Stephen Frears

Stephen Frears: “Failure is where you learn”

Short Profile

Name: Sir Stephen Arthur Frears
DOB: 20 June 1941
Place of birth: Leicester, England, United Kingdom
Occupation: Film director, producer

Stephen Frear's new film The Lost King is in theaters in Germany from 5 October 2023.

Stephen Frears was the mentor of Josué Méndez in the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative 2006 - 2007.

Mr. Frears, how do you know when you’ve found a really good film script?

It’s like falling in love — if I can remember what that process is like! It's quite easy, actually, you read something really good and all you can do is recognize it.

Would you consider yourself particularly skilled at reading and recognizing good scripts?

I do it largely on instinct. I always give myself credit with My Beautiful Launderette. I remember saying, “Well, this is absolutely wonderful. We should do it now.” And we did do it now. And I thought that was a clever thing to have said! When I was asked to do Dangerous Liaisons, I said, “This is absolutely wonderful.” What can I say about it? You just read things and respond.

Apparently the pre-production process is actually the more intensive part of your filmmaking; perfecting the script, casting the actors, building the story…

You have to take trouble who you cast in a film, and you have to take trouble with the writing… With The Lost King, the story we started with, Philippa Langley’s story, it was already fantastic. She’s heroic, and I tried to tell that story as clearly and well as I could. So it’s the script that matters. That's all that matters. And then good actors, well, they make it easy. My Beautiful Launderette,Dangerous Liaisons, The Snapper… These are films that shone because of their cast, films that are well-loved because of the synthesis between the actors and the story. You’ve got to have that right, and if you don't get that, right… God help him.

“If you have good material, actors will want to do it. It’s when you haven’t got good material that you’re in trouble.”

Is the synthesis between you and your actors also important?

When I worked with Glenn Close on Liaisons, I remember thinking this woman is very clever. If I'm an idiot, she'll tell me! She was so smart that she wasn’t going to let some boorish young director interrupt her or destroy her performance. So the people I work with it, I think are very clever. John Malkovich is a very clever man. Dan Day-Lewis is a very clever man. Sally Hawkins, who I worked with for The Lost King is very clever. I started working with Hugh Grant on Florence Foster Jenkins, and just finding him was an absolute joy. Now we've done three things together! So as a filmmaker, you have to have your wits about you.

Is it difficult to find those kinds of very clever actors?

If you have good material, actors will want to do it. It's when you haven't got good material that you're in trouble. The secret is to get good scripts and everyone will say yes! You can see with financiers, when a good script comes in, they don't really know what to do because they can see this is good and they ought to do it. But that involves risk. You know, it's different, it’s not like making a sort of action film with a lot of chases in. Get a good script, and everything else will follow. That’s why that pre-production process is important because before the filming can take place, you have to make a series of really important decisions, and if they’re wrong, you’re in trouble.

Have you ever got it wrong?

Many, many times. You want to know about the black bits of my career! (Laughs) Yes, I've got it wrong. And generally throughout the filming, you get some bits right and some bits wrong and it drives you mad. If you could get everything right, well, you're cleverer than me. I like to make up a scene on the spot, you know, as you're working on it, you might realize, “Oh, that’s going to be important, right, I better bring that thing through and emphasize that more or build up this part.” I like that. And it seems to me that's where you should do it rather than during the cutting. Although, no matter what, during the cutting you inevitably have endless discoveries: “Oh, this is much more important than I realized!” It’s an endlessly humiliating process.

So is it fair to say that editing is the most difficult part of filmmaking?

No, I tend to lie on the sofa and sleep while the editor gets on with it! If you've made mistakes, it’s the only place where you learn. I used to teach in the cutting room because you can actually show people the mistakes, you can show people what was going on when they did it versus what they should have been thinking about. It’s where you discover your mistakes.

“Failure is where you learn things. It isn’t the end of the world, but it feels like it at the time.”

Is it easy enough to let those mistakes go once the film comes out?

Well, eventually. But at the time, it's painful, and shaming because you think, “I've done this mistake, I should know by now.” And then you make the same mistake again. But I’ve learned to correct myself. I’m like a man with a broom going along behind me, always clearing up the mess I'd made the previous day!

I guess the mistakes also make you stronger, as a person and as a director.

Sure, how else are you going to learn! I mean, failure is important. I remember I was in Berlin years ago showing a film of mine that was particularly unfortunately and that had a tragic life. The film critic David Thompson asked me to talk about the film and I said, “I’m only going to talk about this film as a failure.” And no one understood what I meant! But of course, failure is where you learn things. It isn’t the end of the world, but it feels like it at the time. Like many people, you have the imposter syndrome sometimes… But the thing is that I’ve had such a long career, I’ve learned how to make films. When I started, I simply didn't know how to make them. None of us did. My time spent at the BBC was a great sort of nursery because I would make three films a year. And I guess in the end that sort of rubs off and you get more confident.

Does that confidence and tenacity something you hope stays with you as a filmmaker?

I’m very, very old! It can't go on much longer! One day a policeman will knock on the door and say you can't go on getting away with this any longer…