Director Stephen Frears and Bruce Willis on the set of Lay the Favorite.
In addition to directing some of the most celebrated films of the past 30 years, Stephen Frears has mastered the art of self-deprecation. It goes deeper than humbly and nimbly deflecting attention away from himself, which of course he does. He can seem gruff in interviews, but his approach is less confrontational than a shrugging, “you’re asking the wrong guy” forthrightness, which is consistent with Frears’s working method.
Rather than approach filmmaking as a venue for megalomania or authorial control, he preaches and practices collaboration. He chooses projects based on pre-existing scripts. And rather than reshape them to fit an auteurist vision, works alongside the screenwriter every step of the way. The fact that his films have been such great platforms for career-defining performances (Glenn Close and John Malkovich in Dangerous Liasons, Annette Benning in The Grifters, Helen Mirren in The Queen) only underscores how Frears fosters a culture in which his collaborators can thrive.
True to his job title, Frears directs attention to whatever story is at hand, whether the story is a mass appeal comedy (High Fidelity, Mrs. Henderson Presents) or a moody thriller (The Hi-Lo Country, Dirty Pretty Things). For his latest film, Lay the Favorite, which makes its Festival debut in the Premieres section, the director delves into a world completely foreign to his own. Based on the bestselling non-fiction book by Beth Raymer (and starring Bruce Willis, Rebecca Hall, and Catherine Zeta-Jones), the story centers on a young woman’s foray into the all-male community of sports bettors, which takes her to the seedy but fascinating environs of Las Vegas and Curacao.
It’s precisely this sense of otherness that drew Frears to the material. Talking on the phone from London in-between final edits of the film, Frears spoke of the “European-ness” in his other films, and how he was attracted to a milieu so different from what he knows. “This is the most American film I’ve ever made,” he said. “And all the more enjoyable for it.” Some artists stick with what they know. At 70, with more than 20 feature films to his credit, Stephen Frears is still pursuing the unfamiliar. And still pointedly humble about how he does it. “By good fortune I’ve ended up with a more interesting job than I ever thought I’d have.”
At Sundance, a major point of emphasis, for the Institute and the Festival, is the art of the story. Especially since your projects are always based on other people’s scripts, what are you drawn to in terms of story?
You’d know better than I would. Everyone always tells me that my films are very eclectic. They obviously all need to be rather well written. I mean, I read something and like it, and don’t really think much of it beyond that.
And the eclecticism, the openness to hearing and telling new stories, becomes the signature.
If you say so. (Laughs.)
Do you prefer to work from a script that’s completely polished and complete?
Not that it’s complete, but that you feel confident the film is there. You can find yourself in predicaments where you’re trying to find the film, and you often make mistakes that way. You’d rather not waste your time. So you’re just trying to find out as much as you can before you do it. It’s quite straightforward, nothing really mysterious.
I wonder if there’s a difference between working from a purely fictional script vs. one based on a work of fact. Three of your recent films, The Queen, The Deal, and Lay the Favorite, are all based not only on actual, but living subjects.
I think you just use a different bit of your brain. But this [Lay the Favorite] was odd because the world was so unfamiliar to me, whereas The Queen was extremely familiar to me.
Did the fact that you didn’t know anything about this milieu make the project more attractive to you?
It always helps. I like new worlds, opening up doors to something that’s completely different from anything you ever thought about before. I’m a sucker for all of that. There was so much to learn. My friend, D.V. DeVincentis, who wrote the script, guided me from one thing to another, and then I started asking questions and started my own process.
D.V. was with you throughout the shoot? I know that’s how you normally work.
He was there all the time. I find it helpful. I don’t feel threatened, which I think other directors do.
You’d work through problems together on set?
You come across a scene and you think, well wouldn’t that be better if we did this in half the time. Or things didn’t sound right, or seemed in the wrong order. A series of very, very practical problems.
I know you never take credit as a screenwriter, but that sounds like writing.
Yes, we’re writing. This afternoon I will do a bit of post, some looping with Bruce [Willis] and Rebecca [Hall]. In that sense we’re still writing. I don’t think the changes will be very profound, but you’re dealing with the same things [as screenwriting] in a sense. I find that lot rather interesting.
Are you generally open to collaboration on set?
Yes, I would rather people were saying what they’re worried about, and I’d rather hear from them myself. So it has to be open. You’re trying to sort things out the whole time, trying to hear something in your head, and other people turn out to be very helpful. Also, as you get older, you sort of learn the bits you do and the bits that other people do. You know perfectly well who’s doing what.
