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Stephen Frears

April 2009

Twenty one years after directing her in Dangerous Liaisons, Stephen Frears was reunited with Michelle Pfeiffer for his latest movie, Chéri.

BEFORE we begin, a quick recap on the startling career of a director you may not be overly familiar with. Obviously a few of you will be baulking at the idea but Stephen Frears isn't a household name when compared to, say, other Brits such as Richard Attenborough, Danny Boyle, Sam Mendes – even Richard Curtis, Guy Ritchie and Shane Meadows.
But there's an argument that his body of work exceeds them all.
Dangerous Liaisons earned him an Oscar nomination, as did follow-up The Grifters.
And it was Frears behind the camera for Helen Mirren's Oscar-winning performance in The Queen.

"Blimey I've been nominated twice, I'm a miracle," he says of the elusive Oscar.
"I don't want to sound unambitious but that already seems to be miraculous. I'm happy to count my blessings."
Add to those successes My Beautiful Launderette, Prick Up Your Ears, High Fidelity, Mrs Henderson Presents, Dirty Pretty Things and The Hi-Lo Country and there's every reason to consider Frears our greatest living director.
He has directed George Clooney, Julia Roberts, Glenn Close, Penelope Cruz, Woody Harrelson, John Cusack, Uma Thurman, Albert Finney, John Hurt, Tim Roth, John Malkovich, Michelle Pfeiffer, Harvey Keitel, Daniel Day-Lewis, Dustin Hoffman, Judi Dench and Helen Mirren.

For his latest film, Chéri, which opens next month, he was reunited with his Dangerous Liaisons star Michelle Pfeiffer. She plays Léa, a retired courtesan in pre-First World War Paris who has devoted her time to the amorous education of the young Chéri (played by Keira Knightley's boyfriend Rupert Friend).
Reluctantly she decides their relationship must end as Chéri is married off by his mother (Kathy Bates). But Chéri is haunted by memories of Léa and retreats into a fantasy world made up of dreams of the past.
Pfeiffer has complained about Frears' way of working during the filming, rehearsing only on the day of the shoot. So what says he to that?
"(Laughs) That's mainly because she arrived the day before we started shooting so there wasn't much time for rehearsal."
He adds: "That's her wanting to spend as much time as possible with her children.
"But I'm not very good at rehearsing," he admits. "I prefer to bring the thing to life and then follow it where it goes."
In the production notes, he described Chéri as "the most extreme film I've ever made". What does he mean?
"I don't know. I haven't a clue what I meant. It's certainly the hardest film I've ever made."
"Because you were trying to make a film about a frivolous world that was also tragic."

Any comparisons to Dangerous Liaisons, he says, are justified in one respect only.
"They both take place in France."
Christopher Hampton, who wrote Dangerous Liaisons, brought the script for Chéri to Frears.
And getting Pfeiffer on board was a simple as "a phone call," he says.
So how have they both changed in 21 years?
"Oh, I don't know. You make these films when you're young in such a state of innocence. I saw a clip from it the other day and nearly burst into tears. Everyone looks so young and fresh and optimistic."
I watched it last weekend for the first time in 21 years.
"Is it still all right?"
"I thought so," he laughs.
Chéri also features Newark actor Toby Kebbell.
"He's smashing," says Frears. "A terrific actor. He came to see me and I thought he was wonderful. I said I'll get a part written for you."
He had seen him in Control and Shane Meadows' Dead Man's Shoes, both part-financed by Nottingham-based screen commission EM Media. Frears is on the board of directors.
"I doubt if I'm much use. What they're doing is fantastic. All that stuff with Shane and Paddy (Considine) – it's terrific."
Along with an impressive CV of movies, Frears has launched the careers of many actors, turning them into international stars. Among John Malkovich, Daniel Day-Lewis and Jack Black.
"He's certainly very good," he says of his latest leading man Rupert Friend. He's resisting overhyping Friend.
"You never know what's going to happen," he adds. "It's odd this word 'launching'. Truth is, you're just standing there when they take off. You provide some sort of opportunity for them, which maybe they can sense. I know Dan Day-Lewis when he got the script to Launderette he somehow knew it was what he was looking for."
The Damned United, the biopic of Brian Clough's short spell at Leeds, turned out to not to be what Frears was looking for.
He was initially on board as director, part of the team that created the hugely successful The Queen, with screenwriter Peter Morgan and actor Michael Sheen. But he quit the production. Why?
"I didn't know how to get to the film I wanted to make."
How did Morgan and Sheen react?
"Well it's always upsetting but I'm sure it was the right decision in the end."
He's not seen how Tom Hooper, who replaced him as director, handled it.
I tell him it's good but light, designed to appeal to a mainstream audience. And I imagine Stephen Frears would have made a much...
"... darker film."
"I'm sure that's right."

Although born in Leicestershire, Frears, 67, spent his teenage years in Nottingham and considers the city his home.
"It was when my family moved to Nottingham that my life started to get interesting. It was fantastic," he says of the city in the 50s.
"It was the centre of the world. People like Alan Sillitoe were writing. I've never found anywhere in the world as nice as Nottingham in the 50s."
Paul Smith was a regular on the city scene but Frears didn't get to know him until years later.
"Paul was a tenant of my dad's. And he didn't have a penny. He was so poor."
His dad was a GP in The Meadows but the Frears family lived in The Park.
"There was a coffee bar opposite the Tec (now Nottingham Trent University) called The Toreador. I don't remember rock'n'roll in Nottingham, I remember a lot of jazz clubs."
In terms of watching films, Frears is old school.
"I only really watch films in cinemas. I don't watch films on DVD – unlike everybody else in the world. I grew up on going to the pictures and I like that whole experience. I'm not very good on pop cinema. I'm too old for that."
He was a regular at Nottingham's Odeon, ABC and Elite cinemas as a teenager.
"There was one on a street near what was Griffin & Spalding that showed rather risque films."
Seeing Hitchcock's North By Northwest had an impact on him.
"You couldn't believe what you were seeing. It was so fantastic."
He was also a member of an amateur theatre group in St Ann's.
"It was in Hutchinson Street and that was wonderful. I once acted in a play at Broadway."
Were you much of an actor?
"I wasn't any good but I was enthusiastic," he laughs.
One of his first films was called St Ann's, about the soon-to-be-demolished terraces released in 1969. After studying law at Cambridge University, Frears focused his efforts on a career in television and film. What did the parents think?
"I don't think I asked them," he chuckles.
"I'm sure my mother would still be wondering when I was going to get a proper job."

Stephen Frears and Christopher Hampton will be in conversation with Miranda Sawyer after a gala screening of Chéri at Broadway on Monday April 20 at 6.40pm. Tickets are £6.20/£4.50 concessions, call 0115 952 6611 or go to

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