A challenging chat with the filmmaker behind ‘Victoria & Abdul.’
Stephen Frears is one of my favorite filmmakers. Dirty Pretty Things, Mrs. Henderson Presents, and High Fidelity are just three films that I hold close to my heart. Frears also directed endearing crowd-pleasers The Queen, Philomena, and Florence Foster Jenkins. Needless to say, we’re talking about a director with a high pedigree that commands a serious amount of respect. Frears has paid his dues to the cinematic landscape by continuing to create strong features without showing any signs of slowing down – even at the age of seventy-six. So what does Stephen Frears owe me? The answer is simple: nothing. That being said, when I sat down to interview him for his latest film Victoria & Abdul – which has divided critics, though I expressed my love for the film – I expected the director to be as witty and playful as his recent films. Now there was a lot a wit in the short sentences offered by Frears throughout our seventeen-minute interview, but these short answers proved troubling for this journalist who went in with eight to ten prepared questions in mind. Nevertheless, I managed to cook some stuff up on the spot – as any reasonable interviewer would – and thus present a fifty-question interview with British auteur Stephen Frears.
1. How did you first encounter the story of Victoria and Abdul?
Stephen Frears: I just sit at home and read scripts. I read this script and I thought it was wonderful. It was just a very funny, airy script with a lot of air in it. It was lovely. I read what you saw?
2. When did you think of Judi Dench for the role?
SF: That wasn’t very difficult. She’d played Victoria before, so I didn’t know if she’d do it again.
3. Dench played Victoria in Mrs. Brown of course. That film was released twenty year’s ago and shows the Queen in a much different way wouldn’t you agree?
SF: Much more frivolous.
4. Is working with her like having actual royalty on the set?
SF: Yes. I mean she can play power. She’s playing the most powerful person in the world. She can do all of that. Then she’s very funny and very warm. She is what people should be like.
5. What’s your working relationship like now and how has that changed since you first worked with her?
SF: She has a very strong sense of narrative. If I don’t agree with her, I tell her. It’s pretty easy.
6. How did you cast the rest of the film? You have so many excellent actors in the supporting roles.
SF: It’s easy. If good actors get good parts they do it. In that sense, it was easy to cast. I had to go to Bombay to find Ali Fazal. Some days things just go right.
7. I read a review of the film which called it “Monarchy Porn”. What do you think about that?
SF: Monarchy porn? Very good, yes. Quite right.
8. Why do you think people are so fascinated by the monarchy?
SF: Don’t ask me, I’m not.
9. Well this is your second film about monarchy…
SF: It is interesting. You make films about these very powerful people, but I don’t know why people are fascinated by them.
10. Do you think it may be the secrecy of the whole thing?
SF: It’s sort of behind closed doors, isn’t it? So you get a glimpse.
11. Did you think about Mrs. Brown at all when working with Judi on this film?
SF: No. I knew she’d played the part before and I didn’t know if she would do it again. We organized a reading of the script and that went very well.
12. The tone of the film is very interesting. It’s rather funny but it quickly becomes apparent that when this woman dies – which will, of-course happen soon – that everything will change. Some lives will be shattered. Did you struggle in deciding how to approach the tone?
SF: No, well I like that. I like the pathos; I like it being funny and sad. I’m in that tradition of filmmakers.
13. How do you balance that tone?
SF: You feel it. You do it by trial and error basically.
14. How do you research for a film like this when you have very little tangible information about these people?
SF: There’s nothing to research really. There’s no book that says what they were like. You leave it to them. Judi and Ali got on very well, if they hadn’t we would not have a film. It’s as simple as that.
15. It is rather fascinating when at the end of the film a title card says that the diary telling this story was only found as recently as 2010.
SF: It was really because of this Indian journalist who lives in England. She had heard about the story and couldn’t find any material. Then she heard about this journal and she went and found it.
16. Were you familiar with the story before you received the screenplay?
SF: Never heard of it.
17. Are people in England familiar with it?
SF: We ran it yesterday in London and people were saying that they’d never heard of the story. Nobody knew about it.
18. What was that reaction like?
SF: Everyone was amazed that they didn’t know the story and that there are still secrets.
19: It’s so interesting how quickly Victoria establishes an affinity for Abdul. What do you think it was about this man that attracted her?
SF: I don’t know! Why do people get attracted to each other? Victoria liked to stand behind him because she thought he made her look good.
20. Can you talk about those power dynamics?
SF: Well he looks after himself. He doesn’t grovel.
21. That’s true. It’s pretty shocking when he reveals that he’s in fact married, do you agree?
SF: She just assumed that he was there for her. It never occurred to her that she had this other life going on. That’s the nature of imperialism. These people actually have lives, who’d have known?
22. High Fidelity has always been one of my favorite comedies. Do you ever think about doing a broader romantic comedy like in that sense?
