Stephen Frears: 'I've done better than Alex Ferguson'

His new film, Philomena, is the talk of Venice and his TV biopic of Muhammad Ali is causing a stir. But the thought of making a blockbuster fills director Stephen Frears with fear, he tells Geoffrey Macnab

A late Sunday afternoon in the bar of the Excelsior Hotel in Venice and Arsenal are winning against Spurs, which is the way that British film director Stephen Frears likes it. It's the day after the triumphant Venice premiere of his new film Philomena and Frears is sitting unobtrusively, watching the football which is being shown without sound on Italian TV.

Frears is 72, just a tiny bit older than the recently departed Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson.

"Look what happened to him. He is finished, gone, on the scrap heap! I've done better than him," Frears recently boasted of his own longevity, tongue in cheek.

Philomena has provoked an emotional and hugely enthusiastic response in festival audiences. Starring Judi Dench (already tipped for Oscar glory) and Steve Coogan (who also produced and co-scripted), the film is based on journalist Martin Sixsmith's heartbreaking account of Irish woman Philomena Lee's search for her missing child. In early 1950s Ireland, Philomena had given birth to a son outside of marriage. She had been forced to have the baby secretly while living in a convent. When the boy was three years old, he had been taken away from her and given up for adoption. Years later, Sixsmith (Coogan) helps Philomena (Dench) try to find him.

Frears seems remarkably unperturbed by the fuss, just as he was by the success of The Queen, starring Helen Mirren, some years ago. In Venice, he flummoxed international journalists with his terse, self-deprecating responses to their questions. "I just took the job," he says of Philomena, which he boarded as director after Dench had been cast. "What was good was that there was this tragic story and then on top of it was a romantic comedy. That was always what I liked. And the comic side is optimistic and human. The tragic side is terrible."

Philomena comes straight on the heels of Muhammad Ali's Greatest Fight (2013), another new film he made recently for HBO in the US.

Despite the title, the real subject is the inner workings of the Supreme Court during the period when Ali was a conscientious objector to the Vietnam war and had been stripped of his heavyweight crown. Various curmudgeonly old judges (played by, among others, Frank Langella, Christopher Plummer and Danny Glover) are pondering whether or not he should be sent to prison. Ali himself features in archive footage, weaved in seamlessly with the ongoing drama.

It is a measure of Frears' versatility that he can switch so easily between such different projects.

As with most of Frears' projects, Muhammad Ali's Greatest Fight seems to have happened almost by accident. He bumped into writer Shawn Slovo, at a party. "I said what are you doing? She said, 'I am writing a rather good (screenplay).'" Frears read it and volunteered to direct. That, it seemed, was that.

Writers gravitate toward Frears. He talks of Hanif Kureishi (writer of My Beautiful Laundrette) turning up on his doorstep in the 1980s. The screenplay for Roddy Doyle's The Van popped through the post.

Frears doesn't generate his own material. "I never thought I was very good at developing material. I grew up at the BBC where they sent you scripts. Seeing they were written by people like Alan Bennett, there wasn't a great deal to complain about. And I like surprises. It never crossed my mind to make a film about Muhammad Ali or the Queen or any of them! They just come out of the blue."

Whatever film he is making, whether a drama or a comedy-tearjerker like Philomena, he somehow knows just how to pitch it.

Frears works with many different producers and patrons. However, there are certain key collaborators he keeps with him. "I have people around me. I have a semi-permanent crew. If I make a film, they just turn up. They don't even invite themselves. They don't ask if they can come – they just turn up!"

As a young man, Frears used to get up in the middle of the night to listen to Ali's fights on the radio. "He was sort of dazzling, wasn't he? He was so charismatic, so sensational. Then he became an entertainer, a clown. He was permanently, it seemed to me, on Michael Parkinson."

The Ali of today, who has Parkinson's disease ("poor chap" as Frears says), is a husk of the champ he remembered. Frears wasn't able to gauge his response toward the film but "his wife was very pleased. The people around him were very pleased."

