Interview: Director Stephen Frears of 'The Deal'
Mon, 11 Aug 2008 11:40:23
Stephen Frears has recently turned his directorial lens toward British royal and political matters, tackling heavy issues such as the death of Princess Diana and exploring the persona of Prime Minister Tony Blair in a pair of films. His up close and personal portrayal of the current Queen in the aptly named
The Queen led regal actress Helen Mirren to an Oscar win while its prequel,
The Deal, shines a dramatic spotlight on the aforementioned former Prime Minster. Actor Michael Sheen gave a nuanced performance as Blair in both films, portraying the man prior to the period when he fell out of the British public's favor. Frears has a gift for humanizing public officials and does a fabulous job of casting controversial subjects in a somewhat sympathetic light. The cheeky director graciously offered us some of his time and his thoroughly British wit and wisdom while in New York City recently. We chatted about politics, women in film, his feelings on Blair, and how chooses his projects.
Will there be a follow up film to The Queen?
I think one is being written. It's complicated. Today, Tony Blair is of limited interest. He bewitched a nation, maybe even two nations, since you are asking about him! I don't know how interesting he is. Michael Sheen makes him interesting, that's for certain.
Maybe Blair is interesting to me because he is foreign! Or maybe it's the fact that he's not George Bush.
You Americans like Blair more than we do in England. I'd have to say that maybe they are both repulsive and smug, aren't they? They are a pair, those two.
It's a testament to the film and to Sheen that Blair didn't come off as despicable in either of your films where he was a prominent character.
His troubles came later. It was hard to know that this man would eventually invade Iraq. He became worse. Politics does that to people and I think it brought out the worst in him.
Your previous films were stylized and explored sexual issues. What made you want to go the government and political route with these two films?
I don't know. When I was approached, it was a good idea. I was straightforward. Someone sent me a script that I liked. It was the best thing I had read in a while. It became extraordinary, that film. I could see Helen being very good. I could see the predicament she was in, playing the role. Why people took to it, well, I have no idea [laughs]. You just stop asking questions and become grateful when a film becomes successful.
“The truth is that you make the film so you don't get caught. The film is above politics.”
Did you ever fear backlash from the royal family for The Queen?
The truth is that you make the film so you don't get caught. The film is above politics. We were showing the Queen to be a woman, and that was meant to be a complement to her. The monarchical side of her life is quite ridiculous, yet the more personal, woman side is what's worth exploring. If I was her, I'd be pleased about that. It was not an insult. We were actually accused of being too sympathetic towards her with our portrayal, believe it or not.
The Deal focuses on Tony Blair's ascent, not what he did while in office. What he does in office might make for a juicy third film, no?
Right, The Deal wasn't about the terms in office. Maybe that'll be next. He was the prime minister while we made the films. Now that he's not, are people still interested in him and what he did? I have no idea.
Following that line of reasoning, American director Oliver Stone is making a picture about George Bush that'll come out just as Bush is exiting office, which presumes people will still care about the mess he made of the United States.
For me, it would all depend on what gets written in the script. Then we can do a third film. I don't want to second-guess what Peter Morgan is going to write. All I ever said is, “Are we allowed to make this film?” I asked it with both pictures and no one said no! It required courage and I was impressed with myself for having it.
The Queen was a much larger film than The Deal. Do you think that's because people are more fascinated by the institution that is the monarchy?
That and The Deal was made for British television, in a modest way. The Queen is a rich woman so I could not make a film about her in a modest way. Both did well so I had nothing to complain out.
What's next for you?
I made a film based on a French novel. It's about a middle-aged woman and a younger man. It's romantic. I am in post-production stages with it. It will come out at the end of this year or next year.
A May-December romance! So some more subversive material from you, it seems.
A woman is always subversive, isn't she? Any woman at the center of a film is subversive. It was a scandalous novel a hundred years ago. It's called Cheri, and in terms of my scripts, I am simple. I read and if I like it, I take it on. I don't sit around worrying about it.
— Amy Sciarretto