The truth is that an enormous amount of work on a film is based on trust. But in the process you also set up a sort of conversation with people. And the conversation goes on and on. It never really stops. In that sense, it’s better to surround yourself with people you can have a conversation with than not.
You said something to The Guardian a year or so ago that I’d like to ask you about.
Oh god. What now?
Nothing controversial, just something that seems relevant to young filmmakers. You talked about teaching at the National Film and Television School in England, and how you always tell students that “you should know about economics, not tracking shots.” Can you talk about what you meant by that?
Well this film, Lay the Favorite, was made for a modest amount of money. We couldn’t get more money than that, so we made it for the amount of money we had. And I think we gained from that. In other words, the absence of money helped us.
I look at an awful lot of American films that seem to cost an enormous amount of money, and they would have been better using their imaginations. So I see lack of money as a source of strength. How you spend the money becomes the central question.
When I get the economics right for a film, I feel very comfortable. And whenever I’ve got into a mess, it was because I was spending too much money—every single time.
So you don’t ever want to do some elaborate visual thing, and ask for a larger budget to make it happen?
If I think it’s important I’ll defend it. But I’ll also accept that if we can’t afford it we’ll have to save somewhere else. What I’m really saying is that the restraints seem to me quite important. And when you make a film without restraints it doesn’t help. Like bringing a child up it helps to have boundaries.
And freedom itself is an illusion. Of course there’s a history of appalling behavior by the studios, but actually, the restraints that surround a film in my experience are often quite benign. But I can see it’s not what most American directors think. I was always a cheap date. (Laughs)
Would you consider yourself an independent filmmaker?
Yes. And by independent I mean independent minded.
Yet even independently minded filmmakers are dependent on somebody else’s money.
Well, you’re always dependent on someone else’s money. I only hesitate because I never quite know what the words mean. There have been jobs that I’ve enjoyed and jobs that I haven’t enjoyed. You just make films, really. But I can see my eccentricities, and that I’m more independently minded than the other way around.
Young filmmakers often approach making a film as a need to do everything themselves, and making everything a personal expression of self.
Well I was lucky that I didn’t grow up with that particular tyranny. I mean, I understand exactly what you’re saying.
I suppose it really can be a tyranny.
Of course it’s a tyranny. What’s interesting about making films is the collaboration. The people who surround me are brilliant, interesting, and are just as talented as me. In the end I have to make the decision to do this rather than that, but I just enjoy the contributions of other people.
I’ve always found that when you start behaving dictatorially, there’s something wrong. And when you behave badly, it’s generally because you’re on thin ice. You’ll see that when actors behave badly it’s because there’s something worrying them. And when they’re happy they’ll do anything.
At this point how do you handle what you’re about to embark on, the premiering of a new film, traveling to festivals, doing press?
Listen, I know what the world is like. Some parts of it are nicer than others. It’s just called being a grown up, isn’t it? You do things in your life that you don’t like doing. So what? And it’ll be interesting. Once you open a film, a lot of new things start. Such as other people’s opinions. Sometimes it’s hurtful and sometimes it’s lovely, but it’s part of the whole thing. It’s often extremely interesting.
Has this part of the process taught you things about your work or steered your course at all?
Generally at some point on a film you’re forced to sit in a room with 400 strangers, and they let you know when they’re bored. You can hear their bottoms twitching. Being made to sit in a room with strangers is very healthy, because that’s what cinema is. The first time I ever previewed a film was for Dangerous Liasons, and for the last 20-odd years, I’ve been trying to understand the audience.
Of course, people can scarcely articulate what the problems are. You’re often trying to unravel what people fail to articulate. But you know absolutely what you’ve done wrong and what you’ve done right. And the only person who can solve problems with a film is you.
I give you credit for finding the process interesting, because I think others just find it maddening.
Well it’s painful, because they’re not just telling you what you want to hear. But that’s what you learn in life.
Don’t most people just try to set up their lives to avoid that kind of friction?
Yeah, it would be great if you didn’t have it. And it would be great if your children did what you told them, and if your wife did what you told her. But they don’t. They’re independent people and it drives you mad.
And god bless them for it, ultimately.
In the end you’ve chosen to marry an independent woman and to have children who are independently minded. If they were robots it would be worse. Even if sometimes it drives you senseless.