Since breaking into film as an assistant to Karel Reisz, Alexander Mackendrick, and Albert Finney, Stephen Frears has amassed a highly respected body of work in film and British television. His features include Dirty Pretty Things, High Fidelity, The Hi-Lo Country, The Van and The Snapper (both based on Roddy Doyle novels), Mary Reilly, Hero, The Grifters, Dangerous Liasons, Sammy and Rosie Get Laid, Prick Up Your Ears, My Beautiful Launderette, and The Hit. Frears also directed George Clooney's live, American-TV remake of Fail Safe. His latest film is Mrs. Henderson Presents, starring Judi Dench as a widower in WWII London who makes a foray into show business, producing live (and even nude) entertainment at the legendary Windmill Theatre. I spoke with Frears at San Francisco's Four Seasons Hotel on December 14, 2005.
Groucho: I wanted to ask you, first of all, is Mrs. Henderson's entrée into show business at all reminiscent of your own work in the Royal Court with Lindsay Anderson?
Stephen Frears: Well, I'm not a widow.
G: Right. (Laughs.)
SF: No, I don't see what you're getting at.
G: I just thought that was your beginning in show business, and I was just sort of curious what those days were like.
SF: Oh, I see! Well, it wasn't—it was the 1960's.
G: Well, yes.
SF: Where I worked was a very—was the sort of intellectual center of the London theatre. It was terrific—the Royal Court. It was terrific. Very good time.
G: What's the story on how you went from being a law student to a theatre professional?
SF: Well, law was very—I found law very, very boring. So I stopped doing it. And then I started to get work in the theatre, and I ended up working in the Royal Court. But it was really—you know, I sort of didn't know, really, that you were allowed to live like that. I remember seeing some actors and thinking what wonderful—how colorful they were—and what vivid lives they seemed to lead. And I wanted to lead a life like that.
G: How did you make that leap, then, to something that seemed inaccessible to making that your own?
SF: (Pause.) I don't know. It took quite a long time. I don't quite know. I mean, you sort of sit in a room, don't you, and it sort of happens. Or you try and find your way to getting a job. And eventually I got a job in a theatre.
G: According to the press notes mythology, Bob Hoskins ran with your idea that he should just play you. True?
SF: Well, I didn't mean it quite the way—all I meant was he was playing a man who was getting girls to take their clothes off. And I was directing a film and therefore clearly could get girls to take their clothes off. So I was just struck by that coincidence.
G: Did he take that though, as license to---
SF: No, he—yes, he kept saying that he was playing me—seems to me to bear no resemblance to me whatsoever. And if anything, I'm rather more like her, I would have thought.
G: In what way?
SF: (Pause.) She's sort of ruthlessly innocent, isn't she? Relent—yes. Ruthless in her...(Trails off.)
G: Doesn't know the meaning of the word "no."
SF: Yes. Yeah, that's right.
G: From the sound of it, Mrs. Henderson was a woman of many contradictions.
G: How do you think you would have got on with her if she were producing one of your films?
SF: Dreadful, dreadful. She would have driven me mad, I imagine. (Laughs.) Well, she had opinions about things, didn't she? And she talked about things she didn't know anything about.
G: Is that a common trait of producers?
SF: (Chuckles.) No, not necessarily.
G: It's been a while since you made a historical film overtly based on real individuals, and now you've done two in a row.
SF: Is that right?
G: Well, I think. I'm thinking of Prick Up Your Ears, quite some time ago, and now you've made this and The Queen.
SF: I'm now making a film about the Queen. I don't think of the film Queen as a historical film.
G: Uh, right. Modern-day history.
SF: Well, it's only eight years ago.
G: Or a true story, perhaps we could say. When you're dealing with real individuals in a narrative film, how much do you concern yourself with the true-life detail, and how much dramatic license do you allow yourself?
SF: Well, it's quite arbitrary. You make decisions the whole time. But of course, you're perfectly aware of it. And one day, you're very scrupulous and another—. It's—you can't find—there is no perfect solution. You know, the two things are often contradictory—the desire to dramatize and the desire to be faithful and historically accurate. They just bang into each other.
G: For this film, there was a great deal of production research.
G: Though the timeline, I take it, is ruthlessly conflated.
SF: Slightly compressed, yeah. Otherwise, then you have to think, do you put lines on people? It's all that stuff. It didn't seem to me terribly important.
G: Right, needless complication. Did you visit the site of the former Windmill Theatre?
SF: I was taken there a couple of times, yeah.
G: That's a lap-dancing club now?
SF: It is now, yeah.
G: You also met with, and had the cast meet with, many of the surviving Windmill dancers. What did you learn from them?
