News Column

Choice cuts from a life in film-making ; The big interview

October 26, 2013


Acclaimed director Stephen Frears, of The Queen and My Beautiful Laundrette fame - chats to Becky Jones about his latest film and his Leicester childhood I'm at five-star Mayfair hotel Claridge's, about to interview Leicester-born Stephen Frears and I'm an emotional wreck. I'm not so much anxious at the prospect of meeting the Oscar- nominated director of The Queen, My Beautiful Launderette and Dangerous Liaisons, as reeling from the emotional rollercoaster of watching his latest film. Philomena stars Dame Judi Dench and Steve Coogan. Inspired by true events, it tells the tale of Irish woman Philomena Lee (wonderfully portrayed by Dame Judi) and her painstaking 50-year search for the son she was forced to give up for adoption.

After getting nowhere on her own, she enlists the help of former BBC foreign correspondent and Government communications director Martin Sixsmith (Coogan). Together, they embark on an extraordinary road trip. Although its heart is a tragic tale, the film - based on Sixsmith's book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee - is interspersed with well-judged comic moments, largely thanks to the glorious odd couple relationship between the two protagonists.

The fact there are comic elements is no surprise, given the script was cowritten by comedian Coogan, who is also a producer of the film.

With Frears at the helm and Dame Judi leading the cast, it's quite the dream team.

After a short wait in one of Claridge's spacious suites, I'm led down the corridor to meet the legendary director in his room.

He sits relaxing in a chair, casually dressed in a navy jumper over a grey polo shirt, his grey hair sticking up at all angles.

Ah, come in, he says cheerily, in his distinctive gravelly tones.

Taking a seat on a white leather ottoman at the end of the bed, I tell him how much I enjoyed the film and he seems rather pleased when I admit to both being brought to tears and laughing out loud.

It was always two things - the tragic story of this woman, with a sort of romantic comedy on top of it. So there's sadness and happiness at the same time. It's interesting it manages to be both. The whole thing is a sort of balancing act, says Frears, who spent three months working on the script with Coogan and Jeff Pope before committing to the project.

Frears says striking the right balance between tragedy and comedy was made easier by the writing and the casting of the leading roles.

Both sides were so well written and both sides were so well represented by Judi and Steve, so that made it a lot easier.

Philomena is the fourth film on which Frears, 72, has collaborated with Dame Judi, beginning with BBC TV play Going Gently and including the 2005 comedy Mrs Henderson Presents - and the opportunity to work with her again was certainly part of the film's draw.

I've worked a lot with Judi. In fact, we both think we've worked with each other more than anyone else.

I'm on a list of people that Judi likes, so part of my job is to look after her, laughs Frears, who says Dame Judi gives the best performance of her life as the devout Catholic who, despite the injustices she has suffered, retains her religious faith.

And Steve plays it with depth and gets it right, he continues. It's an odd couple film, so you need someone as eccentric as Steve.

He's interesting and clever, with tremendous moral intelligence. It intrigues me, the way he got hold of this story and tweaked it in a way so it's also a reflection of his own lapsed Catholicism.

His taste is very, very good. He knows how to do jokes - when to do them and when to hold back. I couldn't think of a straight actor who would have been as good.

Though Frears has directed an array of films based on true stories, I'm intrigued how he found the experience this time around, especially given the tragic nature of the subject.

I made a film about the bloody Queen he retorts, breaking into a croaking laugh. So everything's easy after that. You just have to behave responsibly.

Meeting Philomena Lee, the woman behind this incredible story, was a memorable experience for the director, who recalls her visiting the set when scenes in the convent laundry were being shot.

I told her, 'you shouldn't be here. You must have spent all your life trying to get away from this place'. She is courageous. She doesn't let you know the awful things that have happened to her. She keeps them very well concealed. She's not bitter. She's inspiring.

And how does she feel about the film? She's seen it three times now. The first time, I think she went out and got drunk, he chuckles. It must be so shocking to see a film about yourself. I think she's very, very pleased, but it must be so peculiar for her.

Philomena has received a hugely positive reaction since its world premiere at this year's Venice International Film Festival, where it earned the award for best screenplay. It's the latest in a long line of films to have been brought to the big screen by the internationally renowned director, who made his film debut with Gumshoe in 1971 before achieving international success with My Beautiful Laundrette, in 1985.

Yet, working in the film industry was never an aspiration for the young Stephen Frears, growing up in wartime Leicester. I have no idea what my aspirations were. They certainly weren't to be a film director, laughs Frears, who, though initially taken aback by the mention of his birthplace, is soon regaling me with tales of his early life.

