Capone talks sex, comedy, and the magic of Gemma Arterton with TAMARA DREWE director Stephen Frears!!!
Published at: Oct. 18, 2010, 3:02 p.m. CST by Capone
Hey everyone. Capone in Chicago here.
I feel like I've grown up to the film of Stephen Frears. I have such clear memories of both his early British works (MY BEAUTIFUL LAUNDRETTE, PRICK UP YOUR EARS and, SAMMY AND ROSIE GET LAID). As part of my journalism school education, juniors were sent to work for a newspaper or magazine for a quarter, and I was sent to lovely downtown Wilmington, Delaware. One of my most vivid memories was taking my car the 20 miles or so to the nearest theater playing DANGEROUS LIAISONS on weekend, and watching it three times in a row in a single day. I adore that movie.
Since then, Frears has balanced his work between bigger-budget American productions (THE GRIFTERS, for which he received his first Oscar nomination for Best Director; HERO; MARY REILLY; THE HI-LO COUNTRY HIGH FIDELITY) and small-budget British fare (THE SNAPPER, THE VAN, LIAM, DIRTY PRETTY THINGS, MRS. HENDERSON PRESENTS, THE DEAL). Frears second, well-deserve Best Director Oscar nomination came in 2006 for THE QUEEN, which received six total nominations, include Helen Mirren's win for Best Actress. Now Frears returns to the smaller-scale world of provincial England for TAMARA DREWE, starring the stunning Gemma Arterton, based on the much loved graphic novel by Posy Simmonds. The film has quite a few nasty things to say about writers and the power that pretty women have over the male sex. It's a charming, funny, seductive work filled with lovely locations and some great performances, especially by Roger Allam and Tamsin Greig as the husband-and-wife team that run a writers' commune in the countryside.
Frears is an interesting man to interview. I knew from my research that he was not prone to long answers, and that he has a very casual approach to his choice of projects and directing style. At nearly 70, Frears is interested in only working on stories that pique his interest, and really couldn't care less about appeal or making huge amounts of money. And while he doesn't seem to prefer essay-length answers, he by no means a gumpy old man. Quite the contrary, he's a complete delight to chat with. To make this interview just a bit less conventional, we actually conducted and recorded it in the studio of the Chicago Public Radio station WBEZ for the weekly show "Filmspotting." I believe excerpts of our chat will air on the show this coming Saturday (the podcast version will be available at www.filmspotting.net" at around the same time the show airs.
That's enough preamble. Here's Stephen Frears. We open with my discussion of a fond memory I have concerning his extended stay in Chicago several years ago. Enjoy…
Capone: I have very clear memories of when you were in town shooting HIGH FIDELITY, because I went to see the Tenacious D concert at the House of Blues, and the whole cast was there. I don’t know if you were there…
Steven Frears: I was there!
Capone: You were? I think I laughed so hard I actually had to stop listening for a while to stop from laughing. It was hurting so much.
SF: I remember Jack [Black] being… I had never seen him before. I had never seen Tenacious D. I just remember them being incredibly funny.
Capone: I remember John [Cusack] introduced them before the show and that was so funny. Welcome back to Chicago.
SF: It’s nice to be here.
Capone: I think when people hear that this film is based on a graphic novel, they immediately think, “Stephen Frears is at 68 or 69 is now taking on the superhero realm, and Tamara’s very tight shorts have some sort of super powers,” which they do. I don’t mean to undersell their magic. But tell me about your first exposure to this material.
SF: I simply read the script. Someone had made a script from this book, and I just thought it was wonderful. I thought it was very funny and very sexy and very fresh, not like other films. So I thought I would like to do it.
Capone: So your exposure to it was the written word and not the drawn event?
SF: No, although I had read it in The Guardian, so I did know it’s history. I read it when it was serialized in the news paper. I knew it’s history.
Capone: I noticed that Tamara is almost as much, or maybe even more so, a catalyst to other people’s lives changing than--and her own as well--but she kind of gets dropped into this town and…
SF: Well, she looks so gorgeous.
Capone: Yes, but it goes beyond that though.
SF: Not much beyond that. She looks gorgeous and causes chaos and is trying to grow up at the same time.
Capone: The film seems to have a lot to say about writers, I think that’s fair to say. Most of the major characters are writers or helping out writers.
SF: Yes, it’s not very complimentary about writers.
