“Being Frank: The Chris Sievey Story is a documentary about the maverick Manchester comedian and showbiz superstar in the papier-mâché head, Frank Sidebottom and the real life of his creator, the mysterious and rarely seen artist and singer/songwriter Chris Sievey. It’s a very strange, hilarious and moving tale and it’s all true. You couldn’t make up something as odd as this!” Director Steve Sullivan on BEING FRANK which screens at SxSW 2018.
Congratulations on your film playing in Austin at SxSW this year! Is your first time here and are you planning to attend your screenings?
Yes, it’s my first time at SXSW and I’m very excited. I’ll be there for the World Premiere on Tuesday 13th March and the second screening on Wednesday 14th.
So how did you get into this business? Talk to me a bit about how you got your start and what you have worked on in the past.
I’ve always been film obsessed ever since the dawn of the VHS machine and I could record my favourites and rewatch them endlessly. At the age of about 16 I remember sitting my parents down and telling them I didn’t want to become a barrister, but a filmmaker. Growing up in Lancashire in North West England I may have well said that I wanted to be an astronaut. To their credit they didn’t cry, they just said ‘Find out how to do it and we’ll help you’.
So I ended up at a film school in Cardiff, Wales to do a course in Independent Film Production. The independent part of that has protected me a lot over the past 20 years of filmmaking as I’ve always tried to just keep moving forward making my own films rather than being a director for hire.
I’ve made numerous short films over the last two decades, and I’m best known for a film called A Heap Of Trouble, which is a musical about naked men walking down a suburban street. It’s probably not safe for work, but it depends on where you work!
I also ended up making a documentary about Frank Sidebottom, the comedian in a papier-mâché head, called Magical Timperley Tour!
It was a great day out with one of the most mysterious showbusiness legends you could ever hope to meet, but working with him left me with more questions than answers. We were supposed to make another film together, involving Frank going to New York with the Happy Mondays but there was some kind of row in customs apparently and it didn’t happen. And then I heard that he had died, and that took me on a very different journey.
How did this project come together for you? Give me a rundown from the preparation, to shooting, to post-production to now!
So after it was announced that Frank Sidebottom had died, which was headline news here in the UK, it was then revealed that the man inside the head all those decades was a little remembered artist and singer/songwriter from Manchester called Chris Sievey. I’d met Chris only very briefly when we made Magical Timperley Tour, it was was mostly Frank that I’d dealt with! But I felt the loss of the man and his creation deeply and I went to his funeral. It wasn’t until a couple of years later though that I was still filled with questions about what had been happening all those decades. Why would a creative person choose to lose themselves completely in an alter ego and what had really been going on in the real life of the creator inside?
I emailed Chris’s brother, Martin and asked if anyone had ever asked about making a documentary about Frank Sidebottom and Chris Sievey, and got an almost instant reply saying Martin had just cleared out Chris’s house, that he had 100 boxes of his personal possessions and nowhere to put them. Martin said that if I could haul them all away and make something out of them then I’d be welcome. I don’t need to be offered a chance like that twice!
So I started a five year process of trying to put Chris’s often fairly chaotic life back together. His personal possessions had been packed fairly randomly (and in the dark as the electricity had been cut off!) so it was a case of having to sort through every single thing, see what belonged with what and start piecing together two separate lives, the man and his creation. For example, I had no idea that the man beneath Frank Sidebottom’s head had been a prolific singer/songwriter, the frontman of a brilliant Manchester post-punk band called The Freshies, and an early and self-taught video game pioneer.
Martin started to put me in touch with other family members, friends and former bandmates and I got crowdfunding on Kickstarter. Frank Sidebottom’s fans backed the project in their thousands, and we had enough money to start interviewing people and hearing some of the craziest stories I’ve ever heard.
After that process, we spent probably a year digitising all of Chris’s personal archive of mouldy VHS tapes and audio cassettes, and I watched and listened to everything. And then it was about just sitting in an edit suite and editing the film down from about 400 hours of footage, down to its finished length of 100 minutes. The first full edit of the film was 11 hours and it took a weekend to watch it properly.
What keeps you going while making a movie? What drives you? How much coffee are we talking about here?
Keeping going over the last five years has at times been really challenging, especially during periods when there was no funding. But there was always a purpose in telling this story and bringing it to the world, and that has kept me going more than anything. Just knowing that Chris Sievey never really had the recognition that his talents deserved was enough to keep me going. And at no point did I ever get bored of either Chris or Frank as a subject. If you showed me a new photo now that I hadn’t seen before I’d still be as fascinated as on day one. Plus, the backers of the film have kept me going too. So many people have sent messages or emails over the years to say don’t worry about how long it’s taking, just keep going. It really counted for a lot to hear the trust all those strangers had in me and the film, more than they’ll ever know. And of course, coffee after coffee was sacrificed in the making of this film!
What was your biggest challenge with this project, and the moment that was the most rewarding to you?
The biggest challenges have been both keeping the film alive financially, which has involved endless crowdfunding and finding investors, but also the massive challenge of condensing Chris Sievey’s life and work down into a film. For someone who died tragically young at 54, he left behind the most amazing body of work, most of which has never been seen before. To condense any life down to a film length would be difficult, but one that was two lives simultaneously (Chris and Frank!) was particularly hard as it meant a lot of great stories had to be left out. What is left in though is unbelievable.