SF: No. First of all, I don’t know that I would have the courage. I don’t think I would know how to do it.
23. What do you think has changed for you?
SF: I do what I do. I wish that I could do broad comedies but I don’t know that I can.
24. Maybe broad comedy is the wrong way to describe it?
SF: I think that Jack Black was rather funny.
25. The films have changed of course. But thinking about your recent work like Florence Foster Jenkins, Philomena, and more, they’re connected by this mix of comedy and sadness.
SF: I think that’s what I do. I’ve come to terms with that. That’s what people I admire did. That’s what Lubitsch did and that’s what Wilder did.
26. Absolutely. I definitely think these films are working in the sort of school as the classic Hollywood films.
27. Could you expand a bit on the importance of those films and filmmakers for you?
SF: Christopher Hampton, who wrote Dangerous Liaisons, he used to talk about it. Get them laughing and then hit them with the nasty bits. It’s quite a clear position. I can see that that’ what I’m doing when I make films.
28. Why do you think people have responded so well to that for decades?
SF: People like the comedy. It draws them into the characters. You’re making a film about characters really. You keep the nasty bits for later, or you get them to like the characters first before you show the other side. That was what Wilder was brilliant at.
29. We talked about the tragedy of the ending. Was there ever a discussion of having a lighter conclusion?
SF: No, but we were endlessly taking things out, shaving bits off. Just trying to get them about right.
30. Shaving things off of the end or just all around?
SF: Particularly from the end. Just to get the quantities right.
31. What do you mean by ‘quantities’?
SF: Well it could have gone on forever really and then people would have gotten bored. You’re trying to figure out how to make it effective in the shortest possible time.
32. I wonder if you could talk about the scope of the film?
SF: The scope is enormous.
33. Well especially when we compare it to something like Philomena. Here you have massive sets, costumes…
SF: Yes, but it’s much bigger. When you’re making a film about the empire, it has to be big. It’s far and away the biggest film I’ve ever made.
34. When you’re working with a period film, is it challenging to get the accuracy right in terms of costume and manners?
SF: Yes, but I have very good people working around me. The costume and the design are very good. You have to get all that right and then you can be silly on top of it.
35. What do you use as references? Were they mostly pictorial?
SF: Yes. The costume and set designers are very conscientious. They’re scholars really.
36. You’ve worked with costume designer Consolata Boyle for quite some time, is that right?
SF: I’ve worked twenty-five years with her. They do it very thoroughly and I’m silly on top.
37. So they just bring these designs to you?
SF: Yeah. They’re doing their work very well the whole time, and I know it.
38. One of the things I love about Dame Judi’s performance in the film is that she’s quite covered up. She’s wearing so much clothing that the only skin we really see is her face. Is it more challenging to direct a performance in which you cannot rely on the body as much as usual?
SF: I don’t know that I’ve actually thought about it. You just go for the bits that are interesting. If it’s her face then you photograph her face.
39. What do you think it is about Judi Dench’s face that attracts the camera?
SF: I’ve known her face my whole life. I couldn’t tell you. She’s a wonderful woman and you can see her wonderfulness in her face. You can look into her. She’s very generous with her qualities.
40. Does it feel different to direct her now than it did several films ago?
SF: I don’t think so. The first thing I ever did with her she read a nurse. A ward where two men die of cancer. She was great in that.
41. She’s very selective in her roles these days. How does it feel when she chooses to appear in one of your films?
SF: She’s the biggest female star in Britain. She’s eighty-two or whatever. She’s phenomenal.
42. What quality does she have that people have responded so well to for so many years?
SF: People just trust her. She’s so mischievous and wonderful.
43. What is she like on set?
SF: Mischievous. Then she would be off with Ali making friends and for some reason she trusts me.
44. Why do you think that is?
SF: Well I haven’t let her down. I don’t know. We look after her, we make a fuss of her.
45. Do you think much has changed within the monarchy after making The Queen and later Victoria and Abdul?
SF: The truth is that the story of The Queen we all knew, because there was so much on television. There were little bits you didn’t know, but Victoria is a much more remote figure.
46. With the current Queen, we have photos and videos. With Victoria we have statues.
SF: It’s far and away.
47. Do you think that gives you more room to explore because the audiences don’t have that reference?
SF: Yes, that is true. You deviate from the truth and you have to think about it carefully. Both films started off in real life and both films use the imagination.
48. Do you think it’s more challenging or less challenging…people remember when Diana died. No one who is around now lived through the Victoria era.
SF: Well we were lucky because we were telling a story that people did not know. We worked out the story of The Queen. It was really the writer Peter Morgan who said that the Queen was the most interesting character.
49. He meant Elizabeth II particularly?
50. Why do you think Elizabeth II was so interesting?
SF: She got into a mess. People in a mess are always interesting.
Victoria & Abdul continues to expand across North America this weekend.