Stephen Frears: An Englishman Abroad
Following back-to-back hits Dangerous Liaisons and The Grifters, director Stephen Frears was riding high in the early nineties. His career trajectory was about to hit a speed bump. His next movie, Hero, was a critical and commercial disappointment. He would follow that movie up with the disastrous Mary Reilly. But Frears weathered the storm and bounced back with movies like High Fidelity, Philomena and Florence Foster Jenkins. At the time of this interview from the October 1992 issue of Movieline magazine, Freers was putting the finishing touches on Hero and recovering from a failed effort to make Donnie Brasco.
Stephen Frears grimaces when producer Laura Ziskin sticks her head through the door to ask him what he thinks about one of the Sony studio honchos viewing a rough cut of his latest film, Hero, starring Dustin Hoffman, Andy Garcia and Geena Davis, without the music in place. He remembers two pictures back when an executive saw his Dangerous Liaisons that way and kept thinking something was missing. If it’s at all possible, he tells Ziskin, he’d prefer the screening be put off until the music is in.
Frears is a rumpled, pleasant Englishman who is outspokenly against the monarchy, was strongly anti-Margaret Thatcher, and is only really happy when he’s got a good script to shoot. Born in 1941, Frears was raised by a strong, demanding mother. His father left the family during the war and was rarely there as Frears grew up. When Frears had the chance to attend Cambridge, he studied law for three years, but after deciding that it wasn’t for him, he searched for a place that stimulated his imagination–and found it at the Royal Court, where some of the freshest young minds were writing, producing, directing and acting in the theater.
Soon he was directing shorts, then his first feature, Gumshoe, and wound up making 24 movies for TV. One of them, written by a Pakistani named Hanif Kureishi, was My Beautiful Laundrette–which got released as a feature and brought Frears instant recognition abroad.
Frears followed that with Prick Up Your Ears, about the gay writer Joe Orton, and then came Sammy and Rosie Get Laid, with another script by Kureishi. Frears’s first American film (though made in Paris) was the 18th century erotic period piece Dangerous Liaisons, with Glenn Close, Michelle Pfeiffer and John Malkovich. Then came The Grifters, which starred Anjelica Huston, Annette Bening and John Cusack, and garnered a Best Director nomination for Frears. Martin Scorsese, who produced The Grifters, wanted Frears to next direct Donnie Brasco, a film about the Mafia. But there were too many complications dealing with the actors Frears wanted–Tom Cruise, Al Pacino, Andy Garcia, Alec Baldwin, Bruce Willis–and the movie didn’t get made, resulting in a scathing piece Frears wrote about what happened, and didn’t happen, in M magazine.
Frears recovered from that fiasco to direct Hero, about a small-time thief who rescues victims of a plane crash only to find that the resulting publicity causes problems–and another man ends up getting the credit.
Frears lives in London with a painter he’s been with for 19 years and their two young children. He has two grown sons by his first marriage who want to be actors. But Frears calls himself “rotten” when it comes to nepotism, and though he doesn’t openly discourage his sons, he says that he’s “rather stupid and sniffy about actors.” John Malkovich contradicts that. Frears, said Malkovich, paid more attention to his acting than any other director he’d ever worked with.
LAWRENCE GROBEL: Is Hero finished or are you still editing?
STEPHEN FREARS: We’re in the middle of it. It’s like a jigsaw puzzle and you’re trying to find the pattern, the shapes, the right order.
Q: What’s it about?
A: I haven’t a clue. I’ll tell you when I’ve finished it.
Q: What did you think it was about when you started it?
A: Privacy. Looking in the mirror.
Q: Was it a difficult film to shoot?
A: Yes, extremely. What I didn’t understand was how Dustin Hoffman worked into his character, which took three weeks. He was looking for his sound, how the character spoke, and he didn’t have it when we started.
Q: So there was a lot of reshooting of the early scenes?
A: There was some, yes.
Q: What interested you in the script?
A: The writing was so good. David Peoples wrote a very tight, very fine script. I knew as I read it that I wanted to do it. It made me laugh. I just bought the idea of it, never questioned it. Unlike Sydney Pollack, who told me when they came to him with the idea of Tootsie he thought it was the most ridiculous idea he’d ever heard.
Q: The talk is that Hero is reminiscent of Frank Capra’s films.
