While many in England had wondered who was inside of the giant paper mache head of Frank Sidebottom, a cultural sensation during the ‘80s and ‘90s who might be best known now on American shores as an inspiration for the 2014 Michael Fassbender comedy “Frank,” director Steve Sullivan was far more interested in what was going on inside of it after becoming familiar with Chris Sievey, the enigmatic genius for whom Frank was just one outlet for his creativity. An artist and inventor, he found local fame with Frank, who like Pee-Wee Herman in the U.S. began life as an act for adults that lent itself to greater notoriety on Saturday morning TV for kids, but Sievey’s restless imagination wouldn’t allow him to be constrained to a single character, no matter how much its popularity attempted to hem him in.
This tension is at the heart of the wildly entertaining “Being Frank: The Chris Sievey Story,” a film that honors Sievey, who died of cancer far too young at the age of 54, by capturing him in all his complexities. Seemingly instantly adept at every new technology that came his way, Sievey was a multimedia pioneer and a savvy self-promoter who would create music first and foremost, shoot music videos on the burgeoning tape format and make vinyl records which could speak to a computer in order to present the song lyrics on the screen. Yet his feverish mind would also occasionally put him in his own way, having a catchy, potential hit song called “I’m in Love with the Girl at the Manchester Virgin Megastore Checkout Desk” that couldn’t get proper airplay due to copyright concerns about name-checking the powerful record store, and pursuing too many ideas all at once.
With all his creative pursuits, Sullivan had the gargantuan challenge of finding the focus to tell Sievey’s story, made even more difficult when the materials to do so had been idling away in unmarked boxes in “a damp cellar for many years” as the opening titles of “Being Frank” confess. Yet true to the spirit of Sievey, the scrappy production lets necessity become the mother of invention at every turn, with lively tales told by friends and family energized by the settings they’re filmed in and taking full advantage of the ability of cinema to combine many different art forms to do justice to all of Sievey’s work, bringing his drawings to life and scoring scenes with his music, all the while inserting footage from his live performances. Although his archive is now in safe keeping at the Manchester Library, “Being Frank” has made it possible for audiences around the world to have a front row seat to enjoy Sievey’s mischief-making and before its first stop this week at the SXSW Film Festival in Austin, Texas, Sullivan spoke about how a movie could be made of the wild story behind the scenes, winnowing the film down from 11 hours to a stealth hour-and-a-half, his own personal experience with his subject and earning the trust of Sievey’s family over the film’s near-decade-long development.
How did this come about?
I grew up in Lancashire in Northwest of England, and Frank Sidebottom was a regional legend, like a folk hero. He would always be on the local TV and radio, and as the years went by, he got nationally famous. He started appearing on kids’ TV. I was working at the time in a comic shop and one day I was in the middle of serving a customer, but [the phone rang] and when I picked up, I just heard this really strange nasal voice on the other end of the line, saying, “Oh hello boss, this is Frank Sidebottom in it.” And he wanted to speak to the owner of the comic shop because we had two branches and they booked him to appear at the other branch in Blackpool [which is] like Britain’s Las Vegas. So he was ringing it up to find all the details he would need for the gig.
I went and I got my boss and said, “Frank Sidebottom is on the phone, the guy on the telly with the fake head,” and the boss went on the phone and got about two minutes into a conversation when all of a sudden, he just put [the phone] down, walked away and he looked really confused. I said, “What happened? You didn’t even say goodbye.” [He said] “We got about halfway through the conversation and Frank just shouted, ‘Oh, I’ve got to go. Me mom’s just come in’ and slammed the phone down. So I was fascinated by that — [Frank] didn’t even get the information he needed to do a proper job and even a booking for a gig is like a performance.
