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Interview: Steve Coogan, Stephen Frears on the Fast Pace of ‘Philomena’

Philomena” continued its global push Sunday at the Princess of Wales theater, with the audiences as enthusiastic as the were in its Venice launch.

Judi Dench is earning the bulk of awards buzz, but it’s hardly a one-woman show. In a conversation at the Variety Studio before the launch, director Stephen Frears and writer-producer-co-star Steve Coogan praised their tech contributors, and each other.

The project began with Coogan, who read an article about the real-life Philomena Lee, who had spent years trying to track down the illegitimate son she’d given up for adoption decades earlier. Coogan wrote the script with Jeff Pope but said it changed after Frears got involved because he wanted the script tighter and more focused.

Frears was drawn to the “Odd Couple” relationship of Coogan’s and Dench’s characters. It’s a sad story and it would be easy to do a weepy film. But Coogan and Frears wanted to balance the sorrow with hope and comedy.

Coogan praised Frears for being secure enough to listen to all suggestions and questions on the set, concluding he’s “very democratic” .

“What? Say it again,” said Frears, feigning surprise at the statement.  “Very democratic.”

Coogan said working with Dench “raises your game” as an actor and Frears doesn’t talk a lot to his actors, but emphasizes brisk pace and not doing too much.

Frears quoted Helen Mirren (who won an Oscar for Frears’ “The Queen”) as saying there are only four director’s notes that really matter: softer, louder, slower, faster. “I always like faster,” said Frears. “If you can do it in 40 seconds, why not 35?” The audience is very smart and fast, they don’t need a lot of time.

He said he takes his inspiration from the pacing of Billy Wilder and Preston Sturges.

He said when he began directing films, first on TV and then in features, 90 minutes was the typical running time. You don’t need more.

Sophie Kennedy Clark, who plays the teenaged Philomena, said Frears creates a nice mood on the set and the only distress for her was the day the real Lee showed up on the set. Clark was depicting Lee’s unhappy youth and felt a surge of compassion and responsibility to do it right.

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