A: What am I supposed to say to that? You’re asking for trouble if you set yourself up against such an exalted original. Hero has a balance of cynicism and sentiment, but I don’t think this film is “Capraesque,” though I see that it is going to be called that. I’m resigned to the fact. It does have a happy ending and, like the rest of the world, I like happy endings. They’re hard to justify–and they’re very hard to do. Harder than unhappy ones, because you’ve got to get it right. But some films deserve happy endings.
Q: Hoffman is notorious for working on projects and never doing them. Elmore Leonard tells horror stories about LaBrava. You must have been aware of Hoffman’s reputation.
A: Yes, I’m aware of it but I didn’t experience that sort of thing with him. I guess I was lucky. He was never a problem. Some days I could see that he does have a difficult side. I’ve read all those stories. Anybody given the sort of power and money that Dustin’s given is probably capable of behaving very badly, but I was spared that. Working with him was a joy because he was so generous. Dustin was interested in what made Hero work for the audience. He wanted them to be entertained–he takes them under the umbrella of his concerns–so I found him to be very unselfish. Dustin is like a patriarch, he just embraces everything. It has something to do with the age he is. It’s like a rabbinical thing. He just holds everyone in an extraordinary way. Spencer Tracy must have been like that.
Q: Do you think the two other New York actors–Al Pacino and Robert De Niro–whom Hoffman is often ranked with are like that?
A: I would think less. It might well have something to do with maturity. Dustin talks about his wife as someone who sort of saved his life. I understand that. I changed when my second family was born.
Q: Were there any creative differences between you and Dustin?
A: I wouldn’t say creative differences. We talked about things, but that’s natural. Some things work and some don’t.
Q: When you do have differences with actors, can they be heated?
A: It may be wrong of me to say this, but I have a very good ear and I can hear when something’s right. I don’t even have to see it. I can hear it. So I know when I’m right.
Q: You mean you never get angry with your actors?
A: Sometimes, yes, there are times, but then your children drive you mad, too, you know? It’s only human relationships, it’s not anything different from life. I’m sure I drive them mad. I admire them because they stand up and do it–they’re the courageous ones.
Q: There’s been talk around town that Hoffman’s performance is of Oscar caliber. Do you care when there’s that kind of buzz before the picture is even done?
A: It makes me nervous. Dustin must live with this every time he makes a film. It must be annoying.
Q: What about working with Andy Garcia?
A: Andy’s process is much different than Dustin’s. He’s much more of an interior actor, he keeps things within him, what he’s trying to do, so you have to let him do what he does and then start seeing what he’s doing. It’s harder for him. I don’t know if Dustin is really as much a Method actor as Andy is. Dustin is willing to change things, try them different ways. That could be also where they are in age and experience.
Q: And Geena Davis?
A: She was terrific to work with. She’s a strong woman and I’m attracted to strong women. I had wanted her, you know, for the part Annette Bening played in The Grifters. So I’ve been aware of her talent.
Q: How different would The Grifters have been if you’d had Melanie Griffith in the role Anjelica Huston played, as was originally intended?
A: It would have been a very different film because Melanie and Annette would have looked the same age.
Q: You have described Anjelica Huston as an “odd” woman. In what ways?
A: I don’t know what I meant. Anjelica’s a unique talent. She’s pure feeling; she acts from passion. Very different from Annette Bening, who is really skillful. Anjelica does it from the heart.
Q: Anjelica described her character in The Grifters as being cold and deadeye. But she said she wasn’t feeling that way in her life when she did it. How did you help her get the character?
A: I didn’t. I don’t interfere with performers’ private lives. I let actors bring their work to the scene; I’m not very good at telling them what they should do. They already know what they should do. I have a lot of respect for actors and what they do. As I do with writers. I generally think the less I’m saying, the better. The people who make films are very, very clever. The actors are clever, the cameramen, the technicians. I often think the director is the most dispensable person on the set. It may be my timidity, but I think if I stay out of the way things will get done.
Q: So you don’t take actors to the side and give them advice, the way Anjelica’s father, John Huston, once told Katharine Hepburn to play her character in The African Queen like Eleanor Roosevelt?
A: No, I don’t–though I did show Anjelica Ossessione, Visconti’s film of The Postman Always Rings Twice, as a way of getting into it.
Q: You’ve called filming the scene where Anjelica is tortured “ghastly.” How hard was it to do?
A: Very hard. There was also a scene where Michelle Pfeiffer got beaten up in Dangerous Liaisons. You see a woman in front of you crying and you think, “This is not very nice.” Maybe if you’re a sadist you think, “Oh, this is great.” I prefer it when they’re having a good time. As I say, I like happy endings. I like shooting things that aren’t about being beaten. I’m not comfortable with the tears.
