Stephen Frears reveals his directing dilemma

Working with 'difficult' cows was a challenge on 'Tamara' set

Hitchcock caused a stir by likening actors to cattle, but Stephen Frears is on much safer ground in "Tamara Drewe" where he puts a herd of cows to work acting.

The cows' big scene is actually a pivotal moment in Frears' comedy, which is set in the English countryside and opened Oct. 8 in New York and L.A. via Sony Classics Pictures. Written by Moira Buffini, "Tamara" is based on Posy Simmonds' graphic novel, which was itself inspired by Thomas Hardy's "Far From the Madding Crowd."

Unlike Frears' 2006 hit "The Queen," whose star Helen Mirren won the best actress Oscar, BAFTA and Golden Globe, "Tamara" features an ensemble cast. Bond Girl Gemma Arterton ("Quantum of Solace") plays Tamara, a former ugly duckling who returns to her bucolic village and thanks to plastic surgery now has the sex appeal to attract new lovers and make ex-boyfriends drool.

As for those cows, Frears calls them his greatest challenge while making the film.

"It was quite an easy film to make," he told me, although bad weather sometimes required revisiting locations. "Other than that, it was just the cows that were difficult."

I won't spoil anything by being too specific about what the cows needed to do, but Frears says they had to follow directions and move "without wranglers driving them on in the conventional way."

Can he share any secrets about wrangling movie cattle?

"You just have to be lucky, amongst other things. And patient. And in the end we got what we wanted."

As for his human actors, Frears believes the secret is "that you cast them very precisely. Once you cast somebody precisely, they're quite intelligent enough to work things out and to work out how to play it, themselves."

In this case, not only are the actors intelligent, but so is the movie and these days it's certainly not easy to get such films made.

"I was very lucky. Everybody involved with the film loved it. So it wasn't too difficult, but I can see which way the wind is blowing and how the world is."

Frears was sent the script to read in February '09. He knew the material from when it appeared in The Guardian and he'd known graphic artist Posy Simmonds for 30 years.

"But it never crossed my mind," he pointed out, that it could be a movie. "I just loved it. It just made me laugh. I thought it was very, very fresh."

While reading it, he immediately thought of casting Roger Allam as the commercially successful writer of mystery novels who with his wife (Tamsin Greig) runs a popular writers' retreat in England's lush West country. Despite years of theater and film credits -- including playing Mirren's private secretary in "The Queen" -- Allam's not a bankable star name.

"I said to the producers, 'I can only make this with the right actors. I can't make it with famous people.' They said, 'That's okay.' I then found Gemma and I found Tamsin Greig so I knew I had the three principals."

By going along with such casting, producers Alison Owen, Paul Trijbits and Tracey Seaward must have realized it would be harder to market the film, but Frears emphasized that this never was an issue.

"First of all, there was no conversation like that. Secondly, you're arguing on the one hand about making the best possible film. So I suppose what the producers have to do is have tremendous faith in the film."

That faith appears to have been well placed as "Tamara" was well received when it played earlier this year at Cannes and Toronto and it's now being talked about as an awards season contender.

 Having that awards buzz is very helpful today in a marketplace that's crowded with independent films competing for moviegoers' time and money.

 "The truth is that by now in the life of a film you're concerned with the returns and with the audiences. I can see that certain prizes and nominations bring audiences and you can't escape being aware of that. What I'm concerned about now is that Sony Classics should get their money back."

 A measure of SPC's enthusiasm for both Frears and "Tamara" is that the company acquired the project before it was made. The studio's relationship with Frears goes back to 1985 when SPC distributed in the U.S. his breakthrough film "My Beautiful Laundrette," which launched Daniel Day-Lewis' career.

 What sort of budget did he have for shooting "Tamara" last fall in England's west Dorset county for seven weeks and in London for two?

 "I don't know because I don't ask," he replied, adding that he actually said, "Can't we make it cheaper?"

 When I thought I misunderstood that, he said I hadn't and that unlike most filmmakers, "I'm trying to get less."

 Does he ever look back and wish the good old days were still here?

"It was easier before, but no one owes me any favors. I've been very, very lucky. I'm sure what will happen is that someone will work out how to distribute on the net, but they haven't as yet. You know, there's clearly an audience for films like these."
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