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

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - MUSIC -

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.”

Ris­ing tal­ent

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

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