VETERAN British film director Stephen Frears — along with Steve Coogan, star and co-screenwriter of Frears’ last film, Philomena — will attend the Corona Fastnet Short Film Festival in Schull, West Cork, later this month.
He has been in Cork previously. “I think it was in the 1990s. I showed a film at the Cork Film Festival. It’s gorgeous, Cork. I spent a night there. I can’t wait to get back,” he says from the cutting room of his latest film — a biopic of American cyclist Lance Armstrong.
Frears shot both The Snapper and The Van in Dublin, in the 1990s also. “It was an absolute joy to make. Roddy Doyle was still teaching at the time,” Frears says. “He used to come up to the set between lessons.”
Frears is not an auteur director. He doesn’t take on multiple roles. He simply directs and he directs well.
Film projects are offered to him and he chooses the ones that pique his interest — whether it’s the story of the greatest sports cheat the world has known (the Armstrong film), getting inside the personal space of a modern-day monarch (The Queen), an adaptation of a French 18th-century novel of sexual intrigue (Dangerous Liaisons), or the story of one of Britain’s brightest playwrights, Joe Orton, who was battered to death by his boyfriend at the height of his fame (Prick Up Your Ears).
Frears laughs heartily at the suggestion that the variety of stories he tells is any director’s dream. “Yes,” he says. “The good thing is that it keeps it very interesting: the variety is very satisfying. I don’t go out looking for a story. I find it best to assess them when I’m completely passive about them. I grew up with the BBC, when they were making films. So, they would send you films and you didn’t have to go looking for stories or develop them, or write them yourself, or anything like that.
“I never quite know why I take on the stories that I do take on, except that I find them very interesting. I don’t honestly think about it a great deal — you just read something and say ‘That’s great’.”
Frears was raised in Leicester, but he went to a fee-paying boarding school and completed his education, in law, in Cambridge University.
Leaving college, Frears decided to work in theatre. There, he met a film director, who inspired him. “He was a man called Karel Reisz. He was a wonderful man and it was because of him that I sort-of drifted into film-directing,” Frears says.
Reisz was the prolific, influential Czech-born British film-maker behind the ‘realist’ movement of British film-making in the 1950s and ’60s. He is best known for his classic The French Lieutenant’s Woman, with Meryl Streep in 1980, but directed many other films, and television dramas and documentaries.
Frears started out on very small budgets. The objective was to get the film made.
He has worked with bright young actors who went on to bigger things.
Daniel Day-Lewis, for example, was an unknown when Frears shot Hanif Kureishi’s My Beautiful Laundrette on 16mm film. But the film was a commercial and critical success, and his increased budget for his next project (Prick Up Your Ears) meant that he had the services not only of higher-format film, but of (then) rising star Gary Oldman (not to mention Alfred Molina in support).
“It was all very carefree back then,” Frears says nostalgically of a time before over-sized budgets and egos muddied the waters.
He isn’t sure if making films nowadays is easier or more difficult: “It’s different now. I’m not sure… I was more innocent back then about how we made the films. It’s not like now, where things move a little more slowly… there’s more waiting involved with more money and more people,” Frears says.
Is it getting any easier for young directors nowadays? “No. I think that it’s getting harder. If you’re beginning, you can make films pretty cheaply — something that you weren’t able to do when I was young — but the things that enabled me to have a long career just don’t exist anymore,” Frears says.
“It’s always been the films in the middle that have had it difficult. The big American films are very spectacular and expensive, but sometimes, with a cheap film, you can be very original or fresh,” he says.
Has Frears ever been involved in a film that got entirely out of hand in terms of budget and size?
“Yes,” he replies definitively, although he’s too discreet to mention which ones, but one can’t help but think of his somewhat misguided Mary Shelley, in 1993, or the critically-acclaimed, but dull The Hi-Lo Country, from 1998.
“You go around thinking ‘Why is this costing so much money’? You just go around bouncing from mistake to mistake. When a film starts to move, then you can’t stop it.
“I’ve made a lot of mistakes. But when you get the economics right, it always makes me feel comfortable,” he says.
For further details, see www.fastnetshortfilmfestival.com.