Actor brothers Brian and Domhnall Gleeson discuss making their first television series together, Channel 4 and Amazon’s Frank of Ireland, together with co-writer Michael Moloney and executive producers Clelia Mountford and Sharon Horgan.
With screen credits including The Revenant, Ex-Machina, Peaky Blinders and Rebellion between them, actor brothers Brian and Domhnall Gleeson are now combining their creative talent behind the camera by making their first series together.
Frank of Ireland, which they have written with Michael Moloney, introduces the eponymous Frank, a man described plainly as a 32-year-old catastrophe. A misanthropic, narcissistic fantasist stuck in arrested development, he thinks the world owes him something. The world has other ideas.
Living in Dublin with his mother Mary, who won’t let Frank get in the way of her own life, he is still getting over the split from his ex-girlfriend Aine, who has a new boyfriend in Peter-Brian. But he is fine, largely in spite of the support from his inadequate wingman, Doofus.
Brian Gleeson stars as Frank, with Domhnall playing Doofus. Pom Boyd is Mary, Sarah Green plays Aine and Tom Vaughan-Lawlor appears as Peter-Brian. It was filmed in Dublin and Belfast for Channel 4 in the UK and Amazon Studios, with Amazon streaming the six-part series in the US, Canada and Australia.
“It just made us laugh so much and it was so funny and silly. We just loved it and we love those characters,” Clelia Mountford, co-founder of producer Merman, tells DQ. “It was something we hadn’t done before. It felt unique, real, but also relatable in the relationship between the central characters and the arrested development – the guy who still won’t leave home.
“The female characters were so interesting, especially Mary, who just wasn’t going to let her son get in the way of having a fulfilling sex life. That felt just really refreshing and fun. It was just something that we absolutely loved, and we love working with the guys. Their attention to detail is incredible. They know those characters and the world inside out. They’re so incredibly humble in that way and wanting to learn how to craft these episodes within the series and how the process works even in the edit. It was a joy.”
Described by Channel 4 as “a comedy of real invention and surprise,” the project emerged from the Gleeson brothers’ desire to work together, while Domhnall had a previous writing relationship with Moloney on Irish sketch show Your Bad Self.
“It just made sense for the three of us just to get together and sit in a room and see what we can come up with,” Brian told a recent Royal Television Society event ahead of Frank of Ireland’s Channel 4 debut tomorrow. “That’s the very basic starting point. But it was a long process, five years in total. We didn’t have exactly a clear plan from when we started so it was just a case of what made us laugh. We spent a lot of time laughing.”
Domhnall then struck up a friendship with Merman co-founder Sharon Horgan when they met in New York, which led to him appearing in the third season of Catastrophe. He mentioned their plans to write a series and Merman then joined the project.
“Once Sharon brought Clelia on board and that made it a Merman thing, it really took shape very quickly,” he said. “They were amazing about just making it something which could be on the telly. We were very lucky they came on board.”
Horgan rates Your Bad Self as “the funniest thing I’d ever seen on Irish TV or UK TV,” and at that time, Merman was in its infancy. “So we were hungry for anything, but especially just really funny ideas,” she said. “And then we just started talking about it more on Catastrophe and then Domnhall sent me the scripts pretty soon after that. I just pissed myself laughing all the way through. It’s changed in certain ways, but I remember reading it thinking, ‘This is the funniest thing I’ve ever read.’ I’m very excited for people to see it. I don’t think it’s like anything else out there.”
Alan Partridge, Fleabag and Dumb & Dumber were early references that played into the central premise of a teenager in a grown man’s body, full of anger that the world hasn’t discovered him yet.
“It is really balls-out funny but there’s more to it than that,” continued Horgan. “The lads figured out during the writing process and over the course of making the pilot that you don’t care about Frank if he’s just an arsehole. You have to find that thing that makes you care about him. Alan Partridge and [The Office’s] David Brent have their vulnerable spots and you really care about them even though they’re terrible people.”
In Frank and Doofus, Brian admitted there are definitely some elements of his and Domhnall’s relationship growing up together and their childhood friendship with Moloney, as they took the idea of being young and without responsibility and pushed it to the extreme.
“He’s out of touch with reality, I suppose, and doesn’t really have the tools to make that connection again,” Moloney said of Frank. “There is a playfulness about him. But you get the sense there’s a nugget of goodness inside of him he just can’t get in contact with. On the outside he’s quite unhealthy and not nice to people around him, but he maybe knows he’s vulnerable underneath it all.”
Equally badly behaved are the female characters in the series, with the writers enjoying the “mates” relationship Frank has with Mary rather that putting them in more recognisable mother-son roles.
“We just wanted everybody in it to be able to make us laugh,” Domhnall said. “The reason the show exists is just to make people laugh, so you don’t want well-behaved people in there. Then somebody will end up being the butt of the joke in a bad way. What you want is everybody to be selfish in their own way and even if they present well, which some of the characters do in early episodes, as the series progresses you realise they’re all as bad as each other.
