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Tamara Drewe: The Stephen Frears Interview

Tamara Drewe is a new film from director Stephen Frears (The Queen, Dangerous Liasons, High Fidelity), based on the popular English comic strip and graphic novel by Posy Simmonds, starring English actress Gemma Arterton (Prince of Persia, Clash of the Titans).  As is the graphic novel, the film is a modern reworking of Thomas Hardy’s nineteenth century novel Far from the Madding Crowd.  It is a comedy about a young journalist, once the ugly duckling of her small village town, returning as a much desired beauty, hoping to fix up and sell her old house. She attracts many of the men residing at the neighboring farm, stirring up envy, lust, and gossip amongst the small population.

I had the pleasure of attending a roundtable discussion in Los Angeles, amongst other fellow journalists, members of the cast, and director Stephen Frears.  The interviews were conducted in three parts, as Frears, Arterton, and the male leads, Dominic Cooper and Luke Evans, took turns to enter the room.  The questions presented are a combination of everyone who had a chance to ask one, as many of us obviously had similar sort of questions, with only a limited time to speak with each guest.

The first part of this discussion took place with director Stephen Frears:

Director Stephen Frears

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Were you a great fan of the graphic novel?

“I’ve only read one graphic novel in my life, but it was serialized in an English newspaper and I used to read that.”

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So when it came to you did you think that it’s probably different than anything that’s ever been brought to you before?

“Yes, but they always are.  That’s what’s nice about them.  I mean, I thought it was great.”

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You mention in the film, that there’s a point where the couple have been there for twenty years, but there are still newcomers to the village.  Were you welcome to the village?

“We were the film crew, but they were very nice to us.  But I also have a house in Dorset [where the film was shot].

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That helps.

“No, no, no; On the contrary, so I know a lot about it.  No, I make no attempt to integrate with my neighbors in the village where I am [laughs], which I think they really like.  The people who try to integrate, they don’t like.”

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How did you get the teen girls so spot on? They are quite good.  And working with teens…and cows…?

“No, I think the girls were quite wonderful.  We were just lucky.  You try to choose and take care, but in the end, it’s just a fluke.  They suddenly turn out to be infinitely better than you imagined.  And the cows were…I made a western, so I’m a master of directing cows [laughs].  I must certainly be the only man in the world who has directed a cattle drive and a stampede.  Is that right? Did Clint [Eastwood] ever do one? [Laughs]”

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He’s never done a stampede in Dorset, that’s for sure. [Laughs]

Can you talk about picking Gemma Arterton and Dominic Cooper for their roles?

“Dominic, I’d seen for another film, and said he wasn’t right, which I think he’ll tell you about, rather bitterly [laughs].  And, um, my casting director said, “do you want Dominic Cooper?” And I said, “Oh, okay, because I’m a good boy.”  As for Gemma, she more or less said, “do you want Gemma,” and, anyway, I’ve been told how good she was and I met her and thought she was wonderful, that she was gorgeous, and that she was witty, and nice.  Everyone said how good of an actress she was and she looked like the girl in the book.”

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Based on what you’re saying, I know from the High Fidelity DVD that you believe that casting is 80% of the process, but it sounds like your casting decisions were made much more instinctually, less argument.  Was that process of picking the actors different on this film?

“Than High Fidelity?  No, I remember saying, “Who should play this part?” And the boys said Jack Black.  And Jack Black came to see me, and after 10 minutes I said, “Well you’ll be fine” [laughs].  And that freaked him out.”

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So was that the same on Tamara Drewe?

“Well, what I mean is – someone comes in and makes sense of everything.  I mean, I didn’t know that Jack could act the way he acted.  Nobody told me that [laughs].  I had to learn that [laughs].  But you meet him and you think, “Yes, this bloke seems great.””

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I’ve noticed you have sort of two kinds of films; one is like Tamara Drewe, where you have a lot of complicated and interlocking stories – Dangerous Liasons.  And some of them are like The Hit, which is four people in a car.  Do you think there’s a difference on how you handle all these different stories?

“Well I think we’re gonna try to do a remake of The Hit.  I like handling all these stories.  What I really like is sort of a complete universe.  People are bound to have complex relationships in which all these people’s lives intersect in unexpected ways.”

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How much do the actors bring and how much do you work with them?  I don’t know your style, so how is it for you working with the actors?

“I don’t really have a style.  I would describe it as work.  I choose them carefully, and then really leave it up to them.  I mean, they generally seem to me to be intelligent, sensible, and do what I more or less expect.  If something’s odd I have a conversation with them.  But I prefer it to come from them, than to come from me.”

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There’s the old adage about not working with children and animals.  I often hear from directors:  it is not the children and the animals, but their handlers that were the problem.

“Well these girls were over 16, so they didn’t have handlers…children wranglers [laughs].”

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Well I’d imagine it was a pain on set due to all the animals, with people saying, “No, you can’t do this and you can’t do that.”  Was that the case?

“Well no, there was a farmer, who you have to deal with as a human being [laughs].  The woman who handled the dog, for example, was an extremely sensible woman.  It was quite straight forward.  The truth is, if the people are irritating, you hope to god you won’t be working with them again…I really don’t remember one conversation about it.  We probably set up the scene by placing the dog with the cows and set up two cameras and shot it.”

