Hitting the low notes
Stephen Frears greets questions witha sigh, plays down his work and suffers no fools – and he’s entirely fascinating. He talks to Donald Clarke about making The Snap per and his recent operatic outings
Not everybody enjoys interviewing Stephen Frears. I can remember, more than a decade ago, watching him snort his way angrily through a poorly researched interview with no less than Andrew Neil concerning
The Deal, his film on Tony Blair. Younger journalists than Neil have emerged from interview rooms shaking wan heads, but I’ve always got on famously with Frears. Now 74, settled into a creased face that has never done much suffering of fools, the film-maker greets virtually every question with a sigh that – depending upon your mood – you can regard as disdainful or playfully challenging.
What drew him to the story of Florence Foster Jenkins, the world’s worst opera singer?
“The truth, if I’m honest, is that I just liked the script,” he says in typical Eeyore tones. “I looked her up in YouTube and the ridiculousness appealed to me.” Frear’s new film, Florence Fos
ter Jenkins, is very funny, but it is also respectful to the New York heiress (played by Meryl Streep) whose 1944 Carnegie Hall Concert became an accidental landmark in high camp.
“You can’t sing this badly unless you can sing very well, and Meryl is a very good singer. I think there was only one time when I had to tell her to sing worse,” he chortles.
How did he talk Hugh Grant into playing Florence’s accommodating husband? That actor is always threatening to retire.
“It’s the script,” Frears says with mock exasperation. “He didn’t take any persuading! I thought it was something he might like. He said: ‘I like this and I don’t like anything.’ He’s smashing. He’ll drive you mad, though.” Really? Why? “Oh, he’s quite neurotic. That’s an open secret, though, I think. Look, I just sit at home and wait for people to send me scripts. I am lucky to be offered them.” Thus the world has gotten such Frears films as Prick Up Your Ears, The Grifters, The Snapper, The Queen, Philomena and My Beautiful Laundrette.
If we are to believe the man, he became one of Britain’s great postwar directors by accident. Raised in Leicester (“They’ll never win; Spurs will, which will be humiliating,” he says of Leicester City’s recent heroics), the son of a GP, he studied law at Cambridge in the early 1960s.
These were, of course, the years when one wing of the future Monty Python took over the Footlights comedy troupe. Come to think of it, didn’t John Cleese also study law?
“I sat in the room with John for three years,” he says. “I knew John well. One day somebody told me he was a genius. I don’t think I knew that before. I was the child of professionals, so you study a profession. I barely knew the job of film director existed.”
After university, Frears made his way to London’s Royal Court theatre, where he worked closely with such key directors of stage and screen as Karel Reisz and Lindsay Anderson. He found work as an assistant to Anderson on If . . . (1968) and, still just 30, managed to direct a very interesting crime pastiche called Gumshoe (1971).
Then the British film industry went into hibernation. Such talents as Frears, Ken Loach and Mike Leigh moved to television.
“The BBC came recruiting,” he remembers. “I never got a staff job. My friends did, but I didn’t.”
At the BBC he directed a tranche of Alan Bennett plays, including Afternoon Off, One Fine
Day and Me, I’m Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Then, suddenly, British film was back. David Puttnam was making Chariots
of Fire, while Frears, Leigh and (a bit later) Loach were shooting very different films.
“It’s a bit more complex than you’re saying. Puttnam came from advertising. He was interested in successful commercial films and, to be fair, he got there on the back of hard work and finding Chariots. They were very different bits of England. I remember seeing Chariots of
Fire and thinking: it’s such an old, imperial film, as it were. And we were out in the street making Laundrette, which was so modern.” That’s all true. My Beautiful
Laundrette (1985), a state-ofthe-nation address from south London, could hardly be more different from Chariots of Fire. But both movements did happen at the same time.
“What you’re really suggesting is that Mrs Thatcher regenerated something,” he says with audible discomfort. “That might be true. Mrs Thatcher wanted to turn us all into small businessmen. In a sense she succeeded – even if the product we sold was hostility to her. Maybe that was a very clever idea.”
Frears has shot films in the US, but he has tended to stay away from the big studios. One notable exception was the fitful Dustin Hoffman comedy-drama
Hero for Columbia. The film cost $42 million – a considerable
‘I then went straight to Dublin to shoot The Snapper with the same team. It was effortless. That felt like coming back home to language and honesty’
amount in 1992 – and performed poorly at the box office. Lessons were learned.
“I then went straight to Dublin to shoot The Snapper with the same team,” he says. “It was effortless. That felt like coming back home to language and honesty. Look, I make films that make x dollars. I will never make films that make 20x dollars. I won’t be offered that money again, and that’s fine.”
Here’s an interesting thing about Stephen Frears. He adopts a grumpy facade, but he never complains about his lot. So, Hero didn’t work? Fine. Maybe it didn’t deserve to. But there must be some films that he wished were more successful.
What about Mary Reilly? Da- vid Thomson, the distinguished critic, described the 1996 picture as “the best version of the Jekyll and Hyde story ever put on screen”. He must resent the awful reviews it received.
“No, no, no. That was terrible. I won’t hear a word in its favour.”
I, too, think it’s an interesting film.
“Well, fine by me. You can have that. It was painful to make and I try to put it out of my mind.”
On a roll
Frears is working harder than ever. In the past three years he released three films, including the Oscar-nominated Philome
na and the under-appreciated Lance Armstrong study The Pro
gramme. He is now embarking on a story of Queen Victoria’s later life, starring (who else?) Judi Dench. But he has no delusions about being a national treasure.
“Oh, I live in London. So, whether I like it or not, I am a member of the metropolitan elite. If I were anywhere else in the country, I’d hate me.”
Some classic Frears there.
Florence Foster Jenkins opens today and is reviewed on page 10-11