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
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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