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Lauded British director Stephen Frears on The Queen, The Snapper and the power of surprise.
Rewarded with the 2011 European Film Academy Lifetime Achievement Award for his work on films that include Dangerous Liaisons and The Queen, British director Stephen Frears returns to screens this month with Lay the Favorite.
Unusually for you, this film feels very American…
I remember making The Grifters and thinking, “Is this an American film or a European film?” I used to say, “I don’t know anything about America,” but this film, Lay the Favorite, is about Americans, for the first time.
What got you interested?
I got involved in it when my friend [Nick Hornby], who had written High Fidelity, told me he was working on this really interesting thing. When he explained the story I thought it sounded great so that’s how it came about.
What should we expect from the movie?
Just wait to see the film. The films I like are the ones I know nothing about. I saw A Separation recently, knew nothing – it was fantastic. Best film I’ve seen in years. I don’t want to know anything about the films I go and see. I like the innocence of going into a dark room and someone telling me a story.
Why are some of your films so commercially successful?
Success is always a fluke. I made [My Beautiful] Laundrette – it was a fluke. I made The Queen – it was a fluke. I remember the producer of Four Weddings [and a Funeral] saying, “What have I done right?” I don’t make films with the expectation of commercial return.
And your choice of subject matter?
In Britain it’s very, very hard to find a new subject. It’s a small country. When we made The Queen we realised, “Oh, this hasn’t been done before.” It made it very interesting.
So you work with the element of surprise?
It’s the surprise that I like. You read a script and someone says, “Come and make a film in Ireland.” So then there’s The Snapper and The Van. Never crossed my mind before and never thought about making a film about the queen.
How was it, getting the Lifetime Award in Berlin last year?
I never came here until the Wall came down, but I always think that my life has been lived in Berlin. Between the War and the Cold War, Berlin was always the centre of the world. It was the centre of everything.
When you got the award, you said, “I’m not an auteur and I make cheerful films because I can’t stand the misery anymore.” How important is humour?
The reason why you like one script over another is probably because the humour is in it. If the humour isn’t there you can’t put it in. Take Ireland: you could either make films about The Troubles or leprechauns. Then Roddy Doyle [writer of The Snapper and The Van] came along and invented a new genre dealing with the urban poor: The Snapper is the best film I’ve ever made.
Is the industry tougher now than when you started 40 years ago?
It’s tough in a different way. It’s easy to make cheap films now, but when you make your first film, you can’t get funding for the second. It’s more interesting for me because I’m not as scared anymore. I spent a lot of my time being afraid, but I’m not consumed by fear like I was in the beginning.