Stephen Frears is not known as an interviewee who is particularly kind or accommodating to film journalists. The two time Oscar nominated director of films such as The Queen, High Fidelity, Dangerous Liaisons, Dirty Pretty Things, The Grifters, Mary Reilly and now Tamara Drewe is in fact known for precisely the opposite: blunt, impatient and snarky responses.
So I approached my interview with Frears with a hint of trepidation. Bumping into a couple of journalists beforehand, they voiced similar concerns. They’d seen some YouTube clips, read some interviews. One of them told me he’d compiled a list of 25 or so questions and, if worse came to worse, would power through them until the interview was over. My battle plan was vague: address Frears’ apparent cynicism of the PR circuit at some point rather than ignore it. Judge for yourself how well I fared by reading the transcript below.
This interview was conducted shortly before the Australian theatrical release of Tamara Drewe (released in Australian cinemas February 3, 2010), a sweet, sophisticated and sexy character-based drama that revolves around a community of clashing personalities congregated at a writer’s retreat in the rustic English countryside of Dorset. I liked the film a lot: it’s minor Frears and dramatically doesn’t quite come together but I dug the playful visual style and found the characters multi-layered and engaging. It was adapted from a comic strip serial by Posy Simmonds, which was inspired by Thomas Hardy’s novel Far From the Madding Crowd.
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So, without further ado, here is my conversation with Mr Frears….
I’m assuming that you’re sick and tired of people asking you questions about adapting a comic?
So my first question is about adapting a comic. From a journalistic point of view you can see that it’s an interesting point of inquiry. Tamara Drewe is a strange case in that it’s adapted from a comic strip inspired by a Thomas Hardy novel. Were there challenges unique to bringing together this fusion of sources that you hadn’t encountered before?
No, it had all been done before.
So was it as simple as just following the script?
Well I read the script and liked it very much. I’ve read the strip and liked that very much too. You’ve got a book, you’ve got a script, a bit of this and a bit of that. A bit of fiddling. Picking your way through the two of them.
Comics and graphic novels are interesting in the sense that they’re quite close to the format of a film storyboard.
Yes, that’s what I now can see – that what Posy (Simmons) does is exactly what I do.
Did you take some pages and turn them into frames? Was there that kind of direct coloration?
Sometimes we would say let’s go out and do that picture. I think we all had a tremendously high opinion of the book.
There’s a strange kind of eroticism in Tamara Drewe. It’s not quite sleazy but it’s not beautiful or uplifting either. Do you agree with that reading? How would you describe the sexual energy in the film?
First of all, most of the sex in the film is adultery so I don’t see how you could do that without making it sleazy. It’s happening behind closed doors, as it were.
But those scenes also feel nice in a sense as well.
You may not have noticed this, but sex is rather nice.
OK, point taken. Your leading lady Gemma Arterton is a stunning and radiant actor. I guess you must be used to working with really beautiful women by now.
(Laughing) Yes. If they’re not beautiful you’re in even more trouble. She was terrific. She was very grown up about it. Some people make a performance of it all when they enter the set and I’d rather if they just got on with it. She was very mature.
It’s interesting that Arterton plays a character whose nose has been cosmetically altered. At what point did you realise the real life synergy: that Arterton had one of her ears surgically corrected as a child?
I heard the story I think at Cannes. Much later I heard the story. And anyway I imagine that it had more to do with her health than her vanity.
Tamara Drewe features a couple of excellent performances from two young teenage girls who begin the film as more or less expendable characters but become a crucial part of the story. You’ve worked with young people a lot before. How are they in relation to adults? Are they more pliable?
Those two girls were just terrific. They were so funny and so startling. It was always a pleasure when they turned up on the set.
Are you a subscriber to the W.C. Fields adage that one should never work with children or animals?
No, I’m a subscriber to the belief that one should never work with people who aren’t wonderful. In the end you have a couple of girls as bright as that, and as lively and wicked as that.
Alfred Hitchcock said at one stage – and I’m paraphrasing – that filmmaking would be a lot easier if you didn’t have to deal with actors.
Well that’s a silly thing to have said. I remember asking Paul Newman about that. What he (Hitchcock) meant was, if James Stewart in Vertigo or James Stewart in Rear Window had said “why am I doing this?” it could have got into a mess. It worked because James Stewart knew that the rules were that you did what he said because it would add up to something. Hitchcock’s films were structured in such a way that, you know, you wake up terrified that if someone asks you a question then the whole thing would collapse.