Capone: True. Some of those things that are said aren’t very nice.
SF: Well they are sort of would-be writers, aren’t they? I think real writers, their talent comes from God.
Capone: But the writer who is a real writer and a successful writer is the worst of them all.
SF: He’s the most corrupt of them all, that’s right.
Capone: What does that mean to you?
SF: That means it's a shocking world.
Capone: Was that one of the things that kind of made you want to do this, just to take a little shot at writers?
SF: You just read things and think “This is great, I’ll spend two years of my life making this.” If it doesn’t catch you in that way, don’t do it, don’t make a film.
Capone: You are coming up on 70 years old. Has your approach to choosing scripts changed much over the years?
SF: You just do things if you like them. They are too difficult. I supposed people have come to me and said, “Look, this makes economic sense to make this,” but in the end it’s hard work, and if you don’t do things that give you pleasure, I don’t know what kind of life you would lead.
Capone: Do you get scripts the conventional way, through agents? I have this weird feeling you know all of these people that just hand you scripts at parties or other gatherings.
SF: No, I have friends who are writers, but this came through the producers, whom I know from my work with them in the past. But basically, it’s all quite straightforward; it’s not some mysterious process.
Capone: The story also has a lot to say about the limitations of a small town.
SF: Good lord, I grew up on "Peyton Place," I know all about small towns.
Capone: There are two teenagers and one, Jody, I literally got the sense from her that she will die if she doesn’t get out of that town as soon as possible.
SF: Young people in Britain have it very difficult, and kids in the country are bored out of their minds, whereas I can see American children are riveted by what life has to offer [laughs]. They all take drugs don’t they, in America? These kids don’t take drugs, but they are very bored.
Capone: Well, they will get there eventually.
SF: I'm sure. I’m afraid so.
Capone: Have you eve been to a commune like this? Was there any research involved?
SF: They don’t have them for film directors. Perhaps they should.
Capone: You knew the writer, Posey?
SF: I know the graphic artist, yes. She’s brilliant. She’s a brilliant woman. She's very demure, and with a very dirty mind.
Capone: I had never read the graphic novel. Is it dirty? Does it get fairly explicit?
SF: It’s very like the film. It’s clever rather than being explicit. Explicitness has sort of nothing to do with it. It’s the same event. She gets involved with three men.
Capone: Back to the teenage girls who kind of went from being my least favorite characters in the beginning when they were just brats to being these much more fleshed out…
SF: I think they are wonderful characters.
Capone: They are, and actually Jody is probably one of my favorites in the film by the end and that actress.
SF: They are sort of the truth tellers, aren’t they? They are like the gods and the Greek chorus.
Capone: There’s that moment where the thing that she wishes for more than anything in the world--and I don’t want to give it away--but she gets it and there is a look in her eyes that is both fearless and yet full of nothing but fear.
SF: Yes. Sounds like life itself. “Beware, lest you get what you want.” It’s very frightening.
Capone: Exactly. “Be careful what you wish for.” How did you find her? What’s the actress’s name?
SF: Jessica Barden. I found her just through the audition process. She’s an extraordinary girl. She’s from a very rough background and she’s been in a play in the West End and she has now done another film. She is really extraordinary.
Capone: Yeah. You have, just in terms of your films in general, you have this wonderful habit, that I don’t think enough directors really have, of seemingly going out of your way not to repeat yourself.
SF: I get bored very easily.
Capone: We had talked about boredom before, yes. Is that really just what it boils down to for you?
SF: The idea of doing the same film a second time doesn’t seem very interesting. I’ve been allowed to make different films and so I’ve been allowed to sort of go off in any direction, which is great.
Capone: I’ve read interviews with you where you have talked about this film as story of the middle class, which you think is horribly underrepresented.
SF: Well we don’t normally make films about the middle classes in England, though most of us are middle class, so it’s quite ironic.
Capone: Do you think it’s more about just not wanting to see that reflection?
SF: I don’t know, it’s some sort of self dislike I would imagine that the working class is more exotic, the upper class is more exotic. The Queen is the most exotic of all. Anything to avoid turning the camera on yourself.
Capone: Do they just think their lives aren’t interesting enough?
SF: Well if you asked me, I would say “Yes, my life isn’t interesting enough.” That is exactly what I would say, that it’s very conventional and it runs on conventional lines, and that it’s not suitable material.
