Expect a flurry of posts over this week. I’m going to be on a transcription spree now that I actually have a little time in hand. For now, it’s back to the Jaipur Literature Festival.
Session: In conversation with Stephen Frears and Rahul Bose
I confess I had no idea what Stephen Frears looks like even though I’ve seen almost all his films. Consequently when a portly man wearing a snugly-fitting orange T-shirt, carrying a jhola that would make a Bengali poet puff his chest out in pride and slightly bulgy, bloodshot eyes walked in to the Baithak tent, I had no idea who he was. It’s a tragic world when more people can recognise Rahul Bose, who was dressed in a skintight black polo neck sweater and a tighter pair of black pants, which might have been a DIY costume for a malaria mosquito sans wings. I don’t know if the Stephen Frears conversation was a scheduled event but it certainly didn’t seem like it. Bose said that he’d been roped in at the last minute and the Baithak tent was comparatively empty though that could be because Geoff Dyer, William Dalrymple and others were talking about travel writing in the adjacent tent. Anyway, so here come my notes from the session in which Stephen Frears squished Rahul Bose, leaving only the blood spatter of an actor’s ego for posterity.
Points to be noted:
1. Stephen Frears, who is wonderfully self-deprecating and has a gloriously wry sense of humour, just couldn’t look at Rahul Bose for more than 0.10 second at a time. It’s a feeling I completely understand but I’ve reached this point after suffering the sight of Bose in a number of films and countless press-type encounters. The fact that Bose managed to evoke this reaction in Frears within minutes of meeting him is … impressive.
2. Not only could Frears not bring himself to lock eyes with Bose, he seemed earnestly eager to make Bose’s life difficult with one-line answers. He warmed up to the audience in a bit, however and was perfectly garrulous once we’d proved the crowd at Jaipur Literature Festival wasn’t a collection of eyebrow-less, short brown men with oversized egos and undersized clothes.
3. Rahul Bose said that he’d spent last night researching Frears. In the course of his research and general movie-watching, it slipped Bose’s attention that Chiwetel Ejiofor has done anything before or after “Dirty Pretty Things”. Something like “Melinda and Melinda”, “Love Actually”, “Amistad” and that tiny detail of a Golden Globe nomination in 2010.
Alright, enough Bose-bashing. On to quotes from the Mr. Frears. If anything sounds snarky, chances are you need to remember the man has a wonderful, dry sense of humour.
On why he makes the movies he makes:
Stephen Frears: The truth is I’m only interested about myself but I couldn’t make films about myself. So I made films about other people’s lives. I’m unable to look at myself clearly so I make films about other people.
On “My Beautiful Launderette“:
I didn’t discover Daniel (Day-Lewis). He’d already been in “Gandhi“, a speaking part as an extra no less. He was a young actor and the son of a poet laureate. That obviously made him ideal for the role of a chap who’s part of a mob.
Making friends with Hanif (Kureishi) was a tremendous change for an imperialist like me. You have to remember, when I was in school we were shown a map of the world and it was a collection of red splotches showing the British empire. It was an education. Similarly with Roddy Doyle, from whom I learnt about Ireland. You go into these relationships as a student. It’s been a humiliating experience to know how dreadful we are. We’ve done some really terrible things and I think I wouldn’t have known just how dreadful we’ve been without these friendships.
You cast somebody because it brings the material to life. I’m not good at working with actors a second time because I’m used to seeing them as a character. Daniel, for instance. He’d dyed, or undyed, his hair for his character in “My Beautiful Launderette”, and I remember seeing him afterwards, when he was doing some other film, and feeling hurt and betrayed that his hair had changed. It seemed to me that it was very ungrateful of him to have moved on.
On “Dangerous Liaisons“, which had turned Rahul Bose on to such an extent that all these years later the only thing he could say about the movie was that it turned him on hugely:
Well, that’s what it was made for, to arouse you. Aside from that, it was a big jump in my career because it made me attractive to Hollywood studios but it was an easy film to make. It was so deliciously wicked.
