Like Pulling Teeth (Or Stealing Kidneys): Stephen Frears On “Dirty Pretty Things”
by Erica Abeel
Here’s a premise to snap awake the most jaded filmgoer: illegal immigrants trade their organs (as in kidneys) for money and a passport. This gruesome trade underpins the plot of “Dirty Pretty Things,” Stephen Frears’ latest foray into London’s underbelly, arrived nearly 20 years after his 1985 “My Beautiful Laundrette,” the film that launched him (and Daniel Day-Lewis).
“Dirty” is primarily set in a posh London hotel, all gleaming brass, plush carpets, discreet arrivals and checkouts — and room service of a sort you never imagined. (In fact, arriving at Essex House to interview Frears, I jokingly told him I now regarded such hotels in a sinister light — to which Frears quipped, a bit too quickly, “Yes, they’re removing kidneys right next door.” Clearly I wasn’t the first interviewer of the day to make the remark.)
Striking a delicate balance between social commitment and melodrama, “Dirty” is a noir thriller for filmgoers with high IQs, serving up a scathing version of multiculti London, where the immigrant community is foully exploited for the service economy. Surprisingly, it was scripted by Stephen Knight, the TV writer who created the lucrative game show, “Who Wants to be a Millionaire.” At the center is Nigerian-born Okwe, magisterially captured by stage actor Chiwetel Ejiofor, an illegal living in London who’s a cabbie by day and a hotel receptionist by night, keeping alert by chewing herbal leaves. He occasionally crashes on the couch of Turkish illegal Senay, a kohl-eyed Muslim virgin preyed upon by immigration goons, played by Audrey Tautou, with Amelie only briefly peeping through. Okwe and Senay are clearly attracted, but their need to survive is uppermost. Show-stealer Sergi Lopez, hair parted in the middle and oozing venomous charm, plays Sneaky, the hotel’s night manager and the middleman orchestrating the organ exchange. The film kicks into high gear after Okwe, summonsed to unclog a toilet, fishes up a healthy human heart in a stomach-turning scene. Aware that he’s stumbled on a black-market operation, he can’t go to the police on account of his illegal status. “You are nothing,” Sneaky observes. But in a satisfying denouement — or cheesy, depending on your taste — the victims beat out their tormentors at their own game.
In his versatility, Frears is hard to nail. He combines the social concerns of the Brit realist filmmakers of the ’60s, from which he emerged, with a willingness to switch or blend genres, like many directors of the old Hollywood studio system. And he works both sides: indie film and Hollywood; intimate story, large-scale story; the contemporary “High Fidelity,” and the period pieces “Dangerous Liaisons” and “Mary Reilly.” In a sense, “Dirty” marks a conflation of Frears’ varied tastes: the social issues tackled in “Laundrette” and, more recently, “Liam”; the plotting and pace of the noir “The Grifters” — the whole liberally basted with melodrama.
Frears is also a journalist’s nightmare (second only to the tape recorder that has silently quit on you) — brusque, adverserial, the very opposite of forthcoming, like those social maladroits who refuse to hold up their end of a dialogue. During our interview, he sat in the room’s only chair, while this intrepid reporter perched on the bed and later shifted to the floor; with the light blinding my eyes, he could see my discomfiture all too well, but I could scarcely see him. Miramax releases “Dirty Pretty Things” today.
indieWIRE: You’ve been grouped with such social realists as Ken Loach and Mike Leigh. How are you different from them?
Frears: I’m frivolous. I’m nothing like them, except for age. I do such different films, and I go to America and I muck about. I think they’re much more serious than I am.
iW: So how would you characterize yourself?
Frears: Why would I have to?
iW: For the purpose of the interview.
Frears: Well, that’s doing YOUR job. You have to do that, I don’t.
iW: I was just wondering if you prefer to work one vein more than others.
Frears: No, how can you be versatile and work one vein?
iW: When you do a big American film, it’s like an indie-style film in Hollywood.
