Q & A with Director Stephen Frears

Stephen Frears — Director of “Tamara Drewe”

Stephen Frears — Director of “Tamara Drewe”

As part of ZAMM.com’s continuing conversations with leading filmmakers Martin Grove talks to director Stephen Frears about his comedy “Tamara Drewe,” opening Oct. 8 in New York and Los Angeles via Sony Classics Pictures.

Directed by Stephen Frears (“The Queen”), “Tamara Drewe” was an official selection of the 2010 Cannes Film Festival and the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival. The Sony Pictures Classics release is presented by WestEnd Films, BBC Films and the U.K. Film Council and is a Ruby Films Production in association with Notting Hill Films.

Its screenplay by Moira Buffini is based on the graphic novel by Posy Simmonds. It was produced by Tracey Seaward, Alison Owen and Paul Trijbits and executive produced by Eve Schoukroun. The film’s ensemble cast includes Gemma Arterton, Roger Allam, Bill Camp, Dominic Cooper, Luke Evans and Tamsin Greig.

The Story (official synopsis – no major spoilers): Based on Posy Simmonds’ graphic novel of the same name (which was itself inspired by Thomas Hardy’s classic “Far From the Madding Crowd”), this wittily modern take on the romantic English pastorale is a far cry from Hardy’s Wessex. “Tamara Drewe’s” present–day English countryside — stocked with pompous writers, rich weekenders, bourgeois bohemians, a horny rock star and a great many Buff Orpington chickens and Belted Galloway cows — is a much funnier place.

When Tamara Drewe (Gemma Arterton) returns to the bucolic village of her youth, life for the locals is thrown tail over teakettle. Tamara, once an ugly duckling, has been transformed into a devastating beauty (with a little help from plastic surgery). As infatuations, jealousies, love affairs and career ambitions collide among the inhabitants of the neighboring farmsteads, Tamara sets a contemporary comedy of manners into play using the oldest magic in the book — sex appeal.

STEPHEN FREARS, one of the U.K.’s most critically acclaimed directors, has worked with some of the world’s best talent both in front of and behind the camera.

Most recently he worked with Michele Pfeiffer in “Cheri,” based on the French novel by Colette, and Helen Mirren for his award winning film “The Queen,” for which Mirren received the Best Actress Oscar and Frears was nominated for key directing awards, including the Oscar, BAFTA and Golden Globe. The film became a boxoffice success after its launch at the Venice International Film Festival.

He began his career at London’s Royal Court Theatre, where he worked with director Lindsay Anderson, and moved into the film industry in 1966 as an assistant director to Karel Reisz. In 1971 he made his directorial debut with “Gumshoe,” a wry homage to film noir starring Albert Finney. His breakthrough came in 1985 with “My Beautiful Laundrette,” which launched the careers of Daniel Day–Lewis and writer Hanif Kureishi, who was Oscar nominated for best original screenplay. Frears and Kureishi reteamed on 1987’s “Sammy and Rosie Get Laid.”

Frears went on to direct “Prick Up Your Ears,” about English playwright Joe Orton, starring Gary Oldman and Alfred Molina, and then “Dangerous Liaisons,” starring Michelle Pfeiffer, John Malkovich and Glenn Close, which triumphed at the 1989 Academy Awards, winning for adapted screenplay, costumes and art direction. It also was nominated for best picture, actress (Close), supporting actress (Pfeiffer) and music. Frears was again Oscar nominated for best director for “The Grifters” (1990), starring John Cusack, Anjelica Huston and Annette Bening.

