Director's Chair: Stephen Frears - 'Tamara Drewe'
Issue: November 1, 2010

Director's Chair: Stephen Frears - 'Tamara Drewe'

HOLLYWOOD — At first glance the long film career of acclaimed British director Stephen Frears might look a little schizophrenic. He’s made big Hollywood studio pictures with big stars, such as Mary Reilly, Hero, the Oscar-nominated The Grifters and Dangerous Liaisons. But he’s probably better known for such smaller, grittier, non-star vehicles as My Beautiful Laundrette, Snapper and The Van, films that provide a rich palette for Frears to explore stories with a strong social and political conscience. 

Either way, Frears has always been content to be seen as “a workman-like director for hire” who cut his teeth at the BBC, where he first honed his abilities to work with tight budgets and schedules. He’s also a director who’s happiest when he’s on location and working with such longtime collaborators as editor Mick Audsley, who contributed to his latest film, Tamara Drewe.

Based on Posy Simmonds’ graphic novel of the same name (which was itself inspired by Thomas Hardy’s classic “Far From the Madding Crowd”), this modern take on the romantic English pastorale comically details the infatuations, jealousies, love affairs and career ambitions of an eclectic group that includes pompous writers, rich weekenders, bourgeois bohemians and a horny rock star.

Here, Frears, whose other credits include Cheri, Dirty Pretty Things, High Fidelity, Prick Up Your Ears and The Queen (which won him another Oscar nomination) talks about making the film and looks back on his long, fruitful career.

POST: How do you go about deciding what your next project will be, and what made you choose this? 

STEPHEN FREARS: “It’s whatever just grabs me, and this really made me laugh. I thought it was very sexy and that people would enjoy it, and I felt it’s also very fresh. I loved the idea of adapting a graphic novel, and Posy Simmonds is a brilliant woman.”

POST: Had you read her book?

FREARS: “I had, and I also knew her, but it never crossed my mind that you could film it. Then I was sent the script and that was it.” 

POST: Does a graphic novel make it easier to adapt, in the sense that it’s already like a complete storyboard?

FREARS: “Yes, and I found it very liberating. I wanted to honor her and celebrate her, and I had the most wonderful time making it. Sometimes we’d literally recreate the image she’d drawn, which was part of the pleasure.”

POST: What were the biggest challenges of making this?

FREARS: “I think graphic novels have their own peculiar rhythms, and I knew I had to translate that to a film, and I really liked the idea that this would be more cartoon-like than my normal films. That was a challenge, to get it right, but it was also a lot of fun. Doing it this way also meant you could cut out the boring bits, which is always the goal in any film.”

POST: You assembled a great cast, including Gemma Arteton as Tamara and Dominic Cooper as the rock star. Was that tough?

FREARS: “I knew I could only make it with the right cast. I couldn’t make it with famous stars, as it’s an ensemble film and you had to get it right. So I spent a lot of time casting, and I didn’t agree to make it until I’d found Gemma and the others. She was the key — you have to have that very sexy, gorgeous girl in the lead, and she’s wonderful.” 

POST: Where did you shoot and how long was it?

FREARS:  “We shot it in West Dorset, a very beautiful part of England, over nine weeks. I love being on location and we were blessed with good weather. If it’d been bad, we’d still be trying to make the film (laughs). But we were very lucky.”

POST: Where did you do the post? How long was the process?

FREARS: “We did it all in London at Pepper Post. We spent about four months, but we took a break for Christmas.”

POST: Do you like the post process? 

FREARS: “I love it, and it’s so different from the chaos of the shoot. It’s far more analytic and methodical, and it’s when you discover your mistakes. 

“After we’d cut the film, we actually went back and rewrote some scenes, just to shorten and tighten them, and then re-shot for a couple of days. So it’s a matter of fine-tuning and dovetailing, and those two extra days were priceless.”

POST: You’ve worked with editor Mick Audsley on most of your films. How does that relationship work?

FREARS: “After 25 years of working together, it’s like second nature. It’s all about having the same values and approach to the film. I remember once working with an editor on a BBC film about a car thief. Because it had cars, he assumed it was an action film, and that’s how he cut it. It just wasn’t very good. Then I slowly realized that it wasn’t an action film at all — it was a character film, a drama, and then it worked.”

POST: Where did you do the edit?

FREARS: “Mick set up his Avid system in a house about 15 miles from the sets, so if we had a problem, I could run over there, or he’d bring me scenes to look at. Mick’s one of a series of longstops that you set up — people just checking on what you’re doing the whole time, monitoring it all. He doesn’t come on the set really, but he’s not far away, and we’re on the phone the whole time. He tells me what I’m shooting and we discuss it, so he’ll notice stuff that’s maybe not quite right. 

