Interview with Stephen Frears

| 11 Nov 2014 | 12:54

    Stephen Frears read law at Cambridge. Then he worked at the Royal Court Theatre. Then, much to his surprise, he was hired to work on a film. “I never expected to become a director. It never occurred to me I’d come to America, to Hollywood,” he says. “It’s all been a wonderful accident. I’m still amazed every time I finish a film. I’m the opposite of Steven (Spielberg) who’s obsessed about making films since he was a child. It’s all come as a surprise—I’m finding my way through the dark.” Frears, a tall and tousled Teddy Bear of a man with halting speech and manner, is discussing Mrs. Henderson Presents, a project brought to him by Judi Dench and Bob Hoskins. “When they approached me about directing the film, I couldn’t work out what the story was,” says Frears. “They explained it was based on reality—a wealthy widow, to be played by Judi, bought a theatre for her hobby, and Bob would play the theatre manager, and it was 1914. I didn’t get it until Martin Sherman wrote the script. Then, I thought it was a good story.”

    MERIN: Were there script changes during production? FREARS: An enormous number of changes. MERIN: What were the changes? FREARS: The script always had Judi and Bob’s relationship, and construction of Mrs. Henderson’s theatre. All the showgirl stuff developed enormously. I thought the girls would be a very enjoyable addition. But you never quite know what you’re doing. MERIN: How do you know when you get there? FREARS: It’s intuitive. One day, while you’re in the dark, you see it…Of course, it’s quite unnerving for everybody. I mean, the studios must be nervous—you’re doing things, spending all this money, following a series of hunches and using your experience, but sort of in darkness. You think you’ve mapped it out, but… MERIN: Are production and editing very different processes for you? FREARS: Well, while you’re shooting, you’re bringing a story to life. It always goes in slightly unexpected ways. You’re trying to make sure everybody’s in the same film. John Gielgud always said, “If you’re lucky, you know what film you’re in.” You want everyone comfortable with each other, agreeing on circumstances. You’re asking actors—indeed, everybody on set—to be intimate, to be a family in a world that’s the product of their mutual imagination. You’re the patriarch, holding the whole thing together, depending on everyone being collaborative… In editing, you discover what you’ve got, what you’ve missed, what you should’ve done—things you hadn’t thought of, holes that need filling. That’s why Woody Allen reshoots—it’s done in light of what he’s learned, because you make films in the dark, learning as you go. I’m always so curious to see where it’s leading. To find out, you must let go, must relinquish control and be open. When I started opening up about 25 years ago, my films got better. MERIN: What made you open up? FREARS: My wife had a miscarriage. Then we had a baby. That was a changing point in my life. I’d kept my head down for a long time. I suddenly stuck it over the parapet and made My Beautiful Launderette. MERIN: How do you choose projects? FREARS: Entirely on instinct. I never know what’s next. I read scripts until I fall in love and know I’d like to see that film because it’s such good fun. It never crossed my mind I’d direct a film like Mrs. Henderson. Then I was asked to do it. At my age, when you’re in your sixties, that’s such a surprise and privilege. What more could you ask for? I thought if I can just make it work, this is a film I’d like to see in the cinema. Or, with Dangerous Liaisons, I thought it the most wonderful story I’d ever come upon. But when I’m working on one film, knowing my next project would really depress me. Surprise’s such nice adventure. MERIN: Do British and American filmmaking differ? FREARS: If you’re making serious films in Britain, it’s rather hard and depressing—you’re like a naughty boy on a street corner sticking your tongue out against the world. I suppose if you make Harry Potter, you’re part of the establishment, but people like me are independent and considered eccentric. When you make films in America, you’re part of an industry that’s well run, efficient and central to people’s lives. MERIN: Judi Dench says Mrs. Henderson’s a strong antiwar statement. FREARS: Well, circumstances of our times flatter the film in that sense. In 1914, life in London was about self-defense, protecting yourself from bombs. That didn’t mean authority should be respected automatically—it’s important that Mrs. Henderson puts nudity on stage. I’m not sure we set out to make an antiwar film—but it does reflect somewhat on current affairs, when there’s a war that a lot of people— including me—disapprove of and think is idiotic. MERIN: What are you working on now? FREARS: A film about the Queen—during the week of Lady Di’s death. The Queen behaved so peculiarly, wasn’t very sympathetic. It’s controversial—may bring my career to an unglittering end. n

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