Stephen Frears is one of Britain’s most acclaimed directors with credits including Philomena, Dangerous Liaisons and The Queen. His latest film, Florence Foster Jenkins, tells the story of a New York socialite who became an opera singer, despite her notable lack of talent.
RD: Florence Foster Jenkins manages to tread a fine line between comedy, drama and tragedy. Is that a difficult balance to strike?
SF: I like to think you can either do it or you can’t. You have to get it right, but I don’t know what rules you have to follow. It comes from a sort of tradition, although it’s not a particularly English tradition. It’s really Europeans in Hollywood—directors like Ernst Lubitsch.
Meryl Streep is wonderful in the title role. You’ve worked with a number of legendary actresses, such as Helen Mirren in The Queen [which she won the Academy Award for Best Actress in 2007]. Is there a quality that marks them out?
Well, they’re very good at their jobs. They’re very skilful, substantial and highly intelligent women. I remember seeing Meryl when she was in Britain, receiving some prize or other. She read out a letter from Charlie Kaufman [director of Adaptation, starring Streep] and she was just so funny. So I guess I knew she had a sense of humour.
And she’s a natural screen presence.
She’s been doing it for a thousand years, so if she hasn’t got it by now she’ll never get it. But yes, that’s right. She’s had that from the beginning.
Meryl Streep as Florence Foster Jenkins
You’ve worked with a number of great writers throughout your career, and this time it’s Nicholas Martin, making his film debut. Is it true that script revisions were going on throughout the shoot?
Yes, the truth is you finish writing when you finish the film. You’re rewriting the whole time. The desire is often coming from me, so it’s entirely within my control. You make mistakes and you happen to notice things. When it comes to life in front of your eyes, you see it for the first time clearly. It’s a constant refining.
It’s often said that you like making films about real-life characters. Is that a deliberate pattern?
It’s not a deliberate pattern, but it seems to have happened. I have a theory (which I developed this morning, so it’s very modern) that it enables you to be more imaginative than fiction. If you make the story of a novel, you can invent anything. If you make a film about the Queen, say, or indeed Florence Foster Jenkins, there are certain rules but you can go underneath them and show different things.
If you make a film like The Queen, you can show different bits of her character. So invention, in an odd sort of way, becomes easier.
Philomena [Stephen’s 2013 film about Philomena Lee and her search for her forcibly adopted son] becomes a completely invented story halfway through, and it was the invention I really liked. Of course, the story of what happened in the convent is terrible, but the invented relationship with Steve Coogan becomes more and more interesting.
People say to me, “Did you do a lot of research for Florence Foster Jenkins?” Not a bit. Someone said to Lubitsch, “Do you like Paris?” and he said, “There’s Paris France and there’s Paris Paramount, and on the whole I prefer Paris Paramount.” This always took place in Paris Paramount, in a sort of studio universe.
The implication in Florence Foster Jenkins is that Florence was protected by the people around her, so she didn’t know how bad she was. Is that true?
How would I know? Why would I know? Maureen Lipman, who played her on stage, has a theory that there was something in her ear that meant she heard things differently. What she heard was glorious. But I don’t know. If you answered the question, life becomes less interesting. I’d sooner you thought about it than saying, “Oh, this is what happened.”
One review compared her to Eddie The Eagle, someone who wasn’t great at what he did, but we admire him for having a go. Is that fair?
I think in the end it’s her courage that’s the most striking. She sang in Carnegie Hall, and as for the recordings she made…you just can’t believe what you’re hearing. They’re so touching, so courageous.
Hugh Grant as St Clair Bayfield
Hugh Grant plays Florence’s partner St Clair Bayfield. I understand that you wanted to work with him for some time. Did he take a lot of persuading?
No. I rang him and said, “I’ve got something for you.” I sent him the script and he wrote back saying, “I hate everything, this is wonderful.”
You make your job sound so easy!
Well, I sent the script to Meryl, she said yes. I sent the script to Hugh, he said yes. Nothing else goes on. I don’t know about this business of persuading. “Oh, if you pay him a lot of money he’ll do it.” No, he did it because he liked it.
I always thought that Hugh was very good. And, if I’m being honest, I always thought he was misunderstood too. He’s not what he seems. I thought he was brilliant in Four Weddings and a Funeral, for instance.
You’ve always shown real interest in characters and people throughout your career. My favourite films of yours are the two Roddy Doyle adaptations, The Snapper and The Van.
You’ve got wonderful taste! Yes, I didn’t know those books existed until I read the script for The Snapper. Then you go to Dublin and you realise that this is what Irish families are like. It was a total shock to me—it’s not what my family is like. Suddenly you discover this incredible warmth.
This is your 23rd full-length film. Is your enthusiasm for directing undiminished?
I think it’s probably rather greater. It’s so frightening when you begin. You’re out of your depth. I suppose by now it’s slightly less frightening. Failures toughen you up in a way.
John Boorman once told me that he’d spent as much time on films that had never been made. Is that the same with you?
No, not at all. First of all, John has a much more romantic view of the world than I do. I mean, he’s made these incredible films, but I prefer people to send me scripts. I like being hired—that seems to satisfy me.
Whenever I’ve originated a film, I’ve always had trouble with it. I was sent the script for Florence Foster Jenkins and I just said, “Yes, this is great, let’s do it.” And then it fell into place very quickly. I don’t think it’s quite the same with John.
Does that mean you don’t know what’s coming next?
It’s a wonderful script by Lee Hall, who did Billy Elliott. So I know what the next job is, but after that who knows?
Florence Foster Jenkins is released in cinemas on May 6