An audience with Stephen Frears

Stephen Frears is one of our most instantly recognisable film directors. He’s the director of such landmark movies as My Beautiful Laundrette, Dangerous Liaisons, The Grifters, High Fidelity, The Queen, Mrs Henderson and the highly praised, newly released Tamara Drewe.

He’s one of the few British directors who is equally at home working in America or in Britain, which is slightly surprising because as he says himself he’s not an explosions or car chase kind of director.

Also, talking to him you realise very quickly, he doesn’t like over-analysing his work. He confesses he works very much on gut-instinct. He knows what feels right and lets others worry about writing down the theory behind why it works.

This is why he is famously reticent when it comes to doing interviews but as he is guest of honour at this year’s 30th anniversary Cambridge Film Festival and is hosting a question and answer session at Aldeburgh Cinema next week, he has agreed to talk about his extraordinarily diverse career.

When I say that as he has got older, he seems to have got progressively busier, he lets out a hearty laugh: “That’s because films attract more attention than television. I’ve always been busy. I don’t know how not to be busy.

“My father worked 50 weeks a year. That’s what I thought men were supposed to do.”

It is the sheer varied nature of his work that marks him out as one of Britain’s greatest directors. Unlike some directors who spend their whole careers mining a familiar filmic landscape, Frears likes to strike out for new fertile ground with each new film.

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He says there’s no such thing as a typical Stephen Frears film. “I wait until I find a script that I like, one that interests me.

“I am quite unusual in that I can only do one film at a time. I am working on a film for two years or however long it takes then I start looking for something else. I’m not one of these people with two or three projects on the go at the same time.

“To be honest I wait for the scripts to come to me. I don’t particularly go looking for them. People send me scripts I read them and then I wait until one intrigues me sufficiently to want to spend the next two years bringing it to the screen.

“They are hard work, films. So you have to have something that interests you and hopefully will interest other people.”

Educated at Greshams in Norfolk, he emerged from Trinity College, Cambridge, with a law degree and a burning desire not to do law.

“I got caught up in the world of theatre and acting at university. I suppose you could say I took the wrong turning on the way to the courtroom and I have never looked back.

“Why did I study law? Lack of imagination I think. As soon as I started I realised how incredibly boring it was. I met a man the other day and he said how did I not know that law was boring. Well I didn’t until it was too late.”

He said his salvation was becoming involved in the ADC Theatre, the university theatre at Cambridge. “It was a fantastically glamorous world and full of rather clever people. It was full of people like Ian Mckellen, Trevor Nunn, I think John Cleese was there for a time. What people now regard as something of a golden era.”

He said having got his degree he immediately set about turning his hobby into a career. He landed a job at London’s Royal Court Theatre, George Devine’s temple to cutting edge drama. “There was full employment in those days, you didn’t worry about getting a job, you just tried your hand at something and see where it led you.

“While at the Royal I met all kind of people, directors and writers and I managed to get a job as an assistant director on the film Morgan: A Suitable Case For Treatment with Karel Reisz. It was as simple and as casual as that. The world has changed a great deal since then.”

During the late 1960s refined his talents working with Lindsay Anderson on the cult hit If… and on various Alan Bennett television dramas and as a director for the BBC’s Play For Today.

In 1971, he had an early taste of big screen success when he directed Albert Finney and Billie Whitelaw in Gumshoe – a low budget UK movie about a Liverpool comedian and part-time club comedian who dreams of being a Sam Spade-style private eye. After placing a spoof ad in the local paper as a birthday treat, he suddenly finds himself engaged on a real case.

Frears laughs wistfully when the subject of Gumshoe is brought up. “All I can really remember about that time was that I was obsessed with trying to find out what I was supposed to be doing with my life. I wasn’t quite sure how I was managing to earn a living.

“After Gumshoe was finished I went back to television and then in the early ‘80s I suddenly realised that this is what I did. I realised for the first time that I wasn’t bad at it.

“I think for most of my career up until that point I had always been the youngest person involved then with the start of Channel Four and being offered My Beautiful Laundrette suddenly I was the oldest person involved and that had profound effect on me.

“Until then I had always adopted a policy of keeping your head down. Then someone said: ‘Now’s the time to stick your head above the parapet.”

For Stephen Frears the script is the bible upon which every decision is based. Some directors use it as a springboard or a starting place for their own reinterpretation of the story. Stephen is in no doubt that in his hands the script is the story and his job is to bring that script to life on the cinema screen.

“I think on My Beautiful Laundrette, I got a lot of confidence from the fact that the script was so good and from then on I look for good scripts – that is what is important.

“I read a script and if I like it I do it. It really is as simple as that. I am not interested in a lot of things that maybe other directors are interested in. I am not interested in car chases and explosions but I am interested in people.”

In recent years Stephen Frears films have featured a plethora of roles for strong women. This is particularly unusual in an age where most Hollywood films require actresses to gaze adoringly at the hero, be rescued from the jaws of a monster or to be the kooky, but beautiful looking girlfriend.