Has that happened to you in 40 years of storytelling?
You always know where the film’s structure is frail.
And where was it frail in Tamara Drewe?
It wasn’t. It wasn’t particularly frail. I mean we shot a bit more, balanced it out, got the structure better.
This film is based in a writer’s retreat but you’re not a writer. Was this a kind of suggestion on your behalf that you’re interested in the craft of writing?
I have very very good writers. I wouldn’t insult them by writing a word myself. A lot of young people are forced to write their own scripts out of necessity. I was always lucky enough to work with very good writers.
I really enjoyed the visual and audio flourishes in Tamara Drewe. There are split screens, you hear the characters’ inner thoughts, and you don’t know quite when the film is going to flick into a sort of fantasy, alternate reality mode.
I like it when she talks to the camera.
I was going to ask you about that, because talking to the camera is a tricky technique to employ and you know that technique very very well, especially from directing High Fidelity, which uses it quite extensively. When you were making High Fidelity were you anxious about that element not working?
It’s very bold. John (Cusack) used to worry about it on High Fidelity. He would sometimes say “the camera is too far away.” So he had an instinctual feel for it. No, I’ve never had any doubts about it. In this film there was a bit of the story that I liked very much, and if you told it in a conventional form it would be rather laborious. It would take forever. So I asked, why can’t she just tell the audience the story? Because it would be so funny and you’d get such pleasure watching it, because she’s so wonderful. So we just did it.
There are some other fairly left of centre flourishes.
They were the best I could do. I like them very much.
But you were very careful not to overplay them.
Well I can see that Terry Gilliam would have done a lot more! This was the best I could do. To me this was all very daring and revolutionary. To him it would be nothing.
To him it would have been a model of absolute restraint, wouldn’t it?
I was having a look at some of your previous interviews and…(Frears sighs loudly). I just noticed you sighed right then as I said that.
Because that’s what you journalists do. You look at interviews and then you say “well you said this, what do you mean?” Then I think god, I could have been drunk or bored out of my mind. In other words yes, go on.
Some of your interviews reminded me almost of Bob Dylan in the 60s playing a bit of verbal table tennis with journalists and…
Go on, what have I done now?
No, you haven’t done anything. But I did get the impression from some of your interviews that you don’t like the PR circuit. That you don’t care much for it.
Well, nobody does, do they?
I think actors do. And actors often don’t have a problem talking about themselves.
What I don’t like is being asked questions where they have answered the question for you. Or they’ll say something and you’ll just say “yes, you’ve got it absolutely right.” So it slightly depends what I’m asked.
I won’t quote you much from previous interviews but there was one thing you said in a previous interview that really interested me. You were talking about your experiences as a film teacher and you said “what I always tell film students is you should know about economics, not tracking shots.” So following that line of logic, directing films must have taught you as much about business as it has about creative expression?
Yes. Yes. One of the ironies of My Beautiful Laundrette (1985), which was a very successful film, is that we became small businessmen. Everything that Mrs Thatcher wishes to be. Even though we were attacking Mrs Thatcher we ended up as small businessmen. It began because we made a successful film.
When I went into Hollywood, I got into a mess because to get the film to pay for itself involved everybody in the world seeing the film three times, which seemed unlikely. When I make a film that costs this much, you think yes there is a chance the money will sort itself out, so it can be a sort of sensible economic proposition. But when it becomes unbalanced and it becomes a foolish proposition you feel slightly fraudulent, because you know that actually the bloke’s never going to get his money back. I don’t like being put in that position. So feeling that something is costing about the right sort of money makes me happier.
I imagine that after all these years you’re quite adept at dealing with these sort of financial issues?
It’s not that, it’s about knowing that money is a curse as well as a blessing. If you have too much money it can put pressure on you in ways that are worse than lack of money. In the end my wit is free, and if all else is working, it doesn’t cost anything.
But people have to pay to access your wit.
The audience? Yes. But all I mean is that I am not taking anyone to the moon or inventing a city or whatever it is that Terry (Gilliam) does. I just have to turn up with a couple of actors on the street corner.
He probably thinks you’ve got it easy.
I suspect he’s right. People often like spectacle. It’s just about putting everything into proportion, and business isn’t very good at it. That’s what I mean about economics. All you’re trying to do is see things clearly, and the film industry doesn’t encourage clarity of thought.
Tamara Drew’s Australian theatrical release date: February 3, 2010.