Capone: Yeah, was there a challenge in this particular film since it focuses on writers? I’ve often heard it said that making a story about a writer is very difficult, because visually there is not much to look at.
SF: The truth is, I don’t think this is really about writers. This is really about sex, basically. [laughs] Topic A, as Preston Sturges used to say. It’s about men and women that is entertaining and makes for jokes. Plus, that's what the book did, and it was very entertaining. Men become ridiculous in the presence of women, but again, that's very familiar. That's not a new subject. Often when I see films about that, I enjoy them.
Capone: What do you think this story has to say about that relationship between men and women that maybe hasn’t quite been covered in this way?
SF: I think it’s been covered before. [Laughs] It causes chaos. It seems to me that’s what makes the world go round.
Capone: Chaos and bodily harm, yeah.
SF: Chaos and jokes.
Capone: And this is not the first time you covered that subject in films yourself.
SF: It's a bit like DANGEROUS LIAISONS but in the countryside. It not revolutionary, but it does make the world go 'round. That's all you're saying, "Love makes the world go 'round." I'm like a child: when something interests me, I want to make it. What it is I often don't really think about. You just think, "Oh, this is great. This is a really interesting idea." When I was asked to make THE QUEEN, no one had ever made a film about The Queen before, so it was a really interesting subject. Obviously, if you're British, it basically dominates your life. But no one had ever made a film about it before. That was all. It was as innocent as that.
Capone: I had the great pleasure not too long ago actually of interviewing Gemma Arterton, just the sweetest woman possible.
SF: She’s lovely.
Capone: She’s had this bizarre career trajectory that I don’t even think she fully understands, and when we spoke she made it very clear that she thought she would be starting out making more films like TAMARA DREWE one than being a Bond girl or in CLASH OF THE TITANS. How did you find her?
SF: Well she’s the most lovely girl. She’s gorgeous and she’s witty and she’s a very good actress, so she was a pleasure to have in the film and to work with, but I can see that her career has been rather topsy turvy. I would imagine she will settle down though.
Capone: Were you aware of some of the other things she had done or ever seen her in anything before?
SF: No, I really only heard about them after I had made the film. [Laughs] Then I suddenly discovered there were all of these other films.
Capone: Do you feel fortunate then to have gotten her in something like this?
SF: I think this was a very good film for her to do.
Capone: It certainly showcases I think her range more than anything that she’s done up until now actually.
Capone: Was it exciting to think that you had a Bond girl in your movie? Eventually someone must have informed you.
SF: Yes, I didn’t really think about that. I just thought “I’ve got a good actress and a pretty girl and a nice girl.”
Capone: Probably the face in the film that most Americans will recognize is Dominic Cooper, because of MAMMA MIA and AN EDUCATION. How did you come to find him?
SF: I had met Dominic, and then my casting director said, “You should cast Dominic Cooper” and I said “Oh, okay.” I think he’s wonderful in the film. He’s very, very funny.
Capone: Was there a challenge to avoid the rock star cliches with that character?
SF: I don’t think that I know what the clichés are [laughs], so it’s easy. What are the clichés that you have to avoid?
Capone: I don’t know, I think Russell Brand embodies a lot of them. He does something with them, but he turns them into humor. I don’t know, just that very selfish attitude and getting involved drugs. There can be subtleties to a rock star even I’m guessing.
SF: Yes, I don’t know, I just think Dominic is very funny in the part.
Capone: So just being back in Chicago, what does that mean to you?
SF: I had such a good time here making HIGH FIDELITY, such good fun. I’m astonished to think that I lived here for four or five months. It’s amazing.
Capone: Do you have any special memories of here?
SF: Yes, we just drove past an apartment building where I lived, and I hope to see the place where we filmed. You suddenly realize you spent part of your life here.
Capone: I’ve read in other interviews where you have mentioned that you don’t always feel the most comfortable when you are working in the studio system.
SF: I got into a mess when I got into the sort of heart of the studio. That was where it all sort of went wrong.
Capone: Was there a particular film where you thought that?
SF: No, no I made two films. I made a filmed with Dustin Hoffman called HERO and I made a film with Julia Roberts called MARY REILLY. They have values that I didn’t really understand. Nobody was nasty to me or anything like that. Nobody was beastly or said “You’ve got to do this or that.” I just felt, afterward, that I was standing in the wrong place.
