Stephen Frears: An Englishman Abroad

Stephen Frears takes time away from finishing his new movie, Hero, to talk about how nice he thinks people in Hollywood (including Dustin Hoffman) really are.


Stephen Frears grimaces when producer Laura Ziskin sticks her head through the door to ask him what he thinks about one of the Sony studio honchos viewing a rough cut of his latest film, Hero, starring Dustin Hoffman, Andy Garcia and Geena Davis, without the music in place. He remembers two pictures back when an executive saw his Dangerous Liaisons that way and kept thinking something was missing. If it's at all possible, he tells Ziskin, he'd prefer the screening be put off until the music is in.

Frears is a rumpled, pleasant Englishman who is outspokenly against the monarchy, was strongly anti-Margaret Thatcher, and is only really happy when he's got a good script to shoot. Born in 1941, Frears was raised by a strong, demanding mother. His father left the family during the war and was rarely there as Frears grew up. When Frears had the chance to attend Cambridge, he studied law for three years, but after deciding that it wasn't for him, he searched for a place that stimulated his imagination--and found it at the Royal Court, where some of the freshest young minds were writing, producing, directing and acting in the theater.

Soon he was directing shorts, then his first feature, Gumshoe, and wound up making 24 movies for TV. One of them, written by a Pakistani named Hanif Kureishi, was My Beautiful Laundrette--which got released as a feature and brought Frears instant recognition abroad.

Frears followed that with Prick Up Your Ears, about the gay writer Joe Orton, and then came Sammy and Rosie Get Laid, with another script by Kureishi. Frears's first American film (though made in Paris) was the 18th century erotic period piece Dangerous Liaisons, with Glenn Close, Michelle Pfeiffer and John Malkovich. Then came The Grifters, which starred Anjelica Huston, Annette Bening and John Cusack, and garnered a Best Director nomination for Frears. Martin Scorsese, who produced The Grifters, wanted Frears to next direct Donnie Brasco, a film about the Mafia. But there were too many complications dealing with the actors Frears wanted--Tom Cruise, Al Pacino, Andy Garcia, Alec Baldwin, Bruce Willis--and the movie didn't get made, resulting in a scathing piece Frears wrote about what happened, and didn't happen, in M magazine.

Frears recovered from that fiasco to direct Hero, about a small-time thief who rescues victims of a plane crash only to find that the resulting publicity causes problems--and another man ends up getting the credit.

Frears lives in London with a painter he's been with for 19 years and their two young children. He has two grown sons by his first marriage who want to be actors. But Frears calls himself "rotten" when it comes to nepotism, and though he doesn't openly discourage his sons, he says that he's "rather stupid and sniffy about actors." John Malkovich contradicts that. Frears, said Malkovich, paid more attention to his acting than any other director he'd ever worked with.

LAWRENCE GROBEL: Is Hero finished or are you still editing?

STEPHEN FREARS: We're in the middle of it. It's like a jigsaw puzzle and you're trying to find the pattern, the shapes, the right order.

Q: What's it about?

A: I haven't a clue. I'll tell you when I've finished it.

Q: What did you think it was about when you started it?

A: Privacy. Looking in the mirror.

Q: Was it a difficult film to shoot?

A: Yes, extremely. What I didn't understand was how Dustin Hoffman worked into his character, which took three weeks. He was looking for his sound, how the character spoke, and he didn't have it when we started.

Q: So there was a lot of reshooting of the early scenes?

A: There was some, yes.

Q: What interested you in the script?

A: The writing was so good. David Peoples wrote a very tight, very fine script. I knew as I read it that I wanted to do it. It made me laugh. I just bought the idea of it, never questioned it. Unlike Sydney Pollack, who told me when they came to him with the idea of Tootsie he thought it was the most ridiculous idea he'd ever heard.

Q: The talk is that Hero is reminiscent of Frank Capra's films.

A: What am I supposed to say to that? You're asking for trouble if you set yourself up against such an exalted original. Hero has a balance of cynicism and sentiment, but I don't think this film is "Capraesque," though I see that it is going to be called that. I'm resigned to the fact. It does have a happy ending and, like the rest of the world, I like happy endings. They're hard to justify--and they're very hard to do. Harder than unhappy ones, because you've got to get it right. But some films deserve happy endings.