Q: Martin Scorsese must be a big fan of yours, since he produced The Grifters. How did you get to know him?
A: He sent me The Grifters after he saw My Beautiful Laundrette.
Q: What was Scorsese’s role as producer?
A: Not much. We just went off and made it. I’d call him to chat, or we’d sit together in silence. I now say to him, “You were very lucky having me, because I could sort of look after myself.” If we’d made a film that embarrassed him or had gone wildly over budget, then he would have been brought in.
Q: Wasn’t it Scorsese who thought you should direct Donnie Brasco, the Mafia film that never got made?
A: I talked to him about it, yes. He has a vested interest in Italian-American stories, it means something to him. The position of Italian-Americans in American society clearly matters enormously. So when he found a script that was intelligent and well-written, he was very keen that it should be made.
Q: In M magazine, you wrote about your frustrations dealing with stars when you tried to get Donnie Brasco made. Were you surprised when the magazine revealed the names of the actors you tried to conceal?
A: I had no idea they were doing that. [Editor-in-Chief] Clay Felker was a bit of a cunt to have done it. Am I allowed to say that? You going to print that? I wrote to all the actors involved and apologized to them, but they knew by the way the magazine printed their names in a box and not in my article that I hadn’t any intention of saying who they were.
Q: You indicated that you wrote that piece on the advice of your therapist.
A: That was a joke, it wasn’t true. But I am in therapy.
Q: For how long?
A: Oh, like Woody Allen.
Q: During that Brasco fiasco, you described Alec Baldwin as being depressed and frustrated. One of his complaints was that it was too much like a Barry Levinson movie and he wanted it to be an Alec Baldwin movie. How do you deal with actors who are like that?
A: There’s really not much I can do. I mean, we were all depressed and frustrated about that one. In the end, the actors are the ones who came out favorably because they were right not to do it. It was too soon after GoodFellas and The Godfather, Part III.
Q: Al Pacino wanted to make Brasco if he had the leading part you wanted Tom Cruise for. When Cruise passed, however, Pacino still wouldn’t do it. Why not?
A: You tell me. He gave a reading when he read for the other part–Lefty, the role I wanted him to play–and I heard it was a terrific reading.
Q: It was–I was there.
A: There, you see! So why didn’t he do it? I don’t want to work with actors in the wrong parts, it would be ghastly, very painful. But as Lefty, Pacino would have been wonderful. He was born to play that part. If he said he wanted to do it now–playing Lefty–I would get back into it. But it’s up to him.
Q: But other than that, it’s not a project you want to do?
A: It’s something I think should get done, but I don’t think I would do it.
Q: Did receiving an Oscar nomination for The Grifters change you in any way?
A: Not really.
Q: Was it important for your career?
A: I don’t know. I already had this picture, Hero, before the nomination. My next picture will be a television movie in Ireland, curiously enough, about a father and his daughter who won’t tell her family who got her pregnant. I liked the script, so I’m going to do that.
Q: What’s it take to be successful in this business?
A: I’m not all that sure I know. I’m not an American, I don’t fully know this business. But I am fascinated by it. There’s nothing quite like it anywhere. The way people are friendly and competitive.
Q: Is there a cutthroat atmosphere in Hollywood, as Robert Altman portrayed in The Player“!
A: Yes, of course. But these people treat me very well so I can’t pretend I suffer from it. But I don’t know how they sleep at nights.
A: Meaning that it must be very, very tough living here. It’s very competitive. And one sees how tough it is. But I feel like a guest here.
Q: Alan Parker said that you hate the fact that you work in Hollywood, and that you’re a complete phony in that respect.
A: That’s not true. I like Alan, but that’s a bit of a tease. I very much like working here. I like making films here– and the world likes American pictures. They may not like America, but they like its movies.I love American films, too. I’m no different from anybody else.
Q: What’s the best part of being a director?
A: Making films is good fun. I love it, I love organizing, I love being in the shop.
Q: John Huston said “sadism.”
A: Well, I can give you a smart answer, too. I’ll tell you what’s wonderful about it. You can ask questions of people like a child. You know: “What was Brando like?” And you’ll get an answer. Because somehow it’s okay to ask questions when you’re a director. I met David Hockney and asked, “What did they do in the Renaissance?” And he loved talking about it. He loved when you asked very direct questions. So you are allowed to ask, you can exercise your curiosity.