SF: All they ever said was it was like a family—they just had such a wonderful time there. And they used to talk about it as if it was the most wonderful family that they'd fallen into. And the fact that there were sort of naked girls there meant nothing to them at all.
G: Do you find—have you found, in making films, that the film company resembles that kind of family feel for you?
SF: Well, I don't know that the film company necessarily does. But you create a sort of family, yes. When you're making the film, everyone—the crew, the actors, everybody becomes part of a sort of large family.
G: Are you able to—I guess it must be difficult when one film ends. All those people sort of drift out of your life.
SF: Yes. It's very distressing, yes. It's very upsetting.
G: Do you have sort of a tight-knit group that you continue to work with in terms of—on the production side?
SF: Yes. Yeah. Yes, and sometimes you just want to change it because you're sick of the sight of everybody, sometimes. (Laughs.) You know, it's just like ordinary—just like family life. But I've worked with a number of people for quite a long time.
G: In terms of culture, what would you say Britain has lost and gained since the days of "revuedeville" and cinema's youth?
SF: You can't really talk about that. The world changes always for the good and always for the bad. Change is what it is. And you gain something and you lose something. In many ways, the world from before the war was a dreadful world. Very unjust. So of course you'd want people that—I mean, all of the advances that have taken place in my lifetime—I can see a lot of them have been incredibly beneficial. So really what you're making—really what you become aware of is how complicated change is. Or how inevitable—how unavoidable change is. And how it's both good and bad.
G: Do you think entertainment has lost any of its innocence?
SF: Well, of course. By definition, it's lost its innocence, yes. But that—when that produced—that was beneficial. The truth is, a film is either good or bad. So the changes that took place in the cinema in the '50s and '60s produced a lot of good films. They also produced a lot of bad films. (Laughs.) So, you know, I just support good films. I like good films. And you can't really track those down to anything.
G: If... is a very good film—
G: —that came out of maybe a change in cinema. [Ed. Frears was director Lindsay Anderson's assistant.] What do you remember from the making of that film?
SF: It was absolutely (pause) of its time. I remember we shot the scene at the end, where the boys rebel and shoot the headmaster. A few weeks later we were doing another scene, and I was cutting out photographs from the paper. We shot the scene—what month did Robert Kennedy die? April, May?
G: Yeah, I think so. [Ed. In fact, it was June.]
SF: I can remember it 'cause that happened while we were filming. We shot the headmaster being shot maybe in April. In May, all the trouble started in Paris. So it was absolutely of the moment. Quite extraordinary. You know, we were about six weeks ahead of real life.
G: Yeah, that's pretty exciting.
G: Back to the current film here, Mrs. Henderson Presents. Of course, this film—you have the advantage of sort of rebottling that innocence because we get to see the—
G: Full-blown entertainment of the Windmill Theatre and also showing—
SF: It's not bad to make an innocent film about naked girls. (Chuckles.)
G: (Laughs.) I agree.
G: And we get, of course, the backstage drama and the shadow of the Blitz. The script has a great number of musical numbers. How did you prepare to direct those for the first time?
SF: Well, I went back to school. I had to learn how to do it. I mean, it was nothing like anything I've ever done before: very, very disciplined, very rigorous. You know, I was working with good people, but we all had to learn how to make them. And what the problems were, what the traps were.
G: Partly, it's gathering the right people around you to do that, I think.
G: One of the things that you did is that you read a book on Arthur Freed, right?
SF: Yes. It was a book about the Arthur Freed unit.
G: And though this wasn't a full-blown musical, so to speak—
G: What did you learn from that history?
SF: The climax of the book is when he has an office—he draws an office plan. In other words, Freed's talent was to get all these people around him and arrange the groupings in the right way round. You have to have all these people, and they all have to be in the room at the same time to discuss a number. You can't do it by memos. You need all these people. What key is it going to be in? Is that key suitable for that singer? It's all of that stuff. It's very, very detailed. Where are the girls going to be? How long is it going to go on for? Well, do we repeat that? It's very, very disciplined.
G: I know that you were insistent that the music have a narrative function.
SF: Well, because I've seen too many films stop while there's a number. So you have to avoid that.
G: Right. I think that succeeded in the film. And I also know that the overture and the title sequence were added fairly late.
SF: Well, I went around for a year saying, "Is this the kind of film which has an overture?" (Chuckles.) It took me a year to answer that question.
G: How did you come to that decision then? What swayed you on that?