Frears: Oddly enough, when I made “High Fidelity,” which I made for Disney, the head of the studio said, “Make this like an indie film.” “Liaisons,” you know, is about me in frocks, so people in Hollywood were nervous about that.
iW: Didn’t you take flak for converting “High Fidelity” [adapted from Nick Hornby’s novel] from a London setting to Chicago?
Frears: I only took flak from people who, when they saw the film, realized I’d been right all along. The flak stopped as soon as people saw the film.
iW: What attracted you to the script of “Dirty Pretty Things”?
Frears: Ask an analyst. Why do you ask me these questions? I don’t know, I don’t want to know. I read something and, as it were, fell in love with it, I don’t have to think about my reasons.
iW: You don’t fall in love with scripts about rich people, the British upper classes.
Frears: I suppose I don’t find them very interesting.
iW: Why not?
Frears: [no answer]
iW: Nineteenth-century literature is about the upper middle classes ?
Frears: That might be why I don’t find them very interesting. Because they’re somehow locked in those books I was made to read as a child, or failed to read as a child. It might be some rebelliousness about that. I’m only guessing.
iW: I get the impression from talking to you it’s better for a filmmaker not to be too analytical.
Frears: I become more and more instinctive. I don’t mean that my intelligence stops, I simply mean that my instincts are what I trust most.
iW: Did you have misgivings about the grisly organ trade theme of “Dirty Pretty Things”?
Frears: Well, if you’re making a thriller, you want a good crime, don’t you? You know, shooting someone seemed rather pale beside removing a kidney.
iW: Actually the film made me slightly uneasy, because it’s hard to pin down the genre. I mean, treating such grave issues in a noir format.
Frears: Why does that make you uneasy? It makes me cheer. I can see that I like crossing genres, I don’t like sticking within a genre. You are, alas, more serious than I am.
iW: I think I’ll sit on the floor.
Frears: By all means, do whatever you like. I like that the film transgresses the restrictions imposed on it. In other words, you’re supposed to make a film in one way, but I’ll make one that has this and this and that in it. This may be foolish on my part, but it seems quite genuine. Actually, mixing genres is what I grew up on. That’s what Warner Brothers made their money on. All those films in the ’30s in which the story was taken out of the headlines, like “Angels with Dirty Faces,” about juvenile delinquents, with James Cagney. I grew up when films were both entertaining and dealt with serious matters. I don’t see any contradiction. Hitchcock, too, dealt with serious matters: redemption and guilt — dealt with them in a popular way. It suits me to be both serious and frivolous at the same time.
iW: Do you get emotionally involved with these characters?
Frears: In an unpolitical way, I don’t think people should be treated like that. I’m all for people being kind to each other. I’m not a political activist; I’m a storyteller.
iW: Yet the film’s an indictment of English society’s abuse of immigrants.
Frears: In a way, they’re exploited by themselves, aren’t they? If you treat people the way these people are treated in England, then you will create a criminal underclass. In some peculiar way that I can’t really explain, England is both a very tolerant country and a sort of neo-racist country. People like this aren’t made to feel welcome. It’s a paradox. I can’t really explain it. The reaction of the British government is to make peoples’ flesh creep. Tell frightening stories. Instead of saying, “These people are really quite harmless. And good for the British economy.” Instead they say, “Oh, you’d better watch out, these people have three heads.”
iW: Is the organ trade widespread, or just in England?
Frears: No, it’s all over Europe. It’s kind of unremarkable. I mean, people tell you stories about when the boats come over from Albania, the mafiosi are standing on the quay with the calculators out. The Sneakys. Simple economics. The middlemen know these people need money. It’s, “You need money? Give me your kidney, you only need one, so it’s not a problem.”
iW: In the United States we don’t hear about this.
Frears: Maybe it doesn’t happen in the U.S., I can’t really answer that. There was a case of a doctor in England. Somebody wanted a kidney and said, “I’m prepared to pay for it.” And all the doctor said was, “Where would you like it to come from? I can get it from there, there, or there.”
iW: You mean, “What nationality kidney would you like?”
