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Interview: Director Stephen Frears on His Vision For ‘Tamara Drewe’

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CHICAGO – Director Stephen Frears is a storytelling legend who sneaks up on us. Besides his new film “Tamara Drewe,” which played at this year’s Chicago International Film Festival, Frears has a filmography that includes “The Queen,” “Mrs. Henderson Presents,” “High Fidelity,” “The Snapper,” “Hero,” “Prick Up Your Ears” and “My Beautiful Laundrette.” Not bad for a self-described accidental filmmaker.

Born in Leicester, England, Frears began his career as an assistant director on a couple of “Swinging ‘60s” British films, “Morgan” (1966) and “If…” (1968). After several years of television and smaller films, his breakthrough came with “My Beautiful Laundrette” (1985), which received an Academy Award nomination. This led to a string of successes, culminating in the highly acclaimed “The Queen” (2006), which garnered an Oscar for Helen Mirren in the title role.

Frears latest is “Tamara Drewe,” a quirky comedy based on a popular British graphic novel about the homecoming of a small town rich girl turned journalist whose connection to the rest of the villagers tilt the axis of circumstance in a strange and mystical way.

Stephen Frears, Director of ‘Tamara Drewe,’ on Location in the UK
Stephen Frears, Director of ‘Tamara Drewe,’ on Location in the UK
Photo credit: Peter Mountain for © Sony Pictures Classic

HolllywoodChicago.com sat down with Stephen Frears and covered Tamara Drewe and his career, as the filmmaker pushed back in his own inimitable manner.

HollywoodChicago.com: How did you get involved with ‘Tamara Drewe’? What about the original graphic novel appealed to your sensibility as a director?

Stephen Frears: I was sent the script. But I had read it when it was in the newspapers. It made me laugh and I always thought it was sexy. I thought it was very fresh, not like any other film. And I approve of that sort of thing.

HollywoodChicago.com: When you were looking at the graphic novel, did you use some of the panel views as shots in the film?

Frears: Sometimes. You look at it and say, let’s do that shot. It’s beautiful. I think the graphic artist [Posy Simmonds] is a genius. I was happy to do that.

HollywoodChicago.com: Tamara Drewe is a film both about life’s secrets and destinies…

Frears: My God!

HollywoodChicago.com: [Laughs] What themes did you most want to express about human nature in the characters and subject matter of Tamara Drewe?

Frears: I just wanted to make people laugh. You have to understand I’m more modest in my view, you’re the artist. I’m just the bloke who makes films. I’m more frivolous than you are. I just want people to have as nice a time as I did. I can see that is philosophically shocking these days.

HollywoodChicago.com: If you were in the circumstances of that small town, and met Tamara Drewe in a pub…

Frears: Would I have gone to bed with her, if given the opportunity?

HollywoodChicago.com: [Laughs] What would you most like to find out about her or her situation?

Frears: I don’t know, I just think women should look like that. It just brightens the world up.

HollywoodChicago.com: So far this is my favorite interview.

Frears: Why, because I’m a catastrophe?

HollywoodChicago.com: No! It’s about your natural approach to things. It’s the way life should be. I read that you consider yourself an ‘accidental director’…

Frears: Yes.

HollywoodChicago.com: You never intended to be a director, so you’re just enjoying the ride, which is fabulous.

Frears: That doesn’t mean I’m don’t get a little serious, but it also means there is a limit to a seriousness. It also means, you know, that I’m completely involved in film, both in the making and in the watching.

HollywoodChicago.com: The American at the writer’s camp is Bill Camp’s subtle portrayal of Glen. Since you’ve both directed American stories and worked with American actors, what is your opinion about the culture and society of the colonies and were you making any statements in the way Camp was playing Glen?

Frears: [Laughs] No, he’s such a wonderful man and a wonderful actor, there was no statements at all. Americans in general are very good at films. I don’t think your film industry is in a very healthy situation. Nor is the British system. Through the years I’ve watched both American and European films.

