”I didn’t want to be a film director. It was all a mistake”, he declares. ”It’s miraculous that this job suits my character so well. This capacity of being involved and detached at the same time. God in his infinite wisdom said, ’alright, I will make a special job for this fellow because otherwise he will be hopeless’.”
The young Frears was working in the theatre when Karel Reisz (Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Night Must Fall, The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Everybody Wins) invited him to work on his films. ”Don’t ask me why he did.”
Auteur of the popular
What scares Frears the most is ”the possibility of being boring, on any occasion”, he says with a laugh. He is not ashamed to wrap his stories into commercial genres. ’The audience likes popular forms, it makes difficult subjects acceptable. Actually the business of entertainment is a very-very complicated affair. I would say, entertainment is a lot more difficult thing than art.’
Is it a real danger that he may need to compromise his work with oversimplifying for the sake of wider appeal? ”The world is very complicated, and the audience knows that. The old world in which you have cowboys with black hats and cowboys with white hats, is no longer possible. If you can create a sort of order out of the complexity, and in the middle of it all there is love, there is family, whatever it is: people will like that.”
We can no longer dance around the subject: what does he think about the auteur-theory? ”Oh, it’s rubbish!” His suspicion of the theory is echoed by the rememberance of his childhood spent in the dark of the cinema. ”Directors didn’t exist in those days. Nobody knew about them. The world was a more innocent place.” In that spirit, he prefers to call himself a craftsman. ”Like John Ford. But, I’m not as good as John Ford. I never write a script, so how can be an auteur?”, he explains. ”Actually I know that the auteur theory refered very precisely to directors who don’t write on their own. Clever French critics realized that in Hollywood certain directors have a coherence in their work, in style or in subject matter. Out of this factory you can identify certain individuals. So I’m exactly an auteur, but nobody uses the term in that sense, so I’m not auteur.”
A self-declared craftsman whose main pursuit obviously is a sort of human touch, he resents the idea of being different from other people. What kind of films did he like when he was growing up? ”Like everybody else!”, he replies rather impatiently with genuine incomprehension in his eyes, as if he’s saying: ’I’m a human being like everyone else. In the cinema I’m no different from the others sitting around me!’. Okay, if you say so…
When I enquire about his friends, what I get is a quick riposte: ”Who’re my friends? Well, John, Bob, and Bill…”. In every answer given to the questions related to the private side of his life, he re-emphasizes the importance of the common denominator. ’Can’t you see that we all have the same things in common?’, his puzzled look suggests. But are his friends fellow filmmakers or ’civilians’? ”Writers, mainly”, comes the answer immediatelly. Gotcha! Then he pauses long to find the reason behind this attraction. ”I came from the ’Writer’s Theater’ in television, I grew up in this world where your job is to bring somebody else’s script to life. I treat the writers with respect. (Our) collaboration is very intimate. I think I should have been a writer but I can’t write.’ Interestingly enough, several world-class actors whom I interviewed expressed the same desire (Jack Nicholson, Jeremy Irons, just to name a few). Actors who are top of their professions, seem to have a need to belong to a less noisy and more internal form of creativity, that of writing. But the job of acting that involves a great deal of traveling prevents them from ”sitting down to write”, as they all put it.
Frears never really initiates a project. He depends on what he is pitched. ”When I try to be active about it, it’s no good. I’ve never said, ’I want to make a film about that and use this and this’. I’m completely patient. I wait. Who wants to be passive? It’s rather boring. Humiliating. But I have no choice.” When he eventually commits to a project, his auteur-self is at work again. ”Always unavoidably you take certain kinds of subjects. I am very fond of the American noir novels. I was drawn to that kind of language and ideas. You discover that they say quite complicated things about life”. He cites The Grifters as an example (for which he was nominated for an Oscar).