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You’re making this sound like it was all such a breeze.  What was difficult?

“Well, the stamped was very difficult, but it was very, very well thought out.  It was very well designed.”

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Did you have a difficult day on any of the scenes?  Like weather, did you have weather problems?

“Well the weather would occasionally turn ugly, and that was a pain in the ass, but the truth is we were so blessed.  I mean, 10 days before we started shooting, you couldn’t see 30 yards in front of you, the weather was appalling, but the day we started shooting, it was clear.  There was this Indian summer and it was fantastic.”

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You’ve worked with Alan McDonald [Production Designer] on a number of films…

“Because he’s good [laughs].”

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What sort of conversations did you have with him about what to use from the source material in terms of constructing a visual ascetic for the film?

“The truth is, you work with these very, very clever people.  I first thought about this when I worked on [Dangerous Liaisons], when I worked with dazzling designers, and what you’re trying to find is a way to hold a conversation with them.  And what I can’t do is really compete with them, I really trust the designers I work with, they know far more about it than I do.  If something’s wrong I’ll say it’s wrong, but I more or less trust people.”

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How did having that storyboard that’s already there sort of change the way you filmed this?

“Well, because it was a graphic novel, you sort of wanted the film to honor the spirit of that.  And it was just there, so you know…sometimes we would go out to try and recreate a particular frame, because it was so beautiful.  And Posy [Simmonds] had told the story very wittily.”

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So you had read her column in The Guardian?

“I’ve read the column.  I’ve known her for about 30 years.  She’s such a brilliant woman, I’d say she tells the story very, very wittily, and she makes many of the same sorts of choices I do.  We’re the same age, the same generation, but she’s brilliant.  You’re lucky to start off with material that clever.”

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In the film, one of the writer’s has a writer’s block, do you ever have a sort of “director’s block?”

“Well, you sort of just get bored [laughs], so I’d go and teach, to sort of deal with other people’s problems, because my head becomes so…repetitive.  So you sort of want to rest.  There’s a sense in which you make a film…and then you make another film and it can get repetitive, so you sometimes just want to go to work.”

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Is that why you jump around from genre to genre?

“I think its boredom, yes.  The idea of repeating myself, the idea of doing the same thing.”

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Is there any actor that kind of continued to put in their own thing, or was just wonderful in what they brought?

“British actors are sort of wonderful at all this sort of stuff.  Like Roger [Allum] and Tamsin [Grieg] could just do this all day, they’re just wonderful at putting out all this sort of stuff.”

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So what’s a genre that you’d like to try and do next?

“I don’t know.  I don’t think like that.  What I really like is the surprise.  Someone to send you something and you open it and go, “Oh, I never thought of that before.””

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So you’re not making The Hobbit then?

“Well, there’s already about 17 people making The Hobbit. [Laughs]”

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You talk about your directorial style that you don’t have.  You’ve had 6 actresses receive nominations for Oscars.  What do you think brings out these performances?

“Well if I was being provocative, I’d say it’s the fact that I don’t have a style and in other words – I just make the film, I don’t worry about my oeuvre.  I just get on with it.  You deal with what’s in front of you.”

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What is your hope that audiences will take away from this?

“I hope that they’ll have had a good time.  When I grew up you’d go to see films made in Hollywood that I would suppose they’d call “commercial films,” they were also, I’d say, rather intelligent.  They were made by people like [Howard] Hawkes or [Alfred] Hitchcock, you know, just really intelligent people.  But then somehow, cinema got separated and these terrible things called “art films” appeared [laughs], so I expect to go to the cinema and be entertained, but I also expect films to be sort of perceptive and interesting.  So I don’t separate it.  I mean, you hear about Tony Curtis [who died] today, well you wouldn’t go to a Billy Wilder film and think, “is this “commercial” or is this “art,””  it was just good and generally entertaining.  But I’m rather old fashioned, and I can see that I’m rather foolish [laughs].  But you just went to see something that was enjoyable and generally was intelligent…I hope.”

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Thank you very much.

Check out Tamara Drewe, opening in limited release this fall in theaters.

See the review here.

http://www.sonyclassics.com/tamaradrewe/

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Writer/Reviewer, Film Lover, Podcaster, Gamer, Comic Reader, Disc Golfer & a Lefty. There are too many films, TV, books, etc. for me to list as favorites, but I can assure that the amount film knowledge within my noggin is ridiculous, though I am always open to learning more. You can follow me on Twitter @AaronsPS4, see what else I am up to at TheCodeIsZeek.com & check out my podcast, Out Now with Aaron and Abe, on iTunes.

3 Responses to “Tamara Drewe: The Stephen Frears Interview”


  1. Brian White

    Excellent work Aaron! I can’t wait for Gemma tomorrow!

  2. Aaron Neuwirth

    High Fidelity is one of my favorite movies, so this was probably the interview I was looking forward to most. Although, Gemma is quite easy on the eyes.

  3. Gerard Iribe

    I didn’t realize Frears had directed High Fidelity. No wonder I liked it despite not being a Jack Black fan.

    Frears seems like a really cool dude.