PARIS — As the first British helmer — and only the second Brit ever (thesp Dirk Bogarde was first in 1984) — to be made president of the Cannes Film Festival, Stephen Frears finds himself in a unique position.
“Privileged” is how the 65-year-old director describes his feelings on getting the nod, before solemnly muttering that he is sure it will be “quite daunting to stand in judgment over one’s own peers.”
Frears’ curmudgeonly sense of humor soon returns, however, when conversation turns to French New Wave darling Francois Truffaut. “I made a (TV) program in 1997 (‘A Personal History of the British Cinema’), which I wanted to call ‘Bollocks to Truffaut,’ ” he remembers. “But Channel 4 wouldn’t allow me to.”
It was Truffaut who famously put the knife into British cinema by saying there was “a certain incompatibility between the terms ‘cinema’ and ‘Britain.’ ”
Times have changed, though, and these days British cinema could not be more in vogue in France, particularly at Cannes. Frears’ last pic, “The Queen,” sold almost a million tickets in Gaul. Meanwhile, Ken Loach won the Palme d’Or last year for “The Wind That Shakes the Barley,” as did Mike Leigh for “Secrets & Lies” in 1996.
“I think Truffaut’s comment would seem entirely inappropriate now,” sniffs Frears, calling from Los Angeles, where he is midway through filming “Skip Tracer,” a pilot for CBS about a man (Stephen Dorff) who finds missing people for his Los Angeles clients.
“It’s really good fun,” says the helmer, who enjoys keeping busy between pics. “All directors should be made to shoot pilots or B movies. It keeps you on your toes, and it’s an antidote to self-importance.”
He adds there is no point in trying to find any rhyme or reason in the film choices he makes, which have covered practically every genre, save that he genuinely enjoys taking a leap into the unknown.
“I’m not interested in making films on my own doorstep or I have no talent for making films on my own doorstep,” Frears muses. “When I made ‘The Queen’ I was like a tourist going: ‘Oh gosh, isn’t that interesting or isn’t that interesting.’ If you make films about yourself, you don’t have any sense of what people know and don’t know. I prefer to make films where I’m the first member of the audience going: ‘Oh that seems interesting.’ “