Director Stephen Frears is remarkable for the breadth of his output, from “My Beautiful Laundrette,” “Prick Up Your Ears” and “Sammy and Rosie Get Laid” through “Dangerous Liaisons” and “The Grifters” to “The Snapper” and “High Fidelity” down to “The Queen.” And along the way he’s done an enormous amount of high-quality work in British television. Yet in a Dallas interview to promote his latest feature “Tamara Drewe,” an adaptation of a graphic novel by Posy Simmonds based loosely on Thomas Hardy’s “Far from the Madding Crowd,” he was extraordinarily self-effacing about his working methods and his career.
“It’s much more of a comedy than anything I’ve ever done,” he said of “Drewe,” adding, “and that’s technically very difficult. You’re trying things out. You’re testing without telling anybody the whole time. You’ve always interested in other people’s responses. You’re just trying to hear when it’s right.
“I remember somebody explaining to me that what people really liked about British cinema was Alec Guinness and Peter Sellers. You like that kind of eccentricity and that looniness. That’s what people like, I think, about the British. John Cleese has it. It was a very revealing remark, I thought.”
But when asked what the practical problems of making the picture were, he casually replied, “Well, I’m tempted to say there weren’t any. In the end, you’ve got a cattle stampede, and that was difficult. But it was quite straightforward. I mean, if you went to the right place and you’d worked it all out, and you’ve got a good cast…it wasn’t a difficult film to make. I mean, you then have to get the tone right. But it wasn’t physically difficult. The truth is, you’re more worried about the weather than anything else.”
He was equally laid-back in discussing the various elements of the project. The script?
“I read the first draft, he said, and responded to it, and then participated in refining it. “It’s not a sort of knockout process. First of all, I worked on the screenplay the whole time, refining it with the writer. So despite the fact that I don’t write, somebody was there writing the whole time, and talking to me. But the book is so beautiful, you’re not concerned—or I’m not concerned—with asserting myself. I’m just concerned with making it work. This is either exceptional modesty on my part or extremely good sense.”
Simmonds’ book, Frears added, made the process all the easier. “It was so precise, and so economical, and so beautiful, all you were trying to do was make a film that was worthy of it. And in a way, a graphic artist is doing what I’m doing. ‘I’ll tell this bit of a film like this rather than like that.’ They’re making the same decisions, I’ve come to realize.”
Simmonds also assisted while Frears helped to refine Moira Buffini’s script. “Every now and then I’d get her to give me notes. She’s such a clever woman. I’d get her notes and realize things I hadn’t thought about. They’re both clever women. I had these two clever women who didn’t always agree.”
Frears added, “You have to get it down on paper first, and then you have to get it when you’re shooting. I don’t find it difficult. You just know where you have to get to, and you get there.
“I tend to work from the script, I don’t improvise,” he added. “I don’t have any talent for it.” And he continued, “I never met an actor who could improvise better than the writer. I mean, I’ve never met an actor that improved on the writing. And generally the brevity, and the economy and the compression that has gone into the writing is a good thing.”
What of his actors? “It’s an ensemble film, and to me they’re all wonderful,” he said, adding, “They’re already overexcited about being in a film—it isn’t like Hollywood. They’re brilliant at this sort of light comedy.”
And the location? “The atmosphere of this film—the countryside—I couldn’t have faked that. You have to go there to do it. A thing like that has no price. It’s really getting things right, in that sense.” He added impishly, “What you’re really concerned about is hotels.”
But if all the elements are in place before shooting starts, is the actual shoot rather dull for Frears? “I don’t find it boring, no. No, you just go and do it as a bit of the whole experience. Basically you go off with a bunch of friends and make it come to life. But that doesn’t mean trampling on the script, or anything like that.”
And the need to relatively within on a small budget doesn’t faze Frears. “I come from a bankrupt country. If you don’t do it economically, you aren’t going to do it,” he said. “Thank God it’s economic. Of course that’s governing everything. So the fact that you can do things economically works to your favor. You can’t buy your way out of trouble. You have to think your way out of it.
Frears did a stint in the Hollywood studio system, and found it uncongenial, partly because it was uneconomical. “The currency I deal in are intelligence and wit, and people—things that don’t cost money, if you know what I mean. So no, if you give me a lot of money you actually impede the mechanism, you impede the speed of my brain. Everybody starts working to different values.”
How does Frears choose his projects? “You just sort of fall in love. You say, ‘This is great. This is good fun.’ It’s difficult, but to me they’re just all the same. ‘Oh, it’s great,’ you know? But I can see it must be puzzling to other people. I just read things and like them, and then I’m allowed to make a film of them.
“I found a long time ago [to make] films away from my life…If I made a film about my life, I wouldn’t know what people knew and what people didn’t know. But if I make a film about something else, it’s easier. What I’ve discovered is that you have to be both engaged and detached at the same time, and I guess these films I’ve chosen to make allow for that. You get very, very involved, but you can also see them clearly from a distance.”
And as to getting the tone of very different projects right, Frears said, “You point your ear, and that’s the way you do it. You do it with your ear, and you can hear much more with your ear than with your eye. With the eye it’s all the same, really. I guess that my job. But I know I do it with my ear, more than anything else. John Huston used to direct with his back to the actors. Billy Wilder did it all with his ear. You can hear the note, though it’s not a musical thing.”
In the end Frears seemed genuinely surprised by his long and distinguished life in film. “You know, when I was growing up, nobody knew who film directors were,” he said. “It’s really a very recent invention. In fact there was all this stuff going on behind the scenes, but nobody was interested.
“I fell in with extraordinary people,” he continued, recalling his earliest days working with collaborators like Lindsay Anderson and Albert Finney. “ I had a sort of golden apprenticeship. I fell in with these men who made films and were very clever and humane. I was very lucky.
“I mean, I don’t know quite why I’ve been allowed to get away with my career. It’s come as a shock.”