Jon Ronson: ‘Everything I do now is about empathy’
Jon Ronson

Journalist turned screenwriter Jon Ronson has a string of best-selling books under his belt, and his work has been turned into movies starring George Clooney, Michael Fassbender – and now Scarlett Johansson.

Last year’s acclaimed tragi-comedy Frank, casting Fassbender as the mentally disturbed frontman of a bizarre prog-rock band, was loosely based on his own experiences playing keyboards in Chris Sievey’s cult Frank Sidebottom musical collective. It won Ronson and co-writer Peter Straughan a British Independent Film Award for Best Screenplay.

Having previously written about extremists, psychopaths and military ‘psychics’, Ronson has now turned his attention to internet witch hunts and social media scapegoating for his latest book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, which deals with people who have been widely vilified online.

Ahead of the book’s release next week, and a special speaking tour, he talked to Mark Butler about the making of Frank, his panic-inducing experiences in the movie world, and why he believes our current shame-culture has got to stop.

Hi Jon. I thought I’d start by asking about Frank – which was one of our favourite films of last year. How was your experience working on it?

“I loved the experience. I think Peter Straughan is one of the two or three most talented people I’ve ever worked with. He’s incredible. He’s doing Wolf Hall at the moment. Have you been watching it?”

I have. I’ve been a bit gripped, actually. 

“It’s a great adaptation. I loved working with him. That’s the most pleasurable thing: bouncing things back and forth, which we did for years. He was Henry Higgins and I was Eliza Doolittle. He was teaching me how, because this was my very first screenplay and I had no idea. The thing I really loved was a few years into the process; I remember a moment when I started feeling that every time I opened my laptop, the characters were standing there waiting for me to dictate what to do next. They felt real at that point.”

Was it weird seeing something based on your own experiences take form?

“I wish it was weird (laughs). I wish it was magical watching it in the cinema. Like Cinderella or something. But it’s not, because by the time you see it with an audience you’ve seen it fifty times in different forms. You do eight drafts of the script, you go on set to watch some filming, and then run away very fast because you realise there’s no place for us. Then you watch the rushes. It would be different if I went in without seeing everything, but I was involved in the way it was shaped. The director, Lenny Abrahamson, would send stuff over and I could send notes.

“Also, the premiere is just really fucking stressful! You’re thinking about whether people are going to like it. You’re thinking where’s my pass? Have I booked a hotel room? It’s just stress (laughs).

“I’m going to do it all again too, because The Psychopath Test is being made into a film with Scarlett Johansson, and directed by Jay Roach. I feel totally calm and happy about it. But the movie industry is really ‘alpha male’. And I’m really not that. You have to find normal, sensitive kind people to work with – and I’ve been lucky with that. George Clooney was wonderful.”

George Clooney starred in the adaptation of The Men Who Stare At Goats of course, which you didn’t actually script. How did that experience compare to Frank, where you were intimately involved?

“They were really different. I loved being involved with Frank, and once I became confident with screenwriting I loved the process. But you have to step back at some point, because it’s totally the director’s film. I felt Lenny did a really interesting job and it’s very melancholic – a quality which he brought to it, and everybody loved I think.

“With Goats it was really easy. But I was stressed because it was my first big thing, and I really wanted it to be made. Films so often fall down at the last minute. I remember the producer saying that even when George Clooney was on a plane and on his way to start filming, there was still the possibility it might not happen. Other than that though, I just thought ‘just let them do it’. You have to be laissez-faire.”

Does it feel overwhelming sometimes that your work is being adapted with such big names attached?

“I should feel overwhelmed. I went to Cardiff high school. I didn’t grow up in an elite media world. There were times when I couldn’t believe how things had turned out. But I’m an anxious, fastidious person, and I’m so busy wanting everything to be ok that I never sit back and enjoy the moment. I look back and think ‘fucking hell, that was incredible’, but don’t think it at the time.

“I’m not ungrateful by the way! I’m aware I might be sounding really miserable or something. I’m just an introverted person.”

How similar – or otherwise – is the Jon character in Frank to your real self?

“I definitely enjoyed making him this monstrous version of me. It’s the me I fear I am: untalented, mediocre and banal. That was really good fun. I like to think I’m less annoying and malevolent anyway. Maybe when I was an ambitious 20-year-old I would have been willing to sell everybody down the river to be successful. That’s kind of what the movie is about.”

Why did you decide to make it so different from the real-life Frank story? Rather than a biopic, it almost feels like a kind of parable. 