Frears: Goodness me, what horror. I guess when the doctor was caught, he was struck off the register. In a way, as a filmmaker, your job is to de-dramatize it and say, “This is just economics.” Not say, “This is the most wicked thing you’ve ever heard of,” but rather, completely unremarkable. You have two kidneys, you only need one.
iW: Did you find anything incongruous about making this film from a script by the man who created “How to Become a Millionaire”?
Frears: Yes, of course. Why should I not find it incongruous? It made me laugh. All I can tell you is how rich life is, that this man did both these things. But I have no explanation for it.
iW: Why did you pick these actors, rather than Hollywood names, such as Denzel Washington or someone?
Frears: I said to the producers, “Look, you can do it this way or you can do it that way. If you ask me, I think you’re better off doing it the way we’ve done it. But I can quite understand if you want to cast a more famous African-American.”
iW: Immigrants swapping their insides for a passport — do you see this as a metaphor? They keep the rich alive.
Frears: Yes, they supply whatever it is that the wealthy classes need. I hadn’t thought of it quite like that, but you’re quite right. A kidney would increase in value. By the time it got into the insides of a sheik it would increase its value by abut 200 times. A sheik might pay 200,000 pounds for what the immigrant gave for 5,000 pounds.
iW: Were you concerned that the good guys were too good?
Frears: The writer wanted to write a story about a good man. You should talk to Chewy [nickname for Chiwetel Ejiofor]. He’s rather good at explaining it. It’s about people who are in trouble, but wish to retain some sense of self-respect. I mean, that’s what Humphrey Bogart films, such as “The Maltese Falcon,” are about.
iW: You’ve said the only way European cinema will survive is by taking the Americans on.
Frears: It’s not fair.
iW: What’s the appeal exactly of American films?
Frears: People love them. They’re vivid and entertaining and skillful and noisy and have pretty girls and fast cars.
iW: Doesn’t sound that terrific…
Frears: Well, that’s not what they’ll tell you in Hollywood. That’s what people like. It’s the economics.
iW: Is “Dirty Pretty” a film that crosses over and can attract a mass audience?
Frears: It seems to me that the popular form, the melodrama — that’s saying, “Look, I can absolutely see that you people want to be entertained and want an exciting story.”
iW: With revenge at the end.
Frears: Yes, that’s good fun.
iW: What about substance and quality, rather than noise and cars?
Frears: But my film has substance. All I can tell you is that audiences like American films. And I have to be more clever to get a film noticed with all that noise going on. And you see people are struggling with that the whole time. People in England who are making films are trying to deal with that problem and finding different solutions. Rather than depending on a protectionist atmosphere from the government.
iW: The French do that.
Frears: And they make a lot of films that people don’t want to see.
iW: Yet you’ve said all the talent is in France right now.
Frears: Yes, at this moment they have a monopoly on the talent. There’s a guy named Jacques Audiard. I think he’s almost the best filmmaker in the world. I loved “Sur mes Levres” (“Read My Lips”), so exciting and entertaining and gripping. And Gaspar Noe is a great filmmaker. I loved “Irreversible.”
iW: What’s up next?
Frears: I’m making a TV film about Tony Blair.
iW: Is it going to be flattering?
Frears: I don’t know. I haven’t thought about that. It’s about how he became leader of the Labor Party and stops in 1994.
iW: You’re hard to interview.
Frears: Why? I give you completely truthful answers. I don’t offer facile explanations of why I do things. I read this script and really liked it. I didn’t then brood, I thought, just “Great!”
iW: I read the other interviews. I thought I might crack you and get something different.
Frears: I can see it’s that I’m trying to protect something inside me. I don’t quite know what it is I’m trying to protect. I don’t know what I’m not saying! I can only … this is what I do. The films, in a way, are more interesting than I am. Chewy! Where’s Chewy?