Steve Coogan: Stephen Frears Teased ‘Philomena’s Judi Dench About Replacing Her With Helen Mirren

Coogan and Composer Alexandre Desplat recalled Frears' terse directives

Steve Coogan at the "Philomena" screening
Jonathan Leibson/Getty Images

Although Judi Dench and Stephen Frears were missing in action at Wednesday night’s Variety Screening Series showing of “Philomena,” the two industry veterans were the primary focus of conversation.

“Philomena” star, co-writer and co-producer Steve Coogan said the British thesp and auteur, who had previously worked together on the 2005 comedy “Mrs. Henderson Presents,” bantered playfully on set.

“(Judi) liked (Stephen) because he teased her a lot and didn’t show this huge deference that I think probably lots of Americans would,” Coogan said during last night’s Q&A with Variety awards editor Tim Gray. “She would say, ‘Well, why don’t we do it like this. It strikes me as rather odd that we’re doing it like this.’ And he’d say, ‘Is she being difficult? Has anyone got Helen Mirren’s number?’”

Coogan’s spot-on impressions of Frears kept rolling in all night, even when discussing the film’s somber notes.

“I remember being emotional when I was writing it,” he said. “And Stephen would sometimes look up from the camera, several times, with tears running down his cheeks and I’d say ‘You all right?’ and he’d say ‘Well, it’s all so terribly upsetting!’”

According to Coogan, Frears has a lax and detached style of directing. He collaborates with the cast and crew instead of micromanaging.

“I told him to keep an eye on me and make sure my performance was not too comic and his direction was just ‘Quicker. Slower. Louder. Quieter.’ If I was getting too over-animated, he’d just raise his hand and just do this,” Coogan said, slowly lowering his extended arm.

Composer Alexandre Desplat, who scored three other films for Frears, including 2006’s “The Queen,” also recalled the helmer’s terse directives.

“(For the scenes) in America, he kept saying to me ‘More Hitchcock. More Hitchcock,’” Desplat said. “If you know your movies and your music for movies a little bit, you understand and you just go grab elements that can respond to that.”

Although he usually drops by Desplat’s studio on two or three occasions while working on a project together, Frears only visited him once this time around. Desplat said Frears is comparable to Italian directors from the ‘60s who shot socially conscious films, but always distanced themselves from the subject matter.

“He doesn’t really point at things; he watches and he directs from the distance with a very smart, accurate eye and ear,” Desplat said. “He knows exactly what the shape of the film should be.”

Even though he didn’t set out to do so, Coogan — primarily known for his comedic chops — ultimately wrote the role of journalist Martin Sixsmith, who helps Dench’s Philomena Lee try to track down the son taken from her as a teen by the nuns in her convent, for himself.

“As I was writing it, I was putting more of myself into it and I thought, well no one’s ever going to offer me this part so as a producer, I’ll give it to myself as an early Christmas present,” he said.

This also allowed him to be more confident filming alongside the legendary Dench.

“I was a bit worried obviously about acting opposite her, having defeated stiff competition to get the part,” he teased. “But I thought I could do it because it was tailored for me and then when Judi came along, we wrote it for her. The scenes when it’s just her face and no one else and you’re alone with her thoughts — that was deliberate. Partly because we were all thinking, ‘Well we’ve got Judi Dench, we don’t have everyone say everything.’ We can just have the still moments.”

Also on the Q&A panel were pic’s Sophie Kennedy Clark and producer Gabrielle Tana.