IN A CAREER spanning five decades he’s brought us such memorable movies as The Grifters, Dangerous Liaisons, High Fidelity and The Queen.
British director Stephen Frears has also helmed three of the most-loved Irish films. The Snapper continues to endear audiences and draw repeat viewing more than two decades after we all rooted for Sharon Curley and her eventful pregnancy.
The Van brought us another colourful combination of Colm Meaney and Roddy Doyle. Three years ago, Philomena — described by Variety as “a howl of anti-clerical outrage wrapped in a tea cosy” brought a dark time in our history all the way to the Oscars.
Not that Frears is taking any credit for that. “Jesus!” the modest director laughs when I put it to him he’s made three of the most important films about Irish life.
The filmmaker is, nevertheless, immensely proud of The Snapper, a film that he rates as his finest.
“I think The Snapper is the best film I’ve ever made. I mean, all of the credit should go to Roddy, to Colm. It was a pleasure, a joy to do, and of course, it was, in its own way, profoundly serious.
“Underneath the jokes and the comedy and the silliness of the story, was a profoundly serious thing about the separation of Church and State. I remember working it out slowly. No-one ever told me that’s what it was about, but I came to realise it.
“I was amazed when I went to Dublin and made The Snapper, this whole business of the family, these large families and pictures of the Pope behind the door. It is quite different. All that I found very new. I learned a lot about family life.
“That was before divorce laws changed. There was real hardship, but wonderful spirit. It was incredibly effecting,” he says.
He credits the films’ authenticity with both Doyle’s writing and a great cast, in particular Colm Meaney’s working-class dad, determined to protect his daughter. “He’s very funny and he’s very real, isn’t he? He’s what a certain kind of Irish people are like, the people that O’Casey wrote about. He’s a very funny, wonderful man.”
Three years ago, he accompanied writer and star Steve Coogan to the Fastnet Film Festival in Schull, for a screening of Philomena, and fell in love with this corner of the world. “It’s so pretty down there. I didn’t know it existed until a few years ago,” he says. “It’s wonderful, we went to one of the islands. It’s beautiful country.”
On making Philomena, he was stunned to learn of the extent of how Ireland’s pregnant unmarried women were treated. “It was all new to me. I was very shocked. I mean I’d always heard about these laundries but never really realised what the word meant. Philomena was a wonderful woman. She’d had this terrible experience, and wasn’t bitter.
“Steve was the sort of centre of all of that film. He bought the book, he wrote it, he put himself in it. What you call the balance, I can do that. But the anger really came from Steve.”
Again, the portrayal of an Irish character was spot-on. How does he get us so right?
“I have no explanation! I don’t know, and I don’t even know if I do. I knew a woman, a Jewish woman, who’d worked with John Ford on Young Cassidy. Ford would always say: ‘The Jews and the Irish, great chemistry!’ I can’t tell you any more than that,” says the filmmaker, who is not religious, but is of Jewish descent.
This week he returns to West Cork, which will screen his two most recent films (the Oscar-nominated Florence Foster Jenkins and Lance Armstrong biopic The Program) and take part in a Q&A with journalist Greg Dyke.
Frears’s modesty — he refers to his good fortune to have had a career in film on several occasions, and is decidedly not gushing about his industry — is all the more endearing given the variety of films he has brought to screen ever since My Beautiful Launderette, a comedy about a gay, mixed-race relationship, became his first big breakthrough.
He’s been nominated for an Oscar twice — for the classic noir crime film The Grifters, and The Queen. The sheer variety of films he has made makes him difficult to pin down down as a director and in the past he has said “people like me go where the work is good”.
He has also described his career as “a wonderful accident”. “Yes that’s right. I didn’t mean to be a film director. I didn’t set out to, I kind of drifted into it and discovered it was interesting.
“Because I now know quite a lot about the qualities required, I think it’s amazing that there is a job for misfits like me. I’ve always had very good taste in writing and in actors and that sort of got me through it.”
He describes his first big US studio film, Dustin Hoffman-starring Accidental Hero, as a big learning curve. “Well it was really an introduction to Hollywood, which isn’t like other things. Hollywood is like a circus and you make a film very very publicly. It’s a big public industry that’s run extremely well and they’re very clever about it. You have to learn fast.”
He has directed several actresses in Oscar-nominated roles, including Michelle Pfeiffer, Glenn Close, Angelica Huston, Meryl Streep and Judy Dench. “I’m not quite sure why I should take credit for it because they’re all extremely good,” he says simply. “I must make it possible for them to do their work, you make a sort of space in which people do their work.”
He is alarmed and dismayed at the prospect of Brexit, both as a filmmaker and because of the wider implications for his country as a whole.
“The qualities that I like (in making films) are all about interaction with other people. To have a very insular film industry seems to me ridiculous, and dull, and provincial,” he says.
“It’s absolutely idiotic. We’re like a country rushing towards a cliff. You cannot believe that people are so foolish. I mean, I can perfectly well see why working-class people voted for it. I don’t think they’ve been treated at all well. But it seems to be an absolute folly.
“I don’t know what this glorious past that people want to recreate is. Britain was a much nastier country 50 years ago. I love the freedom of movement, it’s a wonderful quality and made life more more interesting. Never mind, perhaps I can become Irish!”