“It’s interesting you should say that. I’ve always thought of it like being the ‘Garden Of Eden’ story. Jon’s the garden and his ambition is the snake. The first really successful thing I ever did was a documentary called Tottenham Ayatollah, which was a collaborative effort, but because it had my voice everyone said ‘it’s Jon Ronson’s film’. Now I’d be honest and say ‘no, no, it’s a collaboration’, but then I just enjoyed people saying that. 20 years on, that kind of stuff came into my head when writing Frank. How a good person excited by life does things for ambition.”

Frank Sidebottom michael fassbender

How did the decision to make it more of a fiction come about?

“What sparked it off was a piece I wrote in the Guardian when Chris [Sievey – Frank Sidebottom himself] phoned me and said he was going to stage a comeback. The article had an ‘Alice Through The Looking Glass’ feel to it. This boy from the suburbs who gets picked to be in this crazy band. Those experiences of me and ‘movie Jon’ were intensely similar. But when I met Peter, he said he liked that fairy-tale quality. A parable rather than a biopic. Everybody liked that. And Chris liked that idea too.

“After Chris died all these amazing stories came out. How they used to play subbuteo in the back of the van, with the pitch stuck down by masking tape. We brought in bits and pieces that came and went. Once a script starts to evolve it takes on its own momentum. It just goes off in its own direction. I became very interested in Daniel Johnston and his life, and that became part of the film. It just flowed.”

Do you think Chris would have liked the film?

“Well, I did ask Stirling [Chris’s eldest son], ‘what would your dad have thought of this?’ And he said he’d have loved it. The thing that mattered to Chris was that it brought a lot of people to the real Frank Sidebottom. And it has. The New York Times were writing about him. I like to think he’d have liked it.”

Would it be fair to say that you tend to be interested in those on the fringes of society – or on the edges of acceptable behaviour?

“I’d say my writing is getting more and more away from that. My new book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, is about how normal people are getting defined by social media, i.e. ‘us’, as demons and monsters. Everybody in the new book – or most people, at least – are ordinary people whose lives were torn apart by the likes of us. It’s about what’s happening to us right now.

“I think a lot of my books seem to be about the furthest corners of society, but they’re always about our world. Them is a book about extremists, but it’s also about looking at the world through their eyes. The Men Who Stare At Goats is like that, and The Psychopath Test as well.”

What do you think is the overriding thing you took away from researching and writing So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed?

“What pops into my head when you ask that is how we like to see ourselves as good people – we are all angry that certain things are happening – but what this book shows is how remarkably easy it is for us to become the bad people. For us to become the Stasi. It was extracted in the Guardian this weekend and one of the comment read: ‘Look at this world we have sleep-walked into’.

“I get so nervous writing these books, but I’m getting the first twinges of ‘actually, I might have written something really good – that might be something of a game-changer’. It has the potential to change the atmosphere of society maybe.”

Book cover

Do you think that public shaming is something that should be typically reserved for those in positions of power, rather than ordinary people who say something stupid on social media?

“I do think so, yes. I have sympathy for the idea that shaming is not good in any circumstance, but I don’t think I could go that far. It’s a cheering thought that democratisation of justice can happen, but there’s way too much shaming in the world right now and it’s become people’s default positions. I haven’t taken part in any shamings in the last year or two, having seen the human cost of it. It’s a horrific thing to be socially cast out. Even when you arguably deserve it.”

Given what we’ve been talking about, I can’t help but think there’s a link between the kind of internet witch-hunts you describe in your book, and the way in which the title character becomes a YouTube figure-of-fun and then derision in Frank?

“There’s definitely a link. I was actually thinking hard about the book when I wrote those scenes for the film. Like that scene in the restaurant where the guy says ‘that Frank’s such a freak – he’s hilarious’. It was written as a result of my research into this book. Those scenes wouldn’t have been there if I hadn’t been researching it.”

I get the impression from the book that you feel a great sense of empathy for the people you spoke to. Are you of the opinion that we all need to have more empathy when dealing with others?

“You know what? Yeah. I am. I don’t want to sound like Russell Brand, but everything I do now is all about empathy. That’s the only thing I’m interested in. There’s a piece I’m writing at the moment where one of the people, two actually, could come across terribly, because they said the most outrageous things. And as I was writing it, my only thought was ‘ok, these people said this stuff that makes them look terrible – how can we still empathise with them?’ Don’t get me wrong, I’m not going to not quote them. But even when this person said something outrageous, there’s no way I will hang then out to dry.”

So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed is out on March 12. Frank is available on DVD now. 

Jon Ronson will be at Hyde Park Picture House in Leeds on March 12 to present a special screening of Frank, and will be touring the UK for a series of talks throughout March, April and May. Find details of all his forthcoming appearances here

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