Q&A: Stephen Frears


Two-time Oscar nominee Stephen Frears has carved out an enviable career as an award winning director for hire. After directing Michelle Pfeiffer in last year's Berlin Silver Bear winner "Cheri," he turned his attentions to an ensemble British comedy based on a graphic novel drawn and written by newspaper cartoonist Posy Simmonds. Adapted for the big screen by Moira Buffini, the movie's cast including one time Bond girl Gemma Arterton, British heartthrob and "Mamma Mia!" star Dominic Cooper, U.K. comedy royalty Tamsin Greig and newcomers Charlotte Christie and Jessica Barden. A classic British comedy, it details the story of the fallout after a hot young newspaper writer returns to her hometown in the English countryside, where her childhood home is being prepped for sale, stirring up old and new local passions. The source material owes much to Thomas Hardy's "Far From the Madding Crowd." A stickler for believable dialogue and pace, Frears talks to The Hollywood Reporter's U.K. Bureau Chief Stuart Kemp about directing British beauty Arterton's fake nose, attempting his first film based on a graphic novel and the word "cunt."

The Hollywood: How did your involvement with "Tamara Drewe" come about?

Stephen Frears: (BBC Films creative director) Christine Langan rang me and said she had a script she thought I'd be interested in. I opened it on a plane to New York and nearly fell out. I've known Posy (Simmonds) for a long, long time and the script (based on her cartoon "Tamara Drewe") was just a treat.

THR: So you were a follower of Posy Simmonds' cartoon strips in (U.K. newspaper) The Guardian (and subsequent graphic novel)?

Frears: I used to read the strip in the Guardian. She is one of the great women of Great Britain, I think. She's like a national treasure. To me she's this successful graphic artist and an intellectual at the same time.

THR: Can you tell me a bit about Moira Buffini's script?

Frears: She's a playwright and lives in South London. I think she's resident playwright at The National (Theater). I had never seen anything by her before, but she works like an American gag writer. She must have found it absolutely gob smacking to work on this because (the film) required endless refinement for all the right reasons. She was with us (during the shoot) the whole time and if a problem came up she had this ability to go off and rewrite and make things much quicker and did it all with gracefully. Posy started it all by being able to say so much with just one drawing.

THR: Is it the first time you've done a film based on a graphic novel?

Frears: Yes. I didn't direct "Superman," ha ha. The business of starting with a graphic novel is very interesting. It was very, very interesting that Posy would have drawn these images and you eventually found out that she'd instinctually dramatized things she'd drawn. For example, she'd drawn a house that looked out onto a field of cows and I asked her which house it was based on. She'd tell me and I'd say, but trees surround that house and you can't see the fields. And she'd just say, yes, I didn't draw them in. Simple as that.

THR: How long was the shoot?

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Frears: We spent 10 weeks shooting. Eight weeks down in Dorset, I think, and then in London for two. Ideally you'd have shot it over a year but I couldn't work out how you'd pay for the actors for that length of time.

THR: There are constant references to Thomas Hardy. How do you feel about his work and it being used as a jump-off point for cinema?

Frears: I liked the joke about him giving his wife syphilis and the fact that death comes out of nowhere is very Hardy. Destiny being violent death is special.

THR: How difficult was this film to make?

Frears: Well, because we couldn't make it over a year (the film is set over the four seasons), it was difficult. But for some reason we got wonderful weather in October in Dorset so we were very lucky. You had to be intelligent and go to the locations more than once because the places had to look different to make some allowance for the change in season. There is a lot of trickery in this film. Some days you are lucky in life, some you are not. We were this time.

THR: The ensemble cast in "Tamara Drewe" is all realistically observed versions of people. How tricky was it to ensure that hit the screen for you?

Frears: You take trouble casting it. It only comes if you take that trouble. Tamsin (Greig) said I said I only cast her because she knows about farming. I am embarrassed to say I didn't know about Dominic (Cooper) and his success with "Mamma Mia!" Just as well he was so good. And I hadn't heard of Gemma Arterton, who'll be upset to read that. But when she walked in to the casting I turned to (casting director) Lisa book her if she's any good. She has such wit and charm and brings that to screen.

THR: She does a few scenes with quite a large prosthetic nose. Any vanity with that?

Frears: It was easy. She (Arterton) brought incredible subtlety to it. She kept shouting make it bigger. And we did.

THR: This is a very British feeling film, especially after Paris-set "Cheri." Did you feel like coming home to make a movie after previous movie adventures?

Frears: It's not that, it's that Posy created a complete universe (with her graphic novel). All my best films I have made have had a complete universe. Be it "My Beautiful Laundrette," or "Dangerous Liaisons" or "The Queen," they've all had universe's that make sense. You can't go to Dorset without getting a very British feeling. I depend entirely on the material I find and it was wonderful finding such brilliant material. And it only works because the ensemble cast does.

THR: How do you feel about bringing the film to the Festival de Cannes after a 15-year hiatus from it?

Frears: I was jury president there three years ago so I know what the place looks like. I must say I was only prepared to go (to Cannes with "Tamara Drewe") if it was Out of Competition. I'd been on the jury and know too much about what goes on.

THR: How do you feel about bringing a film firmly rooted in British humor to the French Riviera?

Frears: I remember when I discovered what people really like about British film is the loonies on screen. Alec Guinness, Peter Sellers, maybe John Cleese -- that's what people like in British films, the dottiness. I love the dottiness but I was rather shocked when someone pointed that out to me (as a so called serious British filmmaker). It's good, because personally I have dottiness in spades. This film has lots of things that people my mother would have called foreigners associate with English people.

THR: The word "cunt" is in the film on at least two notable occasions. Is it a word you feel emboldens a script?

Frears: You're allowed two. I would have liked three. If you only have two you get a "15" certificate for a comedy from the British Board of Film Classification. If you have three, you get the next one up, an "18." We had to decide which one of the three to remove and when I saw the cut with one taken out I didn't notice it had gone. Which perhaps speaks to it not being necessary. As to whether or not it emboldens a script, I don't think it makes a blind bit of difference. It's not a word I feel necessitates debate.

THR: Two young actresses have some of the funniest film stealing moments in the movie. How quickly did you know Charlotte Christie and Jessica Barden were right?

Frears: Casting. The ring leader (Jessica) is from Yorkshire and has been in (the play) "Jerusalem" while the other (Charlotte) is a school girl from Suffolk. I was just gob smacked within the first week of shooting from these guys. They both give such nuanced, fine performances without thinking about it.

THR: You've made a film with a sympathetic, endearing American intellectual who appeals. How hard was it to find the right actor for that?

Frears: My son Will, who's a theater director in New York, told me to cast Bill Camp in the role. He (Camp) is just brilliant and I had never seen him before. When you're lucky you're lucky and we were on this one.
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