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 Id come to America, to Hollywood, he says. Its all been a wonderful accident. Im still amazed every time I finish a film. Im the opposite of Steven (Spielberg) whos obsessed about making films since he was a child. Its all come as a surpriseIm 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 couldnt work out what the story was, says Frears. They explained it was based on realitya 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 didnt 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 Bobs relationship, and construction of Mrs. Hendersons theatre. All the showgirl stuff developed enormously. I thought the girls would be a very enjoyable addition. But you never quite know what youre doing. MERIN: How do you know when you get there? FREARS: Its intuitive. One day, while youre in the dark, you see it
Of course, its quite unnerving for everybody. I mean, the studios must be nervousyoure doing things, spending all this money, following a series of hunches and using your experience, but sort of in darkness. You think youve mapped it out, but
MERIN: Are production and editing very different processes for you? FREARS: Well, while youre shooting, youre bringing a story to life. It always goes in slightly unexpected ways. Youre trying to make sure everybodys in the same film. John Gielgud always said, If youre lucky, you know what film youre in. You want everyone comfortable with each other, agreeing on circumstances. Youre asking actorsindeed, everybody on setto be intimate, to be a family in a world thats the product of their mutual imagination. Youre the patriarch, holding the whole thing together, depending on everyone being collaborative
In editing, you discover what youve got, what youve missed, what you shouldve donethings you hadnt thought of, holes that need filling. Thats why Woody Allen reshootsits done in light of what hes learned, because you make films in the dark, learning as you go. Im always so curious to see where its 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. Id 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 whats next. I read scripts until I fall in love and know Id like to see that film because its such good fun. It never crossed my mind Id direct a film like Mrs. Henderson. Then I was asked to do it. At my age, when youre in your sixties, thats such a surprise and privilege. What more could you ask for? I thought if I can just make it work, this is a film Id like to see in the cinema. Or, with Dangerous Liaisons, I thought it the most wonderful story Id ever come upon. But when Im working on one film, knowing my next project would really depress me. Surprises such nice adventure. MERIN: Do British and American filmmaking differ? FREARS: If youre making serious films in Britain, its rather hard and depressingyoure like a naughty boy on a street corner sticking your tongue out against the world. I suppose if you make Harry Potter, youre part of the establishment, but people like me are independent and considered eccentric. When you make films in America, youre part of an industry thats well run, efficient and central to peoples lives. MERIN: Judi Dench says Mrs. Hendersons 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 didnt mean authority should be respected automaticallyits important that Mrs. Henderson puts nudity on stage. Im not sure we set out to make an antiwar filmbut it does reflect somewhat on current affairs, when theres a war that a lot of people including medisapprove of and think is idiotic. MERIN: What are you working on now? FREARS: A film about the Queenduring the week of Lady Dis death. The Queen behaved so peculiarly, wasnt very sympathetic. Its controversialmay bring my career to an unglittering end. n
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