An Interview with Director Stephen Frears: on Strong Women, William Wyler, and Philomena
On the occasion of the U.S. release of Philomena, starring the ever-formidable Judi Dench as its classically-named heroine, MovieMaker writer Jeff Meyers attempts to pry open the equally venerable director Stephen Frears.
I went in blind, so to speak. As is my habit, I tend to avoid reading previous interviews with a subject so that my questions aren’t influenced by another’s POV. I wish I had. I quickly learned that director Stephen Frears enjoys doing PR about as much as you or I enjoy a trip to the dentist. He’s notoriously tight-lipped, given to delivering vague or impatient answers. Everyone asks about his record of working with strong actresses in film’s that featured strong female characters. He has no real answer for it. He just likes the scripts.
It’s a put-on, obviously. Few directors have the kind of track record he has. But whatever makes Frears a good match for the material, he’s not telling. Not in any way that’ll satisfy interviewers at least.
Still, there’s no denying Frear’s artistry and taste. His filmography is filled with critically lauded, highly memorable films and performances …and more than a fair share of Oscar nominations. He may be a tough nut to crack, but if you can break through, who knows what lies within?
Stephen Frears (SF): I noticed you’re using a cassette recorder.
Jeff Meyers, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): It’s my analog back up, just in case something goes awry with the digital recorder.
SF: Safety first.
MM: Let’s make that our first question. What’s your approach to coverage when shooting?
SF: You get more interested in planning on the floor, really.
MM: Meaning you improvise?
SF: No, no. Shoot what you want to shoot. Be confident, have a plan and do it. It’s not that complicated.
MM: A fellow critic and I were discussing a shot in Philomena that we found quite delightful. In the airport Judi Dench’s character recounts the entire plot of a romance novel she’s reading. It’s a wonderful scene, shot while riding on the back of the cart. Given how this is a road movie in many ways, was the idea originally part of the script or was it something you conceived of on the fly?
SF: No, originally they were just sitting in the waiting area on a bench. And I said, “Well, that’s an awful long time for them to just be sitting and talking. And then Steve [Coogan] and Jeff [Pope] came up with the golf cart idea and I thought that’s just terrific. And then we were lucky to find corridors in the airport to do it in. Then it took forever to shoot. It drove Judi mad trying to remember all her lines.
MM: On his audio commentary of The Game, director David Fincher expresses very strong opinions about the use of close ups. He says that too many filmmakers don’t understand the proper use of the close up and that they exhaust them. What do you think of that and what is your own rule about the use of close ups?
SF: Well, I completely agree. I mean, anyone who knows the history of cinema knows that. Although there are a lot of close ups in this film. Someone just said to me, “Oh, there are a lot of close ups.” And I said, “Yes, Judi’s face is riveting.” [Dangerous] Liasons was also shot largely in close up. You tend to find these things out the hard way. And you eventually say that that is more interesting than that. You must go practically to what is most interesting when you are in the cutting room.
MM: Is that your approach to direction – pragmatism above all else?
SF: I am quite straightforward, thank God.
MM: One of thing of things I’ve always admired about your work is the way you so gracefully support the material rather than look at it as an opportunity to inject a particular signature or style. It seems like there’s a highly skilled modesty to the work, one that I suspect is difficult to achieve.
SF: I grew up in the Righteous Theater, so I instinctively know my place. There are films like that I most admire but, in truth, I’m not clever enough to emulate them. I’m not clever enough to be a stylist, so I can only do the text and work the actors.
MM: So, what is the most important part of your process working with actors?
SF: Choose them well and shut up. They know far more about the characters than I do. You create a space for them that they can function within but that’s all. I mean, to my surprise, because I am so old, I can see that the qualities I learned when I was a young man working in the Righteous Theater – where I had an appreciation of writing and actors – have always held true. So I’ve stuck to that.
MM: More than a few people have noted how many of your films feature wonderful leading roles for women –
SF: I can’t take any credit for that.
MM: Yes, but when I look over other directors’ filmographies, except for perhaps Wyler, it’s hard to find a director who’s made films with that many strong characters for women.
SF: It has nothing to do with me.
MM: So, you have no particular affinity for working with leading women?
SF: Well, other than the fact that my life is completely dominated by strong women. I mean, these films are run by strong women. I’m merely a cog or pawn in their hands. So, I guess I know a lot about strong women from being in their presence. But I don’t know if that entirely accounts for why I make these films. They are just good stories.
MM: Let’s talk about Philomena, yet another strong woman at the core of your film.
SF: A remarkable woman, just inspiring. Her capacity for forgiveness is breathtaking. She makes it seem so simple.
MM: Is it simple, to forgive?
SF: You would hope so. But that isn’t always the case, is it?
