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6 Filmmaking Tips From Stephen Frears

The prolific British filmmaker puts it to us straight and narrow.
By  · Published on August 11th, 2016

Film schools didn’t exist when Stephen Frears was growing up, as he likes to point out. He just went to the movies a lot as a kid. But when it came to choosing a profession, he wound up studying law at Cambridge. He didn’t like it, so he turned to theatre and then got his start in cinema under the wings of Lindsay Anderson, Karel Reisz, Albert Finney, and the institution of the BBC. He considers his path a matter of luck.

Finney co-produced his first film, a short titled The Burning that Frears admits was like “being a baby playing with its own shit” as far as his not knowing what he was doing. In the nearly 50 years since, he’s made tons of notable movies, and he’s made quite a few not-so-notable movies, he has received two Oscar nominations, and he is going quite strong at age 75 as one of the few remaining directors who are distinctly British filmmakers.

He also teaches, and from that side of his career as well as from various interviews he’s given, we’ve found six important pieces of advice that he tends to offer students and other filmmakers.

Make Films

“Make films and edit them. Nothing else matters,” Frears stated in a Guardian web chat last fall when asked for directing advice. It’s a common tip from filmmakers these days and also easy for certain veterans to say now. It seems to just be the only thing for him to say given his view on the craft. “There isn’t a route to success,” he said in response to another question. “Make a film. If people like it, you’ll be okay. There is no route that I know of.”

The thing is, that wasn’t his route at all. He got to learn by watching Finney give directing a shot and studying his other mentors and honing skills with TV work. “This black hole that people talk about in my career in the 70s, when I didn’t make any films ‐ in retrospect, what I was doing was learning my job,’’ he told the New York Times in 1988 while promoting Dangerous Liasons. ‘’But I was learning it on very, very good material.”

And now others are able to look to him as a mentor. “I teach film, inasmuch as you can,” he says in a 2006 TCM interview. “It’s not really possible to teach film direction, but I sit there as a sort of testimony of experience and know-how, I suppose.”

A year later, he helped steer a protege from Peru named Josué Méndez for The Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative. At the time he told the Financial Times how little he can offer as a teacher:

Frears says: “Abraham Polonsky [noted McCarthy-blacklisted US director] said, ‘You can only teach someone who they are.’ The only way you can learn about making films is by making them, by putting your stamp on the thing. I chose Josué because I knew he was shooting his film and that’s the point where teaching actually means something. You’ve committed yourself and you have to live with what you’ve done.”

Do the Thinking

One of the things that Frears learned just from making his first film is that if you don’t know what to do, you get a good crew. “They got me through it,” he explains in the 2012 book “FilmCraft: Directing” about his experience on The Burning. And when he got to Hollywood 20 years later and saw how much the various departments work rather independently in devotion to a project, and to that he says, “You just go along with it.”

He states in the same interview: “In some respects, a director has a narrow, quite subtle job to do. He does the thinking. Everybody else is too busy and concentrating on other things.”

Here’s a similar quote from an interview with MovieMaker magazine in 2013: “When someone asks, ‘What do you do?’ I say, ‘I do the thinking.’ And you’re constantly thinking ‘Oh, is that right?’ or deciding what makes sense or what doesn’t. I guess, in the end, you direct with your stomach more than anything else.”

And he explains further in the same interview his position within the collaboration of filmmaking:

I find more and more over time that I’ve learned to say, “I can do these bits. You do those bits.” You have to trust the people around you. They’ve never let me down. So far. Rarely have I been let down.

MM: What are the bits you do?

SF: I am what they used to call in Hollywood the Director of Principal Photography. I’ve always said, “No, I don’t do that. I do Principal Photography.”

MM: What does that mean to you when you say that you’re the Director of Principal Photography?

SF: Well, look at Wyler. He was hired because he could deal with the actors. You know, the actors were the most valuable asset the studio had so someone had to look after the actors, make them look good basically. So, I deal with the actors and the story. I make sure those are attended to properly. I don’t find it difficult to shoot a scene. I don’t find that complicated. And because I’m not looking for some stylistic paradise it’s generally a quite straightforward process.

Choose Your Actors Well

In addition to directing with your stomach, “You cast with your stomach,” Frears says in the “FilmCraft” book. He continues with an anecdote about casting Rebecca Hall in Lay the Favorite:

To me casting is the pursuit of clarity. Somebody walks into the room and the whole thing makes sense. [Hall’s] agent suggested her to me and I said I wanted an American girl. Eventually I let her audition for me and she came into the room and I told her how prejudiced against her I was. She auditioned anyway and she was brilliant. I had spent a year refusing to cast her.

