The Light from the TV Shows: A Chat with Stephen Frears (“Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight”)

Director Stephen Frears has done so much notable work for the cinema that it’s sometimes easy to forget that he’s more than capable of dipping his toe into the world of television on occasion as well. His latest effort behind the camera, “Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight,” falls somewhere between the two mediums: the HBO Films production is making its TV debut on – where else? – HBO this Saturday, but it was actually screened in Cannes back in August, along with its small-screen brethren, “Behind the Candelabra.”

During this summer’s TCA press tour, I was fortunate enough to sit down with Frears and discuss his work on “Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight,” including how he came to join the project and what he knew about Ali’s Supreme Court struggles prior to signing on, but he was also kind of enough to chat about a number of his other films. Although the conversation occasionally drifted in unanticipated directions, the sidebar excursions proved just as enjoyable and entertaining as anything that I’d gone in actually planning to bring up.


Bullz-Eye: What was your familiarity with the Muhammad Ali story going into this project?

Stephen Frears: Well, it was both a lot and nothing. In other words… I remember Ali fighting (Sonny) Liston, so that’s how old I am. [Laughs.] I don’t remember the Olympics. But then I remember the trouble in America, of course. And then he sort of disappeared, and I couldn’t tell you what happened until he fought in Zaire and he became a sort of comedian. He became very, very funny. So this bit was like a sort of black hole.

BE: How did you come aboard as director?

SF: I ran into Shawn (Slovo) at a party. I said, “What are you doing?” She said, “I’m writing something very, very interesting.” [Shrugs, then laughs.] So I snooped around and found that it was very interesting. Simple as that.


BE: Had you known her prior to that?

SF: I knew her to gossip to her, to say “hello” and talk to her at that party. [Laughs.] But now I know her much better.

BE: Was the script more or less filmed as written, or did you have to do some tweaking to make it work?

SF: I think there was a certain amount. I like to have the writer on set, because in a sense you’re writing all the time, but that’s just to make scenes clearer, things you learn as you go along. It must at some point have sorted itself out enough for us to say, “Right, let’s make this.” I can’t recall, there might’ve been a couple of drafts that we went through before we made it. And then we were writing the whole time on set, just to make things clearer.

BE: It’s interesting that the film focuses on a key moment in Ali’s career, yet it does so without ever portraying Ali. His presence is simply via archival footage. Was that always the plan?

SF: Yes, that was always planned, and the truth is that it was a great relief. The idea of casting Ali didn’t bear thinking about, so I was really pleased by that. But the interesting thing about archival footage is that people never quite say what you want them to say. [Laughs.] They don’t say what you’d like. But eventually we started finding a way how to deal with it. So it was very, very interesting.

BE: Ali was certainly prone to making statements to the media, so presumably you had a fair amount of footage to choose from.

SF: Yes, but he didn’t quite tell the story of his life in a way that would’ve been convenient. But it was really interesting. In my lifetime, I suppose, he’s been the greatest sportsman, and then he turned out to be articulate and funny and conscientious and scrupulous and thoughtful…I guess, in a lazy sort of way, not what you expect. So he was always very, very interesting.

BE: When it came time to cast the film… You ended up with such a dream time that it’s hard to imagine that there’s anyone you tried for but didn’t get.

SF: I can think of one. But I’m not going to tell you who it was. [Laughs.] But, no, the cast was wonderful.

BE: In regards to the structure, the clerks seem to represent the eyes of the viewer, at least to some extent.

SF: Well, I never thought of it quite like that, but of course they were new to the Supreme Court, so you could explain things about the Supreme Court through them. And, anyway, the clerk is the real hero! You know, the clerk who actually turns the Justice ‘round. And the clerks were modern and knew of the people on the street, knew what the demonstrations were about, knew about the injustice. By being younger, they were more sympathetic to the injustice.

BE: Was there ever any issue on your end as far as trying to determine the pacing of the film, given that so much of it takes place in offices and features a lot of conversation?

SF: Well, you knew that a lot of it was involving people talking, didn’t you? [Laughs.] You couldn’t put an action sequence in it, really. It sort of wasn’t appropriate, you know?