A decade goes by, and I hadn’t thought about Frank Sidebottom since that phone conversation, but I become a filmmaker and a friend of mine said he had a Frank Sidebottom CD on the shelf [and I said] “he was on kids’ telly,” but my friend said, “No, you need to look again at that guy. There’s something else going on there.” [Then] I listened to the CD and I understood what he meant. There was like an old P.O. Box address for Frank’s fan club back in the ‘90s [on the CD] and at this point, no one had really seen him for 10 years. So I wrote to him and I said, “Look, I’m a filmmaker,” and I sent him some of my work and said, “If you’re ever considering doing anything that you’d let me film, can I come and film it?” It I sent him the letter on a Monday, he would’ve gotten it on a Tuesday and on a Wednesday, I got the letter back and it said, “Come on the weekend, bring a film crew.” He didn’t tell me what we were going to be doing, but I just thought this is too good an opportunity to miss.
We turned up and [Frank was] giving a guided tour of this little village called Timperley, just outside Manchester. It’s a lovely place, but there’s virtually nothing there, [yet] to Frank, it’s magical, so there was an open-top bus tour for a hundred of his closest fans where you could go around the village with this guy who was like a living cartoon character. The people [there] would stop and wave and shout “Hi Frank” across the road and it was just crazy. So I made a documentary with him of that and we said, “Let’s keep in touch. We’ll make something again.” We had a big plan that we were going to go to New York together [with] the Happy Mondays, a crazy act in and of themselves, so the idea of them together was just beyond. But it was called off and a few months after that, somebody said, “Oh, have you seen the news? Frank Sidebottom’s died.” I couldn’t believe it and I couldn’t believe how sad I felt [about] this guy I had barely knew. And I met Chris Sievey for a lot less time than I had met Frank Sidebottom.
He left me with more questions than answers from having worked with him, so I ended up going to his funeral and I met his family and I wanted to leave a respectable amount of time, so after about a couple of years, I e-mailed his brother and I said, “Look, has anybody asked about doing a documentary about Chris? Not just about Frank, the fictional creation, but about Chris and who was he and why was he doing it?” His brother e-mailed me straight back and said, “Look, I’ve just cleared his house. I’ve got a hundred boxes of his possessions. I don’t know what to do with them and if you can come and pick them up and just haul them away, go through them and make something out of it.”
When you get these boxes of stuff, was the context contained within the boxes or was it difficult to make sense of it?
It was a mess when I picked it up. It had been packed randomly and stored mostly in a cellar. A lot of it had gotten really damp and all the electricity in the house had been turned off because the bills hadn’t been paid after two years and when Martin, Chris’ brother, went around to pick it all up about two years after Chris’ death, he packed it in the dark and it would’ve all been lost if Martin hadn’t have saved it. I had to get every single thing out of a hundred boxes and it basically was a process of putting stuff into piles, so anything I thought had to do with Frank Sidebottom originally went into one giant pile, anything about [his band] the Freshies went into one giant pile and then things that belonged to Chris — there were so many toys: Star Wars figures, wrestling figures, Doctor Who figures, broken Thunderbirds toys that had been just smashed, used to smack against the keyboard — [I was] just separating out and then resifting and resifting until it started to make some kind of sense.
But when I started going through his boxes, I didn’t [even] know that [Chris] had a band called the Freshies. I didn’t know that he was a singer/songwriter. I didn’t really know anything about Chris at all. And then you start finding these home movies — tapes that have got some of the earliest video that anybody was shooting in Britain [where] he’s just filming his kids and his wife and getting on their nerves. [laughs] There were hundreds of videos that all needed to be digitized you can all get it into an edit suite, so [that] took years, and all of Chris’ life was analog. There were CDs, but most of his music was on unlabeled audio cassettes. And there were video tapes that were unlabeled and you’d watch it for an hour and there’d be nothing on it and then all of a sudden, like an hour in, there’d be gold, [some] absolute incredible cultural treasure. You could easily have gone, “Oh, there’s nothing on that tape” and just chuck it away. But it was a case of going through every single thing with a finetooth comb and making as much sense of it as I could. Also, once we started interviewing people, there were a lot of times where I’d take things where I didn’t know what they were and show it to people and say, “Are you connected to this item? Do you know what this means?”
What was it like getting other people involved in this? It seems like the family was onboard from the start.