Q: It can’t have been easy to get an intelligent movie like this made.
A: Well, 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.
Q: How did “Tamara Drewe” come about?
A: The producers got a script written from it and sent it to me. I’d actually read it in the newspaper and I’d known the graphic artist for 30 years, but it never crossed my mind (that it could be a movie).
Q: When did they send it to you?
A: Early last year. February.
Q: When you read it how did you respond to the material?
A: I just loved it. It just made me laugh. I thought it was very, very fresh.
Q: When you read it did you, in effect, see the movie as you were reading?
A: It’s a graphic novel so you have a sort of guide in a completely different way. But, no, I read it and thought it was fresh and that if I enjoy this there’s a chance that audiences will.
Q: Did you have any casting ideas while reading it?
A: I immediately thought of Roger Allam. 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 that I had the three principals.
Q: The producers by going along with the idea of not casting big name stars had to know that it would be harder to market the movie because of that.
A: 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.
Q: And in you, obviously.
A: Yes.
Q: How did you manage to get the movie made so quickly?
A: In a way, we were slightly helped because it covers four seasons and you could only shoot at a certain time of the year in which you had more variety than any other. So the dates became locked in and that was really the end of it. If you missed those dates, you’d have had to wait a year. It actually rather helped everybody.
Q: No doubling summer for winter?
A: Well, we did do a great deal of that, but we thought we had the greater span. We were more likely to get seasonal variations in that nine week period than any other. We started shooting late in September (of 2009). We went on until the beginning of November. And by a miracle the weather, which had been atrocious all summer, became wonderful. We had an Indian Summer. Of course, in September the sun is lower in the sky. The reason it looks so beautiful is because of that.
Q: Where were you shooting?
A: In a county called Dorset — in the west of Dorset. It’s just heart–stoppingly beautiful. I shot seven weeks on location and two weeks in London.
Q: Looking back at production, what were some of the challenges you faced?
A: It was quite an easy film to make. I mean, you had to deal with the weather so you had to revisit locations. They had to redress it and things like that so you did get a sense of time passing. Other than that, it was just the cows that were difficult.
Q: You needed them to do certain scenes that are important to the story.
A: The charge without anybody alongside them — without wranglers driving them on in the conventional way.
Q: Is there a secret you can share about wrangling movie cows?
A: You just have to be lucky, amongst other things. And patient. And in the end we got what we wanted.
Q: How did you work with the actors other than the cows?
A: It’s really 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. The important thing, I think, is the casting of them and then to treat them like grown–ups.
Q: Do you like to rehearse with your actors?
A: No. I didn’t rehearse.
Q: About half of the filmmakers I talk to say they can’t possibly work other than by rehearsing and the other half say they don’t like to. What’s the case for not rehearsing?
A: It’s just that I don’t really understand the rehearsal process. But once I see them standing in the right place, I understand it. So it’s really my limitation. Sitting around and discussing it doesn’t make any sense. As soon as it becomes concrete, I understand it and I’m covering it with chalk marks on floors and things like that.
Gemma Arterton as Tamara Drewe in “Tamara Drewe”

Gemma Arterton as Tamara Drewe in “Tamara Drewe”