Stephen Frears films have given Glenn Close the opportunity to play the beautiful, Machiavellian Marquise Isabelle de Merteuil in Dangerous Liaisons, Michelle Pfeiffer to be unwavering and unshakeably moral in the same film, Anjelica Huston and Annette Bening were cast as brilliant con-artists in The Grifters, while French star Audrey Tatou was a Turkish chambermaid caught up in a human organ transplant scam in London’s hotel district.

Then more recently Kelly Reilly got to play the ‘head girl’ Maureen in the affectionate war-time drama Mrs Henderson Presents while Judi Dench got to play the eponymous founder of The Windmill theatre. Then Helen Mirren delivered a career-defining performance in The Queen, the story of the fateful week when The Queen found herself at odds with her subjects following the death of Princess Diana.

Stephen admits that he has recognised this trend himself but is at a loss to explain how it has come about.

“I have noticed this but I can’t tell you why. You’d better ask a psychoanalyst. Maybe I find women more interesting than men, I don’t know. The male/female dynamic is always interesting. Men and women bashing each other up,” he laughs. “It’s always a rich source of material.”

But it is the opportunity to make films which is becoming increasingly scarce. Money, which has always been tight for homegrown films, has suddenly become a lot tighter with the onset of recession and then the projected demise of the UK Film Council.

Stephen’s approach is relaxed. His belief is you have to adapt to the situation and make the best of it. Basically it’s an extension of his approach to the making of his own films. He finds a script that suits the situation.

Now film-making in general needs to become more flexible.

“The British film industry is a very eccentric thing. It may suit my eccentric personality. The thing is you say different things on different days. I think the thing is when you are making American films you are making a film in a proper industry.

“When you make a film in Britain it’s a one off. It may be different if you are making Harry Potter but I haven’t done one of those but in general, British films are smaller, a lot smaller, and use a different part of your brain. If truth be told, we are somewhere inbetween Europe and America and our films reflect that. Tamara Drewe has done terribly well in France and our films, the films that tend to do well, position themselves to appeal to a wide range of audiences both at home and overseas. I can’t be more precise than that.

“Some people have suggested that Tamara Drewe is a French-film, others have said it is a very English film. I have just made a film which tells a story. Other people then put their interpretation on it.”

He said that a modern director has to make films for export. If a film is going to make money then it has do well overseas either in Europe or America – or preferably in both.

He laughs: “I regard myself as an industrialist. If you don’t export then you are in serious trouble. Tamara Drewe is a very English film and yet it plays with an image of English people that sells abroad. There was a slogan in the 1960s which said ‘Export or Die’ the situation with the British film industry is exactly the same now.” He said that you can’t make films for an American market but you have to make English films that would appeal to an American market.”

One of his pet hates was gratuitous shots of Beefeaters or The Tower of London.

Returning to the subject of what makes a Stephen Frears film or what gets him excited about a story he says that he enjoys bringing non-cinematic material to the cinema.

He enjoys blurring the line between what is a television film and what is a cinema film. “The Roddy Doyle films The Snapper and The Van were like that. Even The Queen was like that. Most films are about film stars or about car crashes, if you don’t make films like that, the immediately you are dealing with more eccentric material,” he pauses before adding: “And in a way you have to work harder to get it into the cinema.”

Casting Judi Dench in Mrs Henderson was very important, as was putting Will Young in his first acting role. “I cast him because he was the right person for the role but I’m not an idiot, I know that he has a following out there. But there’s nothing new in that. Frank Sinatra was in films, Ricky Nelson was in films, Elvis, of course, and they were always putting Fabian in films, so it amuses me to continue to walk down that line.”

He said Gemma Arterton has walked away with fantastic reviews for Tamara Drewe because she is a fantastic actress and made the most of a wonderful story. But, one of the reasons she was cast was because she is a rising star, with a huge public profile, and her presence in the film would get it shown on many more screens than if Stephen had cast an unknown.

I ask whether he feels that the name Stephen Frears now also has some currency. He comes back quickly: “No, I don’t think it means a thing. I think that perhaps the only thing it does mean is that I have made a few decent films. I don’t think it means more than that. I am under no illusion.

“Generally the actors in my films are very good. I don’t know if they sign on because of me. In a way I am the wrong person to ask. I say to the producers and the financiers ‘I can only make this film if I can cast it properly and with Tamara Drewe they allowed me complete freedom, so hats off to them.”

Stephen is shooting a film in Las Vegas called Lay the Favourite, Take the Dog – a huge stylistic and geographical shift, going from rural Dorset to the desert wastes and the city that never sleeps.

Once again another change of gear, making sure we can never know exactly what is a Stephen Frears film.

n Frears will be talking to audiences during a “Looking back” evening at Cambridge PictureHouse, as part of the Cambridge Film Festival on Tuesday, September 21 and will be hosting a question-and-answer session after a screening of his film Tamara Drewe at Aldeburgh Cinema on Saturday, September 25.

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