”I like making films about things I know nothing about. You conduct a series of intelligent conversations with other people. When I made Dangerous Liaisons the costume designer asked me: You want the film set in 1762 or 1764?” He sees his whole career in television – where at times he made 3 films annually- as the quintessential learning course. ”I used to watch films then I tried to copy them the next, I did a shot that I saw in another film, but I generally got into mess. Yet, slowly you start to understand why you’re doing certain things. You become efficient and you can move these pieces around some way. My input has grown over the years as I become more confident. But it took me 15 years!”
To this day, he still enjoys exploring new territories. His next movie -currently filming in London- called Mrs. Henderson Presents tells the story of a madame who ran the first night club which exhibited naked girls outmanouvering the British law that forbad their public appearance. ”It’s a musical, so I have to learn a lot of things that I never knew before about the genre. I employ very clever composers and keep my mouth shut. I let the composer educate me. If he guides me to a wrong place I guess I don’t trust him.” Quite a devoted person, isn’t he? Well, you certainly don’t hear directors talking like this every day, as this species essentially is of very autocratic nature.
The act of exploration knows no bounderies. Just before his masterclass in Cannes, Frears had a lunch with Milos Forman who made the competing film of Frears’s Liaisons called Valmont which was a catastropic flop at the box office and put Forman out of work for eight long years. ”He said something about (my version) which I never thought before. 15 years after the (movie) I still try to understand what went on. So I always need time to catch up, to try to understand what it is I’m doing.
But he likes the liberty, too, that comes with the knowledge-intensive job. ”As a filmmaker, you’re allowed to ask very-very rude questions you can’t ask otherwise.” Part of this package are his struggles with his own Britishness. He does so by critizing the society he himself lives in. Having grown up in a non-conformist family, he has a strong sense of criticism. ”One of the good things about Britain that there is a strong tradition of criticism. Only a mature democracy can tolerate criticism on that scale. You expect the government to behave itself and be responsible. So it seems to me a good thing when a country is able to tolerate criticism decently. The less a country has the ability to do so the more trouble it is in.”
The casts of his films could easily fill the General Assembly at the United Nations. French and Irish, Turks and ’Pakis’, Brits and Yankees, citizens and immigrants, poor workers and upper and middle class people. Then what kind of coherence seems to appear in his colorful body of work? The penchant for portraying outcast, and the everyday people living in the periphery of the society is one of the most apparent aspect of Frears’s oeuvre. He embraces the least fashionable range of society, and with a great deal of compassion he finds the universal and the human in the misfits (Sammy and Rosie Get Laid). He brings close to the viewers not only the marginal people who are named losers by the so-called moral majority (like The Snapper, Accidental Hero, High Fidelity), but understands even the seemingly unsympathetic, cruel small-time crooks (The Grifters) and natural born trouble makers (Dangerous Liaisons). Frears understands the age-old axiom about the moviegoer who instinctly wants to identify with the hero. Here is a director who really cares about their need to ”love the characters. You can make such a film without being sentimental. People just adored My Beautiful Laundrette because there was this love between the two boys. It was so touching, so funny and cheeky.” As he revealed their attraction about halfway through the movie, it came ”almost as a surprise”.
But the secret is, he thinks, that those immigrants ”are identical to anyone else.” The writer of My Beautiful Laundrette warned him that he should not do much research about them. ”So you don’t treat them as if they’ve got three hands. Just treat them like human beings.” ”When I made My Beautiful Laundrette that was also to do with the Empire. I walk down the street in London, and I realize I live in a multicultural world. ’Dirty Pretty Things provides a criticism of the market economy. It has nothing to do with the Empire. They’re just people wanting to escape from poor countries to rich countries.” To acquire a certain care for the outcast, it requires leaving the traditional colonial approach to life behind. ”The most interesting writing in England over the last 20 years has been the writing of immigrant writers. That’s where the vitality comes from. People like me should be lucky. Our blood is being mixed in some way because we had a very narrow, imperial view of the world, and it has run out of time. The only hope is to re-educate yourself. Re-discover that God is no longer an Englishman.”