BE: Christopher Plummer turns in a particularly strong performance…

SF: Oh, he’s wonderful.

BE: …not that it’s rough to get him to deliver a strong performance, I don’t suppose.

SF: Yeah, he’s fantastic. Fantastic. He was just off his Oscar (for “Beginners”), so he was in great form. And Frank (Langella) is wonderful. Frank’s a wonderful actor. And, you know, when people of that quality turn up, it makes your job a lot easier.


BE: Was it your first time working with most of the cast?

SF: I hadn’t worked with any of them. Not a one of them. But they were bright guys. You’d go into the room, thinking, “Well, I’d better be on my toes today!” [Laughs.]

BE: This isn’t your first time working in television, but you haven’t necessarily done it a lot in recent years. You did, however, helm a pilot in 2008, for Stephen Dorff’s “Skip Tracer.” What do you recall about that experience?

SF: Well, I had to work very, very fast. [Laughs.] But I didn’t mind that. I think working fast is a good thing. And then it sort of disappeared into a black hole!

BE: Any thoughts on why it didn’t get picked up? Obviously there’s no real rhyme or reason to it…

SF: No. I guess people just didn’t respond to it. [Pauses.] Television writing’s become very, very good, hasn’t it?

BE: Absolutely.

SF: It’s interesting that’s happened.

BE: There’s definitely been a tonal shift, I think, as far as the darker television’s allowed to get, the more writers are prone to go in that direction, because they feel like they have more creative freedom. On cable, certainly.

SF: Yes, well, you can see that the studio system’s gotten itself into a sort of jam, so television has picked up the slack. And good for them. I mean, HBO deserves a medal, I think. And I’m sure they get medals! (Laughs.]


BE: Do you have a preference when it comes to working on TV versus film? Or is there any intrinsic difference nowadays?

SF: I scarcely notice the difference. I mean, the pressure’s higher in film ‘cause the cost is higher. And I’ve spent my life trying to sort of protect films from the impact of having to slice the budget. You know, the inflation hasn’t helped.

BE: What are your thoughts on the streaming movement?

SF: Explain about streaming. I’m quite old, you see. [Laughs.] Do you mean on TV?

BE: In terms of video on demand, that sort of thing.

SF: Well, you know, cinema’s always sort of responded to those changes, hasn’t it? In its own peculiar way. Now, I’m old fashioned, I like to see films in cinemas. But, you know, you can’t condemn kids for seeing films that way, for living in that world. It’s just the way the world is.

BE: You touched on this a moment ago, but when it comes to choosing your projects, do you really just tend to do whatever interests you?

SF: Yes, but, of course, you have to get the people with the finances to agree that this is interesting. [Laughs.] But so far… It always seems to me that the first person who has to be interested is me. If I’m not interested, I don’t quite see why an audience would be interested. I always look for something new, something fresh, I think because I have a low threshold for boredom, so when I found this script… No one had made a film about the Supreme Court, and this particular bit, this story about Ali’s life, was so unknown. It was filled with the things that I like.

BE: What aspects of this particular film…or of the script, specifically…surprised you the most? I know you said there was a fair amount you hadn’t known about it.

SF: Well, as I say, I didn’t know this bit of the Ali story, and I’ve never particularly thought about the Supreme Court. I mean, I can see now that the Supreme Court is… I mean, I remember the Clarence Thomas hearings and being quite sort of shocked by them. And now you read quite a lot about the Supreme Court, because it’s sort of controversial. It’s sort of come clean about its centrality to government. But I’m English. We’ve only had a Supreme Court in quite recent history. [Laughs.] And it doesn’t deal with Constitutional matters because, of course, there is no Constitution!


BE: Are you a fan of legal dramas as a rule?

SF: Well, I remember a long time ago that they used to make films like this reminded me of. Otto Preminger made a film, and I remember a film of (John) Frankenheimer’s. And things like “The Best Man” were very, very interesting. I guess they’ve always made films about the President. The truth is, you live in a very, very interesting country. That’s all. You know, to an Englishman, your country is very, very interesting.

BE: It’s certainly diverse enough.

SF: It’s certainly diverse, yes. And – I can see now – getting very, very divided. And getting into its own sort of messes.

