After a long career in television throughout the ’70s, Stephen Frears came to feature filmmaking relatively late with “The Hit” and “My Beautiful Laundrette” in the early ’80s, and has dodged back and forth ever since. “The Queen” itself started as a TV project.
Frears is a rare British director with no pretensions to develop his own projects or write scripts, just following his nose for the most intriguing material. That has sometimes taken him to America, where he’s been Oscar nominated in the director category for “The Grifters.” But since “High Fidelity” he has remained in Blighty. “The stuff I was offered from America wasn’t as interesting as ‘Dirty Pretty Things,’ ‘The Deal,’ ‘Mrs. Henderson Presents’ and ‘The Queen,’ it’s as simple as that,” he explains.
As a director who works on instinct, Frears is always reluctant to rationalize or intellectualize his process, and he’s self-deprecating about his own judgment. “I would have put my money on ‘Mrs. Henderson’ being the one that broke through, not ‘The Queen,’ ” he confesses. “When Helen (Mirren) and I were in Venice, we kept wanting to ask people, ‘Why do you like it so much, what do you like about it?’ ”
GENESIS: “I made an earlier film about Tony Blair called ‘The Deal,’ about how he became the leader of the Labour Party. It was quite successful, and the producer came to me and said, ‘Would you be interested in making another film about Blair and the queen, about those seven days after Diana died, with Helen Mirren as the queen?’ A script was written, and I liked the script, so it was as straightforward as that.”
VISION: “The first thing I ever said was that we should make this for the cinema. In the end we couldn’t afford to make it for TV, because the queen chooses to live in a house with big rooms and spends a lot of time in Scotland. I could see that people all around the world would be interested, whereas ‘The Deal’ was about domestic politics.”
CHALLENGES: “If you’re making a film about a woman who makes a merit of not showing her feelings, you have to find scenes that dramatize her emotions.
“It wasn’t a terribly difficult film to make. If you’re making a film about real people, you tend to behave more responsibly. It’s important to avoid caricature, but I hired good actors, and the sort of actors I like, they don’t come from the world of caricature. The danger lies in the jokes that stray towards stereotype, that’s where you get into trouble. I like a joke, but you have to watch yourself.”
MAGIC: “I thought Helen would be good, but the extraordinariness of her performance, the first moment when she came out of the dressing room looking like the queen, that’s what I call serendipity.”
NEXT: Frears is hoping to reteam with “Queen” writer Peter Morgan and actor Michael Sheen to make “The Damned United,” based on David Peace’s novel about the legendary English soccer coach Brian Clough. “When I read it, I thought, ‘that’s interesting, but it has no commercial potential.’ So it’s a question of trying to make it work and not lose people money, which means first of all going very strongly to a TV company.”