Q: Huston also gave John Milius some advice: “Never raise your voice, never get excited on the set. And always sit down when there’s a scene, to conserve energy.”
A: Very good advice, I wish I took it. I pace around.
Q: Let’s talk about My Beautiful Laundrette. One comment about that film was that you deciphered the culture of an alien underclass as well as the moral reality of the homosexual heart. Is that what you were attempting to do?
A: No. I was just making a movie.
Q: What was it about to you?
A: I thought it was about economics.
Q: That should send readers running to the video store.
A: Well, I know, but you asked me to give you an answer.
Q: Laundrette was originally intended for television. Were you surprised by its success as a feature?
A: Yes. I was amazed, delighted. It was a really good, fresh piece of writing but I don’t think it was necessarily better than the other films I made for television.
Q: Did you have any idea of the size of Daniel Day-Lewis’s talent at the time you made Laundrette?
A: No. He was just Danny. Then he did My Left Foot.
Q: When you made Prick Up Your Ears, it was written that you focused on the cultural class and on the romantic mortality of homosexual lust. Accurate?
A: It sounds good, but that’s not what it was about. Prick Up was clearly about homosexual relations and about marriage.
Q: Joe Orton’s diaries indicate he led a very promiscuous life. In an article I read, you suggested he may have made the diaries up. Do you think that?
A: No, I think his diaries were true.
Q: You’ve said that you felt the need to “romanticize” the gay sex scenes in the urinals–why?
A: Because when I went to see the real ones they were so tight, I thought it couldn’t be very pretty doing what they did in a place so close. I wanted to open it up, make it the great ballroom of urinals, so you could use your imagination as to the goings-on there.
Q: When you made Sammy and Rosie Get Laid, you ran into problems with the last two words in the title. Newspapers refused to run the “Get Laid.”
A: It seemed foolish.
Q: You began and ended that film with Margaret Thatcher’s voice–how much do you miss not having her to kick around anymore?
A: I don’t miss her at all.
Q: You’ve said that you made that film to bring Thatcher down. Was that your true intention?
A: Yes. But she got reelected anyway.
Q: The relationships in Sammy and Rosie are somewhat out of the ordinary: mixed, distorted, free. Or have those relationships become the ordinary?
A: I would think so, yes. I remember hearing how many children were born out of wedlock and being rather shocked. Then I realized that two of my children were born out of wedlock. People lead complicated lives, and I enjoy that.
Q: You’ve lived together for 19 years,- why haven’t you married?
A: Why rock the boat? If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. She’s never wanted to get married.
Q: Your early film, The Hit, with John Hurt and Terence Stamp was about assassins and their victim, yet it was also bizarrely funny. Intentional?
A: I love things being funny. I mean, I make them as cheaply and vulgarly as it’s possible to make them. If I could be cheaper and more vulgar, I would be.
Q: In The Hit, the strongest character is the girl played by Laura Del Sol, who has a tremendous will to live. You seem to be attracted to strong women roles: Claire Bloom in Sammy and Rosie, Glenn Close in Dangerous Liaisons, Annette Bening and Anjelica Huston in The Grifters.
A: I guess I do. I’ve had strong women in my life: my mother, my wife and the woman I live with.
Q: What was your mother like?
A: Very strong, very much like Thatcher. She had that in her. She raised three boys. My father left during the war, when I was about four, and he really didn’t come back. After the war, he left what he had done, being an accountant, and became a doctor, so I really didn’t know him until I was 18. He was carefree, a rather attractive figure–unlike my mother, who resented that she had to stop her life to raise us. My mother could sometimes step on us, she could be suffocating. There was a certain feeling of being sat upon. And that created both fear and resentment. I grew up and learned how to irritate her.
Q: Did your father remarry?
A: Yes. He was very charming. One of the things that Dangerous Liaisons was about was charm, the danger of charm, so there are rather complicated feelings I have about charm.
Q: Do you now see your father as irresponsible?
A: Now I do, yes. I can see how he made my mother suffer, yes.
Q: Your mother was Jewish–do you consider yourself Jewish?
A: I’m more Jewish now than I was 15 years ago. My Jewish-ness was concealed from me. And it was really only when I was about 30 when I discovered I was Jewish.
Q: That’s astounding.
A: I married a Jewish woman. Here [in the U.S.] Jewishness is talked about a lot and it’s very visible and articulated. In England there’s a sort of silence about it. There’s many things in England that are repressed. That’s the nature of English society. They just eliminate what they don’t like.
Q: Have you begun to learn about it now?