BE: Do you think there’s lessons to be learned from this film? That Americans can learn, I mean?

SF: Good God, I wouldn’t presume to say.

BE: That’s a dangerous question, I suppose.

SF: Very dangerous, yes! But I would say that this is the first film I’ve ever made that’s sort of about America. Beyond that, all I can tell you is that it’s a very, very interesting country. [Laughs.] It’s just very, very interesting how the society works.

BE: In regards to projects you’ve pursued, has there ever been anything that you’ve wanted to do that you weren’t able to bring to fruition?

SF: There was a film about Martin Luther King and Lyndon Johnson and equal voting rights that was very, very interesting called “Selma,” that dealt with that and dealt with Johnson, who I’ve always thought of as a great president who made one terrible mistake. And, actually, I’ve just been reading Volume Four of Robert Caro’s biography. He was a fantastic figure, Johnson. I mean, really tragic. Huge, tragic figure. Very, very interesting. So I wish we’d done that. It was a very, very good script.

BE: Pitch it to HBO. It seems like it’d be right up their alley.

SF: [Very long pause, followed by a shrug.]

BE: So the ship’s sailed, then? It’s too late?

SF: Well, it’s that I don’t know. It’s such a complicated world.

BE: I’m just saying, it sounds like something that could yet be viable to American audiences. We’ve got an interesting country, you know.

SF: [Laughs.] Yes. Yes, you do. So I kind of wish they still made films about American society like they used to.


BE: Is it a dangerous question to ask you what you think of the film industry nowadays?

SF: Well, there are sort of two film industries. It’s complicated. Because I can see that the kind of films that I make are different from the kind of films that studios make. And I wish that studios still made films about America, because that’s what… I mean, everything I knew about America, I learned from the cinema. I guess everything young people know about America they get from television or the internet now.

BE: Is there a particular film that leaps to mind that taught you about America, that you think of as a touchstone?

SF: Well, you think of those great films made in the ‘70s. “The Deer Hunter.” Francis Coppola’s films. “The Godfather,” things like that. And then earlier than that, of course, you learned from Andy Hardy films, or westerns, or whatever. So I wish they still made films about America, yes.

BE: To flip it around, are there any films that you think of as definitively British?

SF: What, do you mean now?

BE: Or from the past.

SF: I always thought “The Third Man” was a wonderful film. There were films that were a good record of English life. (David) Lean’s Dickens films were fantastic. And then I…I grew up when Britain was sort of opened up, in the mid-‘50s, and the effect of the war had sort of receded, and there were changes in British society. I mean, I remember when “(My Beautiful) Laundrette” opened here. You could see, when it came here, that it hadn’t crossed people’s minds that Britain was like that. To us…well, that’s what it’s like. Trouble and conflict.  So I suppose it’s… Well, this week, they’ve all been going on about the royal baby, but there’s also a recession going on, so…it’s a very, very curious mix of past and modern. But I suppose the same is true of America. It’s just that your past is shorter. [Laughs.]


BE: It’s funny that you mention “Laundrette.” I remember if fondly, because that was right around the time – give or take a year or so – that I started being introduced to non-mainstream films, if you will.  Although if I’m to be honest, the first such film that really opened me up to that sort of thing was “Sid and Nancy.”

SF: Yes, well, we sort of changed everything around that time, didn’t we? Films like that changed everything.

BE: Were you conscious of that change and trying to help keep it going? Or were you just doing what you were doing?

SF: [Dismissively.] No, you’d just read something that was very, very fresh and very interesting, that describes the world that you see as you walk down the street and don’t fully understand. Someone would write a script explaining what you didn’t understand. And that was very, very interesting.

BE: Were the British filmmakers of that era of like minds?

SF: No, no. As I say, I don’t think anyone thought we were changing the landscape of film. It sort of happened almost in spite of ourselves. [Laughs.] But you knew that you were dealing with something that was very, very modern, very British, and hadn’t been seen before. So in a sense, I suppose if you were lucky to find a subject that was… In television, the great subject was sort of post-war Britain. The British were sort of shut off and dealt with very narrow sections of society. But suddenly, after the war, this new account of Britain opened up. And I made a lot of films about that. [Laughs.]