SF: I previewed the film. And the audience asked certain questions. And I kept thinking, "Why are you asking these questions?" They seemed completely inappropriate to the film I was making. And then it dawned on me that you have to tell them they were watching a film that took place in Fairy-land. You know, that it was one of those films over there—it wasn't this kind—it wasn't a realistic film. It was one of those films. And once you told them that, they understood everything and the questions stopped. But before, they'd ask these very, very literal questions.
G: Hm. Yeah, and I think the effect of those animations gives you that flight-of-fancy feeling.
SF: Yes, that's right. But I learnt that the hard way.
G: You have a certain respect for big Hollywood films, but a healthy suspicion about making them.
SF: It's all to do with the economics, I think.
G: Given a great script and the right assurances, would you ever chance a big-budget film again of that kind of scale?
SF: (Pause.) It's not that, really. You just—y'know, I more or less know the kind of films I can make.
G: But you went back to school on this one.
SF: Yes—and spent a bit more money. You kind of know "I make these kind of films." If you make a film—I mean what do films cost nowadays? A hundred, two-hundred million?
G: If it's really big, yeah.
SF: That means everyone in the world has to see it three times, and their granny. Well, I don't think that I have that sort of talent. Of course I admire the people who can do that. So, I think it would be a waste of their money, and possibly my time. (Laughs.) And it would probably end in tears. I thought I'd be good at it. But I wasn't. It's all to do with economics. The art was never a problem—it was the money, the size of the budget I found frightening. I remember Jim Brooks used to say, "It's an honor—think of it as an honor to be given this much money." And I wasn't capable of it.
G: If the art isn't a problem, is it the meddling that comes with the money that—
SF: No. Nobody ever meddled. No. No, it was just the idea that you could make a film that all these people could see three or four times. It just—
G: Appealing to that many different people as opposed to just focusing—
SF: Yeah, I don't have that sort of mind.
G: Yeah, I see what you mean.
SF: The truth is you come to admire people who have that capacity because they're doing something that I can't do. So although I'd love to have a go, I think it would be a waste of somebody's money.
G: Maybe it's an eye and an ear for populism as opposed to a distinctive storytelling.
SF: Yes, that's right. What I discovered when I went to Hollywood was that I was much more independent than I realized. It just took me by surprise. Normally you go to Hollywood and, you know, it sort of sucks you in in some way. I discovered that I was much more independent than I realized—much more of a sort of maverick.
G: I also wanted to ask you about your move from theatre into film, which I take it had everything to do with Karel Reisz.
SF: I met Karel, and he said, "Come to work on my film." And then I found it was a way of life and a way of working that suited my temperament. Or I discovered I could earn a living—and then, twenty years later, discovered that I was quite good at it. "Quite" in the English sense, rather than the American sense.
G: (Laughs.) You've said that your earlier films were born of an energy and a passion that would be fruitless to try to replicate.
SF: Blimey, what does that mean?
G: I think I read you say that—that there's a certain quality to—
SF: Well, they really were sort of innocent. You know, the problem is you learn a lot. (Laughs.) You know.
G: There's no un-ringing the bell.
SF: Absolutely, you can't regain your virginities. (Chuckles.) You know, it doesn't work like that.
G: I was going to ask if, looking back, you feel that what's on your mind has changed as a filmmaker?
SF: No, what's on my mind has changed as a human being.
G: Which would dictate your choices...
SF: You know, you try and make—I don't know why I choose to make the films I make. I don't really think about it a lot.
G: It's just a response.
SF: I just read something and like it, and then ten years later I think, "Oh, I see, that's why I did that—how interesting."
G: I actually wanted to ask you about that, as well. Have you had occasion to look back on some films you haven't visited in a while, and what was your response?
SF: I don't look at them. I don't look at them.
G: You're never forced to—
SF: Oh, you see bits on TV. But I don't sit at home watching them.
G: I think in the age of DVD, sometimes those things come back and put themselves in front of you 'cause you have to record those commentaries.
SF: I had to do that with a film about two years ago.
G: Which film was that?
SF: Oh, I won't tell you.
SF: No, I mean, it wasn't bad. It was just I didn't want to think about it, really.
G: Mm-hm, yeah. Maybe we could do a lightning round on some of your collaborators to get some of your impressions.
G: A couple of my favorite films of yours were with Roddy Doyle.
SF: Well, he's a wonderful—just a wonderful writer. He's so funny. He's a funny Irishman.
G: Was your collaboration in depth over the course of making those films, or did he just sort of give you the script and you ran with it?
SF: The first one, The Snapper—I didn't know people lived like that. And he was still a teacher at the time. He used to come in, and he'd see us in the corner of the room, taking bits out of the books, just saying, "Oh, you do that. You do that. You do that." Like children wild with excitement. And then by the second one, he'd stopped being a schoolteacher and become a professional writer, and he was much more respectable. I liked the hooliganism of the first one.
