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Stephen Frears is one of the most respected British filmmakers working. A stickler for pace, Frears talks to The Hollywood Reporter’s U.K. bureau chief Stuart Kemp about directing Michelle Pfeiffer 20 years after the last time he had her in front of a camera in “Dangerous Liaisons,” working with writer Christopher Hampton and getting actors to hurry up.
The Hollywood Reporter: How did your involvement with “Cheri” come about?
Stephen Frears: I read a script that Christopher Hampton had written. Simple as that.
THR: You previously collaborated with Hampton on “Dangerous Liaisons” more than 20 years ago. Did you always plan to work with Hampton again? And if so why has it taken so long?
Frears: We did work again between “Liaisons” and “Cheri.” There are no rules and we’re just friends so it’s pretty straightforward. He’s an incredible writer.
THR: The quality of writing is something you have spoken about in the past as being important?
Frears: Most of my friends are in the main writers. They just are. I admire people who do what I can’t do. I’ve never tried to write a script because that’s not what I do.
THR: The script is based on a famous book by Colette of the same name which Hampton was adapting. Did you ask him or did he ask you to direct?
Frears: We share the same agent. It has just collapsed (as a project) and he asked me for some advice about what he should do. I read the script and just thought it as something I could get involved in.
THR: You’ve been quoted as saying you find making movies “very difficult.” Can you explain just what you mean?
Frears: I think they’re (films) quite complicated things and getting the elements rights and the things in balance I find difficult. Others probably find it very easy. I just find them (films) difficult things to make.
THR: You’ve worked across all genres of filmmaking from television and film and also enjoyed success in the theater. Where do you feel most at home, theater or movie making?
Frears: I don’t really count theater as it was more than 40 years ago. I just make films, that’s what I do.
THR: Michelle Pfeiffer was also in that movie in 1988. How was it working with her again?
Frears: She’s the real thing. She’s very powerful and has an unexpected power. It has something to do with her beauty but also who she is. I was doing a wide shot with her and just thought how extraordinary it was her being that powerful. She’s such a tiny little thing and she can hold the screen so effortlessly. She is very effective and very potent in rather unexpected ways.
THR: You auditioned several American actors but it was British newcomer Rupert Friend who convinced you for the role? What did you spot?
Frears: I couldn’t find anyone in the U.S. who could make sense of the character or the past. The young people I saw (in the U.S.), were extremely talented, but they just weren’t right. The Europeans defeated the material in a way. It has nothing to do with talent but rather to do with methods. If we had auditioned a young (Marlon) Brando in 1954 I would have cast him like a shot. They (actors) just work differently now.
THR: How was working with Kathy Bates? Was her sense of humor important in casting her?
Frears: Yes, I wanted to cast somebody comic in that role. She was endlessly funny on set.
THR: The movie is set in pre-WW1 Paris when the city was at its most famous and fashionable globally. Are you interested in that period of history and the so called Belle Epoque?
Frears: It was what Colette was writing about and I came (to the project) for the material. You couldn’t monkey around with it and move it to another time. But it (the script) speaks to now. The women in the story became the movie or pop stars of their age really.
THR: How important do you think it is as part of the role of director to consider pacing in the script and is that part of your process in the chair?
Frears: It’s very important. The whole time you are saying to your actors, why is this taking so long? I used to use a stopwatch and try and shave off five seconds from each scene. I am always asking why it takes so long to say something. They (actors) also say ‘righto, governor, I’m on it’ and do it (laughs).
THR: How do you feel about bringing the film to Berlin?
Frears: Berlin is lovely and is run by such a lovely man (Dieter Kosslick). My life has been articulated by Berlin. I was born during the war (WW2) and lived through the cold war and as a city it has always been at the center of my world. It’s where the east meets the west.
THR: Is the Berlin Film Festival different to the other major events on the calendar?
Frears: Yes. It’s colder because it’s in February. All the others are later in the year.
THR: You’ve won a Silver Bear for “Hi Lo”. Did that change anything for you?
Frears: Winning a prize? After I won, I went up to (actress) Iben Hjejle and subsequently cast her in “High Fidelity.” (She’s also in “Cheri”.)
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