April 23 2009: Stephen Frears, the director of The Queen and the forthcoming Ch?ri, tells our correspondent how he’s fought his demons, and his harshest critics
When Stephen Frears was the president of the jury at Cannes two years ago, it was a blast. “It was great. Such a glittering artifice, like a wedding cake. I remember thinking: ‘I suppose in France this is it. This is the pinnacle of French society.’ It was dazzling.” A beat. “And it’s been downhill ever since.”
Frears is often portrayed as laconic and grumpy but the truth is that he has an exceptionally dry, self-deprecating sense of humour. He’s often vague — usually to deflect questions he doesn’t like — and fiercely bright. As soon as he wanders into his local West London caf? and sees me sitting at a table, he shakes his head with mock impatience and silently directs me to a corner table. This, apparently, is where he always sits.
It’s not particularly early but he looks as though he’s just got out of bed. His hair is vertical, his stubble neglected. He wears a jumper and loose, modern jeans frayed at the back. A few months shy of 68, he looks a good bit younger. He orders mint tea and apologises for his lethargy. “My brain has yet to engage . . .” He is surprisingly shy, in interviews at least. He’s not remotely rude but nor is he on a charm offensive; he initially sits looking out across the caf? and only occasionally makes eye contact.
I struggle to imagine him at work, bossing actors around on set, yet Frears has made some terrific films over the past three or four decades. His latest, Ch?ri, a sumptuous, tragicomic love story set in Paris in the final days of the belle ?poque, reunites the director, Michelle Pfeiffer and the screenwriter Christopher Hampton for the first time since Dangerous Liaisons. Based on the 1920s novel by Colette, it’s a slow, meandering film that may attract only a limited audience. It certainly lacks the populist appeal of The Queen, his previous venture, which won Helen Mirren an Oscar.
Although he is known to some extent for making provocative films about those living on the edge of society (in 1985, his breakthrough film, My Beautiful Laundrette, told the homosexual love story of a young Pakistani and a London street punk; in 2002 Dirty Pretty Things explored the underworld of immigration), Frears ultimately defies genre. He likes to make films about different cultures and, more specifically, things he hasn’t encountered before.
Above all, his work is defined by the writers with whom he’s worked. Recently it’s been the ubiquitous Peter Morgan: they collaborated on both The Queen and The Deal, the excellent television film in which the early relationship between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown was artfully deconstructed. Over the years — he made his first film, Gumshoe, starring Albert Finney as a hardboiled detective, in 1971 — Frears has also collaborated with Roddy Doyle, Alan Bennett and Hanif Kureishi. At one point in our conversation he becomes very cross about writers being underrated in the world of film-making.
He is also cross — crushed, even — about the criticism that has been levelled at some of his films. After a wildly successful period in the late Eighties, which included wide acclaim for Prick Up Your Ears, the biographical drama about the playwright Joe Orton; international success for Dangerous Liaisons, the opulent period piece starring John Malkovich and Glenn Close as well as Pfeiffer, and a Best Director Oscar nomination for The Grifters, a stylish noir about three con artists — Frears spent the Nineties making a series of mediocre films. Hero and The Hi-Lo Country are certainly best forgotten. I tentatively ask Frears how he feels about the Nineties. He shakes his head. “Abused,” he says. “Shocked. How do you avoid it? You make mistakes . . . It’s always ghastly, painful and humiliating. Ideally my films wouldn’t come out at all; they’d just be put on a shelf marked ‘Jolly Good’. That way I could avoid the abuse .”
He has learnt not to read the reviews, and certainly won’t be watching Ch?ri with an audience. “I never do that; I’d want to shoot myself if they didn’t laugh at a joke. How I wish I was more frivolous and carefree. Or more detached.”
It seems that Frears has spent much of his life wishing he could have more fun. Born in Leicester in 1941, he moved to Nottingham when he was 12. “And Nottingham was the nicest place in the world in the Fifties. It was a Rabelaisian town. This was exactly the time Alan Sillitoe was writing. It was terrific.”
What was the young Stephen like? He gives me a sideways look. “Life was boring; I was equally boring. God, it was dull after the war . . . I’ve no idea. I can’t even begin to answer your question. I wouldn’t know how to get any perspective on it, I just remember it being interminable.I wanted to be like my brothers, who were older and who’d gone away to school.”
