Stephen Frears has been making films for TV and theaters since the late 1960s. His big break came in 1985 with My Beautiful Laundrette, starring a young Daniel Day-Lewis. Since then he’s made movies such as The Grifters, Dangerous Liaisons, and High Fidelity while continuing to work on smaller projects for British television.
Arguably one of the best films from 2002-2003 was Dirty Pretty Things, a mystery centered around the immigrant workers at a British hotel, starring Audrey Tautou and Chiwetel Ejiofor.
With Mrs. Henderson Presents, he returns to the screen with Judi Dench and Bob Hoskins playing stubborn business partners at a vaudeville theater during WWII. They stay ahead of the competition by showcasing nude women, although because of morality laws, the women have to stand perfectly still, in tableaux.
Frears is quick to praise actors and writers, which doesn’t come across as false modesty; he seems genuinely tickled to get to work with great talent and still get much of the credit.
Comfortably dressed in a warm hotel room, dimly lit by the setting winter sun, Frears spoke about Mrs. Henderson Presents, Dame Judi Dench, and about his career as a filmmaker and teacher.
Marty Mapes: I have to ask about the nudity. Any trouble with the ratings?
Stephen Frears: I kept saying I can’t do an airline version, but it’s being shown on airlines!
MM: It seems a very British, self-mocking, sense of humor.
SF: It is very, very British. It’s very hard to be British and not be self-mocking. There’s a wonderful line of John Cleese’s in A Fish Called Wanda: “You’ve no idea how embarrassing it is being English.”
MM: You’ve worked with Judi Dench before
MM: Had you kept in touch?
SF: Yes. (Smiles)
MM: Have you been dying to work with her?
SF: She’s fantastic. I don’t think I’d thought about it, but, you know, she’s absolutely wonderful.
MM: She and Hoskins had this project before you were brought on?
SF: Yes. It’s very unclear, the history of the film. I was taken out to lunch and told they would like me to direct them in this story. I didn’t actually know what the story was; I couldn’t understand what the story was. Then the script came to be written, and then I read the script and thought it was wonderful. But had the script not been good, I don’t quite know what would have happened.
MM: Yeah, how do you say no to Judi Dench?
SF: Well I think Judi would have said no. I don’t quite know what would have happened. It would have dribbled away through lack of enthusiasm.
MM: You worked with very young actors in Dirty Pretty Things and now two well established actors in
SF: I don’t find them a switch. I would just say I worked with good actors in that film and worked with good actors in this film. So I don’t really see it as a change. I can see that Judy and Bob are a lot older than Audrey and Chiwetel, but that’s all. They’re all good. I suppose that the actors in Dirty Pretty Things didn’t have a proven track record, but in the end you’re still consumed by admiration for the actors in both films.
MM: So you spend a lot of time casting, making sure you can get the right person?
SF: Yes, of course.
MM: How do you know when... well, obviously it’s auditions...
SF: No, it isn’t auditions. It’s the other bits that are interesting, it’s their human qualities that are interesting.
MM: And can you use that in a movie?
MM: How do you manipulate that?
SF: You don’t manipulate it. You think, ‘oh, I see, if this person were to play that part, it makes sense, it’s believable. And if that person plays it, I don’t think they’d have this kind of effect.’ So really, what you’re doing is creating a sort of universe.
MM: Christopher Guest seems an inspired bit of casting.
SF: I didn’t come up with his name, but as soon as I heard his name I thought it was a very good idea. Well, for a start, he’s very posh. He was a member of the House of Lords. And he’s very funny and witty. And to me, he’s an Englishman. I know that everybody else thinks he’s an American, and indeed yesterday he called me with an American accent, but I think he’s an Englishman.
MM: Shifting gears a little, how important was My Beautiful Laundrette, personally?
SF: It changed my life. It changed Daniel Lewis’ life, It changed [screenwriter] Hanif [Kureishi]’s life, it changed [producer] Tim Bevan’s life, it changed all our lives.
MM: Did you know while you were doing it that it would take off?
SF: No. You didn’t think like that. I thought it would be a good film. I thought “This is really good stuff. What this film is saying is really good.” The idea that it would go into cinemas in New York and Paris and all around the world, never crossed my mind, not once. I don’t think it crossed any of our minds. The idea that Dan was about to become a big star never crossed anybody’s mind. He was just Dan.
MM: Looking at your filmography, it seems like this is when things broke open for you. Is that what happened?
SF: Well, two things happened. First is Scorsese called me up and asked me if I would like to make The Grifters. And secondly, eventually, they came and asked me to make Liaisons. I was so low on the list [to direct Dangerous Liaisons] — well of course I was the last one to be asked — but I was right at the bottom. Why other people turned it down, I don’t know. I’d say they made a mistake. It was a script that won an Oscar. All I did was say ‘this is a wonderful script.’ And eventually the world said this is a wonderful script. I can see that Milos [Forman] was making a film [Valmont, based on the same novel] at the same time, and I could see that was rather frightening, [but] I had nothing to lose. MM: Do you get antsy when you don’t have a project?
SF: Well, I teach.
MM: What do you teach?
SF: Well, I teach film directing, inasmuch as you can. It’s not really possible to teach film direction, but I sit there as a sort of testimony of experience and know-how, I suppose. Do I get antsy...? Something has always come along. When I go and teach it sort of opens me up in some way. And when you’re open, you’re more receptive. When I was teaching I found My Beautiful Laundrette, I found Dirty Pretty Things. Good things happen when I’m teaching. Still things come to me that interest me. I think that’s an amazing stroke of good fortune.
MM: And what are you reading these days?
SF: At the moment I’m reading Gavin Lamp. I’m reading his book about Natalie Wood. And I’m reading a French writer called Michel Houellebecq.