Stephen Frears: Good Fun
Gemma Arterton in Tamara Drewe
Stephen Frears is one of the premiere (and prolific!) directors of world cinema. Comfortably filming in both his homeland (the U.K.) and here in the States, Frears has a long list of hits, indies and studio pictures alike. While he suggests that he has “gotten into a mess” when attempting studio pictures, such films as Dangerous Liaisons, High Fidelity and The Queen certainly prove otherwise.
The director sat down with us recently, speaking candidly about his eclectic career, his reliance on others for helping make his films a success, and his latest movie—Tamara Drewe is a screwball comedy with dark overtones. Adapted from the popular British graphic novel—itself loosely adapted from Thomas Hardy's 1874 novel Far From The Madding Crowd—the story concerns Tamara, who comes back to her hometown to sell the family house after her mother dies. Most of the story takes place at a nearby writer's retreat owned by a local popular mystery writer, the philandering Nicholas Hardiment (Roger Allam) and his wife Beth (Tamsin Greig). The trouble starts after Roger begins an affair with Tamara, a former ugly duckling and now fetchingly played by Gemma Arterton (The Disappearance of Alice Creed). While a successful journalist by trade, Tamara does not use her common sense when it comes to matters of the heart. In the end, Tamara must choose between Nicholas, the handsome and earnest groundskeeper Andy (Luke Evans) and the rock star Ben Sergeant (Dominic Cooper).
Explaining how Tamara Drewe has recharged his batteries, Frears has the tendency to be dry and elusive at moments, but he also has a terrifically self-deprecating sense of humor. “My capacity to be stupid is unlimited,” he explains with tongue in cheek.
Tribeca: I’ve been watching your films since My Beautiful Laundrette. To say that it’s an eclectic group of story lines and genres is an understatement.
Stephen Frears: Yes, but presumably there are common threads that go all the way through.
Tribeca: What might they be?
Stephen Frears: I don’t know. [Laughter]
Tribeca: I wonder if it’s the type of question that puts you off somewhat.
Stephen Frears: No, I always feel rather inadequate. My Beautiful Laundrette was such a shock to me.
Tribeca: Perhaps these unconscious threads are not even worth exploring on some level. Perhaps it gets in the way of one’s instinct.
Stephen Frears: Not at all. I remember making Dangerous Liaisons and The Grifters, and then some years later someone said, “Well, you made two films about women who kill the men they love.” And I said, “Oh, did I?” It hadn’t crossed my mind. And immediately a light bulb goes off over your head, but someone else had to say it.
Tribeca: Two might be a coincidence. If there were a third film, I might say there’s something going on…
Stephen Frears: Well, they were back to back. I couldn’t tell you why, but I hadn’t even noticed it.
Luke Evans and Stephen Frears on the set of Tamara Drewe
Tribeca: Do you consider yourself an instinctual filmmaker?
Stephen Frears: Yes, of course. But that doesn’t mean you abandon your intelligence.
Tribeca: Do you consciously choose projects that are quite different?
Stephen Frears: No, you just read something and you feel it’s fantastic. The truth is, you’re on your knees with gratitude when you get a good script, because there isn’t that much that’s good. Things are either interesting or they’re not. More often not.
Tribeca: Let’s talk about what’s interesting about Tamara Drewe.
Stephen Frears: To tell a tragic story in comic terms felt very original and so fresh. So much of it was so sharply observed; it was a real treat.
Dominic Cooper in Tamara Drewe
Tribeca: Were you originally handed the graphic novel or the screenplay?
Stephen Frears: I read the script.
Tribeca: Were you familiar with the graphic novel?
Stephen Frears: No, but I had read it in The Guardian. It was serialized, and I’ve known Posy [Simmonds, who created the comic strip and subsequent graphic novel] for 30 years.
Tribeca: As far as casting Gemma Arterton, what did you know about her?
Stephen Frears: I hadn’t seen her in anything!
Tribeca: Was there anyone leaning over your shoulder saying, “You’ve got to cast this girl, she’s perfect.”
Stephen Frears: My casting director. And my wife. They both told me that Gemma was very good.
