Combustible Celluloid

Interview with Stephen Frears

Frears Factor

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

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The great Hollywood director John Ford hated talking about his art. He was a picture-maker. He turned up for work every day and did what he did best; what the hell did he know about art?

Ford was famous for making Westerns, but his colleague Howard Hawks -- who shared a similar disdain for "art" -- made just about every type of film under the sun.

If you combine these two men, place the result in England, and give him a theater and television background, you might come up with someone like Stephen Frears.

Frears, 64, recently visited San Francisco to talk about his new Golden Globe-nominated film Mrs. Henderson Presents. He wears casual men's clothes and an unkempt tuft of gray hair puffed up just above his forehead. He approaches the interview process with the same workmanship quality he puts into his films. Get this question out of the way and get on to the next. None of this dilly-dallying.

Frears began his career in theater, and worked as an assistant to film directors Karel Reisz (Morgan) and Lindsay Anderson (if...), which led to a long string of BBC television productions. In the mid-1980s he made the move to semi-permanent feature film director, clocking in with art house hits like My Beautiful Laundrette (1986) and Oscar-nominees like Dangerous Liaisons (1988).

He proved incredibly versatile, excelling in crime films (The Hit, The Grifters), comedies (The Snapper, High Fidelity), serious dramas (Liam, Dirty Pretty Things) and even a horror film (Mary Reilly), set on both sides of the pond. He also tended to attract high quality writers like Alan Bennett, Christopher Hampton, Roddy Doyle, David Hare and Hanif Kureishi.

"A certain kind of script comes to me," Frears says. "I come from a writer's theater, so I guess writers trust me. People in Hollywood think I'm ridiculous."

Based on a true story, the new film follows Mrs. Henderson (Judi Dench), a recently widowed woman of means who, bored with the promise of a life of luncheons and gossip, buys a theater. She hires the equally stubborn Vivian Van Damm (Bob Hoskins) to run it for her, and the two of them have a great time bickering over the years. Their most notable achievement is the introduction of nudity on the London stage, though the Lord Chamberlain (Christopher Guest) decrees that the women must remain motionless, like classic works of art.

Mrs. Henderson Presents mixes three genres: comedy, war, and musical, balanced with the delicate charm it takes to get heavy nudity past the American censors. But asked how he managed to pull this combination off, Frears shrugs.

"It was organic, really," he says. "It grew and grew. Maybe somebody really clever could say, 'you have to do this and then you have to do that.' I find it all out the hard way. I just do it. I go on and go on and one day things start to work."

Frears likes giving credit where credit is due. For the film's jaunty musical numbers, he credits his choreographer, Stuart Hopps. He thanks producer Harvey Weinstein for suggesting that Frears explain "The Blitz" to younger viewers. (Based on the German word for "lightning," it was the phrase coined to describe a relentless series of bomb raids over 1940 and 1941.) Though it was Frears' idea to make a musical number out of it.

To describe the events of World War II, Frears simply went to the best possible source: the films of Humphrey Jennings (Listen to Britain, Fires Were Started, etc.). "Wonderful films," Frears says. "Those images of the war are so powerful, we never found anything to compare with them. I've never seen it done before, just cut to black and white footage in the middle of the film. I like the contrast. I like banging color and black-and-white against each other."

Far from a heavy-handed war film, Mrs. Henderson Presents is mainly a comedy, and that's thanks mostly to Bob Hoskins and Judi Dench butting heads. Dench worked with Frears twice before, in two BBC television films, Going Gently (1981) and Saigon: Year of the Cat (1983), and Frears smiles at the mention of her. He says she adored the part of Mrs. Henderson.

"She would say, 'why can't I play this part for the rest of my life?' -- anything in which she can behave badly." What makes her so funny? "It's a combination of royalty and mischievousness. It's irresistible. It's exciting. And she's such a sexy woman."

Even so, it's up to a director to make sure the timing is right. "If a scene goes on too long there's nothing she can do about it," he says. "I put the stopwatch on people because I read that Billy Wilder used to do that. I remember that Richard Dreyfuss said to me that Steven Spielberg told him, 'that was a very good 59-second version of the scene, now do a 35-second version. But in the end, if it goes on that long, you just get bored."

Unlike most directors, Frears likes having writers on the set as well. He values their input, although he admits that it helps to have very good writers, hopefully trained in theater.

"In the end, everything has to be filtered. I have to passively or actively approve everything," he says. "It's never a problem with good writers. Bad writers, it's a miracle there's anything there in the first place. So when you say, 'do it differently,' they go white. A good writer will say, 'Alright... I'll write you another scene.'"

Writers, choreographers, actors, producers and other directors... it's almost as if Frears wasn't even on the set while Mrs. Henderson Presents played out for the cameras.

Very little would ever get him to talk about his art or take credit for anything, but if you keep hammering, you may get him to at least take a compliment: "I think what you're saying is that I'm good at my job. People don't say that about people, do they? That he's really good at his job. I think it's the highest compliment in the world."

See also: Mrs. Henderson Presents.

December 14, 2005

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