Best of Frears: a period noir
”I look at Dangerous Liaisons in complete disbelief. I can’t believe I was allowed to direct it”, he said at his masterclass. ” There were a lot of long dialogue scenes in the script that I read. I thought, ’well, that’s kind of boring.’ I spent a long time try to avoid these.” He considers this movie the best piece of work he ever done. For an avid reader of the American noir novels, like Frears, this adaptation of the Christopher Hampton play gathers an ensemble of perfect noir characters: the masters of intrique. What actually Frears made is a period noir! But it didn’t start as such. He planned to shoot it much in the style of Letter from an Unknown Woman (set in Vienna around 1900) directed by one of his favorite directors, Max Ophüls, whose swiftly moving camera sort of danced on its own. ”Every line John Malkovich says is a lie basically. Generally speaking (the movie is) about what’s happening underneath. I wanted them to act like English theatre actors, being theatrical so that you can show what is underneath. They weren’t equipped for that. I either stand around and say, ’Why can’t you act?’, or I figure out what they are good at. It was a big exprience of my life, first time in my work actors couldn’t do what I wanted them to do. I learned more about the American cinema in that week than ever before.” The French praised his achievement and laureated the film with a Cesar Award.
During the course of making the film, Frears learned the lesson that casting seals the fate of the film. ”The truth is, if you cast this person for the film, you get this kind of film, and that person, that kind of film. What to make, this kind of that kind? You try to work out what it is you are supposed to be doing. Slowly it makes sense. Slowly because you don’t know what you’re looking for. Somebody walks in, and it just makes sense, oh, I see, that’s believable. You recognize it. All you can do is to create a space in which actors can work, and watch them closely. I’m actually rather patriachal. Having all these people around me, and I look after them.”
What makes the Frears films so specially ’Frearsian’ despite their eclectic nature in location and subject matter? His most secret weapon is none other than a sense of hearing. He lets himself be led by his ears. ”It always has to do with the sound. The quality of the writing. The sort of tone. I start to notice things, I can hear when they say the line right. With the sort of conviction, you can hear when things are right.” Another of his skills exists way beyond his ears. It’s his intuition. That he can instantly feel the chemistry and find the right people who are tuned to his wavelength. His longtime collaborator, cinematographer Oliver Stapleton ”could read what was inside my head and express it visually. It’s quite extraordinary.” Like a telepathic connection? Frears nods without a word. But the telepathy doesn’t stop here. He remembers the day when he was given the script of The Snapper. ”I knew, as it was in the envelope, that it was good. A sort of vibration you can feel. Then you start to read it, and it’s sooo funny, and sooo heartbreaking, and you just want to know what happens to this girl.”
At the end of the interview in Venice, I couldn’t resist pointing to the fact that no matter how cruel the intriques of the plot, despite any cruelty, and the painful struggles his marginal heroes go through, one can always find heart in his films. ”Someone in trouble is inherently more dramatic than someone who is rich and privileged. It just seems more interesting. (But) I always try to find something optimistic or joyful. The truth is you always know when you put something in is fake. Sometimes you go with it, sometimes you go against it. In my films, I’ve noticed when I put something that is false, the audience can tell. It seems to me what you might call love, that’s a privilege. In Dirty Pretty Things the question is whether this girl is gonna get out alive, or give up a kidney, or some man is gonna kill her. It seems a bit silly to talk about love, worry about whether you’re in love with someone. You just need to survive. Once she survived, there’s room for nicer feelings. Life is so desperate. So why not end it as nicely as you can? Should it have gone bad at the end, it would seem false to me. Giving the film a heart is sort of unavoidable. I tried to get rid of it, I put it out the lavoratory. And what about him? His heart. ”Am I romantic? Completely. Yes, completely.” A bit of a blush appears on his face while he exhibits an ironic smile – just like a British gentleman who’s caught in the action of speaking honestly).
© FIPRESCI 2004