Q: Is it better to work that way in terms of getting fresh performances?
A: I would think it was because it was more spontaneous. I’m not sure an actor would necessarily agree with me. But I like to respond to what’s in front of me.
Q: I’m always hearing that every actor is different in terms of how they like to work.
A: Yes. The whole time you try to work out how to photograph an actor when he’s at his best. Which way do you shoot first? Do you do this and then that? There’s no point in having actors being good when you’re not shooting them.
Q: What do you do in terms of preparing to work? Do you storyboard or shotlist?
A: I don’t storyboard. Of course, in this case there was a graphic novel so in a sense someone else had storyboarded it. I like to see what they’re doing and pick up from that. I like to respond to accidents and invention. A storyboard would sort of flatten all that out. The only person who ever had any sense with using storyboards was Hitchcock, who in some uncanny way controlled them. Storyboards sort of goad you on in some ways.
Q: Directors sometimes say that if they storyboard and plan things out ahead they are then free to work with their actors on set.
A: I don’t know. I like to do both at the same time and I don’t find it particularly difficult.
Q: In “Tamara Drewe” there are so many scenes where you have multiple actors interacting. Was any of that improv?
A: No.
Q: It seemed so totally natural.
A: It’s called good acting. They were just very good. But, no, it wasn’t improv.
Q: But it must be difficult to achieve that without having done a lot of rehearsing.
A: I can’t answer because it’s sort of what I do for a living. I don’t find it particularly difficult or complicated. It’s very spontaneous and instinctive. It’s just what I do.
Q: But clearly you must create an environment in which the actors can do their best work.
A: Yes. Most of the time you’re doing that. You’re creating space in which actors can do their work.
Q: And that isn’t easy to do.
A: Yes, I guess I can do that. And then I bother to notice what the actors are doing. I don’t really have a film in my head. It’s largely based on observation. Dominic Cooper’s performance entirely came about from my observation of him. I started to realize how elegantly inventive he was. I observed his character, really.
Q: As you’re going along are you doing an assembly of what you’ve shot?
A: First of all, when you’re shooting you’re endlessly running patterns of shots in your head. You watch a scene and you think, “Well, I can do this and this and this and this.” You immediately run five shots through your head. And then you think, “Or I can do that or I can do that.” You’re examining all those possibilities. And then, yes, my editor is generally a couple of days behind in monitoring what I’m doing. I have a lot of people monitoring what I’m doing.
Q: So as you’re in the midst of production you’re able to see a rough assembly?
A: Not particularly seeing, but I’m in the middle of a conversation with my editor. If I hear a note of alarm in his voice — because, you know, I’m trained to detect a note of alarm — I can pick it up. But I have people monitoring what I’m doing. There’s a constant conversation going on.
Q: Is this the way you’ve worked for years now?
A: Yes, I think so.
Q: And did you evolve into this approach?
A: Oh, yes, absolutely. At a certain point you become more confident and you become experienced and you sort of realize that if you do certain things there will be a film at the end of it. So you just acquire experience.
Q: Between this film and “The Queen,” were there differences in how you worked?
There probably were, but I can’t quite remember now what they were. Well, with “The Queen,” Helen (Mirren) was giving such an extraordinary performance in the middle. I really concentrated on everything else because Helen scarcely needs a director. You need to make a film into which her performance can fit.
Q: As you look back at shooting “Tamara Drewe,” were there any scenes that come to mind as having been particularly challenging?
Not really. It was very, very straight forward. The other day on a train I thought, “Oh, that’s one.” There was one particular moment and I did think, “Oh, that’s what I should have done. I got it wrong.” That was last week and you can’t do anything about it. It was something that didn’t make sense and the other day I worked out what I should have done.
Tamara Drewe — In theaters October 8th

Tamara Drewe — In theaters October 8th

Q: Of course, the whole idea with a movie is to ultimately get people to see it. How did Sony Classics come to distribute it?
25 years ago they distributed “My Beautiful Laundrette” in the States.
Q: So they heard you’d made “Tamara Drewe” now…
No, no, no. They bought it before we made it. Very rare these days.
Q: What sort of budget did you have?
I don’t know because I don’t ask. I understand and say, “Can’t we make it cheaper?”
Q: You say that?
Q: That’s unusual because most filmmakers are trying to get more money.
I’m trying to get less.
Q: Well, certainly the film looks terrific.
I’m really pleased with it.
Q: The independent film marketplace has changed so much over the years. You’re truly blessed to have had such a long term relationship with Sony Classics. But, in general, the kind of films you make so well seem to be having a tougher and tougher time getting distributed.
(laughs) Thank you very much for pointing that out. I mean, I can see that. I can see the way the world is going, yes, of course.
Q: Is there hope?
There are no grounds for hope because we go on. You know, you don’t really have a choice.
Q: But you continue to try to make good films.
You make the best films you can, yes, of course.
Q: We’re in the awards season now and certainly “Tamara Drewe” is a film that people will be talking about in that context. How important is awards recognition to such movies?
The truth is that by now in the life of a film of course you’re concerned with the returns and with the audiences. And 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. It’s as simple as that.
Q: Do you look back and wish that 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 that 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.
Q: Looking ahead, what are you doing next?
I’m doing a film in Las Vegas about sportsbook gamblers. The film is called “Lay the Favorite.”
Q: Is there a distributor for that yet?
It’s with Focus.
Q: Have you cast it yet?
Q: Do you like Las Vegas?
I was there the other day and because I now have a sort of way in, as it were, for the first time I was able to really enjoy it. I wasn’t just a tourist.