Stephen Frears is a directing chameleon.
In a career that’s spanned more than three decades, the English filmmaker has moved effortlessly from drawing room intrigue in “Dangerous Liaisons” to working class gay romance in”My Beautiful Laundrette” to noirish double crosses in “The Grifters.” In “The Program,” a look at disgraced Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong, he tackles the world of competitive sports, exposing a competitive mentality that warps moral compasses and encourages people to do anything to get an edge.
Frears spoke with Variety about Armstrong’s use of performance enhancing drugs, what excites him as a filmmaker, and why he has yet to join the streaming generation.
Were you a fan of cycling? Did you watch Armstrong win all those tournaments?
I knew absolutely nothing about cycling or about Lance Armstrong or about drugs and doping.
What did you learn about the sport?
They’re crazy people. Cyclists are insane. You’re going through the Alps, climbing up mountains. There’s this circus around them. They’re so tough. When they have a day off they go out and cycle 100 miles.
What was your lasting impression of Armstrong? Did you try to meet him before you filmed?
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It was all about his ambition and his desire to win. His character was the problem. That was worse than the doping, his treatment of other people and the way he used them and didn’t care.
I didn’t see the need to have any contact with him. Everything about him is on the record. The facts are all there.
Do you understand the desire to dope? If you could take a drug that would make you better at filmmaking, wouldn’t you be tempted?
Luckily that doesn’t work in my profession. There aren’t drugs that will win me the Oscar.
In sports, the temptations must be enormous, because the rewards are so high. It must be irresistible. You have to win and they’re told this is how you win. When they stripped [Armstrong] of his titles, they couldn’t give them to anyone else because doping was so widespread. It was so bad that basically anybody who turned up at a race was doping.
Have they cleaned up cycling?
I imagine it has. I hope it has. The doping has shifted to tennis.
Have you heard from cyclists who have seen the film?
They’re extremely complimentary. They say we got it right, that’s what happened. That’s what’s important. They think we got it right.
From “The Grifters” to “The Queen” to “The Program,” you seem to love to mix it up in terms of genres. Is that part of a plan and does it make it difficult to get your films made?
Oh yes, it is. It’s Marvel movies that get the big audiences. That’s what you people want and that’s what the studios want.
But the idea of repeating myself is so depressing. I don’t have the patience to make the same film all the time.
Do you watch films on a phone or an iPad?
I only watch films in the cinema. I’m old fashioned. I’m a lost cause.