MM: Okay, let’s shift tracks. MovieMaker hopes that veterans like yourself will impart some sage wisdom about the process of filmmaking to fledgling directors.
SF (wryly): Well, I’ll try not to let them down.
MM: What is one of the most important things you’ve learned about working with your D.P.?
SF: Well, again, I’m not qualified to… I don’t know a lot about… the cameraman on this film was a wonderful man and technician and artist and human being. When you make films you’re surrounded by very very clever people. And you have to find a way to conduct the conversation with them. If something’s not right, you say it. Or they’ll suggest something and you’ll reply, “Well, that doesn’t make sense.” I was taught by cameramen, amongst other people. Chris Menges for instance taught me an enormous amount about what can be achieved with the right person. I see that they are very smart very skilled people so I listen to them.
I find more and more over time that I’ve learned to say, “I can do these bits. You do those bits.” You have to trust the people around you. They’ve never let me down. So far. Rarely have I been let down.
MM: What are the bits you do?
SF: I am what they used to call in Hollywood the Director of Principal Photography. I’ve always said, “No, I don’t do that. I do Principal Photography.”
MM: What does that mean to you when you say that you’re the Director of Principal Photography?
SF: Well, look at Wyler. He was hired because he could deal with the actors. You know, the actors were the most valuable asset the studio had so someone had to look after the actors, make them look good basically. So, I deal with the actors and the story. I make sure those are attended to properly. I don’t find it difficult to shoot a scene. I don’t find that complicated. And because I’m not looking for some stylistic paradise it’s generally a quite straightforward process.
MM: And yet there are flourishes in your film that can be so effective. In Philomena there’s that wonderful way you take us into the past by shooting on 16mm and focusing on the distorted carnival mirror reflections.
SF: But they were just there. If I’m being honest, the cameraman just started shooting the mirrors and I thought to myself, “Oh, this is extraordinary what he’s shooting.” So, I can’t take the credit. I didn’t ask for a hall of mirrors. It wasn’t like Lady Of Shanghai. Although I understand the power of all that and how interesting that can be, but I think he just started shooting them and I said, “That’s fantastic.” I followed his lead.
MM: So, in your opinion, is directing mostly about developing a sense of taste and the ability to capitalize on opportunity?
SF: A lot of it does have to do with good taste. And, in my case, being quick on my feet.
MM: Do you find that as you’ve matured as a director you’re just as quick?
SF: Oh, quicker. You get to a certain age and you trust your instincts and unconscious more. I remember Glenn Close saying, “Well, it seemed a good idea at the time” about some choice she made. I mean, you do something and you think that’s terrific and, of course, part of you is continuing to monitor those choices. What you realize is that directors have a kind of split brain where they can be both involved and detached. Sometimes you’re more one than the other, but I don’t see how you can direct if you don’t have a strong capacity for both.
MM: It seems like the director is the only one who could or rather should have that ability.
SF: Yes, I think so. When someone asks, “What do you do?” I say, “I do the thinking.” And you’re constantly thinking “Oh, is that right?” or deciding what makes sense or what doesn’t. I guess, in the end, you direct with your stomach more than anything else.
MM: How do you get everyone on the same page, get them making the same movie?
SF: John Gielgud once said, “If you’re lucky you know what film you’re in.” It’s part of the job. You have to learn to talk to your actors. I was directing Annette Benning on The Grifters and I told her about Gloria Graham – she hadn’t heard of her – and I told her to watch her films. And after that her performance was brilliant.
MM: So, film became your shorthand in that conversation?
SF: Well, if you have to sit down and have a long conversation, you’re in trouble. Scripts tend to be rather straightforward things. You can’t iron out the subtleties. It’s really clarity you’re after.
MM: I was once interviewing David Cronenberg –
SF: He’s an impressively clever fellow.
MM: And I was asking him about what films influenced him. And he replied that he doesn’t watch very many movies, he reads books. Do you feel that your taste, your ability to “do the thinking” comes from the width breadth of films you’ve seen? Or is there another source of inspiration?
SF: I certainly know the classics. All my talk is of Wyler or Wilder or Ford, so it’s not particularly modern. That’s my foundation. You just realize who you are after a time. I can’t do that other stuff. When I see those films – like Mr. Cronenberg’s – and I think “My God, they’re clever.” Then I get rather depressed about how stupid I am in comparison.
MM: Given the collaborative nature of film, it seems that it’s an exercise in compromise –
SF: No, no. I don’t know the meaning of the word. Maybe this is just self-deception but I have no sense of compromise. No. The mistakes are mine. I’ve certainly made mistakes but that’s not the same as compromising. MM
Philomena opened in limited release November 22, 2013, with an expansion to come, courtesy of the Weinstein Company.
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