Frears directing on the set of his latest mini series, The Regime, which was produced by HBO. M. Mizuno / HBO
Stephen Frears, film director and producer: 'I have a curious mind, so coming up with fresh material is key'
In the frame

Stephen Frears, film director and producer: 'I have a curious mind, so coming up with fresh material is key'

Celebrated for real-life stories about controversial subjects, the British director talks to SUR in English prior to his visit to the Hay Forum in Seville

Tony Bryant


Friday, 15 March 2024, 15:13


Celebrated British film director and producer Stephen Frears arrives in Seville this week to participate in the Hay Festival Forum, an international gathering of experts and leaders in the field of ideas, architecture, literature, film, art and culture. Now in its second year in the Andalusian capital, cinema plays a leading role in the forum, and along with the chance to listen to Frears talking about his long career in the film industry, there was also an opportunity to see three of his most celebrated films in English: My Beautiful Laundrette, Dangerous Liaisons, and The Queen.

SUR in English caught up with the 82-year-old, who claims "being a film director is an odd combination of involvement and detachment", to talk about his early work, his rise to stardom in Hollywood and some of the actors he has most enjoyed working with.

Frears spent most of his early directing career in television, mainly for the BBC. He has since become world-renowned for his real-life stories that explore controversial subjects or events, like interracial relationships, homosexual promiscuity, political scandal and the British class system, most of which are a mixture of tragedy and comedy.

Born in Leicester, Frears began his career working as an assistant director in theatre and television, directing his debut feature film, Gumshoe, in 1971. However, it was to be in the 1980s when Frears' career really took off, in particular, with the movies, My Beautiful Laundrette, which launched Daniel Day-Lewis on his acting career; and Prick Up Your Ears, the true-story of playwright Joe Orton's tragic life, which starred the young actors Gary Oldman and Alfred Molina. These three actors were relatively unknown at the time, but they were not chosen because Frears has an eye for new talent.

"I didn't have enough money to use anyone famous at that time. What happens is you do it out of necessity. There were four people on the list for Dan's part. They were the ones who were around at that time. It's true, we didn't have enough money, but we were saved by our poverty," he says, bursting into laughter.

Even though many of his films are based on real-life characters, Frears rarely seeks to meet the people he is portraying.

"Well, I never met the Queen, or Joe Orton, and I've never met Tony Blair. I've no desire to meet them, because that would have confused me. I don't think real life helps, because, in a way, it's much better to use one's imagination," he explains.

Academy nominations

Frears received international attention as a director in 1988, when he directed Dangerous Liaisons, which starred John Malkovich, Glenn Close and Michelle Pfeiffer. The film received world-wide critical acclaim and was nominated for seven Academy and ten British Academy awards, launching Frears onto the Hollywood scene. In 1990, he directed the crime thriller, The Grifters, which was produced by Martin Scorsese, someone for whom he obviously holds much respect.

"I was always waiting for Martin to phone. One day he rang. He had seen Laundrette and thought that the man who made this must make The Grifters. I thought this was brilliant," he says.

Another "big moment" in his life was when he went to Hollywood in 1992 to make Hero, starring Dustin Hoffman.

"Hero was a studio film, and I didn't really know much about working for the studios. I don't think I know that much now. I was quite perplexed by it all," he declares, with sincerity.

A string of box-office hit movies followed and Frears began to establish himself as a much sought-after director, but he never turned his back on the UK and the British film industry. He returned to directing for television with The Deal (2003), which was based on the alleged deal between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown as to which of them would lead the Labour party in 1994. This was followed by The Queen (2006), a film based on the death of Princess Diana from the angle of Queen Elizabeth II. The lead role was played by Helen Mirren, who had described the movie as "a hot potato". Mirren claimed that it was only the professionalism of the director that put her at ease. It premiered at the Venice Film Festival, and Mirren, who claimed she was "petrified at the thought of making it", won Best Actress for her portrayal of the monarch.

"When I was first introduced to Helen, I thought it was a very good idea for her to play the role. When she sat down, the producer said, 'Oh my goodness, she looks exactly like the queen.' Helen was so good, but I didn't feel the subject was a hot potato. She was brilliant. I remember her going into wardrobe, and when she came out, she was the queen. It's as simple as that," Frears says.

Although he sometimes works with the same actor for different movies, he claims he does not have any favourites. "I don't really have favourites, but I remember thinking when I first met Hugh [Grant] that I would have a part to play in his life. We started flirting, and then along came the film Florence Foster Jenkins, which was enjoyable to make. Next was the film about Jeremy Thorpe, A Very English Scandal. I always knew Hugh would be brilliant, although he took some convincing."

Journey of discovery

Frears believes that "making a film is a journey of discovery; they are a way of learning about life".

"I have a curious mind, so coming up with fresh material is key. I pick a film because I like it, and because I think it's well written. I am astonished that writers seem to be able to write the inside of my head. The idea of repeating myself is very depressing though," he explains.

In 2017, Frears made Victoria and Abdul, a British film about the real-life relationship between Queen Victoria and her Indian Muslim servant. The film starred Judy Dench, whom he had worked with on Mrs Henderson Presents, in 2005, which also starred Bob Hoskins. He had also collaborated with Dench in 2013 on the film, Philomena, which explored the story of Philomena Lee's 50-year search for her son, who was taken from her when she was a young unwed mother at a Catholic convent, and then adopted by an American family.

Although he has been voted among the top 100 most influential people in British culture, and hailed as one of the film world's "most influential creators in recent decades", Frears claims he "takes no notice" of this praise. Even his knighthood in 2023 is something he believes to be of little use in the film world.

"I must say that I was surprised when I heard about the knighthood, but it's not a title I would ever think of using. The thing about it was that it was of no relevance, but the day was rather charming. Princess Anne was charming," he says.

The director acknowledges that the film industry has changed greatly since he first began, which is why he feels that forums like the one in Seville are important.

"When I grew up, you went to the pictures, to the cinema. I've always preferred that. I can see the world is not the way I wanted it to be, so these types of festivals have become important.

"The way films are made is also easier today, but of course, the easiness is its own trap, because in the end, it's about thought and imagination," he concludes.

Stephen Frears' latest project, The Regime, which stars Kate Winslet and Hugh Grant, premiered on HBO at the beginning of March.

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