Entertainment LIFESTYLE  >  Conversation with “Philomena” Director Stephen Frears

Conversation with “Philomena” Director Stephen Frears

Conversation with “Philomena” Director Stephen Frears
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BY ALISON BAILES

“In the end it’s a fluke” says Frears referring to the 4 Academy Award nominations and the nearly one hundred million dollar worldwide gross of his most recent film “Philomena”.  “You can’t legislate for this to happen but for a film like this to make that kind of money… it’s completely unpredictable”.

Unpredictable, but hardly shocking when you look at the component parts; a heartrending story ripped from real life, a script that walks a delicate line between comedy and tragedy, and the participation of “Britain’s National Treasure” Dame Judi Dench.  Quite honestly, it screams success.

The way Stephen Frears tells it, his job is to find a good script, assemble the right cast and crew and then watch the magic from afar. During our recent phone conversation I couldn’t get him to take the credit for anything. When asked about the chemistry between co-writer and co-star Steve Coogan and Dame Judi he simply states that they are “Terrific! They did a very nice job.” When pushed about the process of devoting years to a project he says “It was good fun. The people were very nice”.  And when asked what might link his many, varied films he states “they all tend to be very well written.” His modesty is almost comically in line with the stereotype of the stately British gentleman who is deferential past belief. “The main thing is to avoid having serious conversations” he blithely adds.

And it’s not as if he has nothing to boast about!  A glance down his resume yields an enviable track record.  He blasted onto the film scene with 1985’s “My Beautiful Launderette” which made Daniel Day-Lewis a household name and a national heart-throb.  He stayed in London for the dramas “Prick up your Ears” and “Sammy and Rosie get laid” but moved stateside for 1988’s “Dangerous Liaisons” which earned 7 Oscar nominations, winning 3.  He followed that success with “The Grifters” in 1990 and was rewarded with his first Academy Award nod for directing.  “Hero”, “Mary Reilly” and “High Fidelity” among others followed. In 2006 he directed Helen Mirren to her first ever Best Actress Oscar for “The Queen” and racked up another nomination for himself.  It is not only an impressive list of titles, but it’s also one that defies categorization. In a business where directors are often pigeon-holed, he manages to move effortlessly between genres. As always Frears is deftly humble; “I’ve been allowed to make films that I’ve found interesting. I haven’t had to narrow my range. That’s a tremendous privilege”.  As if he has nothing to do with it.

If there is a unifying trait in his work, you could make the argument that it is his sure touch with actresses, especially those of “a certain age”. Dench has received glowing notices for playing Philomena Lee, Mirren won that Oscar and Angelica Huston’s career was reinvigorated with “The Grifters”. Even his lesser known films such as “Tamara Drewe” and “Cheri” focus on women, yet when pushed, he declines to have any special understanding of the female sex; “It’s hard to imagine that I know more about women than they do” he prickles. “They are all very, very clever actresses and I really think they’re wonderful and I am full of admiration.”

When Frears wasn’t complimenting his cast and raving about the skills of Judi Dench, (“I’m simply in love with her. She’s brilliant”), he was happy to point out what attracted him to the script for “Philomena”, which was co-written by Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope. “I could see that the story of a woman and her baby was awful. But I also liked the jokes. The combination was really attractive and I thought the combination of Judi and Steve would be very, very good. The argument is very engaging…the argument between an atheist, or a lapsed Catholic and a Catholic woman.”  He even went as far as to compare the real Philomena with the actress playing her; “They don’t put up with any nonsense. But that gets points in my book”.

Clearly there is a touch of old-fashioned pragmatism to Frears. Perhaps the fact that he still resides in England, outside the Hollywood glare has something to do with it. But he is not immune to the current popularity of television. I asked him whether the “boob tube” is good for film or whether it portends the death of cinema.  “I can’t really answer your question” he says (unsurprisingly). “I go where the good writing is and the best writing in America is clearly in television. If I could get a job, I’d be delighted!”  Netflix execs….listen up!

 

“Philomena” is available on Blu-Ray and DVD on April 15th

 

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