His career in British cinema goes back to the 60s when he worked with Karel Reisz and Lindsay Anderson (he was an assistant director on one of my favorite movies, Anderson's "If..." ). As a director his films have ranged from "My Beautiful Laundrette" (1985) to "The Grifters" (1990) to "The Queen" (2006). His latest film, "Tamara Drewe,"is an adaptation of a graphic novel that is itself a contemporary adaptation of Thomas Hardy's novel "Far From the Madding Crowd." Trust me, it works much better than it sounds.
All of which makes Stephen Frears: a) one of Britain's leading filmmakers; b) impossible to categorize, and c) a very prickly interview.
You might say I was "Frearful" about talking with him. But when in doubt, start a conversation by talking about the weather.
PK: I hope you're enjoying our British type rainy weather today. Come to think of it, I don't remember any rain in "Tamara Drewe."
SF: There were bits of rain when we were filming . But I don't know if there was a deliberate rain scene. My god, that's a first. I remember when we were filming in Chicago there were endless shots in the rain. That was "High Fidelity (2000)." He [the gharacter played by John was always walking in the rain, and I kept thinking I'm sure it doesn't rain like this in Chicago. But you're right, no rain in this film.
PK: This reminded me a little bit of "High Fidelity" in terms of its pop cultural spirit and style.
SF: Well that's a nice thing to say. What a compliment.
PK: In this film you're drawing from an older text, and my editor, who is a fan of Hardy...
SF: Oh my God...
PK: And his favorite book is "Far the From Madding Crowd," and he loved the movie, so that must be a big weight off your mind.
SF: Yeah, well...I mean it's there. It doesn't work only if you like Thomas Hardy, but it's there. In one sense the film is completely about literature and it's written by a very literary women.
PK: But there are little allusions here and there of the drum sticks and...he was pointing them all out to me...
SF: It's sheep. Sheep go over a cliff in Thomas Hardy, not cattle. [there's a scene involving a cattle stampede].
PK: Which are easier to deal with, sheep or cattle?
SF: Never dealt with sheep. I've done cows; I've done a western. [‘The Hi-Lo Country" (1998) ]
PK: Hitchcock said actors are like cattle.
PK: Is that true?
SF: Cattle are like...no that's not remotely true. I don't even know if he said it. He probably said it to be provocative. But I'm really proud of the cattle in the film.
PK: They do a good job.
SF: Hawks bought cattle for "Red River." He took them up the trail and he lost money on them. (laughs)
PK: That's an expense you didn't have to worry about.
SF: No, he said we'll buy the cattle there and we'll take them up to the railhead or whatever it is.
PK: Did you rent these cows? Do they have, like, cow rentals?
SF: No we just found them. From a farmer who was cooperative...
PK: Is this the part of England you're from, Dorset?
SF: No. I have a house in Dorset, but not anywhere as beautiful as this. This is the really beautiful part of Dorset. Beautiful...I mean, the countryside where we filmed was wonderful.
PK: It also seems to be almost a character in the movie.
SF: Yes, well I'm not surprised. I mean you'd be hard-pressed to make the film without it; without making the countryside so dominant.
PK: You're dealing with a graphic novelist interpretation of Hardy...
SF: So it's a long way...quite a long way (laughs). Posy Simmonds [author of the graphic novel] says she sort of crucified Hardy.
PK: This is postmodernism at its finest.
SF: I would imagine so, yes.
PK: You'd never really read a graphic novel before this.
SF: I've only read one in my life.
PK: Which was?
SF: This one, yes (laughs).
PK: So you brought a kind of fresh approach...
SF: Well it was very, very interesting. And I'm beginning to discover there's this other world...I mean, "Road to Perdition" was taken from a graphic novel. You could have fooled me. But it was taken from a graphic novel.
PK: I guess you didn't sit down and watch all the movies made from graphic novels to figure out what you were going to do?
SF: Nope, nope. I didn't watch any.
PK: Did you consider using some of the kind of cues that we relate to graphic novels like speech balloons, or panels or...
SF: Well there are some panels in the film...were there speech balloons? I can't remember. I think we tried it and it didn't work. This is just for people who enjoy laughing.
PK: And Hardy experts like my...
SF: No, no. This is for people who enjoy laughing.
PK: Among your credits is as assistant director on "If, " which was one of the movies that inspired me to believe that movies are important in life...
SF: It is strange, films used to be important; they're not important now. But they were at that time, important.
PK: How was the experience working with Lindsay Anderson on that one?
SF: Lindsay? He was a clever man, a terrific man.
PK: So it was kind of a formative experience?
SF: Yes. He and Karel Reisz had an enormous influence on me. They were wonderful men, clever men.
PK: Why do you think films are not important anymore?
SF: They aren't, are they? I'm right.
PK: They are to me.
SF: No, I don't believe you. They've become...they have a different role...I mean people go and see them; I'm not saying people don't like them. But back in those days, they were how you learned to live. They were culturally at the center; they're not culturally at the center now.
PK: Do you remember what the first movie was that made you feel like movies were important?
SF: (long pause) I remember seeing "North By Northwest." I remember seeing "On the Waterfront." I remember seeing "High Noon."
PK: And did these make you want to become a filmmaker?
NEXT: So what did make you want to be a filmmaker, for Christ's sake?