I think the most rewarding part of the film has been discovering everything about Chris through his archive. Every five minutes there were amazing discoveries, from early recordings to notebooks, diaries, broken toys, cardboard puppets and other madness. There were a few weeks when everything was out of the boxes and it was all in dusty piles covering every inch of my living room. The only place I had to sit down during that fortnight was on my bed. Happy times!
I’m about to get technical, but I would love to know about the the visual design of the movie; what camera did you film with, your relationship to the director of photography and how the movie was photographed.
We filmed it with a Canon 5D, Mark II and III. The DP was a really talented guy called Ezra Byrne. When we started shooting Ez was only out of film school by a year or so, whereas now he’s built quite a career for himself. He was amazing though and came up with a really simple lighting style that could be used for every interview and we decided on a look that would just be a static wide shot for each interview. Having people interviewed in a wide shot is not how most documentaries look, so it was appealing in that sense, but also I knew that most of the archive footage of Chris or Frank would have them in close ups, so it would make a very striking difference between interview and archive.
Also, by shooting things wide each time it allowed my art director Dave Arnold to create some amazing interview sets packed with details from Chris and Frank’s worlds combined with whatever props we could grab around the venues we were filming in. Usually this was in people’s own homes so you get a great sense of who they are and how they relate to Chris/Frank. The sets look really meticulously planned but they were all thrown together very quickly as we set up for interviews, and Dave fortunately has a great eye and followed Chris Sievey’s mantra of just use everything you can in your environment to be creative.
What are you looking forward to the most about showing your movie here in Austin?
I’ve always wanted to visit Austin, Texas personally and I hope I’ll get a bit of time to just have a nosey around some second hand bookshops and record shops. But mostly what I’m looking forward to is seeing the film go up on a screen and knowing that it’s finally finished. I’m sure the audience will be receptive to Chris and Frank’s work and lives, and I can’t wait to hear what someone from the USA thinks of what this bizarre British performer created.
After the film screens at SxSW, where is the film going to show next? Theatrical, online, more festivals?
The plan is to release the film theatrically at cinemas around the world later this year hopefully. And then to release it on download, DVD and Blu Ray. But hopefully along the way there’ll be some other great film festivals as well. On the back of being selected for SXSW it has already been invited to enter other festivals.
If you could show your movie in any theater outside of Austin, where would you screen it and why?
I’ll be delighted to know it’s screening in any cinema anywhere. But if I had to pick one it would be to show it at either the Odeon in Preston, Lancashire which was my hometown childhood cinema, or the Red Vic in San Francisco where I’ve seen some great movies over the years. Sadly, both of those cinemas no longer exist so I’ll have to just imagine it. Chris Sievey was really excited when his work was performed even to a few people, so hopefully the film of his life can be shown in some really small cinemas in very obscure places. I’m sure he’d have loved that.
What would you say to someone who was being disruptive through a movie, even your own?
If it was at my movie I’d probably paraphrase Frank Sidebottom’s comebacks for hecklers. If someone was giving Frank a hard time he’d take out a pre-prepared bit of paper upon which was written three responses. One, stop it. Two, please stop it. Three, you’re ruining my concert.
In real life people being disruptive in the cinema or using their phones is one of my biggest pet hates, and I’m afraid I’ve used rather more colourful language over the years. I’m always aware that the filmmaker has given their all to make the film and that deserves some respect, and so do the audience. No one wants to be taken out of the experience they have paid to enjoy.
Walking out though is an audience’s prerogative. If you’re not enjoying it and want to leave, more power to you. I remember seeing a premiere at Cannes of a really long film about the death of Lenin. It was in the main Palais des Festivals cinema and when people walk out the seats make a really loud wooden bang. As the film went on the bangs became a regular sound and far worse than any booing. That must be a terrifying sound to hear for a filmmaker.
We have a lot of readers on our site looking to make movies or get into the industry somehow. What is the ONE THING you would say to someone who is wanting to get into the filmmaking business?
Every single person is capable of making a movie, and every single person has something to say that people would want to hear. Don’t try and make anyone else’s film, be inspired by how original your influences are and strive to be as original but in your own voice. At first possibly no one will believe in your potential, but just start making the film you want to make and don’t stop until it’s finished. Then make another one.
And final question: what is the greatest movie you have ever seen at a film festival?
I’d have to say either a restored version of Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes, which was stunning. Or Troma’s Tromeo and Juliet which arrived without the last two reels, and just went to end credits way before the end causing a near riot in a midnight audience. The audience fury was way better than the movie, but it was great seeing so much energy in the cinema. And not one person was on their phone!
BEING FRANK: THE CHRIS SLEVEY STORY is screening at SxSW 2018.
Be sure to follow the movie at www.beingfrankmovie.com!
Screening information at SXSW:
Alamo Ritz 1 on Tuesday, March 13 at 9:00 PM
Stateside Theatre on Wednesday, March 14 at 4:15 PM
Alamo Ritz 2 on Saturday, March 17 at 11:30 AM