Luke Evans and Gemma Arterton in Tamara Drewe
Tribeca: So you rely on others for decisions like that. Do you think in order to be a successful filmmaker that it’s a group effort, and surrounding yourself with the right people is the crucial thing?
Stephen Frears: I’m under no illusions.
Tribeca: You don’t hear that from every filmmaker in this business.
Stephen Frears: Well, I can’t answer that, but I’m very attentive to others’ advice. When I cast Chiwetel Ejiofor in Dirty Pretty Things, my casting director said, “If you hadn’t cast him, I would’ve walked out.”
Tribeca: And she was prepared to do that?
Stephen Frears: Quite certainly. I mean, in other words, my capacity to be stupid is unlimited. It’s by the grace of God that I reach the right decision.
Tribeca: Perhaps you’re less stupid when it comes to whom you listen to?
Stephen Frears: And in this case, both she and my wife said Gemma was terribly good. That’s their job. My job, in a way, is to stay fresh.
Tribeca: What does that mean?
Stephen Frears: You’re told someone is good. And when she walked into the room, she seemed right. So, you just say, “Yes, you were right.” And you know she’s a good actress because those reliable people have told you so. So you’re not worried about that.
Same thing happened with John Cusack. I remember Juliet Taylor, the casting director, telling me, “The boy coming in is the boy you want.” That was for The Grifters. There were only two actors I was interested in, John Cusack and Robert Downey Jr.
Tribeca: They both came up right around the same time.
Stephen Frears: I remember Downey having done Less Than Zero around that time.
Tribeca: In Tamara Drewe, you worked with mostly unknown actors. Was it something you insisted on?
Stephen Frears: You don’t insist, you say, “Look, if you want me to do this, this is the only way I know how to do it. If I do it, this is what I will attach importance to. If you want other values, then go somewhere else.”
Tribeca: This is a conversation you are having with whom?
Stephen Frears: My producers. Really the conversation is like that. If you want my values, it would be a pleasure to do the film. If you want someone else’s values, than go somewhere else.
Tribeca: I get a sense from a number of your movies that you like working with relatively unknown actors.
Stephen Frears: [Laughs] I can’t afford the famous ones.
Tribeca: Yet, you’ve had a great run. It’s not that typical to sit with someone with whom you can go through film by film and have so many standouts. It’s really a remarkable career.
Stephen Frears: It’s been good fun.
Gemma Arterton and Dominic Cooper in Tamara Drewe
Tribeca: Where did you get your start?
Stephen Frears: I started in theater. Then I met a film director and he said, “Come and work on my film.” So, I never intended to become a film director. I didn’t even know the job existed, in truth. Around the time I went to Cambridge the cinema became much more self-conscious.
Tribeca: The “kitchen sink dramas.”
Stephen Frears: Yes, all that. They were really my teachers, the filmmakers from that whole movement. So, in fact, cinema became really interesting at that time.
Tribeca: That led to making My Beautiful Laundrette?
Stephen Frears: That was much later. First I made television films for the BBC, which was the most privileged placed to work. I was making films through the ’70s there. It was then I decided I could make a living as a director. That’s what I was really concerned about, that I could earn a living making films. I was at the BBC into the ’80s, at which time Mrs. Thatcher started to break up the BBC mold. So then I made My Beautiful Laundrette.
Tribeca: And at the time you were making films for BBC, did you know Mike Leigh?
Stephen Frears: Mike Leigh was around, and Ken Loach was around. We all came from the same background.
Tribeca: They continue to make modest films. Would you be happy making smaller films, ones like Tamara Drewe?
Stephen Frears: I’m having a wonderful time. I’ve gotten into a mess when I’ve tried to make a movie for the studios.
Tribeca: It seems like the right time for an economical filmmaker like yourself.
Stephen Frears: Yes, absolutely. I’m having a good time. But I can see how different it is now. And in the end, you make a film… people can either see Avatar or they can see my film. For some reason they choose Avatar. But I’m not bitter.
Tribeca: A film like Avatar also gets its share of backlash, unlike a Stephen Frears film.
Stephen Frears: Oh, that’s true. I hadn’t thought of it like that. [Laughs] I quite like the idea of James Cameron being jealous of me.