A: I’m not a religious person, but I started reading a book about the history of the Jews. And coming here you get a strong sense of it which I find rather liberating. That’s why, in some respects, I feel more comfortable here.
Q: But you still live there?
A: Because my life is there, and I’m English, it’s everything that I know and love.
Q: Probably the question most Americans want to know about England has to do with the survival of the Royal family and whether the Queen will ever step down and let Charles have his chance.
A: No, she won’t step down, because she knows the generation behind her are cripples.
Q: Maybe she helped make them that way.
A: Of course, oh absolutely, without doubt.
Q: When you were in Cambridge, weren’t the members of Monty Python there too?
A: Yes. I sat in a room for three years with John Cleese. It was a law lecture, so humor was low on the list. Then one day I went to the theater and there he was being funny. I couldn’t believe it. Till then, I’d thought of him as a tall bloke with a black beard.
Q: What so attracted you to theater?
A: At the time, that was where the best new writing was happening in England. It was where the most exciting things that I could find were happening in Britain. Lindsay Anderson was there, and I was sort of in his gang.
Q: You worked as an assistant to Karel Reisz. Didn’t you also work for Albert Finney when he directed Charlie Bubbles?
A: Yes. That was Albert’s first film as a director and he was learning how to make a film, so I learned with him.
Q: And then you worked with Lindsay Anderson on if …. What did you think of these men as your mentors?
A: I learned from Lindsay and Karel like you learn from your mother’s breasts. I just imbibed. I learned values. The point about Lindsay and Karel is that they were the revolution, you know. They changed the world. They believed–if you were to ask them now, they’d say they were wrong–we are artists, and we only make films we care about, so there’d be these five-year gaps between films.
Q: What do you think are their best films?
A: Karel’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning is wonderful. And the one he did about the country/western singer, Sweet Dreams. Lindsay? I suppose if …. I think they are great men, both of them.
Q: Are there any writers today you favor?
A: Salman Rushdie is a wonderful writer. I saw him the other day. I don’t know how he’s held up, but he’s magnificent. He came very close to coming apart.
Q: What do you think about American television?
A: I don’t understand it. I watch a lot of it in Britain. “Cheers,” “The Golden Girls,” “Roseanne.” Friday night is American sitcom night. When I’m here I don’t watch it, I can’t work out when things are on.
Q: You made 24 television movies before Laundrette was released as a feature. Did your TV background, which favors speed and economy, help when you learned that a competing version of Dangerous Liaisons –Milos Forman’s Valmont — was being made at the same time?
A: Oh, I knew I could work faster than Milos.
Q: How often do good books make good movies?
A: Not often, but I think Liaisons is great. The Grapes of Wrath was a good book and a good film, wasn’t it?
Q: How complicated was Liaisons to make?
A: It wasn’t really. I mean, I never thought I would make a costume picture. I know nothing about the 18th century, it was just my way of doing something to answer Barry Lyndon. It was the first anti-Thatcher film.
Q: Who are the directors you most admire?
A: Name them.
Q: Paul Schrader?
A: He’s a good writer.
Q: What do you think of your fellow countryman David Lean?
A: That’s a bit complicated. He’s sort of too overwhelming. I’m half in rebellion against him and half in admiration.
Q: Who are the other people you’re in awe of?
A: I’m in awe of everybody.
Q: Do you ever feel intimidated?
A: By everybody.
Q: It’s hard to believe you.
A: Well, it’s true.
Q: What are some projects you’ve turned down?
A: Well, I never read Thelma & Louise, but I was asked to do it with Jodie Foster and Michelle Pfeiffer. I’d like to have done that, but I was planning The Grifters.
Q: Would you have done it much differently?
A: Of course.
Q: Would it have been better?
A: [Laughing] Of course.
Q: Would you describe yourself as complicated?
A: Very. Very.
Q: How about lucky?
Q: Are you happier now than when you were younger?
A: Yes, much. How many people can say that?
Q: Are you pessimistic or optimistic about the future?
Q: And of your career?
A: I depend on getting a script that I like. I could be the most successful person in the world and if I didn’t get a script that I liked it would be a catastrophe as far as I’m concerned.All I need is a script–that gets me going.
Q: Well, it’s time to let you get back to work.
A: I had no idea you were going to ask me all these questions. It’s taken me by surprise. It’s been good, I’ve been kept out of the editing room. I have a very good editor, and the more I leave him alone, the better the film will be.
Lawrence Grobel interviewed Meryl Streep for our August cover story.