HollywoodChicago.com: Do you think Americans do a better job at it?

Frears: Well now clearly something has gone wrong. But American actors are terrific. When I first started working with American actors [“Dangerous Liasons” in 1988], Glenn [Close] and John [Malkovich] taught me a lot.

HollywoodChicago.com: On how to approach American actors?

Frears: No, really in England it’s the theater that matters. English actors come from the theater. American actors sometimes come from another place, and I found that very interesting. To have that intensity that John has, it’s fantastic. He never had a day’s acting lesson in his life, he once proudly told me. Glenn is very skillful.

Gemma Arteron as the Title Character in ‘Tamara Drewe’
Gemma Arteron as the Title Character in ‘Tamara Drewe’
Photo credit: Peter Mountain for © Sony Pictures Classic

HollywoodChicago.com: Infidelity is an overriding subject in many films, including Tamara Drewe. In your opinion, is monogamy a natural state of being for human beings, or is it an outdated social convention invented as a civilizing and business arrangement?

Frears: I’ve been married for 35 years. I guess I’ve just been lucky. I don’t have an opinion about if monogamy is a natural state. No one has ever asked me that question, I don’t have an opinion. I’ve been with my wife for 35 years and we’re very happy. That’s a miracle, but it has been hard work. But I also see marriages that are not as happy, and I feel sorry for them. No institution is appropriate, but some kind of discipline is helpful. If you find an institution that works for you, it’s probably an accident.

HollywoodChicago.com: You are an advocate for distinctly British Cinema, even producing a history of it for television. What makes Tamara Drewe a particularly British film? How will natives recognize themselves through it?

Frears: It’s a sharp eye on a small part of British society. Posy Simmonds eye is very good, it nails people. And it does it with a lot of generosity and high spirits.

HollywoodChicago.com: Which aspect of the culture does Simmonds really go after?

Frears: The middle class. Especially metropolitan people who go to live in the country.

HollywoodChicago.com: Now that I’ve made you uncomfortable with these questions, can I ask you some career questions.

Frears: [Laughs] You are a disaster.

HollywoodChicago.com: And you are amazing, sir.

Frears: Why?

HollywoodChicago.com: Because you make these incredible films, with the sensibility of just being, which allows you to create these situations and characters in the way they fall out…you are one of my favorite contemporary filmmakers.

Frears: Thank you.

HollywoodChicago.com: You came to Chicago twice, to film the underrated ‘Hero’ and ‘High Fidelity.’ What personality does this city offer that surprised you in shooting those two films?

Frears: The worst thing about Chicago, when I came to shoot Hero here, is that before when I had always come here the light was beautiful. And then the winter closed in, and when it closed in the light was so flat, it was really shocking.

HollywoodChicago.com: What time of year was that?

Frears: Too late in the year, and nobody told me. When I did High Fidelity, I shot after the winter and before the heat came, which was perfect. I had to learn the hard way, as I’ve had to learn everything in life.

HollywoodChicago.com: Okay, what positive things were there about the city?

Frears: Chicago is great, just don’t come when the light is flat. It’s simple. Why do you have this flat light?

HollywoodChicago.com: I don’t know, is it the particular part of the hemisphere?

Frears: I don’t how you get through the winters, because I didn’t mind the cold. It was the flatness of light.

HollywoodChicago.com: I’ll note that when I’m depressed this winter. You directed three films about real people: ‘Prick Up Your Ears,’ ‘Mrs. Henderson Presents’ and ‘The Queen.’ What different sensitivity do you use in portraying real people, and what was the overriding atmosphere on the set of The Queen since you were portraying living royalty?

Frears: First of all, I had made a previous TV film about Tony Blair [The Deal], when he was still Prime Minister. Then I made The Queen when the queen was the queen and Blair was still Prime Minister. The truth is by the time I made that film about Blair he had invaded Iraq and become very unpopular. The film I was making was after he had won a huge majority. I was trying to say to people, ‘look this guy was once popular.’ And a lot of people voted for him. You just can’t say that he is a dreadful man. You have to take into account that a lot of people voted for him. The fact is they were let down.