In the same interview, he says of a particular Dangerous Liasons choice, “Christopher Hampton thought I’d gone mad when I cast Keanu Reeves. He thought I’d lost my senses. But it worked.”

As for what he does with the actors once they’re cast, he shares his relatively off-hands approach in the MovieMaker interview:

MM: So, what is the most important part of your process working with actors?

SF: Choose them well and shut up. They know far more about the characters than I do. You create a space for them that they can function within but that’s all. I mean, to my surprise, because I am so old, I can see that the qualities I learned when I was a young man working in the Righteous Theater ‐ where I had an appreciation of writing and actors ‐ have always held true. So I’ve stuck to that.

Have the Writer On Set

Frears is known for not just inviting screenwriters to his set but preferring their presence during production. During a recent masterclass delivered to students at the National Film and Television School he said it’s to “learn what they were thinking.”

It’s also good for rewriting as shooting is going on, especially as he doesn’t like doing that without discussing ideas with the writer. He explains further in the “FilmCraft” book:

I scarcely shoot without them there. I don’t understand why you wouldn’t. You have a cameraman, you have a grip, you have a sound recordist, you should have a writer there. It’s just part of the same process…I’m told I am unusual in this practice of involving writers, but I am bewildered by those directors who don’t. I think you are more in control if you have the writer there because you can say that something isn’t working.

In the Guardian webchat he adds, “I don’t think writers get a rough deal from me, though often the rougher you treat them, the better it is for them.”

Stephen Frears – Charlie Rose

Win Every Argument

More advice from the “FilmCraft” book:

I am not a shouter. If you have to shout, there is something wrong. You have to be able to win every argument, not in order to satisfy yourself, but for the right reasons. Your thinking has to be absolutely right and if you can’t win the argument, something is wrong with your thinking.

You need to be able to convince everybody. I was doing a scene on Lay the Favorite, the day was getting behind and everything was going wrong. When we finally decided on where to shoot the scene, Bruce [Willis] started playing it in a rather dramatic way and eventually I cleared my head and said that I always thought of the scene as a sort of a joke, so we should shoot it with one camera and do it in a two shot. Then he understood. Luckily I was able to clear my head: that’s the bit you have to get right. In spite of everyone pulling you in the wrong way, you have to have the presence of mind to say it isn’t that, it’s that. And everybody has to realize that you are right.

Stop Worrying and Learn to Love (Accept) the Bombs

“Discover your strengths and stop worrying about what you can’t do,” Frears told the NFTS students. “If I don’t know how to make it work, I’ll hire someone who can and I’ll supervise it. You can’t do everything.” He says something related in the interview with the Financial Times: “Life is a succession of humiliations ‐ there’s always a gap between what you intend and what you do. Hopefully, as you get older, the gap closes.”

He credits the BBC experience as being instrumental in allowing him to discover this about filmmaking and the need for failures alongside successes. “Often, I was slapped down and made to feel not good enough, he tells legendary producer Nick Fraser (of the BBC) in a 2010 interview for the Guardian. “And I also learned that you had to be able to fail. To be successful at anything, you need the right to fail, not just occasionally.”

He also discussed the matter when asked about his flops during the Guardian webchat:

Some work and some don’t. You work just as hard on the ones that fail. I thought Tamara Drewe would get a bigger audience ‐ it made me laugh. I don’t know if “deserve” comes into it… There are films that don’t find large audiences. It’s just bad luck… I’ve no explanation. I just wish they’d done better. There’s not much point in moaning.

“Of course, it’s depressing when it goes wrong,” he admits in the “FilmCraft” book. “It’s like a train and you can’t stop it. You know it’s wrong, but there’s nothing you can do. You get caught in a machine.”

And in a 2009 interview with Amy Raphael for The Times (reprinted on her website), when asked about how he feels about his string of bombs in the 1990s:

“Abused,” he says. “Shocked. How do you avoid it? You make mistakes . . . It’s always ghastly, painful and humiliating. Ideally my films wouldn’t come out at all; they’d just be put on a shelf marked ‘Jolly Good’. That way I could avoid the abuse .”

What We’ve Learned

Frears, who hates to be called an auteur, almost seems to be just floating through his career by the way he tells it. Maybe he has really been lucky, considering how significant he is in spite of all the dips on his resume. Or maybe he’s just the product of a different era in Britain and managed to be a good learner by observing and by doing. So just observe what he does, where you can, and do it, too. And fully respect the crafts of the various crew members, including the screenwriter and the actors.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.