Over the years, Jon Ronson’s fascination with finding out what makes people on the margins tick has seen him hang out with members of the Klu Klux Klan [“They didn’t know I was Jewish — they do now”] and the Aryan Nations [“They asked: ‘What is your genealogy?’ That’s the one time I felt some risk”]. Then there was extremist Islamist cleric Omar Bakri Muhammad, sports broadcaster turned conspiracy theorist David Icke and other characters that many Jews would run a mile from.
But by contrast, the writer, broadcaster and documentary-maker’s latest work takes its inspiration from his days with a more benign figure from the fringes — Chris Sievey, the comedian-musician from Timperley who achieved cult status performing as his papier mache-headed alter ego Frank Sidebottom and died soon after being diagnosed with cancer in 2010, aged 54.
Having played keyboards in Sidebottom’s band for three years, Ronson knew Sievey well. He recently published an e-book, Frank, telling his story, and has been touring a one-man show, Jon Ronson’s Frank Story. He is also the co-writer, with Peter Straughan, of a dark comedy, also called Frank, starring Domhnall Gleeson as an aspiring musician who joins an avant-garde rock band fronted by the eponymous visionary, portrayed by a masked Michael Fassbender.
The Frank character wears a head similar to Sidebottom’s, but some fans commenting on the trailer online have been angered by Fassbender’s American accent, and even his buff physique. This isn’t the Frank Sidebottom they know, they scream in indignation. But he was never meant to be. Frank is fiction, not a biopic, and should be viewed more as a movie in the mould of the Coen brothers’ Barton Fink and Inside Llewyn Davis, where the lives of real-life personalities (Clifford Odets and Dave Van Ronk, respectively) are used as inspiration, rather than slavishly copied.
Ronson says that everyone, including Sievey’s ex-wife Paula, daughter Asher and sons Stirling and Harry, “feels that we’re doing what he would have wanted. Of course, you can’t know that for certain. But I think he was kind of laissez-faire. He wasn’t precious. We had his life rights for two years before he died and he wasn’t difficult at all. He was completely hands off.”
As for the absence of a Sievey character in the film, “he didn’t really want there to be one in it. He was quite private, and quite hedonistic, and I don’t think he wanted that on screen.” The hardest substances seen are roll-ups (possibly not always just tobacco) and beer.
In the film, Frank doesn’t take his fake head off by choice. Although Sievey wasn’t as attached to his, “sometimes he’d just keep it on and you’d have to address him as Frank,” Ronson explains. “And he absolutely would not respond as Chris when he was Frank. No question.” Ronson believes it provided a “safe space”, agreeing that Sievey may have used his art to make sense of the more chaotic side of his personality. “It can’t be a coincidence that the character he creates is this kind of innocent child.”
Less of a safe space in the movie is the internet. Uploaded mobile footage of the band portrays them as freaks, steering the film in a direction that Ronson says it would probably not have taken were he not also “deep into work” on a book about public shaming as he was finishing the final draft of the screenplay.
“I was already obsessed with the idea that people are ridiculed and attacked on the internet for the slightest transgression,” he says. “And I think the two things really bled into each other.”
Ronson adds that the public shaming project has affected him like nothing he has done before. He has worked on “really dark stories” about people who have suffered terrible tragedies, such as having family members shot by the FBI. But while he had often “felt sorry for them, I wouldn’t actually feel that it was making its way into my psyche”. Yet the “public shaming thing” got under his skin. “I was coming back feeling nervous and depressed from meeting these people.”
When Sky offered him a chance to write a silent comedy, he decided to take all the “horror” from the public shaming book and turn it into something ridiculous and slapstick. The result was The Dog Thrower, a whimsical comedy about an innocent man who becomes the victim of an online witch hunt.It brings humour to a disturbing subject without detracting from its seriousness.
“I actually think that’s a kind of therapeutic technique, weirdly,” he says. “It’s what Paul McKenna told me he does with NLP [neuro-linguistic programming] — take horrific images and turn them into slapstick comedy. That takes the horror out of it.”
Ronson has been trying to achieve some of the same balance in the book, which, he stresses, will contain some horrific elements without being horrific itself. “I have managed to find the lightness and the humour in that too,” he says. “I never want to deliver a book that makes people feel miserable. I always try and write funny books about really dark things. So I didn’t want to deliver the book until I’d found a way to write it in an entertaining way and I think I’ve finally done that.”
He never knows how anything he does will be received, but he is especially unsure about the book (due for publication early next year), as for the first time he is implicating the reader. “I’m basically saying to people: ‘This is a book about the terrible things that we do. It’s not a book about the terrible things that the people over there do.’ So I’ve no idea whether people are going to engage with that or not. But it feels like the right book to write.”