In a career spanning more than five decades, director Stephen Frears has made an indelible mark on the world of cinema. He earned critical acclaim in the 1980s for films such as My Beautiful Laundrette, which was shot on 16mm and intended for television. Celebrated at the Edinburgh Film Festival, the interracial gay romance instead received a theatrical release, introducing the world to Frears’ work and a young actor by the name of Daniel Day-Lewis. Frears ended the decade with Dangerous Liaisons, casting American actors in a film that went on to receive seven Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture.
Throughout his lauded career, Frears has tackled a wide range of genres, including noir (The Grifters), rom-coms (High Fidelity), westerns (The Hi-Lo Country), thrillers (Dirty Pretty Things), and more recently, films based on extraordinary true events. The Queen invited audiences behind palace walls, Philomena brought a woman’s 50-year search for her son to the screen, The Program centered on the Lance Armstrong cycling scandal, Florence Foster Jenkins gave voice to the world’s worst opera singer, and Victoria & Abdul revealed the royal friendship between Queen Victoria and her closest confidant.
The Lost King surveys another surprising piece of British monarchical history, reuniting director Stephen Frears with screenwriters Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope, the creative team behind Philomena, to tell the inspirational true story of amateur historian Philippa Langley and her quest for the long-lost remains of England’s King Richard III. In advance of IFC Films North American release of The Lost King on March 24th, BoxOffice Pro speaks with acclaimed director Stephen Frears about the astonishing story behind those 2013 headlines.
How did Philippa Langley’s story come to you?
I’d worked with Steve and Jeff before and they started writing this. Not to my surprise, it ended up on my desk.
When considering projects, what excites you about a script? Are there elements that you look for in a story?
No, it always comes as a surprise. You read something and think, ‘Oh, I’d be more than happy to make that.’ It’s very, very simple. I find. That’s all I do, is read them and think, ‘Oh great’.
Let’s do it.
More or less.
There’s a lot of hope and humanity in your work.
It’s probably what I like in the script. I would imagine so.
You have a fantastic eye for casting, what was your casting process like for the film?
It’s quite straightforward. Something makes sense or it doesn’t. Someone comes into the room and you think, ‘Oh I see, it’s like that.’ You know who the good actors are, that isn’t in doubt. It’s really to do with what kind of person they are. So I sit in a room and people come and see me. It’s as simple as that.
There’s definitely a strong intuition there, much like Philippa has in the film.
I now do the whole thing on intuition.
As a filmmaker, you not only trust your own inner voice, but surround yourself with great collaborators.
Very, very much so. The people I’m working with at the moment are absolutely miraculous. It’s very straightforward. Nobody ever believes me. You read something and think, ‘Oh great.’ Sometimes they do well and sometimes they don’t.
Sally Hawkins brings a quiet strength to Philippa Langley, which pulls the audience along on her pursuit for Richard III. What was your collaboration like?
She has that wonderful ability to play the everywoman. She’s just a brilliant actress. The people I work with are very, very good. Both the technicians and the cast are very skillful people. It’s a pleasure to work with them. And very, very interesting, seeing what they do.
Philippa’s conversations with Richard also bring the audience into her inner life and along for the quest. How did that cinematic device develop?
Philippa said herself that she never actually hallucinated him. In low moments she would go and she would talk to him. Well, that makes perfect sense, doesn’t it? It’s a very good device. I think it took a long time for [the writers] to convince her, but it’s a clever idea. Very unexpected and original. They’re nice fellows, the writers. They don’t write like other people do.
You’ve shared a rich collaboration with Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope, having previously worked together on the Philomena, which won the BAFTA for Best Adapted Screenplay. What was the process like reuniting on this film?
You just get on and do it as well as you can. And because Steve’s often in the scene you’re shooting, he’s always there to consult with. You know, I’d consult with anybody who could make things better.
Do you think that it’s difficult for Steve to switch between roles? As actor, screenwriter, and producer?
No, I don’t think so. I don’t think so for a minute. He’s a very clever chap.
Speaking of writers, there’s a central question in the film surrounding the authors of history. What importance does authorship play in The Lost King and how history shapes our view of the past?
It’s true in this case. Shakespeare wrote a play, which seems to have been written for propaganda and that’s really colored the world’s view. Is that true of other people? I don’t know. It’s very, very true of Richard III. It’s what Churchill said, isn’t it? “History will be kind to me because I will write it.”
In bringing this story to the screen, what was production like? How long was your shoot?
7 or 8 weeks. Nothing very long. We didn’t have a lot of money, as usual. Times were hard.
Does that feel restrictive or does it open your creativity as a filmmaker?
I’ve always said that poverty was a source of strength. We made My Beautiful Laundrette for nothing. I’ve always found that when I got into trouble, it was because I was working with too large of a budget. I didn’t know how to spend the money sensibly. I’m a cheapskate really. I prefer to invent things, rather than to buy my way out of trouble.
You’ve spoken in the past about learning from the films you make. What did you learn from making The Lost King?
I don’t know that I learned anything, but they’re always interesting. They make you think about things that you’re not used to thinking about. The films you make always come as a surprise. I didn’t want to make a film about The Queen. I was just sitting at home and this script turned up, and you think, ‘Oh that’s really interesting.’ So that’s how you learn. I could certainly give you a silly answer by telling you what goes on underneath the ground. When digging. I can tell you it’s free of cables and things like that, so that was quite interesting. You learn the difference between granite and brick. We did that in Edinburgh. So I don’t know quite what it is I learned, except that’s all you do in life, isn’t it?
Why should audiences see The Lost King in theaters?
Well I can see it isn’t Top Gun, if that’s what you mean. [Laughs.] It isn’t a Marvel film. The audiences in America, have they come back? They haven’t come back in England.
They are coming back. I think this is the kind of film that’s needed right now. As you say, we have tentpoles films, but exhibitors also need counter-programming that speaks to a broader range of moviegoers. You just can’t get that same kind of connection and experience at home.
Yes, I agree with you.
You’ve created many of those connective moments for audiences in the cinema, do you have a favorite moviegoing memory of your own?
I spent my life going to the cinema. That’s sort of all I’ve ever done. I remember sitting on the floor watching The Grapes of Wrath. When I was young, you’d go to the cinema and then you’d ask a grownup to take you into the cinema, because you had to go in accompanied. Nowadays, a guy would get arrested. Going to the cinema was all you could do. It was the only escape I had in my life. I do remember going to see Samson and Delilah, coming out and saying, ‘Can I see that again?’
What’s your go-to food or beverage?
Now it’s a cup of coffee, but I don’t eat. I’m very shocked by people eating in cinemas.
[Laughs.] It’s a very American thing to do.
Yeah, I don’t approve of all of that.