Frears relished working with HBO (the outfit behind Game of Thrones, Boardwalk Empire, The Wire et al.) and with top-notch actors like Plummer and Langella. ("They were wonderful. They used to sit there all day, singing songs from musicals. I'd say 'right, time to go' and they'd immediately go into character.")

On the Ali film, the budget was a comfortable $10m and Frears had final cut. It all seems an armchair ride compared to the films he used to make for the BBC, ITV and Channel 4 in the Seventies and Eighties. These were shot at breakneck speed and on relatively small budgets. However, in the UK then as in the US now, the best work was being done for the small screen. As Frears puts it: "You can see that's where the best writing is."

Frears' contemporaries Mike Newell and Michael Apted have directed Harry Potter or James Bond films. That's a route that he has never gone down. Nor does he have much desire to make a blockbuster. He quotes a remark made to him by his old mentor Karel Reisz when Reisz was asked to direct The Empire Strikes Back. "He said I could easily put an end to a very successful franchise. I think I once said that to (Harry Potter producer) David Heyman."

Occasionally, the prospect of a very big-budget Hollywood movie has been dangled in front of him. He doesn't seem in the slightest disappointed that he hasn't been able to direct one.

"The economics of American cinema have become so elephantine that I don't know how people sleep at night," Frears reflects. "The American cinema has become so gargantuan that they can't make films like this [Muhammad Ali's Greatest Fight]. They don't half put you through it." He speaks darkly of the anxiety over how your film will perform over the opening weekend.

Yes, he has made films for Hollywood backers (The Grifters, Dangerous Liaisons) and the Ali feature is about quintessentially American subject matter. Nonetheless, Frears professes himself baffled by the workings of both Hollywood and of US society in general.

"The more you learn about America, the more you realise you haven't a clue what goes on," Frears mutters. "It's so complicated… such an interesting country."

As for the UK and its film industry, Frears has mixed feelings about how matters are moving today. "You see a completely divided industry," he says. The veteran director points out that the Brits are very successful at "servicing" big American studio movies. However, the independent sector, where he tends to work, remains "very precarious".

After going on half a century in the business, Frears still describes film directing in determinedly artisan terms. No, he doesn't know which of his movies will turn out successfully or not. "You make them as well as you can. I want my films to get audiences. I am not interested in making them just for myself," he pronounces, adding that he can't afford to spend too long agonising about how they perform. "That way madness lies."

'Philomena' has been screening at the Venice Film Festival. 'Muhammad Ali's Greatest Fight' will show on HBO in the US on 5 October

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
DJ Calvin Harris performs at the iHeartRadio Music Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush

music
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Mark Crown, DJ Locksmith and Amir Amor of Rudimental performing on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park, Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison star in political comedy The Thick of IT

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judy Murray said she

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Seoul singer G-Dragon could lead the invasion as South Korea has its sights set on Western markets
music
Arts and Entertainment
Gary Lineker at the UK Premiere of 'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Bale as Batman in a scene from
film
Arts and Entertainment
Johhny Cash in 1969
musicDyess Colony, where singer grew up in Depression-era Arkansas, opens to the public
Arts and Entertainment
Army dreamers: Randy Couture, Sylvester Stallone, Dolph Lundgren and Jason Statham
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off 2014 contestants
tvReview: It's not going to set the comedy world alight but it's a gentle evening watch
Arts and Entertainment
Umar Ahmed and Kiran Sonia Sawar in ‘My Name Is...’
Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
This year's Big Brother champion Helen Wood
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Full company in Ustinov's Studio's Bad Jews
Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Harari Guido photographed Kate Bush over the course of 11 years
Music
Arts and Entertainment
Reviews have not been good for Jonathan Liebesman’s take on the much loved eighties cartoon
Film

A The film has amassed an estimated $28.7 million in its opening weekend

Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
    Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

    Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

    Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
    Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
    Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

    Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

    Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
    eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

    eBay's enduring appeal

    The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
    Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

    'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

    Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
    Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

    Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

    Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
    Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

    Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

    After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
    Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

    Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

    After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
    Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

    Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

    Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
    7 best quadcopters and drones

    Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

    From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
    Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

    Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

    The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
    Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

    Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

    British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
    Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

    A descent into madness in America's heartlands

    David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
    BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

    BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

    Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home