Direct and honest, filmmaker Stephen Frears, to whom the Festival pays homage this year, does not mince words and has a collection of anecdotes to compete with Andrea Camilleri’s. Besides seeing Frears’ Gumshoe and Fail Safe on the big screen, audiences also got to interact with him at a Q&A at the Jardin de l’Ange, moderated by Adrian Wootton.
A beacon of contemporary British cinema, the director has numerous theatrical and television films to his name, from the recent Tamara Drewe and The Queen to the older Gumshoe, The Grifters and Accidental Hero, and TV movies such as Fail Safe and The Deal. A prolific and humble filmmaker, just like his films, he is not an easy one to label. But above all, he is a man of cinema. In fact, when writing about Gumshoe in their essay on Frears, Stefano Boni and Massimo Quaglia claim: “Frears and his screenwriter Neville Smith, rather than being interested in making meta-cinema and reflections on film language, seem to desire making cinema with cinema, working on the mythical body that is noir, feeding off of it and recreating it with passion.”
When asked about his secret vision of cinema and the reasons for making one film over another, Frears smiled and said simply: “I have no plan when directing my films. More than anything I’m guided by my subconscious. When I look back I understand why I chose some screenplays rather than others. In the beginning I was only trying to learn how to be a director. I directed that which they asked me to direct. Then I began making the movies I was truly interested in making. In any case, it works more or less like this: I stay home, people send me screenplays. And I work on one project at a time, which is already hard enough!”
In pointing out the linearity with which he took on Fail Safe, lauded during the Q&A as an exercise in style, Frears laughed: “I was home. George Clooney called me, asking me if I’d ever done live television. I immediately thought of Mike Newell. I thought the idea of making a film, shot live, great fun. We decided to do a remake of the Sidney Lumet’s very good film of 1964. It’s interesting you call it an exercise in style, because it isn’t at all!”
Reminiscing about one of his most famous films, The Grifters, based on the Jim Thompson novel and starring Angelica Huston, John Cusack and Annette Bening, Frears said: “Martin Scorsese saw me, this stupid Englishman who made eccentric films, and thought I was the right person to bring this novel to the big screen. When I was asked to make this film, I wondered how I would do it. First of all I had to find someone good enough to write the script. I offered it to Donald E. Westlake, who became convinced only after finding out that the story was almost exclusively about women!”
In terms of the projects he’s dreamt about but not yet realized, says Frears: “I wanted to work on a fantastic screenplay on the civil rights movement in America, it’s a crime that the film was never made! At the moment I’m working on Lay the Favorite, from the memoirs of a young American woman who went to Las Vegas to be a bartender and ended up involved with gangsters.”
He ended the Conversation with a small, entertaining confession: “This morning you held an event dedicated to Charles Dickens, for the upcoming bicentenary of his birth. I’ve never met a director in Great Britain who wants to do Dickens; only producers love proposing him. Let me tell you: I’m already depressed at the idea of next year’s celebrations!”