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Being Frank: The Chris Sievey Story

 

 
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Posted February 21, 2019 by

 
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A lot of people won’t know the name Chris Sievey. A true comedic visionary – or pain in the arse, depending on who you ask – Chris was the man inside Frank Sidebottom’s large papier-mâché head. Following Lenny Abrahamson’s fictional Frank, director Steve Sullivan brings us the crazy true story, in a crowd-funded feature length documentary, Being Frank. Sam Love had a chance to speak to Steve, following a work-in-progress screening at Screen Stockport Film Festival.

What brought you to this project? Were you a fan of Frank Sidebottom?
I grew up in the North West of England, the epicentre of Frank Sidebottom mania. Frank was always on the telly. In Granadaland we’d get not just the network Saturday morning shows Frank would frequent, like Number 73 and Motormouth, but we’d also get Frank popping up on Granada Reports, in the background on The Hitman And Her and any other TV vehicle he could barge his way onto. Frank was everywhere.

One Saturday, towards the end of the ‘80s, I was working in a comic shop called Thunderbooks 2 when the phone rang. It was Frank Sidebottom. The owner of the shop, Dave, had booked Frank to do a personal appearance at our Blackpool branch. I shouted to Dave and excitedly told him “Frank Sidebottom’s on the phone. The guy off the telly with the papier-mâché head!”

So Dave gets on the phone to Frank and I just stared on in disbelief. Frank was phoning to discuss the practical things you’d need to know if you were going to do a personal appearance: when do you want me, how long do you want me, where do we park. Half way through the call Dave suddenly looked at the phone, shook his head and walked away. What had gone wrong? Why hadn’t he said goodbye to Frank? I found Dave in the stockroom, looking very confused. “You didn’t say goodbye to Frank,” I said. “I was going to…” started Dave, “but he suddenly shouted ‘Oh, I’ve got to go, me Mum’s just come in’ and slammed the phone down.”

From that moment on I was fascinated by Frank. Who was he? Why would he sabotage his own business arrangements for a laugh? Who was beneath the head?

Did you ever meet Frank? And did you ever meet Chris?
Frank Sidebottom pretty much disappeared from public view around the Millennium. He was still lurking at the back of my mind though. So when, in 2006, I read he was staging a comeback I knew I had to try and find some answers to my questions. A mate of mine had the old Frank Sidebottom Fan Club address so I wrote Frank a letter saying I was a filmmaker and sent him my showreel, asking if we could possibly collaborate one day on something. I got the fastest possible reply saying “Come to Timperley on Sunday. Bring a fantastic film crew”.

So I did, and together we made a film called Magical Timperley Tour.

I met Chris Sievey for about five minutes that day, and it was one of the strangest five minutes of my life. My sound recordist had warned me that to get good sound from Frank we’d need to strap a radio microphone inside the head. So when I met Chris I said to him we wanted to put a radio mic on him.

“Why?”

I looked at my sound recordist for back up. He shrugged. “Err, so we can get good sound from you,” I explained.

“Oh, you’re talking about Frank Sidebottom,” Chris continued after a long and weird pause. “OK, Frank’s waiting at my house in my living room. I’ll go and tell him you want a word with him and he’ll come back here and you can put a mic on him”.

We waited for five minutes and then Frank appeared. “HELLOOOOO!”

Frank took us upstairs on the open top bus he was using for his Magical Timperley Tour. He laid down on the floor between the seats and with a twist the head suddenly came off. The sound recordist took the head and started carefully securing a microphone inside it. I just stared at the bloke laying on the floor of the top deck. It was Chris Sievey, the guy I’d just been speaking to. He was just gazing up at the blue sky. He looked totally blank. Chris wasn’t in there anymore. And then the head went back on and Frank was instantly back.

I’d thought that meeting him would answer all my questions. Wonderfully it just created more.

What has been the most fascinating thing you’ve learned about him so far?
Every aspect of Chris’s life and career throws up the most incredible stories. When I met him, though, I noticed he had long hair. Yt most of my interviewees had no memory of him having long hair. Slowly I pieced together a story of a throw away performance moment he was doing purely for his own amusement, which he called his Mushroom Hair Project.

Frank’s fans are very dedicated to their hero. How has their response been so far?
Chris and Frank’s fans have to be the best fans in the world. When I announced the idea that I wanted to make the definitive documentary about Chris Sievey, his life, his art and his relationship with Frank Sidebottom, his fans rallied round in their thousands and have helped will the film into existence. It simply wouldn’t have been possible to get it off the ground without their generosity and support.