G: Martin Scorsese—how did you two ever get together?
SF: He called me up and asked me if I'd like to make The Grifters. Afterwards, you think, how could a man who'd never met me—I couldn't work out how he knew that I—. I mean, perhaps he—. People are always very nice about The Grifters. How did he work out that some bloke sitting in England had the right qualities to do that film?
G: It's sort of humbling to realize how much your films do speak for you, maybe.
SF: Well, it's always a surprise, yes. It takes me by surprise. But that film, particularly—you just think, "How did he want—?" What qualities in your character—I mean, I know that he'd liked My Beautiful Launderette very much. What qualities came across that he said the person who made that could make this? I'm not that clever.
G: Did he refer to The Hit as well?
SF: No, he only ever talked about My Beautiful Launderette. (Pause.) He might have talked about The Hit.
G: Gary Oldman.
SF: I haven't seen Gary for years. He was terrific.
G: I think he's such an amazing actor.
G: What's the key to his process, as you observed it?
SF: Oh, I never think about things like that—he's just a very good actor. He started to look like Joe—unnervingly. I wouldn't know—I can't answer your question. I don't know what actors go through—what processes they go through. Or, let's put it another way. I can see that Elia Kazan would have been very interested in the process whereby an actor got to his part. I just expect them to be good on the first day—just turn up and be good.
G: It's probably a lot more practical.
SF: Just different.
G: Judi Dench—I wanted to ask if you remember your first impressions of her, and if your work—
SF: Well, I've known her for twenty-five years. I've done two other films with her.
G: Right. Did your working relationship change at all? It's been a number of years since you've worked with her, right?
SF: No, I don't think. No.
G: You also almost made a film on Elvis' Vegas years. Is that still a prospect?
SF: No. No, that's not true.
G: No, that's not true?
SF: I was once asked to make a sort of biopic of Elvis. And once some English guys had written a script about Elvis that I thought was rather good. And that did involve the—it was rather a funny story. It was rather a funny idea—that Elvis had been shot in the throat when he was serving in Germany. And so they'd have to find someone. So Elvis had been impersonated all his life. And indeed was still alive, because—you know what I mean. So there were very funny scenes where the man who was brought in to impersonate Elvis—who could never say, "I am impersonating—." (Laughs.) And then there was Elvis, down the corridor saying, "Well, you're not doing it right. Why are you doing all this—why are you putting on weight and—" (Laughs.) "Why are you eating all these burgers?" And that did involve the Vegas years. The years in Las Vegas.
G: A few of your films touch on the consequences of celebrity. Do you have an ambivalence about your own notoriety?
SF: (Pause.) What?
G: I was just thinking again of Prick Up Your Ears and Hero and, to some extent, this film, as well.
SF: Well, luckily, it doesn't apply to me. (Laughs.) The problem doesn't really arise.
G: Well, you're certainly well respected.
SF: Yes. Well, that's both flattering and slightly embarrassing.
G: Regarding The Queen, my understanding is that it's a very carefully sourced script that you worked from. Has it been seen yet in England?
SF: I haven't finished it...I've got to go home and edit it.
G: Do you have any sort of a feeling as to how it will be received? Is that the sort of film that you would test as well?
SF: (Pause.) I don't know how it will be received—it's just interesting. People kept saying, "Oh, that's very controversial." I said, "No, it's not controversial. It's just interesting." It doesn't say anything particularly outrageous about the queen.
G: It's certainly intriguing.
SF: I can see that making a film about the queen is sort of presumptuous. But then, it's rather sympathetic. I don't think it's what people will have expected.
G: If there is resistance, do you think it has to do with not wanting to see her as an individual?
SF: Oh, you mean, it's preferable that she wears a crown?
SF: (Pause.) I don't know. We'll find out.
G: Lastly, I want to ask you—you teach film directing from time to time, yes?
G: How do you go about that, and what do you think is the most important lesson you can give?
SF: Well, of course it's absurd as Sandy Mackendrick said, "Film direction can't be taught, it can only be learned." So "teaching" is rather too grand a word. But I can see that I've learnt a lot because I've been doing it a long time. And I can see that— (Pause.) You can direct people's attention to possible problems. In my experience, the problems are what are interesting, not the solutions. Once you identify the problem, you can generally solve it.
G: All right, very good. Well, thank you very much for speaking to me.
SF: A pleasure. It's a pleasure.
[For Groucho's review of Mrs. Henderson Presents, click here.]