January 29, 2006|My first glimpse of lanky British director Stephen Frears was in passing as he took shelter from a frigid early-December wind in a doorway in front of Denver's historic Brown Palace Hotel. Iconoclastic at the least, Frears turned his back on a career in law and began his tutelage in the arts at the Royal Court Theatre under Karel Reisz and, eventually, Lindsay Anderson, on whose fantastic If... he worked before making his feature debut with Gumshoe in 1971. A two-film partnership with playwright Hanif Kureishi later yielded My Beautiful Laundrette and Sammy and Rosie Get Laid, and they, along with the magnificent Joe Orton biopic Prick Up Your Ears, brought Frears to the attention of Hollywood, where he's since had his share of ups (Dangerous Liaisons, The Grifters, and High Fidelity) and downs (Hero and Mary Reilly, high-profile flops made back-to-back for the same studio).
All this biography is a means by which to say that I didn't get a solid feeling for Stephen Frears unguarded during the course of our interview (graciously extended by Mr. Frears to the consternation of his local PR rep and her schedule), finding him to be as elusive to pin down as his pictures are--the playful hooliganism many mark as his watermark only manifesting itself in person as a sly look now and again. But what I did get was a gradual understanding of how his frankness could be read as confrontational, how his unwillingness to respond to the inanities of the junket rat could be taken as prickliness, and how his unaffected, almost aggressive, modesty--directly resulting in a reticence to provide long answers--could be construed as impatience or hostility. He's only a difficult interview if you ask if it was just aces working with Dame Judi Dench (as he does in his latest, Mrs. Henderson Presents)--and until we all surrender and agree to be whores to the PR machine, that's exactly the way it ought to be.
FILM FREAK CENTRAL: How does one transition from Cambridge Law to the Royal Court Theatre?
STEPHEN FREARS: More easily than you'd suspect! (laughs) I just found law to be very dull, promising of a very dull life, and so once I had gone through it all I decided that I needed to do something that captured my interest more completely. Maybe it was arrogant to think so, but I believed that I had something to contribute to the arts.
So, a tutelage under Lindsay Anderson.
Yes, and Karel Reisz. I worked on a film of Anderson's called If...--the Royal Court was a theatre of ideas and politics and it was just a very, very interesting place to be at that time, surrounded by very interesting, highly intelligent people, all aroused by the issues of the day. I just found myself there in a place that was really interesting to me--much more so than the dusty halls of Cambridge.
A reflection of the times or a shaper of them?
Well, I'd have to say reflection, certainly: a reflection of changes that had been happening in Britain. British society changed. The end of the war when the Labour Government came and they brought certain legislation and the children that were educated under that new system grew up as, first, intellectuals writing novels and plays, but eventually of course they became The Beatles, and the world changed.
Tell me how you bottle that energy, that immediacy, in your pictures.
I don't know that I've ever thought of it in that sense in that it's just what you do. Your aim, your goal, is to take what's in front of you and represent it--to re-present it, you see--and that's about everything that you're working for in a sense, really. You bring something to life that's in front of you and if you do your job, you make it immediate as a consequence--it just comes out that way. But I don't think you ever go in with the thought of immediacy. You go in with the hope that you're making something interesting and that immediacy is spontaneous--and I guess instinctive.
I know of your admiration for Hitchcock...
Well, he was the opposite of that, wasn't he?
But there was also a sort of vulgarity to his work in his polish. He was very clever, wasn't he? He said more profound things than he admitted to--he was very English.
Are you cagey in the same way?
Well, I'm very English. (laughs)
So if not "immediacy," how about "hooliganism"?
Well that's a rather, sort of, that's really a characteristic of the Royal Court--characteristic of the writers that I worked with along the way. Highly intelligent hooligans.
And why you enjoyed working with the BBC?
Exactly right, they really encourage highly intelligent hooligans. It's a complete meritocracy, very much so, and the work that had the most vitality was always sort of against the status quo, was provocative--and that continues still in the work of someone like Ricky Gervais.
How about live television with George Clooney and Fail Safe?
It was a fantastic experience, fantastic. I'd never--well, none of us had ever--done live television and I found it all incredibly stimulating. It helped that I really liked George. I really admire George, you know, he's coming clean on his politicism this year--a very bright guy, much brighter than he's let on. He came and sat in my room and put his feet up and I thought for a moment that here I am sitting where every woman in the world would like to be sitting--but then we talked and he was quite a lot more than just the matinee idol, he's was extremely bright and lively. I think more people are seeing that after this year, of course.