His father was conspicuous by his absence. “For some inexplicable reason he was away defending us in South Africa. When he came back from the war, he went to London to become a doctor.”
So young Stephen spent most of his formative years with his mother, a social worker. “That’s where the damage was done . . . I went off to prep school when I was 8. It wasn’t much cop. I was bright as long as it was just a question of learning things like kings and queens and dates. Once independent thought came in I was sunk. I was completely bewildered.”
He read copiously, enjoying The Iliad and The Odyssey and taking his A levels at 15. He left school with no clue about what he was going to do. “Entirely through good fortune, I ended up going to a class run by Nottingham High School’s headmaster. He helped young people preparing to sit the entrance exam to Cambridge. He took me under his wing and explained that education and life were connected. Which implied that privilege wasn’t necessarily the blessing you thought it was going to be. Of course he got me into Cambridge effortlessly.”
Here he read law; why? Frears laughs; this is clearly the most preposterous question he’s ever been asked. “I’ve no idea why. I was the child of professional people, so I assumed I’d go into a profession.”
He was at Cambridge on the brink of the Swinging Sixties, a period that largely passed him by because he took himself too seriously — something he now deeply regrets. However, uninspired by law, he turned his attention to theatre and started directing plays. After graduating he joined the Royal Court Theatre and assisted its director Lindsay Anderson. Between 1966 and 1972 he was assistant director to Karel Reisz, who was already celebrated for directing Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and producing This Sporting Life.
Frears often says he was lucky; he scowls when I suggest that you make your own luck. He was, he says, lucky to have had two great teachers in his life: the head who got him into Cambridge and Reisz. He still worries about being “found out” as an impostor. “I thought The Queen was a careerender,” he says. “When we finished it I was in Arizona and they were cutting it without me. I remember thinking: ‘This is film is going to be a catastrophe’.”
He finally realised that both the Queen and Tony Blair were passive figures and so Peter Morgan rewrote most of Blair’s part to make him more active. The reworked script was followed by a very fast reshoot, and Frears was finally satisfied. “Afterwards I thought: ‘My God, I’ve been doing this for 500 years, why did I not realise that Blair needed to be more active?’ But nobody saw it. It was apparent by this time that Helen had given an extraordinary performance and people kept saying: ‘Well, write another scene for Helen.’ That clearly wasn’t the solution.”
Frears likes to position himself as a low-key director who does very little on set. He starts to say that “you just do it with a lot of grunts”, but I accuse him of false modesty. “I don’t see it as that,” he says. “There’s a very thin bit that I do that I can see nobody else does. Having said that, I prefer it when the invention comes from other people; I always assume the actors know more about the characters than I do. In the end I can see that everything is filtered through me, but I could equally easily say that the less I have to do the more likely the film is to be good.”
Given that he was so relieved to finish Ch?ri, has he considered giving up film-making? “No. It’s just more interesting to do more difficult things — or I don’t know how to do simple things. If your mind is as complicated as mine appears to be, you end up doing things that are difficult. I always go loopy when I make a film. I don’t see how you avoid loopiness.”
I ask if, despite the economic downturn, there’s another film on the horizon. “Well, I’m involved in other projects. But I’m completely passive. Every time I set off on my horse to create a project it’s just a catastrophe. What’s best is when I sit at home and people send me things.”
Frears has a good life. He’s been living in the same house in Notting Hill for years. He jokes about his wife, the painter Anne Rothenstein, throwing him out of the house several times a day. His grown-up children (two from his first marriage, two from his second) went to the local school. Each Friday he meets up with his friend Hanif Kureishi at this very table and they discuss politics, theatre, football (Frears has supported Arsenal for 45 years). It’s just like bohemian Paris, I say. “Absolutely. It’s as ludicrous as that. People come and join us. Actually, it’s rather lovely.”
He jokes about becoming Jewish in his twenties, which is when he discovered that his mother was Jewish. As time passes, he is becoming increasingly Jewish, “but it’s rather episodic”. He suddenly looks right at me. “Everybody in the world would like to be where I am, doing what I’m doing. I think I’ll stop complaining about it all.”
Ch?ri is released on May 8