I was born in Leicester, at home.

When I was 18 months I had an operation on my ear at a hospital that was near the prison (the Royal Infirmary). I nearly died there. I had a swollen middle ear.

I lived up the Hinckley Road, by Western Park, and I went to the Hinckley Road primary school (Dovelands Primary).

I don't remember what my favourite subjects were at school, but I remember learning to read and I remember learning the piano, says Frears, who, aged eight, was sent to prep school in Warwickshire, then to public school in Norfolk.

Before then, much of his early childhood was spent alone with his mother, as his father was away at war and his two elder brothers were at boarding school.

There were people billeted on us, I remember. Most of our house would have been shut up, because it was too expensive to heat, continues the director, who recalls washing in a tin bath in front of the fire.

My family were small-business people, he says, animatedly. They made all the bread in Leicester and another uncle ran the biscuit factory. My grandfather, whom I never knew, had been Lord Mayor, and my uncle was Lord Mayor in 1949. He was at Wembley for the FA Cup Final.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Frears' childhood, he suggests, is the fact that there were 40 cinemas in Leicester. And, although it may have been subconscious, it seems as if his frequent visits to these venues shaped his future. He vividly remembers seeing his first film, Pinocchio, at the YWCA (Young Women's Christian Association) where he spent a lot of time with his mother. I think I was five. I remember having to be taken out, crying, when the whale swallows him because it was so frightening, he says, wide- eyed, as if the scene is replaying in his head. I remember going to the cinema a lot, because there was kind of nothing else to do. I think my mother used to take me to rather unsuitable films. There used to be a cinema called the Floral Hall and in the winter the circus would be next door. You could be in the cinema and you could hear the lions roaring from next door.

There was a news theatre called the Cameo, half way down the road that goes down to the Clock Tower from Hinckley Road (High Street). I remember going to a lot of Saturday morning serials there, and, beside the bus stop, there was the Opera House. After returning from war, Frears' father became a doctor in Nottingham, which led to the family bidding farewell to Leicester when he was 12. While living in Nottingham, he continued to visit Leicester - frequenting Filbert Street and Grace Road to indulge his sporting loves. His most recent visit to the city was in 2002, when the University of Leicester made him an honorary Doctor of Letters. It was after moving to Nottingham that an interest in the theatre gathered apace. I got very taken by the actors and the theatres. Then I went to Cambridge (where he studied law, at Trinity College) and I wanted to work in the theatre. When I was working in the Royal Court Theatre, in London, I met a film director Karel Reisz and he said 'come and work on my film'. I went to work on his film and that was the first time I'd ever been on a film set, so I really discovered it by accident. Now living in London with his wife, painter Anne Rothenstein, he still loves going to the cinema. I mainly watch films in cinemas. I don't watch them on video like everybody else. But, as a director, is it possible to relax and enjoy the film, and not look at it with a critical eye? I think I'm through that, after 50 years, he laughs. I just go for pleasure now.

I like it all. I like it going dark. I ask what his favourite film is. Oh, I don't know. If I told you, I'd change my mind five minutes later, he smiles, revealing he will only watch his own films once after they're completed, then never again. I've seen it, I know what happens. The in-demand director has just started his next project - a biography of disgraced cycling legend Lance Armstrong. We've started shooting parts of the tour in the French Alps. Literally, they've started shooting today. I ought to be there, quips Frears, who flew in from the Alps this morning and is flying back out there tomorrow morning. It's another radical dramatic departure and for a man who has proved himself the master of switching genres, that's just what keeps the job exciting. When they came to me with Philomena, I knew nothing about Catholicism, so it was a whole new thing to learn about. It's incredibly interesting and I'm astonished there are stories that can still interest me. The one I'm doing now, when we started, I had no idea what we were going to discover. I like the surprises. I like the treats. I never know what I'm doing, and then I realise, 'oh it's about this', and you start to learn about it. So, after almost 50 years as a director, how does Frears view his career? 'I'm completely astonished, he says. I've been a director for nearly 50 years. I'm just amazed. I've always had a good time. Some films the audiences like, some they don't, which is always very painful, but I generally have a good time. Is there anything in particular he still wants to do? No, because I like the surprise. I'm like a child who wants a treat and the treat involves not knowing. It's like Christmas. You don't know what you're going to get. Once you know, life gets a bit duller. Philomena (12A) is released on Friday.

'It was always two things - the tragic story of this woman, with a sort of romantic comedy on top of it. Stephen frears on his latest film, philomena ''

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