Capone: Was it just because there was more money at stake?
SF: That didn’t help, the amount of money that was involved.
Capone: I’m wondering in the two films that you made with John Cusack was it helpful to align yourself with him and was he able to walk you past or protect you from some of those pitfalls that you were trying to avoid with the studio?
SF: In a way, yes. The first film was produced by Martin Scorsese, and he was a very good guide and I, because I knew his films, thought he had a very good taste about all of that. And John on HIGH FIDELITY was the same. Also the material was appropriate, and the cost of the film was appropriate to the film I was making.
Capone: Was John useful in that way to deflect the elements that might harm your film?
SF: No, not really I mean except that he’s a good guy and a bright guy and clearly a sort of figure you would identify with some kind of independent cinema.
Capone: What were the values that you took issue with while working with the studios?
SF: When you make a film for the studios, it’s a very public affair, and they're like corporate exercises in a way, and the audience have a relationship with people like Dustin, which I didn’t really understand. I just thought, “If you make a good film, you'll be okay.” But I think studio films are something else. It’s its own culture. I’m not being at all judgmental, I think the people who do them can do something that I can’t, so I have a lot of time for them. It was just different, and in the end it is what Robert Altman used to say “They make shoes; I make gloves.” It’s really as simple as that, and I was better when I was with other glove makers.
Capone: I wanted to dive a little bit into specific cast choices beyond the leads in TAMARA DREWE. I’ve never seen her before, but Tamsin…
SF: Tamsin Grieg. She’s brilliant.
Capone: She is a natural beauty, and I can’t believe she hasn’t been in more. I actually recognized her from a very small part she had in SHAUN OF THE DEAD, which I've seen a million times. I don’t even know if she has a line in that movie, but I recognized her.
SF: She’s just a brilliant actress and she never stops working. She’s on TV. She’s in the theater. She’s on the radio. She never stops.
Capone: Was she a personal favorite of yours?
SF: I only really agreed to make the film when I had met her and Gemma and Roger Allam, who I knew from THE QUEEN.
Capone: He always seems to have this, in any of the things that I’ve seen him in, he has that wonderful snake-like quality to him, from THE QUEEN to SPEED RACER.
SF: [laugh] I must tell him that. He’s great. He’s really good.
Capone: He is a great sort of dastardly man.
SF: A villain, yes.
Capone: Talk a little bit about the location.
SF: Where we filmed is full of beautiful places. It was very easy. In the end, you had to work out what the demands of the film were and deal with those, but I could have made it in one of 10 beautiful places.
Capone: Was there anything about the one that you chose that you felt maybe had something about it that might have gotten the creative juices flowing in those writers?
SF: No, it just made practical sense. The truth is you are much more concerned about not having too much traveling time and tedious things like that, but I could see that what I was shooting was very beautiful.
Capone: What do you have coming up? Do you have any ideas for what you are going to be doing next?
SF: I may make a film in Las Vegas.
Capone: That sounds bold.
SF: Bold? Well it isn’t OCEAN’S 15. [laughs] It’s about sports book gamblers and it’s a good story and it’s a very good script [I believe this is based on Beth Raymer's book "Lay the Favorite"]. It’s written by the guy who wrote HIGH FIDELITY, who happens to be a dear friend of mine.
Capone: Excellent. How far out is that looking to get done?
SF: I’m going to New York to a meeting on Thursday.
Capone: Okay, what is it you like about those characters? Again, those are much like the middle class in England, sports book guys are not guys you see a lot of movies getting made about.
SF: Why not? I’m asking you. Why not?
Capone: I don’t know. They seem like they'd be a fascinating group of guys, but they are guys that you would, Walking through a casino, walk right past them and not even look at them.
SF: Yes. That’s right.
Capone: They are the invisible people basically.
SF: Absolutely, very well put.
Capone: Are you always in search of that?
SF: Well you are in search of interesting people, that’s all and they are interesting. They are not conventional people, but they are interesting. The truth is you kind of make a film about the same people that everybody else makes films about or you can find something new. I’m always really pleased when I find something new.
Capone: Yeah, well that is bold, so that’s another kind of bold.
SF: Yes, absolutely.
Capone: Stephen, than you so much for joining us. It was a pleasure to meet you finally.
SF: Alright, well I’m glad you liked the film.
Capone: Yes, thank you very much.
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