The fact that [Chris and I] made a documentary together, that counted a lot, and I think the children’s approach was if Chris trusted [me], they’d trust [me] as well. And it’s not just allowing me to make a film. They’ve allowed me to go through all his private life and they couldn’t really have known what I would find. I’ve watched all their childhood home movies and seen all their baby photos, so there’s been a lot of trust for how intrusive a process it might be and all I said to them at the start was, “I’ll do my best, I won’t stop making it until it’s finished. I don’t know how I’ll fund it or how it’ll ever get finished and I don’t know how big a story it is. But I’m the kind of filmmaker that if I start something, it’s with the intention that you finish it. There’s no other option.” And I guess they trusted the sincerity of that. I’m very grateful to them.
How did you figure out how you would shoot the interviews and the backdrops they’d have? It gives the film a real texture, not unlike Chris’ own artwork.
We did work hard to find that kind of look, but it found itself as well. It’s a microbudget film that’s been crowdfunded essentially with a little bit of film grants from places, so we didn’t have the luxury of ever really saying, “This is what we want to do for sets for an interview.” The mantra that we used was “What would Chris Sievey have done?” He was an expert at using whatever was in his environment to his advantage, so [when we’d] say, “We want to interview you,” [we’d ask] “Can we come to your house? Is it quiet enough there to film?” And if it was, we’d turn up and you try and relax them into giving a good interview, but also we’re looking around the house, going what can we just pick up out of any room in this house and bring it to where we want to sit them to set dress around them? We also brought loads of Chris Sievey’s and Frank Sidebottom’s possessions that we could litter the shot with — anything that connects them to him and the part of his life that they were part of, so every interviewee [has this] combination of their natural environment that’s been embellished a little bit.
A lot of credit for that goes to Dave Arnold, who was the art director on the film [and] was [also] Chris’ roadie and in Frank Sidebottom’s band as well. He wasn’t in any of Chris’ bands, but he was in Frank’s band. And Dave just has a really good eye and [because] he knew Chris and Frank as well as anybody, every time we were able to turn up somewhere within an hour, we’d have a fantastic looking set. We shot everything in a wide shot as well [because] I knew that the experience of being around Frank Sidebottom was that he’d just get right in your face and every time you see him filmed, he’s always in a big closeup. So I thought if we filmed interviews in a big wide shot, every time you’d cut to Chris or Frank, they’re going to be in a closeup, and it gives the film a contrast between the archive footage and the interview footage. Also people [generally] don’t shoot documentaries that wide, so if people aren’t doing it, then maybe there’s a reason to do it.
In general, how much did Chris’ artistic style dictate the way this would look? You see that school photo from the very start that’s all marked up, so there’s a graffiti feel right down to the subtitles with Chris’ dialogue in what appears to be in his handwriting…
Yeah, and it’s different from Frank’s handwriting. He informed everything. That was always the cutoff of what’s a good idea and what isn’t. It gave me a great license to be silly, like there are links in the film which are introduced by puppets and all kinds of [other] craziness going on just to follow his absurdist view of the world. His school photo, to me, encapsulates what he achieved in a nutshell, which is that every kid in Britain has the same school photo. I have the same school photo — three lines of kids and a teacher standing at the end. [laughs] It’s the same faces, the same kids, the same teacher. But he colored his in, so he was able to take something that everybody has in their attic, [this] mundane relic of your childhood, and to him, even that becomes something magical if you just start to color things in a little bit and turn the every day into something fantastical. That’s what he was doing by putting on a head. He was on the periphery of the cultural scene in Britain, but he just knew that he was doing something magical and not many people got it, but the people that did became devotees and just followed him from gig to gig at these small little clubs, wherever he went like a pied piper.
You’ve said the initial cut of this was 11 hours, which is totally understand since there are so many fascinating detours. What was it you found most important to tell?
It was 11 hours and 18 minutes and it took us a weekend to watch it. [laughs] But it was a great weekend and as soon as the film finished, Dave Arnold said, “Is that all there is?” It was compelling even at that length because he’s compelling. But that long version was just my attempt to make a big list of what [were] the most essential stories that anyone’s told me over the last three years, and that was edited down from 400 hours of footage, which took a year just to trim it to 11 hours. It’s taken two years to get it down to its final current length and it boiled down to all you can fit in [about] who was Chris Sievey, who was Frank Sidebottom and what was their relationship with each other?