Q: Hoffman is notorious for working on projects and never doing them. Elmore Leonard tells horror stories about LaBrava. You must have been aware of Hoffman's reputation.

A: Yes, I'm aware of it but I didn't experience that sort of thing with him. I guess I was lucky. He was never a problem. Some days I could see that he does have a difficult side. I've read all those stories. Anybody given the sort of power and money that Dustin's given is probably capable of behaving very badly, but I was spared that. Working with him was a joy because he was so generous. Dustin was interested in what made Hero work for the audience. He wanted them to be entertained--he takes them under the umbrella of his concerns--so I found him to be very unselfish. Dustin is like a patriarch, he just embraces everything. It has something to do with the age he is. It's like a rabbinical thing. He just holds everyone in an extraordinary way. Spencer Tracy must have been like that.

Q: Do you think the two other New York actors--Al Pacino and Robert De Niro--whom Hoffman is often ranked with are like that?

A: I would think less. It might well have something to do with maturity. Dustin talks about his wife as someone who sort of saved his life. I understand that. I changed when my second family was born.

Q: Were there any creative differences between you and Dustin?

A: I wouldn't say creative differences. We talked about things, but that's natural. Some things work and some don't.

Q: When you do have differences with actors, can they be heated?

A: It may be wrong of me to say this, but I have a very good ear and I can hear when something's right. I don't even have to see it. I can hear it. So I know when I'm right.

Q: You mean you never get angry with your actors?

A: Sometimes, yes, there are times, but then your children drive you mad, too, you know? It's only human relationships, it's not anything different from life. I'm sure I drive them mad. I admire them because they stand up and do it--they're the courageous ones.

Q: There's been talk around town that Hoffman's performance is of Oscar caliber. Do you care when there's that kind of buzz before the picture is even done?

A: It makes me nervous. Dustin must live with this every time he makes a film. It must be annoying.

Q: What about working with Andy Garcia?

A: Andy's process is much different than Dustin's. He's much more of an interior actor, he keeps things within him, what he's trying to do, so you have to let him do what he does and then start seeing what he's doing. It's harder for him. I don't know if Dustin is really as much a Method actor as Andy is. Dustin is willing to change things, try them different ways. That could be also where they are in age and experience.

Q: And Geena Davis?

A: She was terrific to work with. She's a strong woman and I'm attracted to strong women. I had wanted her, you know, for the part Annette Bening played in The Grifters. So I've been aware of her talent.

Q: How different would The Grifters have been if you'd had Melanie Griffith in the role Anjelica Huston played, as was originally intended?

A: It would have been a very different film because Melanie and Annette would have looked the same age.

Q: You have described Anjelica Huston as an "odd" woman. In what ways?

A: I don't know what I meant. Anjelica's a unique talent. She's pure feeling; she acts from passion. Very different from Annette Bening, who is really skillful. Anjelica does it from the heart.

Q: Anjelica described her character in The Grifters as being cold and deadeye. But she said she wasn't feeling that way in her life when she did it. How did you help her get the character?

A: I didn't. I don't interfere with performers' private lives. I let actors bring their work to the scene; I'm not very good at telling them what they should do. They already know what they should do. I have a lot of respect for actors and what they do. As I do with writers. I generally think the less I'm saying, the better. The people who make films are very, very clever. The actors are clever, the cameramen, the technicians. I often think the director is the most dispensable person on the set. It may be my timidity, but I think if I stay out of the way things will get done.

Q: So you don't take actors to the side and give them advice, the way Anjelica's father, John Huston, once told Katharine Hepburn to play her character in The African Queen like Eleanor Roosevelt?

A: No, I don't--though I did show Anjelica Ossessione, Visconti's film of The Postman Always Rings Twice, as a way of getting into it.

Q: You've called filming the scene where Anjelica is tortured "ghastly." How hard was it to do?

A: Very hard. There was also a scene where Michelle Pfeiffer got beaten up in Dangerous Liaisons. You see a woman in front of you crying and you think, "This is not very nice." Maybe if you're a sadist you think, "Oh, this is great." I prefer it when they're having a good time. As I say, I like happy endings. I like shooting things that aren't about being beaten. I'm not comfortable with the tears.

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