Legend of the filmmaking world Stephen Frears begins the session about his work and asks the delegates straight out what it is they want to know with the caveat that he doesn’t know what he can tell them. His laudable body of work and his reputation precede him and his humility and jovial informality has already charmed the room. The session is a casual chat with a genius filmmaker, his true genius in knowing what he doesn’t know.
When asked about what is it he looks for in a script, that ‘thing that makes a director’s heart sing’ he knows immediately what is meant. He knows those moments must happen for a director to realise a project and that they do happen but he does not know really what they are and that spark is not something he can invite. Speaking about this further he reveals he likes to be surprised, sometimes to the point that he’ll go to a meeting about a project without reading the materials to do with it first. He likes to preserve that innocence (or ignorance) for as long as possible. Other than that he says he doesn’t analyse his own films. Films though are about real people he tells us while at the same time declaring adamantly that no, fact isn’t better than fiction. “Is Hamlet real?” he asks. It’s a question we all ponder.
Coming to filmmaking through the Royal Court and the BBC Frears has learned a specific way of working, that is to take to advantage as a director of whatever appears in front of you. There was no such thing as waiting for a cloud as some directors are wont to do. “You can control this much but you can’t control that much.” This method of working can offer films unexpected qualities as adaptions are made on set. His approach with the Hollywood projects he’s worked on could have been different he says. He realises now that going in he agreed to make films on studio terms in the way they are used to making them with long filming windows, sometimes 100 days and he should perhaps have insisted on working his way within a narrower time frame instead. Economics is always a factor but with bigger budgets allowing longer shoots boredom has time to set in. He realises things are different for directors coming up today. “I was very lucky.” he tells us.
On his recent project about Lance Armstrong he says he had wanted to make a heist movie for ages and then this came along. It’s a crime story really he divulges, only he didn’t really work that out until last Monday. “I shot the film without knowing what it was about. You discover through making it.” he tells us. Nichola Martin, who worked with Stephen on Philomena says he’s a very instinctive filmmaker, right down to casting. Stephen says that he doesn’t try to coax brilliant performances, just expects an actor to turn up and be brilliant. After hearing him speak I think we’re accepting the same from him, we don’t really need to know everything about how he does and if we did he wouldn’t know how to tell us. It’s not such a specific thing that we can seek out to replicate in our own careers, a bit like that elusive ‘thing that makes your heart sing’ or discovering as you do things what they’re really about. Stephen Frears’ genius is in knowing what he doesn’t know and embracing it. Like he does with his actors, we expect him to turn up and be brilliant. As I ponder the qualities of his conversation with us today I get the distinct feeling he expects us to do the same.