“One of the things we realised early on is that all of them are just acting like children. We decided that Frank was like a 13-year-old with the hormones and all the rest. Then Doofus is like a nine-year-old. You could look at all of the characters there and put ages on them around the way that they’re behaving.”
Writing the series with his brother and childhood friend was “an intense process,” Domhnall admitted, although his favourite times were when the three writers would gather together in an office in Dublin just before the start of filming to thrash out the final details by reading the scripts line by line.
“One of the things I’m proudest and happy about was how amazing both the boys were about all of us looking after each other throughout the process,” he said. “There were really difficult points. It definitely can be intense and difficult and you have differences of opinion and all that sort of stuff. And we never forgot that we wanted to come out of it still brothers and friends. That always took priority, and actually one of the lovely things to happen over the course of this was to see how solid that bond is, even under a lot of pressure at times.”
But Brian and Domhnall aren’t the only Gleesons to be a part of Frank of Ireland. Their brother Fergus can be heard singing a song in episode two, while father Brendan – star of In Bruges, Calvary, Mr Mercedes and The Comey Rule – cameos on screen in episode six as Mary’s boyfriend.
“It was kind of hilarious. Dad arrived good to go with a suitcase full of clothes that I think were his own clothes, which is frightening when you see what he’s wearing on the show,” Domhnall said. “He arrived with loads of ideas. He’d read the scripts and we had sent him some of the dailies so he knew what the tone was like really well, and then just brought so much energy and madness and a lot of joy to the set.
“Brian said some of the best days to shoot were the days when Dad is there with a tin whistle – his character needed it, he didn’t just turn up with it – playing away and just chatting and having so much fun and wondering what the hell he’s going to do next. He was absolutely brilliant. That was amazing.”
Each episode is also notable for having a film link, among them Home Alone and Taxi Driver. “One of the things that really made us laugh early on was opening an episode with Frank doing the monologue from Taxi Driver, and then you realise he’s in a taxi, but he’s not the driver and he can’t drive,” Domhnall said. “He spends a lot of his money getting around in taxis and also sees Robert De Niro [as Travis Bickle] as the hero as opposed to the anti-hero. He thinks he’s a pretty square guy, he just got a raw deal, which we thought said a lot about him.”
“It was such a huge amount of work. It wasn’t just something that just sort of happened once, it had to be threaded through the whole thing,” explained Horgan. “But it added such a lot of richness to it. The big thing was it’s never to feel like a gimmick.”
As well as creating and writing the series, the Gleesons and Moloney are also executive producers. Supported by Merman, producer Rory Gilmartin and director MJ Delaney, the brothers found once they were on set they could concentrate on their acting. But the production was further complicated by the coronavirus pandemic, with filming halted after five of the six weeks of shooting.
“I have to say, when we went back, I was much more mindful of enjoying it,” Domhnall said. “It was such a privilege to be on the set. I actually had way more fun and I really enjoyed it much more, that last bit of the shoot, because I just got a bit of perspective on things.”
“I always felt very grateful from the off being able to work with the two of them, genuinely,” adds Brian. “As incredibly stressful as it was, it did make a huge difference, the three of us being there on set. I got used to going over to the monitor and discussing it with the lads, and I’ve found since then you’re not allowed to just go over the monitor [if you’re a regular actor].”
Working together “was difficult at times, and particularly in the early days there was some trench warfare,” admitted Moloney. “We would be at loggerheads but you put it all behind you. We had greater disagreements early on and as we approached the start, we made a conscious decision to deprioritise our personal preferences and find something that meshed. It was a difficult process but it was really good.”
Frank in Ireland becomes the latest comedy to hit screens in the UK that is either set in Ireland or features Irish characters, following Derry Girls and Merman-produced This Way Up and Catastrophe.
“Our comedies are just pretty singular. They just seem to have their own tone, vibe and an honesty. We’re pretty good at telling the truth, I suppose,” says Irish actor, writer and producer Horgan. “It feels like it’s a thing, doesn’t it? For years didn’t even sort of try and make anything Irish. I was just in London and making London-based things. I just thought I want to start filming at home again and wanted to start making stuff there. But I can’t exactly tell you why. It’s just one of those things.”
But it’s that specificity of location that Channel 4 was looking for, rather than try to turn the series into a broader comedy.
“They said the more specific, the better as far as they were concerned, and that really helped,” said Domhnall. “That’s probably also true of a lot of Irish comedies happening there, but they’re all really different to each other, which I think is very important as well. It’s not all one brand of comedy and even the stuff Merman makes is not all one brand of comedy. In a way, that’s the most encouraging thing about it, in that it doesn’t feel like just a purple patch that will then die down. It’s particular to the people.”
tagged in: Amazon Studios, Brendan Gleeson, Brian Gleeson, Channel 4, Clelia Mountford, Domhnall Gleeson, Frank of Ireland, Merman, Michael Moloney, Pom Boyd, Sarah Green, Sharon Horgan, Tom Vaughan-Lawlor, Your Bad Self