BE: Were there any actors that you worked with in those days, folks who were up and coming, that you were glad you had your eye on?

SF: What, do you mean Dan Day Lewis? [Laughs.]

BE: Well, I didn’t actually have anyone in mind when I asked that, but he certainly would be the poster boy for that concept.

SF: Yes! Well, I saw four actors…there was a list of four for “My Beautiful Laundrette”: Dan, Ken Branagh, Gary Oldman, and Tim Roth.

BE: Not a bad foursome.

SF: Not at all. [Laughs.] They all sort of sussed out. But that’s what I mean about people at the time having a smell for something that was modern. “My Beautiful Laundrette” launched (producer) Tim Bevan, and a whole sort of generation appeared out of it.

BE: When you’re working with someone who’s just starting out, do you find it’s easy to help mold them into being a better actor in front of the camera?

SF: Well, of course, British actors have this very strong sense of the theater, but all those actors I’ve just talked about were also…well, someone like Dan was completely aware of the cinema and talked much more about the cinema than the theater. So they learned what they’d seen the American actors… You know, after Brando, De Niro, Al Pacino… They’d learned about all of that by watching them and admiring them. So we were all tremendously influenced by American cinema.

BE: I wanted to ask you about some of the other things you’ve worked on over the years.

SF: Yes!

BE: Is there a particular film that you’ve worked on over the years that didn’t get the love you thought it deserved?

SF: Oh, lots of them! Listen, I could list hundreds. But, you know, there’s nothing you can do. You can see the ones the audiences likes.

BE: Is there any one in particular that leaps straight to mind, though?

SF: [Long pause.] No. Well, I mean, a lot of them. [Laughs.] Too many to list!

BE: How was the experience of working on “The Hit”?

SF: Good lord…

BE: Sorry to make you stretch your memory.

SF: Well, I was quite new. I’d done a lot of work in television, and it was the first film. And I remember the crew being very, very experienced, skillful, and very, very helpful. But, again, it was a very intelligent script. And the actors were so good. So I really just remember driving through Spain and it being a wonderful time.

BE: You had a pretty decent lead actor for that one, too.

SF: In John? John Hurt? Or do you mean…? I mean, they were all great. Terence (Stamp), too!

BE: Terence was who I was thinking of, actually, but there’s certainly nothing to complain about in John.

SF: Yes! Actors are such extraordinary people. If you get… Well, I’ve generally worked with very, very good actors, so I haven’t had many bad experiences. I take my hat off to them.

BE: The Queen was arguably one of your highest-profile pictures in some time.

SF: Oh, yes!

BE: Royalty is always an easy sell to the masses, I suppose, but were you surprised that it became as successful as it did?

SF: Yes, of course I was! The thought that it might be successful never crossed my mind. I lived in a state of innocence. It never crossed my mind. Also, no one had ever made a film about the Queen before. So it was new territory for the world, so it wasn’t copying anything. I could see that, after that film, a lot of films seemed to come out about the Royal Family, but at the time, we were doing something very, very fresh.

BE:I’m a huge fan of both “The Van” and “The Snapper.“

SF: Ah, “The Snapper”…

BE: How was the process of adapting Roddy Doyle’s books to film? Was it particularly challenging?

SF: On “The Snapper,” Roddy was teaching still, and we gave him a page. He used to come in between classes. We were just ‘round the corner, so he’d come in between classes. Again, when you have material that good, it’s just a joy. But it was all new to me. I had no idea. I somehow didn’t know about the Irish! [Laughs.] Because I’m an English imperialist. So I had to learn about them. They were just wonderful people. And so funny. So spirited. Open to their feelings.

BE: I interviewed Colm Meaney at one of these press tours a couple of years ago – he was great to chat with as well – and he seemed to have really enjoyed working on those films.

SF: Well, he’s wonderful as well.

BE: I really admire you’ve been able to mix it up as far as the types of films you’ve directed: you’ve got these smaller films like “The Snapper” and “The Van,” and then you’ve got something like “The Grifters,” which is decidedly not a gentle picture.