Liam: another bit of BBC-influence there?
I used to deny there was any difference [between film and television]--but now I think there's a tremendous difference. When I first became successful and I started to make films, you become very aware of having to lure an audience. Television has a captive audience and in my infancy in this business, I was raised if you were not aware of the need to entertain, really. You grow up unaware of the need, literally, to entertain people. In the Royal Court, I worked on one play of John Osbourne's, but again, it was quite protected.
Well, that's not true, I guess. The things that did well at the Royal Court were bravura performances of the Olivier variety, so it was a sort of synthesis of old fashioned entertainment and ideas of some intelligence. All different beasts--but I must say that I do feel a great responsibility to entertain.
So how does the initial reception to something like Hero strike you?
It didn't sit well. (laughs) No, I felt, I feel, great responsibility for a person's time in movies, but no, I must say I got a nasty shock about how people reacted to that film. The trouble is that films like that cost a lot of money. There was a plane crash in the middle of it and if there was a way I could have done that cheap, I would have. I would have preferred to have done it all so much cheaper, I think, but it was a studio piece and in order to do the crash, you know, a river actually had to be diverted. Sooner or later it all becomes a problem of economics rather than aesthetics. If you spend that amount of money you have to draw a certain number of audiences--and I wonder if I feel too much the obligation to that investment.
Tellingly, perhaps, it didn't feature an actor looking to revise himself.
No, maybe that's right.
Is Bob Hoskins the actor in revolt in Mrs. Henderson Presents?
He's incredible, he's incredible. He was a producer on this film and you're right, I think he wanted to create for himself an opportunity to play a different sort of character. He was enormously brave--he does a nude scene and I had to talk him out of doing more! (laughs) I've been very lucky with talented, with gifted people, willing to work with me. You know, I'm endlessly flattered and surprised to have the chance to make movies and even more so that anyone knows anything about the films that I have done. We live quiet lives in England. We live on our wits--we can't compete in production values, we have wit. We haven't got anything else.
Were you daunted in so American a milieu as the Western and The Hi-Lo Country? To the extent, of course, that all of your films, no matter their setting, seem embedded in the outsider perspective.
Yes, I don't quite know why. I'm middle class, respectable, right from the smack middle of England. I ought to be completely on the inside but emotionally I seem eternally on the outside. I can't place where it comes from, but I do see the truth of what you're saying. Something to do with being bored with safety--took me a long time to rebel. Filming a western, though, it was like going right to the mother lode, to the source of it all. It was, as a genre, so pure--so purely cinematic. Driving from your airport to here, looking at the grass, I felt this strong sense of familiarity. I filmed some of that film here, you know, in Colorado--just remembering the colour and texture of the grass, and how hard a way of life it was then. Another noir, if you will.
Huston, Mann, or Ford?
(laughs) I love Bogart, of course, and weren't there more pine trees in Mann's westerns? I guess Ford, but with Mann's darkness?
Rebels! Love triangles and outcasts, and the European background where you grew up in the culture venerating that certain kind of movie. I was mad about American westerns and films noir growing up and so, though again it's all unintentional, I find my influences come from there no matter the ostensible material.
Aren't you doing a film now about Queen Elizabeth, Tony Blair, and Charles?
(laughs) There's a man who took an even longer time to rebel, didn't he? Finally not doing what his mother wanted him to. Something terribly romantic about how he finally found happiness in finally not doing what his mother wanted him to, isn't there?
Have you ever been surprised that something you've done was seen as daring?
I never approach something that way--I read something and like it and what and how a writer has something to say. So I suppose I should say that I'm always surprised when something I do is seen as daring because I'm only doing what seems right for me to do at any time and should someone come out as thinking that I'm pushing the envelope of what's acceptable in some way, well, I'd respond that no, I'm just exactly within my envelope. It must contain some description of my character in that I'm always surprised that my character is somehow identifiable from the films that I've made.
Correlate for me this idea of the primacy of the writer and your two-film collaboration with Hanif Kureishi.
