Cinematographer James Mather Captures the Magic and Mania of 'Frank'

The critically-acclaimed dramedy features actor Michael Fassbender as an eccentric musician, Maggie Gyllenhaal as his unnerving sidekick, Domhnall Gleeson and Scoot McNairy.
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Frank hit the art house circuit in September this year, garnering critical raves for this dramedy, featuring actor Michael Fassbender as an eccentric musician, Maggie Gyllenhaal as his unnerving sidekick, Domhnall Gleeson and Scoot McNairy. Directed by Irish filmmaker Lenny Abrahamson (Adam & Paul, Garage, What Richard Did), Fassbender plays the mysterious Frank, a musician who wears a huge plastic head everywhere (even in the shower) and makes odd music with Gyllenhaal and his other band mates. The tale is told through the point of view of John, a painfully normal wannabe musician, who stumbles into a gig with the band. From a remote farm where they make their music, to a gig at SXSW, the band acts out issues of fame and identity.

James Mather, the film’s cinematographer, has shot TV and films for over 20 years. His TV work includes the recent Penny Dreadful (second unit), as well as Cold Feet (Granada TV) and Prosperity, a series he worked on with Abrahamson. In addition to Frank, his movie credits include Lockout (which he also co-wrote and co-directed); The Wonderful Story of Kelvin Kind (2004) and, again with Abrahamson, Adam & Paul. He has also shot numerous shorts and music videos, for which he has won Short Film Awards at Action/Cut Short Film Competition and Galway Film Fleadh. The London-based Mather most recently worked second unit on the hit TV series Vikings and just finished a three-episode block of Ripper Street (Amazon Studios/BBC).

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Michael Fassbender in 'Frank.' Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Digital Video magazine’s Debra Kaufman talked with Mather about the experience of making Frank.

I see that you shot Adam & Paul for Lenny Abrahamson in 2004. How did you two meet?

James Mather: I first met Lenny when he hired me to shoot some commercials for him about 15 or 20 years ago (back on film—remember that?). I also shot a TV series with Lenny called Prosperity that took a stark look at the Irish financial boom known as the “Celtic Tiger.” People on the bottom rung didn’t see much upside from this newfound wealth. The series explored people’s desperation at the bottom of the food chain. It was a great piece of work with lots of interesting tonal qualities. In a way it’s kind of a companion piece to Adam & Paul. In fact, one particular character George actually appeared in Adam & Paul as a cameo.

What was the experience like working with Abrahamson on this Frank?

James Mather: Great. Lenny is a very original thinker and the script was a genius blend of tones and characters. Very striking tonally. Lenny arrived with a very strong sense of what he wanted to achieve.

Do you have a sense of why he brought you onto this project?

I think you might have to ask him that! I would like to think it was down to the idea that, as a cameraman, I’m interested in story and the best way to impart that, as opposed to, say, purely being interested in the shot that gets the best cinematography. Lighting and camera choices are always slaves to the director’s vision and that’s as it should be.

What did he tell you about Frank?

Lenny was always clear that the film should have a particular tone—a kind of self-consciousness that looks observational and realistic but with a “presented” quality. There were a number of distinct slants you could take with the script—including flat-out wacky plastic-head comedy—but Len was interested in pursuing something more subtle, which is evident from the final film.

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Did you talk about the look he was going for? Did he reference other films, books, art, etc. to illustrate or describe the look?

Yes, we looked at a number of references. One of them, interestingly, was a book on Scandinavian wooden homes with some interesting photography and printing. The idea was to give it a kind of 1970s taupe quality one might associate with films like Klute. It was really about finding that quality.

How did you decide what camera to shoot with?

The ARRI Alexa was on the table from the first meeting. It’s a great camera. Its excellent dynamic range and image robustness constantly amaze me. Film is still king from an image standpoint, but the Alexa is certainly the best of the current crop of digital cameras, exhibiting the most cinematic image. Other [camera] systems (while they have their strengths) tend, in my opinion, to create a very electronic image, which I find disruptive to drama.

Which lenses did you chose and why?

We opted for older Zeiss lenses to “de-digitalize” some of the images, coming back to that 1970s aesthetic.

How many cameras did you have and how did you configure them?

We used up to two cameras for one or two things, but it was mostly a good old-fashioned single-camera shoot.

Did you operate or did you have an operator?

I operated most of the time. We had a B-camera operator who would frequently do Steadicam. For the scenes in the U.S., we had a great Steadicam operator, Beau Chaput, who did great work.

Anybody on your crew that you’d like to single out?

Barry Conroy, the gaffer, did an amazing job. He was tireless and constantly inventive. Cormac O’Malley did an incredible job focus pulling.

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Let’s talk a bit about your use of Steadicam. How much did you use it and for what scenes?

Steadicam was employed a reasonable amount. It was mostly used in areas where there was understandably a lot of movement and to give the actors room to move.

What was the choice made with regard to camera movements?

Len has some definite ideas on camera movement. We avoided moves that were too self-conscious or could be described openly as manipulative. Len likes the filmmaker to sit back and let the subtler nuances of directing lead the story.

The movie was shot in two very different locations: Ireland and New Mexico. It seems that the light couldn’t have been more different in these two places. Tell me a bit about how you lit for these two places.

Cameras and lenses were rented locally. We rented in New Mexico and used my kit back in Ireland. New Mexico is a treat for anyone used to the northern light we get in Ireland, which trends to be much more unpredictable. In New Mexico, the sun comes up and stays there. In Ireland, clouds usually get involved, making continuity a nightmare. So it was nice to have the option.

It was tricky to shoot SXSW because we had a lot to do with limited time. We certainly shot fast that day.

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What was the most challenging scene or aspect of shooting Frank?

I think the early part of the shoot was tricky, as we began shooting in the States, which meant getting used to a new crewing workflow that we weren’t used to. In the U.S., grips have more lighting responsibilities; in Europe, grips don’t get involved with lighting. I’m not sure which version I think is better. Each has its strengths and weaknesses, I guess.

Are there any interesting stories about the making of Frank that isn’t widely known?

Len opted to never switch out Frank for a stand-in wearing the head, even though it was proving difficult—near impossible—from a scheduling point of view. He stuck to his guns and this means that every time you see Frank in the film, it is actually Michael Fassbender.



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