On independent cinema, working for television and the difficulties of adjusting to the studio system:
The real problem is capitalism. Cinema is a capitalist enterprise. You need a big audience to see your films because of the money that has been put into it by one individual or one company, who want their money back with profit. Television is a far more protected enterprise, or at least it used to be because the money was subsidised. It was more middle class and there was no obligation to justify yourself with returns, which meant once you got the money it was yours to make use of. That’s why I worked on television films so often. I was able to make “My Beautiful Launderette” without any interference, which is exactly what I wanted. The moment a studio gets involved, there’s far more money and there’s far more pressure to involve other people. I keep away from the money so as to make the films I want to make.
After “The Grifters“, I agreed to make a few studio films and that was a terrible idea. When “The Grifters” won some prize as the best independent film, I remember saying the prize for making an independent film was to lose your independence. That was how I felt when I was working with a studio. It’s a terrible feeling to know that what you’re making is nonsense but you still have to get up in the morning and go in to work because there’s nothing else you can do.
[At this point, Rahul Bose gaped like a goldfish and expressed absolute horror that Frears had ever gone ahead to work on projects that he didn't believe in. "How do you do that, Stephen?" he asked with a faint hint of contempt. "How do you go in to work when you don't believe in what you're doing?" "You get up in the morning, brush your teeth, shower and then go to work, knowing that what you're working is going to be terrible," Frears replied. "I don't know how you can do that," replied Bose, the actor of cinematic masterpieces like "Pyar ke Side Effects", "Dil Kabaddi" and "Shaurya". For the first time, Frears looked for a brief second at Bose directly. "Are you telling me, " he asked Bose, "that you've never done a movie that you knew was going to be awful?"]
It’s the problem of being a film director. If I was a novelist, I could tear it up. But I’m not. I’m responsible for 100 people and having to behave like a grown-up. It’s ghastly.
But when I was making “The Grifters”, Martin Scorcese was my St. Bernard. By which I don’t mean he was a dog but that he was an amazing guide.
Hanif Kureishi was in the audience and this is him on working with Stephen Frears:
Stephen, unlike most, actually likes writers to be on set. I think he was quite nervous and I think a part of having me there was to be sure that he was getting it right about what Pakis do and how they behave. As if I knew. I mean, I hadn’t the faintest idea. The great thing about Stephen is that he’s very spontaneous and very open to changing things if they’re not working, which is where it’s handy to have the writer on set. He’s very much like a theatre director in that sense.
SF: Writers might be worse than actors. They betray you and let you down. Dreadful people, writers.
On “Dirty Pretty Things“:
My mother would have been horrified with this move. She’d have thought it was a film about foreigners whereas it really was a film about England, I think. An England that, once again, was curious to someone like me who had grown up as an imperalist. I had a Spanish actor who knew no English and who learnt the lines phonetically. Afterwards I thought I must have been drunk to hire him. But when people go on now about these other communities that are supposedly celebrated in my films, they forget something like the fact that there wasn’t a single Pakistani person in “My Beautiful Launderette.” The Pakis thought it was awful. There was picketing and all sorts of things. I’d throw Hanif out to deal with them, but I don’t think it helped.
But the idea of English is something that has changed, one that my mother would never have recognised. After all, I had a Russian woman playing the Queen. What? Helen Mirren is Russian. Yes, she may be an Essex girl as well but her family’s Russian. But then it’s not like the Queen is English. Her family’s German.
On random things he keeps in minds while making movies:
I’m the first member of my audience. Why does the audience have to be any different from me? I only make films for an audience. I’m not making them to watch them in the privacy of my home or some dark cellar. I think audiences like intelligent films. I don’t think there has to be a distinction between me and my audience.
I’m not very visual at all, which might be why I’ve looked at novels as the starting point of so many films. So I regard the cinematographers I work with as teachers. It’s very, very weird being a director. You know nothing about a lot of things and you have some very brilliant people around you who look to you to tell them what to do. As if I know.
Right now, I’m working on a new movie based on a graphic novel by Posy Simmonds.
What I look for in a story is the tone of the writing, the mockery, the romance and the cynicism.
I prefer Aristotle to Robert McKee on the whole. I don’t understand why you would make a film with a bad screenplay? There’s not much hope in that, is there?