The Director's Chair Interviews

A Fish out of Water, Stephen Frears Comes to America with "Hi-Lo"
by Anthony Kaufman

Click here for Stephen Frears films, books, and soundtracks

It's not the first time British director Stephen Frears has come to the United States. In his 1990 neo-noir, "The Grifters," he walked away with an Oscar nomination for Best Director, proving himself quite capable of working on western shores. It also proved that the 57-year-old director cannot be pinned down to genre or style. His resume is eclectic to say the least; from the semiotic sexual farce "Sammy and Rosie Get Laid" to the Hollywood drama, "Dangerous Liaisons" to such UK comedies as "The Snapper" and "The Van," his work ranges from melodrama to comedy to character study.

In "The Hi-Lo Country," opening wider this Friday from Gramercy, Frears treads upon his most disparate territory yet: the western. Starring Billy Crudup and Woody Harrelson as a pair of cowboys fighting for life and love, the film is a return to the low-budget arena that Frears favors. Speaking from Los Angeles, what he calls the "land of the palm trees," the very British Frears speaks here about shooting a Western, studio versus independent, his producers Martin Scorsese and Barbara deFina, and the current insecure state of British film.

indieWIRE: I read in the press notes that it was important for you that the film remain independent from the studios. Why?

Steven Frears: I think that suits my temperament. The people who make studio films are very clever, but I've discovered who I am.

iW: What has been your experience on both studio and independent films?

Frears: I found when I made big studio films, I found it much harder. I just didn't understand the world, really. I found it quite bewildering. Nobody was horrid to me or anything like that.

iW: What about it did you find difficult?

Frears: Spending that sort of money -- just bewildering.

iW: And what about the freedom compared with your independent films?

Frears: I had freedom making studio films. I just found the weight of responsibility in the money very overwhelming. But it didn't restrict my freedom.

iW: Do you feel like there's more intimacy on a smaller, low-budgeted film?

Frears: I just feel more comfortable. They're values I sort of grew up with -- I understand why money is being spent the way it is.

iW: Tell me about your collaboration with Martin Scorsese and Barbara deFina. This is your second. ["The Grifters" was their first.]

Frears: They send me this material that I like very much. Twice, they've sent me books that were great and I had a really good time filming. And they're very. . . I just have an enormous respect for him. I guess I feel kind of safe in his hands.

iW: Once you have the material, is that the end of the working relationship or does it continue through production?

Frears: Barbara makes everything run smoothly. So she's as attentive as you want her to be. And Marty's there to be talked to if you want. He's just there whenever you want him -- which is great. He doesn't interfere or anything like that, but I think there's no reason for him to interfere, so they're just really good friends. They're just good people to be talking to, because they say sensible things.

iW: There's another collaboration that's interesting. With Working Title Films, can you tell me about your relationship with them?

Frears: I've worked with them now for 10 or 12 years. I guess more. So again, I understand their values. I think their success has been absolutely phenomenal. When I talk to them, I know what kind of people they are.

iW: Does it get easier?

Frears: Making films?

iW: Yes.

Frears: No. (Laughs)

iW: Even with the relationships you've maintained over the years?

Frears: No, you do that because it gets harder. So you more and more realize on how much you depend on the people around you. No, they're tough things to make.

iW: Can you talk about the new opportunity you had making this western? For instance, how did you photograph this western landscape? Did you and your cinematographer use different lenses than you were used to?

Frears: We shot anamorphic and we'd never shot anamorphic before.

iW: And what was that like? Having that extra room to work with?

Frears: The truth is, after the first few moments, I never thought about it. All my life, I've worked with cameramen that I've trusted. And I trust their eye. And I was able to talk to him as I normally do. It wasn't anything special. At first, I remember thinking about all those anamorphic films of Clint Eastwood in the 60's. I kept thinking, oh, is that how I have to do it? Then I realized it was complete nonsense. And in fact, I stopped thinking about it very, very quickly.

iW: Is there a physical or narrative territory that you feel more comfortable in?

Frears: I trust. . . I read a script and it just grabs me. I go where that leads me. It's not calculated. Often, I desire to do something different from what I've just done. And this utter dread of repeating myself. I just become full of somebody else's imagination. I find a new imaginary world.

iW: Have you ever considered writing?

Frears: No.

iW: Why not?

Frears: I don't have the talent. I admire writers. I work with very good writers. Since I work with very good writers, why would I be interested in the second rate stuff that I could come up with.

iW: Earlier in your career, could you foresee the career that you have now?

Frears: No. When I was in my teens, I fell in love with the theater. A group of actors came into my town and they were so colorful and vivid, so I guess I wanted to run away and join the theater. Except the theater that I wanted to join was quite a serious theater. Then I drifted into film, so I didn't expect to be a film director. And when I was a film director, I certainly didn't expect to be a film director working in American films. It's been a constant series of shocks. (Laughs)

iW: What is the American industry mean to an outsider coming in?

Frears: First of all, of course, it exists in a way that the British film industry simply doesn't exist. It has a clear economic basis. And it makes economic sense. And it has the economic strength and self-confidence to allow -- not just mainstream film to be made -- but also different kinds of films. I think my best work has been done in those different kinds of films and I include "Hi-Lo" and I include "The Grifters." That's really an expression of its confidence. Whereas in my country, where the industry has no real economic basis, it's a much more insecure and anxious business. I guess the people who knew it would talk about the insecurity of the American industry, but compared with what goes on in Britain, you have no idea how confident, how firmly establish you seem and comparatively stable compared with the British film industry.

iW: Do you have any comment on the creation of this new British funding entity, British Film?

Frears: In my experience, what helped me to grow was an atmosphere of continuity and stability. And I would be very surprised, anything short of discovering oil, would make that sort of stability. I don't see the government. . . . That's all I know about, that stability, and I was lucky enough to have it. And although I can see that there are opportunities which exist now which didn't exist then, I see an awful lot of anxiety and insecurity.

iW: There is a bit of talk about the British independent film scene right now -- what is your take on it?

Frears: Has their been? I'm afraid I'm more skeptical.

iW: Are there any young British directors that you think fondly of?

Frears: There are lots of talented people. What matters is that they should be given the continual opportunity. Not say, 'Go out any make a film and see if you can hit the jackpot.' But look, I grew up, Ken Loach grew up, making three films a year. That's what I mean by stability. I don't see that being offered. Of course, if someone hits the jackpot, they're all right. I just don't see anything which has a firmer basis than that.

iW: Unless they shoot on video.

Frears: Well, yes, that, of course, gives people a sort of freedom. I teach and I can see that my students who occasionally shoot on video under protest, but they do it with a sort of ease which is terrific. Their work like that has a confidence to it and it's really nice; there's a pleasure to it. When they make films, they become much more anxious.

iW: More money at stake.

Frears: More money and it somehow becomes all serious and proper and respectable. And whereas on video, they're carefree.

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