That’s what the film is now, whereas the 11-hour version was lots of other projects, other personas that people [who did know him] didn’t even know about – he didn’t just have Frank Sidebottom as a comic persona. He had a radio show in the ‘80s where he played a deejay called Andy Wright and no one ever knew it was Chris Sievey or that it was the guy who played Frank Sidebottom. He was just doing it as another career and one of the things about Chris is he was only 54 when he died and that’s too young for anybody, particularly someone who’s got so much to give like he had. The amount of work he crammed into that 54 years…people told me again and again, he never slept. He was a workaholic. He just kept pumping out a hundred different creative ideas every day just to see what sticks, so I tried to document all of that. You realize at 11 hours, you’re going to have to leave some stuff out, and what happens to all that other material in the future, I don’t know — I’m hoping maybe one day there’ll be a longer version of the film. Maybe not 11 hours – perhaps that’s too long for people, but let’s keep it under 10. [laughs]
What does it mean to you to premiere this at SXSW?
Even just getting it to the finishing line seemed so far in the future I couldn’t envisage it really, so now it’s going to be shown anywhere is just the most unbelievable feeling of relief. But the fact that it’s going to show at SXSW [hasn’t] fully sunk in yet. SXSW is like Cannes or Sundance – one of these mythical film places, and I’ve actually shown work at Cannes, but never a feature premiering at 9 pm in downtown Austin, Texas. What this will do for Chris Sievey’s name around the world and Frank Sidebottom’s name is invaluable. The mission with the film was always to go, “Look, there’s this guy here that most people in the world still haven’t heard of, he was a genius and he died without his genius being fully recognized,” so to have the premiere of his life story being given the kind of platform that SXSW will give it is nothing short of a miracle really. I can only imagine how excited he would’ve been. What mattered to him was communicating with an audience, and communicating his vision to somebody. There were times where his work was successful, like when he was on telly, kids’ TV, earning a decent living and there were other times, as one of his agents said, where he was doing a gig for three people and that wouldn’t have even covered the petrol to get to that gig. But it didn’t matter to him. I can only imagine what he would feel if he would’ve known his life story would be celebrated on this scale. Hopefully, it will open lots of other doors for the film to be shown in other places around the world now and for the message of his work and his creativity to be shared in Japan and Germany and all kinds of places where he could never have imagined.
This is a silly final question, but at one point, Chris invents a very basic computer game — presenting song lyrics — that works off the B-side of an album that has the songs on the other side playable off a regular turntable. Did you actually have a machine capable of showing that in this day and age?
It would still work. I did cheat [myself] — someone else had already digitized [the lyrics], so what you see in the film is exactly what comes up on a Spectrum computer, and I was able to get a video from them to save me the time sourcing all the hardware [for it]. But this is what I mean about you couldn’t fit it all in — Chris programmed quite a number of other computer games as well and we managed to rescue quite a lot of those on audio cassettes. We e-mailed the audio of that to someone in Las Vegas, who actually had a Spectrum Emulator and actually sent them back as playable games. So if you’ve got a pristine copy of the record “Camouflage,” and you’ve got a tape recorder, and a record player and a TV and a Spectrum computer, it would work. It would take 12 days, but you’d have a lot of fun. [laughs] Probably the hardest part is synchronizing putting the needle on the record of the song and pressing play on the computer at the same time. Otherwise, it’s not in sync. But it’s a genius idea and perfect Chris Sievey, that as his manager pointed out, it’s on vinyl that’s going to degrade — it’s going to scratch — and then it won’t work. It’s not the right medium for a computer program, but for Chris, it’s the perfect medium. And don’t forget this was in in 1981. Who else knew how to program a computer back then? Some people did, like Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, but the home computer craze was only just beginning and like Mozart, who saw a piano and knew what to do with it, Chris saw a computer in a shop window and thought, “Oh, I can work that out,” and he did. I couldn’t have done that.
I’m not even sure Steve Jobs could’ve…
No, and if he could, he certainly wouldn’t have released it on a vinyl record. [laughs]