“For instance, for the scene with the big stampede of cows, we used quite a bit of second unit footage, and he was able to tell me, ‘OK, I’ve got enough coverage now.’ He was the only person who knew. So he’s closely monitoring what needs explaining and exactly what I’m doing on set, and I’m entirely dependent on him. I’m talking to him the whole time, and he gets the footage I’ve shot and the next day he’s started cutting it. 

“So by the end of the shoot, there’s usually a rough cut ready about five days later. Then you slowly work through it, and you learn what your mistakes are. After the rough cut, we realized it’d be far better to have Dominic Cooper’s character arrive far earlier. So then you have to go back and figure out the puzzle again. In the end, we went back and did one shot, and we were able to get rid of two minutes we no longer needed. So you gradually cut and cut and streamline the story.”

POST: Who did the visual effects and how many visual effects shots are there?

FREARS: “They were all done by the Bluff Hampton Company in Soho, London, and the supervisor was Mark Nelmes. We used quite a lot, because this film really should have been shot over four seasons, which isn’t realistic. So a lot of the shots were taking leaves off trees, adding them back on, and doctoring landscapes.

“For the big stampede scene, we had a lot of wire removal and people removal. Mark did a great job, and I quite like getting involved with the visual effects, although I don’t know much about it. But I love the results. The same company did the stag in The Queen, and I was able to look at the scenes and get the stag to walk into the room.”

POST: How important are sound and music to you?

FREARS: “They’re so important to any film. I was lucky to work with composer Alexandre Desplat again, who did Cheri and The Queen, and he’s just brilliant. He gives me what I don’t know that I want, because I haven’t a clue (laughs). And he always surprises me. We did all the mixing at Pepper Sound.”

POST: Did you do a DI?

FREARS: “Yes, at Pepper Film with colorist Adam Inglis. To be honest, I don’t know a lot about the DI process and I just surround myself with very good people who do, and I trust them more than I trust myself. I’m definitely not a technical sort of director, but I love doing the DI and making all the little adjustments you can do now.”

POST: Did the film turn out the way you hoped?

FREARS: “As always, it turned out far better than I ever imagined. I’m always surprised at how my films turn out — that they’re so complete and that the characters are so believable. I never know going in quite how the film will turn out, although you learn over the years what will probably work.”

POST: Did you always want to direct films?

FREARS: “(Laughs) No. I was born in Leicester, which is a rather boring town in the middle of England, to a middle class family, and I started working in the theatre and then just got lucky. I was working at the Royal Court Theatre and director Karel Reisz came to do this play, and when it collapsed he offered me the chance to work with him as an AD on his film Morgan. I’ll never know why he said that, because he then died, but he changed my life just like that. It was extraordinary, when I look back on it. I had no experience. I’d never even been on a film set before. So I just learned as I went along.”

POST: How’s the film business changed since you began back in the ‘60s?

FREARS: “It’s unrecognizable. First off, it’s a young man’s game. When I began, everyone involved was my age  — and now I’m 69 and the oldest guy in the room. The producers on this — who’re all young — couldn’t believe how many old people were making this film! (laughs). The truth is, I keep working because I’m tolerated. But I know very well that in a few years time I’ll no longer be tolerated. 

“There’s a few old guys like me still directing — Clint, Woody, Lumet, Ken Loach — but not many. And the technology, especially in post with Avid and digital sound mixing, is a huge change. I think that filmmaking today is a much more hit-and-miss affair, and all the new technology sort of encourages that approach, as you can sort of put it all together in post far more easily, whereas the films I make are made with great precision. So that sense of craft isn’t as dominant as it used to be. But the new technology has certainly improved things so much.”

POST: Is film dead?

FREARS: “Probably, although we shot this on film. I always say, Why don’t we shoot this digitally? And they always go, because it’s too expensive for the budget. So I’ve never been allowed to shoot digitally, although I’d love to!”

POST: Hollywood’s gone 3D crazy it seems. Any interest in doing a 3D film?

FREARS: “It’s not really my kind of thing, but I thought all the military scenes in Avatar were great. The 3D there was amazing to me and less interesting when it was all the fantasy stuff.”

POST: How’s the British film scene?

FREARS: “Terrible, but then it’s been in crisis ever since I was born (laughs). There’s never much money and it’s questionable whether there’s even a film industry there. I suppose I’m more of a cottage industry and I choose to see myself as a director for hire. I like receiving scripts and then making them.”

POST: What’s next?

FREARS: “I’m going to make a film in Las Vegas, about pro sports gamblers. I’m driving there tomorrow to meet some people. I love discovering these new worlds I know nothing about.”