surprised to find a packed house.
It’s so rare these days to see a film run and run but word of mouth had propelled Richard forward week after week and punters were still going in their droves long after the initial release. The film had touched a nerve and there’s something about the intergenerational dilemmas of the film that confronts all members of the audience regardless of age.
Abrahamson expertly drops us into the world of Richard Karlsen – his rugby buddies, pretty girlfriend and loving family – before his perfect existence is ruptured by one out-of-character but violent act. As a viewer, I was so enthralled by the drama that I could have sat there for many more hours in this world, so the ending was like being woken from a sleep.
The reaction in the cinema was astonishing. There was a palpable tension in the room, a silence, and as the credits rolled a spat in the cinema began between an older woman sitting behind us and a group of south Dublin teenagers on the other side of the room. There were shouts and jeers.
They had seen the same film but had experienced the world they encountered from two different perspectives but rather than exit normally they felt the need to act and react. The film had pushed them to the edge and they couldn’t leave quietly.
Abrahamson does endings well. All three of his films engage the audience but also leave them with plenty to think about. It’s a powerful mix that challenges us and is an antidote to mainstream Hollywood fare. He’s not afraid to leave a few loose ends.
Now that he has made three films, it’s fascinating to look at his body of work. He has convincingly made films about very different worlds; in these worlds, he presents powerful archetypes with great sensitivity, managing to avoid the stereotypes that we encounter too often in film. I put it to him that he perhaps has a variant on the bullshit-ometer, a kind of instinctive cliché-ometer.
‘I’ve had that from the very beginning. I used to talk about off-the-shelf scenes and you see that all the time in films – you feel that you’ve seen the same scene a thousand times with a slight variation. It’s not always bad. You can use patterns very creatively and, for example, the Coen brothers often play with scene shapes and always find something interesting to do with them. I think even before I made a film it struck me how different real life is from what you see in films, how different having a real conversation is from the standard shots you see in films. It comes down to that, how you temper the dramatic with the banal and yet you owe it to the audience to try to engage their interest; to me that’s the greatest challenge.’
His films are consistently minimalist and never outstay their welcome. They have a starkness, a distinctive style and yet they manage to avoid alienating the audience.
‘I think those things can go hand in hand but it’s important not to be patronizing towards the audience, to say, “well I’d like to do something more adventurous but the audience would never understand it.” I want to communicate so I make work for myself but I also think of my work as something that is going to be watched. I think about it as an object, that is flowing, that I can shape and has a pattern and I want it to be balanced and interesting and my faith really is that they will be the same for anyone else that watches it. At the same time, it’s not like I have a massive audience compared to something like The Guard. I don’t have a magic formula but I don’t technically separate myself from the audience; I want their experience of the film to be along similar lines to my own experience. I was really surprised by the reception of What Richard Did because I thought of my three films is was the most challenging in a way and I was really quite surprised that it took off.’
While they could hardly be called blockbusters, all three of Abrahamson’s films have done well at the box office. It can be said sometimes that Irish audiences don’t want to attend Irish films, particularly more challenging work, but the success of his films gives lie to that assertion. His style is distinctive – not what most would consider commercial – and there is a consistency of approach across his work. This isn’t, he says, something that he set out to do.
‘There was no kind of plan really. One of the interesting things for me was that despite the fact that I didn’t work with Mark [O’Halloran, writer of Garage and Adam & Paul] this time, What Richard Did still felt so much like one of my films. With this film I tried to do what I always do, which was to immerse myself in a world and in a central character and take that as a starting point and then, along with the screenwriter Malcolm Campbell, let my impulses direct me.
‘I think what I bring to my work is a certain kind of non-sentimental empathy. I can find the human dimension in the central character. I had done that with characters that had been reviled or dismissed in my previous films but with Richard you had a guy who was at the opposite end of the social spectrum. What I’m interested in is how easily we like to stereotype people and caricature them, so in that sense there is a continuity to the three films. If I consistently approach characters like that then that’s the flavour that carries from film to film.’
So, does he have a system or approach that he employs with drawing his characters?
‘It’s really just through my own mulling and pondering that I feel myself getting closer to the character and then in the case of What Richard Did it was casting a character and then building the film around that person. I hadn’t done that before and we did a lot of reworking of the script from talking to the actors to try to make it feel more real.
‘What I did on What Richard Did was a little different to what I had done on previous films in that I was consciously going for something a bit more immediately real or more overtly natural. To achieve that, I wanted to immerse myself in a literal way in those characters and that’s why we cast the film so early. It was too long since I had been in that world and this film was different from the other two in that the other characters were less overtly archetypal, they were greyer characters. So we cast it early and we spent time having conversations with the characters but not improv. Having those conversations made me feel confident that we weren’t just making it up.’
All of his films feel like very complete, confident works and I wonder does he feel that he is evolving as a director?
‘I worked in different ways on What Richard Did than I had in the past. I did much more work with the actors in particular, including a little bit of improv in the film though I’m generally quite careful about improv. I think it almost never works unless it is used very carefully and usually in advance. We didn’t just say, “we’re in a room, start talking,” we knew what they were going to talk about in, for example, that scene the night after the pub. We had done it lots and lots in rehearsal and they became fluent at being in the moment but also managing it, some part of the film being outside of them, and knowing where the scene should go. It wasn’t that kind of unstructured improv that sometimes isn’t so good.’
With three strong films under his belt, Abrahamson feels that he has developed as a filmmaker.
‘I think I was much more confident in this film about throwing stuff away on the day and changing it and rewriting with actors on the day. I was confident enough to be able to say, ‘this isn’t working, let’s try it a different way,’ so being responsive but still being fast enough to stay in the schedule. Those are really practical things that you gain through experience and confidence. I’ve gotten better at working with a tight budget and a tight schedule. I’d like to not have to do it but it’s important to be able to do it.
‘I had done a lot of commercials before I did my first film but at the very beginning so much of your energy is directed internally at your own anxiety and worrying about how it will work, how you’re being perceived and whether you’re any good. Those kinds of things don’t go away at all but getting to the point where you can actually focus on what you’re doing and not the peripheral elements is a really great thing. I think as well there is an energy on set and there is a lot at stake and the pressure that comes from having limited money and many people to manage and it’s very easy for that to turn into panic and the wheels can come off very easily. If the director can be calm and confident then that just allows the energy to be directed in a constructive way.’
His next film, Frank, is a comedy set mostly in the United States about a young wannabe musician, Jon (Domhnall Gleeson), who discovers he has bitten off more than he can chew when he joins an eccentric pop band led by the mysterious and enigmatic Frank (Michael Fassbender) and also stars Maggie Gyllenhaal and Scoot McNairy. However, he explains that this doesn’t mean he is leaving his roots behind.
‘A lot of the film does happen in Ireland, so there is a connection to home but its origin and its ultimate place isn’t Irish. I’ve been involved in it for a couple of years and I’ve moved it very much towards what I want it to be. It feels like a film of mine. I’ve always had an interest in a certain kind of comedy, traditional slapstick but in a very arty form. Kaurismäki is a very big influence on me and Frank plays to that element of my style. It’s a much more expansive, much more playful film. It’s different because it’s a comedy and nobody dies at the end but it’s still a left-field, stylized film. If I had an overall plan it would be to continue making the films I’ve been making here in Ireland but also to sometimes do other things as well and some bigger projects. I want to keep making films here and I don’t want to make them too much bigger because part of the pleasure of doing films here in my own country is that I don’t have to compromise too much.’
This article originally appeared in Film Ireland magazine, Issue 144, Spring 2013