My experience is that you bend over backward to be fair to people. The Queen is ridiculous, The Queen is sort of a joke, so my memory is we laughed a lot. Helen would sit there acting like the queen, so much so you’d like to call up mum. [laughs] People in Britain make jokes about the queen, until you look at what she has done. The only time she ever got into trouble was with the Diana incident.

Stephen Frears in Chicago, October 5th, 2010
Stephen Frears in Chicago, October 5th, 2010
Photo credit: Patrick McDonald for HollywoodChicago.com

HC: You were highly respectful of everyone in that film.

Frears: It was trying to distinguish from the monarchy, which is a ridiculous institution, and the queen herself, who reminds me of my mother. So I was a bit trapped between both things.

HollywoodChicago.com: You took on two of Roddy Doyle’s famed ‘Barrytown Trilogy’. What was the decision by Doyle or yourself to change the character of Dessie Curley-Rabbitte to Larry in The Van? And what makes The Van so different from The Snapper?

Frears: The truth is that if you read The Van as a book, the book is already moving into different territory. It is much more like a piece of Samuel Beckett.

HollywoodChicago.com: Well, The Snapper was so hopeful and The Van was so angry.

Frears: Yes, it already became blacker. I’d forgotten he had changed the name. There was a famous occasion, because when I made The Snapper it was a huge success. Then we went back to the same part of Dublin, and the children came out, the kids came out on the street, and told me they didn’t want The Van, they wanted The Snapper, Part Two. And after I did the film, I thought, oh how profound. They wanted this cheerful, optimistic film. They knew that The Van was trouble, it was dark. How interesting, what wise children they were.

HollywoodChicago.com: In Hero, you seemed to be taking on the mantle of the screwball comedies of the 1940s, but with a more cynical modern tone. What do you think worked best in that particular film?

Frears: The film was unsuccessful, so I guess it didn’t work.

HollywoodChicago.com: Well, I loved it.

Frears: The studio thought it was going to make a lot of money, and I’ve never heard anyone speak bad about it. People loved the film, but it was very unsuccessful. They put it out the week of the Clinton election in 1992, and I guess the timing was wrong. I have no idea.

HollywoodChicago.com: What was the biggest challenge of your live television direction of Fail-Safe in the year 2000? Why did you take on the challenge?

Frears: Because I’d never done live television. I actually had another director that did the live part of it. It was very odd, Fail-Safe, because it wasn’t really like doing a live TV thing, it was like making a film live. Because Fail-Safe depending on editing, it had to do with montage. I was actually asked to do a film live, which I found quite entertaining and interesting. I don’t know if anyone else even realized that is what we were doing. All we had to do was get the montage right. I even suggested editing it and just saying it was live. [laughs]

HollywoodChicago.com: Who is it that you wanted to meet, that you got to meet because of your status as a film director?

Frears: I met Studs Terkel here. It’s not like that, though, I just can’t believe how lucky I’ve been. I’ve met Jack Black, I’ve met John Cusack…it’s been tremendous.

HollywoodChicago.com: Finally, what film are you most proud of or want to represent you in your filmography and why?

Frears: I do love The Snapper. I remember meeting Francois Mitterand, when he was president of France, and they took me up to meet him and introduced me by saying ‘this is the man who made Dangerous Liasons.’ And he said, ‘yes, but I particularly like that little Irish film you made.’

”Tamara Drewe” continues a limited release in Chicago on October 22th. Check local listings for show times and locations. Featuring Gemma Arteron, Roger Allam, Bill Camp, Luke Evans and Tamsin Greig. Screenplay by Moira Buffini, based on a graphic novel by Posy Simmonds.
Directed by Stephen Frears.

HollywoodChicago.com senior staff writer Patrick McDonald

Senior Staff Writer

© 2010 Patrick McDonald, HollywoodChicago.com

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