People have sent money, which is extraordinary in itself, but they’ve also sent hard drives containing dozens of Frank Sidebottom shows they’d filmed, photos, documents, and rare archive galore. Someone even leant us their house to live in while we filmed the interviews around Manchester. I’ve never known support like it, and it’s a testament to the joy and love Chris and Frank spread that people are so happy to give it back to him via the documentary.

Tell us a little bit about the process of crowdfunding the film? Can people still help out?
I ran a Kickstarter to launch the film back in 2013. In one month we raised £48,575. It was really extraordinary and amazing to be a part of it.

Film is the most expensive medium you can work in though, and even making a film on a micro budget, in a totally independent way as this is being made, the money is never enough.

So I still really need as many people as possible to help me complete the film. People can pre-order their own copy of the film, to be sent once it’s finally finished and released, and as a thanks the film will have their name in the end credits. And they also get a free download of a complete unreleased Frank Sidebottom show to watch while they’re waiting for the documentary.

You’ll become part of the community of thousands of fans helping to get the film made, and your name will gain immortality alongside Chris Sievey and Frank Sidebottom. Not bad for a tenner!

Tell us a bit about the process of making the film? Where did you begin? What steps did you have to take and how is it going?
I started by contacting Chris’s brother, Martin. Martin emailed me straight back saying he’d just cleared out Chris’s house, two years after his death, and had a hundred boxes of Chris’s personal possessions. Martin explained he had nowhere to put everything and if I could come and haul it all away and make a film out of it I’d be welcome to try.

So I’ve spent a large part of the last three years going through Chris Sievey’s personal archive of diaries, notebooks, props, costumes, and hundreds of hours of home movies, live footage and work-in-progress. The best of all of that forms the basis of the documentary. I’ve also spent the last three years raising the money, managing a social media community of thousands of fans, filming over 50 interviews with the people that knew Chris and Frank best, and editing it all together. It’s been quite a ride!

I’m currently editing the first assemble edit of the whole film. It’s going to be an epic first pass, and is coming in at around six hours. It’s way too long for a film, and will need to be edited down even further to around two hours or so. Bear in mind the six hour cut is already reduced down from about 400 hours of interviews and archive! This really is going to be the definitive statement about Chris and Frank. And Little Frank, of course.

What are the plans for the finished film, in terms of distribution?
It’s too soon to announce firm plans for distribution, but those conversations are ongoing with distributors. The film will have a cinema release on some scale for sure, and numerous cinemas have already enquired about showing it, which is very reassuring. The goal all along has been to make the biggest number of people aware of Chris’s life and art, so his legacy spreads as far and wide as possible. A cinema release is the best way to do that, along with film festivals, and DVDs/Blu Ray/digital downloads. Someone also suggested releasing it on Betamax, which I think Chris would have approved of.

Whenever a release date can be announced it’ll be spread everywhere through the film’s Facebook/Twitter/newsletter and Kickstarter pages. No one will miss out, everyone is invited… This film will take as long as it takes to finish it properly as it’s an epic story being made largely by me working on my own in an edit suite, but it will be fantastic when it’s ready and more than worth the wait.

Many of Frank Sidebottom’s fans were annoyed with Lenny Abrahamson’s ‘Frank’, starring Michael Fassbender. Are you hoping this will be the definitive Sidebottom film that they have been wanting?
For everyone hoping to finally see a film about the real Frank Sidebottom, this really is the project that will not just fulfil their wishes, it’ll blow their minds. Being Frank: The Chris Sievey Story will take you inside the mind of Chris Sievey and behind the scenes of Frank Sidebottom’s wonderful and strange career in a way you never thought possible. You know it will, it really will. Thank you.

Any idea what will be next for you when Being Frank is all finished?
A nice lay down in a room that contains no felt tips, no papier-mâché heads and definitely, definitely, no cardboard puppets.

Any advice for any budding young filmmakers?
There’s every reason in the world not to make a film, and very few good reasons to try and make one. But if it’s in your heart to do it, and you know you have the determination to see the job through, then GO FOR IT! Don’t listen to reason, just listen to your own creative voice and make your film by any means available. And then make another.

Being Frank: The Chris Sievey Story is coming ‘as soon as possible’ and remember, you can still support it now. Visit http://beingfrankmovie.com/ for more information. 

Photo credit – Dave Arnold.


Samuel Love

 


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