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.

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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.

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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.

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A chat with John Cusack of “The Raven”

The really fun part of setting up an interview with John Cusack is telling people about it and getting their reaction. The still boyish star of such classics like “Say Anything,” “Grosse Pointe Blank,” “Bullets Over Broadway,” “The Grifters,” “Being John Malkovich,” and recent ‘plex-fare like “2012” and “Hot Tub Time Machine,” is one popular guy, and not only with women.

Now in his mid-40s, the former teen rom-com leading man is also something of a paradox in that he’s been able to keep the details of his private life private while also being unafraid of a little controversy. He maintains a direct connection with his fans via his well-known Twitter feed that often touches bluntly on his strongly left-of-center politics. We interviewed Mr. Cusack back in 2008 about his somewhat underrated satirical broadside, “War, Inc.,” and he makes some revealing comments about its production below. He has nevertheless avoided becoming a Sean Penn-style right wing whipping boy, though his recent election-year bashing of the Obama administration’s civil liberties failings on “CBS This Morning” attracted some attention from conservative outlets.

The fact of the matter is that Cusack, still best remembered by many as idealistic aspiring kickboxer Lloyd Dobler, is the closest thing modern audiences have to a Jimmy Stewart. He’s a low-key, yet charismatic and highly energetic actor who never seems to act at all. That’s high praise, but it does make him a slightly counterintuitive choice for the role of Edgar Allen Poe, the flamboyant, floridly romantic author who largely invented modern horror and crime fiction.

Directed by James McTeigue of “V for Vendetta,” “The Raven” has the master of the macabre trying to solve a “Se7en”-style killing spree inspired by his own stories. Critics have not been impressed by the film and the crowded opening weekend box office returns have been kind of dismal, but that won’t have been for any lack of effort on John Cusack’s part. The actor spent weeks promoting the film everywhere from “The View” to our humble selves. He did, however, take a moment to receive a very special Hollywood honor.

Bullz-Eye: It’s been a good day for you; you just got your star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

JC: Yeah man, thanks.

BE: What’s that like at your relatively young age?

JC: I don’t know. I’ve never got one before so I don’t know. It was pretty surreal; pretty cool. I liked that I was right next to the Singing Cowboy, Gene Autry. That was pretty cool.

BE: That is cool.

JC: I was right across from Musso and Frank’s, so I thought that was pretty damn cool. That’s such a great place. I’m also next to this great book store, so I’m well represented. I liked it.

BE: Speaking of books — a great segue there — I know that one of the reasons that you took on “The Raven” is it gave you an excuse to read up on Edgar Allan Poe. Why do you think he has remained kind of contemporary all of these years?

JC: I think he’s this classic sort of archetype for all of the shadow parts of ourselves that we don’t want to admit out loud or you’re not supposed to admit in polite company or society. You know, all of these terrors and fears and phobias and anguishes and torments, and also this kind of grave, deep love of language and poetry. I think he’s a genuine genius and he spoke to the language of the subconscious and he was a great poet and artist. A great storyteller; a wild creator of different genres and hybrids of genres and mash-ups of genres. He was a pretty talented man, and he was also just wired way too tight, so it was a volatile mix.

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