He changed my life, Hanif. He was, politically, very articulate. An extraordinary writer. On My Beautiful Laundrette he got me the script and my contribution mainly was saying that this is very good and that I insisted that we should make it now--at that very moment. And we were able to. Daniel Day Lewis was a young actor in Britain at the time so he was around and at that time he wanted to do something different. He'd worked out that he wanted to be seen as something other than the young upper-class Englishmen of the sort that he played in A Room with a View and he'd decided that he didn't want to do that anymore. When I first saw him, he was playing Dracula in a small theatre in the equivalent of Off-Broadway, and I guess he was at a breaking point. When he read Hanif's script, he knew--he was much clearer than I was--that it was what he wanted.
Gary Oldman, more conventionally rebellious?
That's a good way to put it, yes. He'd already done great work with Les Blair and Mike Leigh and was around the theatres a good bit--four actors were considered for Laundrette: Tim Roth, who I just worked with, Ken Branagh who, eighteen months later, said that he'd been desperate for the job but clearly wasn't right for it, and Gary, who'd played the part before on the theatre and on television, so he found it less interesting. Eventually, though, I was able to work with Gary.
Any chance of working with Kureishi again?
I would love to. I would love to.
As I was watching Brokeback Mountain, I thought, among other things, "Breakthrough? Frears broke through twenty years ago."
(laughs) Well, I don't know what to say about that. The thing with Laundrette though is that suddenly you discovered that there were a lot of people who felt the way that you did. That when you took a stand on something in the national consciousness, for us it was Thatcher, well, you realized suddenly that you weren't alone. In your country, your government, it's astonishing to me that so many were made to vote their bedroom morality and so vote against their economic well-being. So no wonder this curiosity about homosexuality in America. It's the right time.
How is it you find actors at moments of rebellion? Thinking, too, of John Cusack in The Grifters.
It's really mysterious, isn't it? Something sympathetic in myself. Must be. I think what happens is that it's absolutely not thought out, but I must give off that sense of welcome to people who want to change things. They might sense that I'll have a great deal of empathy, perhaps, in maybe a sense of boredom in their careers--I notice them coming to me with a feeling that I can help them change direction. Cusack, in particular, said, "Thank God you haven't seen anything that I've been in." I'd never seen him in anything and he didn't want me to. He wanted a clean slate of it and he knew that I'd be a sympathetic home to that. But he still didn't want me to see anything.
And with Chiwetel Ejiofor?
Chewy was different. He was a younger actor, not as seasoned, I'd seen him before and knew that he was a good actor, but didn't know he was capable of being as good as he was--and has become. I don't think he was frustrated or wanting to change so much as develop. Jack Black, though, on the other hand--Jack's brilliant. I think he must have trusted me that if he let himself loose a little that he'd be safe. That's the key, perhaps, that I make people feel as though they'll be safe if they take a risk with me.
Maybe because you're taking the bigger risk with them?
It could be. Jack obviously was who he was already, but kept his head down until in High Fidelity, he let himself loose. I'm honoured that he did it in my film, to be honest. He and Todd Louiso--such a lovely guy--and John, all of them terribly brave in that movie and it's harder to tell because the movie's a lot lighter in tone. I'm not terribly aware of it as it's happening, but I'm proud to see their difference after.
Back to Hitchcock for a moment, tell me about the parallel between your stairway descent in Dangerous Liaisons and the identical descent in Notorious.
I always was stricken by the power of that scene. I became very interested in how it was done because if you come down a stair in close shot, you actually bounce, but Hitchcock had designed the staircase somehow to eliminate the bounce. Well, I couldn't do that because I hadn't the resources to do it in this little chateau that we were shooting in, in France, but for that scene I felt like it was the perfect place to insert that kind of intensity so I very deliberately--I don't want to say pastiche, how about "echo"? I very deliberately wanted to echo that moment from Hitchcock for that. I always saw Dangerous Liaisons as a film noir. Whenever you make a film for a studio, they eventually send you the film's logo and for that film, Warner Bros. sent me what looked like two badges and it looked to me like police badges and I thought, "Oh good, it's a cops and robbers movie." So I open the film with what sounds like a police siren.
Is that the way to compete with Hollywood? To subvert genre types?
I didn't see it as subversion, one, but also, No, I don't think you can compete with Hollywood, period. People want to see Hollywood films all over the world, they're the films that people want to see. To compete with that is impossible. Everything translates. You can't stop people going to things that they want to see, and you really can't blame them. I mean, how can you blame people for their taste? It's always been the same: no worse, and certainly no better.