SF: [Laughs.] Yes! I’ve just been very, very lucky, I think. I basically just make films that interest me. And I don’t want to make the same film twice, you know? But I’ve never found a franchise, so… [Laughs.] I guess I’m lot poorer because of that, but…what astonishes me is that, at my age, I can still find things that interest me. And that’s tremendous.

BE: Were you a fan of Jim Thompson’s work before doing “The Grifters”?

SF: Well, I hadn’t read many of his books, but the ones I’d read I thought were really interesting. And then Scorsese approached me about this book, and then Donald Westlake, who wrote the script, he knew a lot about the genre. He had great admiration for Thompson. So he was a very, very good teacher.

BE: How was John Cusack on the film? He was mostly known for teen films at that point.

SF: He used to say that to me. [Laughs.] He used to say, “I’m glad you haven’t seen my earlier films!” But he was terrific! And then he grew up, of course, and by the time I made “High Fidelity,” he was able to support a whole film.

BE: Speaking of “High Fidelity,” even though it’s in the deleted scenes on the DVD, I was always disappointed that we never got to see Harold Ramis playing John’s father in the actual film.

SF: I can’t remember why he got cut. He’s such a lovely man.

BE: It’s one of my favorite books of all time, so I know what a Herculean task you had before you as far as adapting it, but I thought you did a fine job of it. Was there any problem, though, as far as figuring out what bits to cut from the book?

SF: Well, I remember being in a bookshop in Dublin before I made “The Snapper,” and there was an omnibus edition of Roddy Doyle’s three novels, and I remember thinking, “My God, people really love this book. I could easily get into trouble.” [Laughs.] And it was the same with “High Fidelity.” The great thing was that it was not set in London. It was set in Chicago. And I sneered when I heard that, and then I read the script – or I read a draft that John and his two friends had written – and thought, “Oh, I see: this isn’t actually about London,” although Nick (Hornby) had said it was about London, “this is about something else, and London is irrelevant to it.” And everybody assumed it was idiotic to set it in Chicago, but, of course, it turned out not to be.

BE: I’m not going to say that I didn’t have my hesitations at first as well.

SF: No, no, no. We all did. As I said, I had them, too, and everybody had them. And I remember Nick strongly saying, “But it’s about London!” and then realizing, “Well, that’s just a stupid thing to say. It’s about something much more interesting.” What the boys had done… I remember reading the script and thinking, “We’ll deal with the London thing,” and then reading the book again and realizing that, in the way they’d constructed the film, they’d got to the really interesting parts of the book. In a way, it’s an interior monologue, and I think… I was certainly involved in the decision to have the direct address. I don’t know, you just have to approach the material with the same respect that the readers had for it.

BE: Have you ever been pitched the opportunity to make a film adaptation of a book but you took a pass because you didn’t feel you had the appropriate appreciation for the original source material?

SF: People have come to me and suggested writing a film based on books, and I’ve thought, “I’ll believe it when you turn up with a script as good as this book.” [Laughs.] “I’ll believe it when you find a way to get across what is simply wonderful about this book.” You know, that was the sort of miracle of “Dangerous Liaisons”: that Christopher (Hampton) wrote a play and then wrote a script that captured the whole thing. That was his brilliance.

BE: What would you say has been your most challenging adaptation? I’d presume “High Fidelity” must be among them.

SF: Well, no, because if you get the script right, you’d done the work, really. Because someone’s gone ahead of you and solved the problems…or you have an opportunity find out what the problem is that you then have to solve.

BE: Is there any one you look back on and think, “Well, I don’t guess we quite got that one right”?

SF: Every one. [Laughs.] Well, if you’re asking, “Are there hours of self-criticism?” then, yes, there are. But you think, “Oh, God, I never got that,” and then you go, “Oh, I see, that was what that was.”

BE: The stock phrase is that films are never truly finished, they’re just abandoned.

SF: No, no, no. If you don’t sort it out in the script, you never sort it out. You have to deal with it in the writing. Once you’ve got that right… If you’ve got the script right, you’re okay. And if you haven’t, then you never sort it out.

BE: And then you’re fucked.

SF: More or less, yes. [Laughs.] More or less.


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