INTERVIEW: The Homecoming; Stephen Frears Returns to U.K. with "Liam"
by Brandon Judell
(indieWIRE/ 09.24.01) -- Stephen Frears began paying his dues as an assistant director on such sixties' classics as "Charlie Bubbles" and "If . . ." before directing his first feature in 1972. The moderately successful "Gumshoe" starred Albert Finney as a bingo parlor owner who daydreams he's a Bogart-like private eye. Instead of building on his acclaim, Frears shied away from the big screen for the next thirteen years, preferring to stick to the BBC.
Then came the acclaimed film noir "The Hit" in 1985, followed by three movies which cemented Frears' reputation as an incisive social commentator with a biting wit: "Prick up Your Ears" (1987), "My Beautiful Launderette" (1985) and "Sammy and Rosie Get Laid" (1987), a title that caused great discomfort to The New York Times. From here on, Frears had a few major hits: "Dangerous Liaisons" (1988), "The Grifters" (1990); a few art house successes such as "The Snapper" (1993); and some major flops like "Mary Reilly" (1996).
With "Liam," Frears is back in the milieu he's most successful with -- the British working class and their adversities. He's employed the autobiographical screenplay by Jimmy McGovern, a highly regarded, soul-searching TV writer, who last got the Church up in arms over his "Priest" (1995).
"Liam's" locale is 1930s impoverished Liverpool. The title character (Anthony Borrows) is a seven-year-old stutterer enrolled in a bombastic Catholic school where he and his mates are taught that for every one of their sins, the nails in Christ's limbs will cause their Savior that much more pain. Subsequently, when the lad accidentally sees his mother naked as she's preparing for a bath, he's sure he's going straight to hell. Add a little unemployment for Liam's pop, a whole lot of anti-Semitism in the boy's neighborhood, and you sort of got the story. indieWIRE spoke to Frears about what makes a Stephen Frears film, bleak childhoods, and Hollywood drama verses British art film.
indieWIRE: At the end of "High Fidelity," the credits read: "A Stephen Frears Film." What is a Stephen Frears Film?
Stephen Frears: It says that in my contract. That's what it says. I wouldn't know how to answer your question. I'm embarrassed by the credit if that's what you mean.
iW: You can always recognize a Hitchcock film, and possibly a Spielberg effort. But except for possibly "My Beautiful Launderette" and "Sammy and Rosie Get Laid," you seem to change your style from one film to another.
Frears: It seems to me that's doing good work. You get on with whatever's in front of you.
iW: What do you think of directors whose style is always apparent like Hitchcock's or Lubitsch's?
Frears: I thought Lubitsch was a genius. I think Hitchcock was a genius. (Laughs) They're great directors.
iW: "High Fidelity," "Hi-Lo Country" and "Liam" were all projects brought to you. Why is that?
Frears: As with almost every other film I've made. I like that. Because that's the way I prefer it. I have no talent for initiating things. I mean I don't. I like being brought things. Then I can simply react to them. I have some talent for reading a script and saying, "I think this will make a good film." The thing I always say about "Launderette" was that I did say, "This is very good and you should make it now." With "Dangerous Liaisons," I said, "This is very, very good. You better do this." I think that's what I'm good at. Recognizing a good script. I prefer making films about things I know nothing about.
iW: Why did you pick "Liam" then?
Frears: Jimmy McGovern is a very good writer whom I admire, and it reminded me of my childhood, I guess. I mean it's the first time I've made a film that deals with Jewish matters, which mattered to me. Also the account of the rise of fascism. I thought it was very important.
iW: Why the Liverpool setting?
Frears: Well, first off, if you go to Liverpool, you find very, very subtle degradations of prejudice. They'll be prejudiced against the natives. There will be prejudice against the people opposite the street. Life was very, very narrow when I was child. And I suppose it brought out these rather petty hostilities against other people for very small reasons. At the same time, it's sort of a community. You know, it's both things at once. They've very identifiable, these Liverpool people, and they're very proud of themselves and quite defensive about it. They're complicated people, and they're not really English. It's much more like an Irish town than an English town.
iW: So many Brit directors have been coming out with films lately about impoverished childhoods from "Ratcatcher" to "The Butcher's Boy" and so forth. Why the stampede?
Frears: It's slightly one of the perceived views of England, this sort of grim childhood. I mean English childhoods are not like American childhoods. My own children are like American children. They're a lot closer to American children then they are to the children in the film. But there is a long tradition in Great Britain of socially engaged films in England, socially critical films, films critical of the government. We have had a sort of bad past.
iW: And what exactly is "Liam" trying to say?
Frears: That if you allow this sort of hardship, this sort of deprivation, then terrible things will come out of it. In other words, if you create a society in which a man is suddenly thrown out of work, in which large numbers of men are thrown out of work, then don't be surprised when they put black shirts on. Don't be surprised when they behave desperately.
iW: Is it still easy to make small films in England or have the few big successes turned the tables on such projects?
Frears: Once Spielberg proved that you could make the sort of money that "Jaws" made, the game was up. And the same is really true of "Four Weddings and a Funeral." Once the game involves the possibility of hitting the jackpot on that scale, then modesty is forgotten.
iW: How do you prefer to employ your craft, in Hollywood movies or in Brit art films?
Frears: I find it all rather interesting. I find both kind of films interesting. I love making American films.
iW: What's different?
Frears: They pay you well. You go to the Wild West. You get to wherever it is. It's fantastic making a film in America. People are so interesting. It's such a big country. But there's a kind of film I've learned that I'm not very good at. Those big studio films which now must cost a hundred million dollars. I wouldn't recommend anyone to employ me to make a hundred million dollar film. It wouldn't be mine. I wouldn't suggest it. It would be a waste of their money and my time. I do however really admire the people that could make them. I simply couldn't do it. I've tried to make two studio films. Two expensive studio films and simply couldn't do it.
iW: Our playwrights like Christopher Durang have gotten in trouble for writings satires on religion. In fact, Jimmy McGovern received flack for his "Priest." With "Liam," have any Catholics come off and said. "How dare you?"
Frears: I'm not religious. I was very impressed with the Jesuit priest who let us film at his church. He was an extraordinary man. I thought he was wonderful. I didn't really know any priests before but I was very impressed with him. He's very, very humane, tolerant and wise. And with Jimmy, he was absolutely not threatened by some of the raging. He never is.
iW: Do you have a screwball comedy in you?
Frears: No, I'm too serious. Too boring. I can see that my films have a lot of jokes in them. Sort of a hooliganism runs through them all. In fact, that's really the answer to your first question [about what a Frear film is].