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Stranger in a Strange Land

Stephen Frears immerses himself in cultures beyond his own experience. In 'The Van,' it's hardscrabble Irish life.

May 29, 1997|STEVEN SMITH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Steven Smith is a frequent contributor to Calendar

At a glance, the career of British director Stephen Frears seems as schizophrenic as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the antagonists of his ill-fated 1996 drama, "Mary Reilly." For more than a decade, Frears' U.K.-based features and BBC television films have earned raves and solid box office worldwide ("My Beautiful Laundrette," "Prick Up Your Ears")--while his two forays into big-budget Hollywood filmmaking have been critical and commercial disasters ("Mary Reilly" and "Hero").

The self-described "director for hire" dismisses any auteur vision in his work, but a constant thread can be spotted: Whether he's chronicling the schemes of 18th century French aristocracy ("Dangerous Liaisons") or modern-day con artists in L.A. ("The Grifters"), Frears, 55, has shown a sensitivity for dramatizing cultures beyond his own experience.

The latest example is the Irish-set comedy drama "The Van" (opening Friday). It's the last chapter in author Roddy Doyle's "Barrytown Trilogy," which began on screen with 1991's "The Commitments" and continued with 1993's "The Snapper" (which Frears also directed). "The Van" is the most bittersweet of the trio, charting the tested friendship of two unemployed pub mates (Colm Meaney, Donal O'Kelly) after they launch a surprisingly successful fish and chips business from a rundown van.

Talking by phone from his London home, Frears is occasionally interrupted by another interrogator--one of two children he shares with his companion of 24 years, painter Annie Rothstein. (He has two other children from an earlier marriage.) But his slightly distracted cadence becomes charged, even effusive, when discussing an upcoming project . . . and the recent defeat of Britain's Tory party, which he's long despised.

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Question: You've said "The Van" was tougher to make than "The Snapper," despite having much of the same cast and crew.

Frears: Well, "The Snapper" was a sort of fairy tale, wasn't it? A sort of dream of how life ought to be. It ought to be exciting and fun and rather sexy. "The Van" was much more to do with real life, a real struggle.

Roddy doesn't write about people sentimentally. He writes about them with great insight and generosity. He's a teacher in the area where we make the films, and he's very good at bringing these people--most of whom he seems to have taught, or whose children he taught--to life. He gives them great vitality and dignity.

Q: You've said you enjoy making films about places you know nothing about.

A: I enjoy the whole business of discovering a new bit of the world, or a new group of people. You go to a place and you become interested in why people do things. If I make a film about a different world, I simply represent the audience, wanting to be entertained, wanting to be enchanted. If the world tells me something, I can pass it on. If I make films about something I know a lot about, I find I'm always getting assumptions wrong about what the audience knows or doesn't already know. I like being a tourist. I didn't know Pakistanis [before "My Beautiful Laundrette"], I didn't know Irish people--I had the prejudices English people have about them. . . .

Q: Which are?

A: Well, I knew they were funny, but I didn't know why they were funny. It's because they were knocked about by the English for 800 years. You'd be funny if you had us ruling you!

Q: You often work with very strong screenwriters and playwrights--Roddy Doyle, Tom Stoppard ("Three Men in a Boat"), Alan Bennett ("Prick Up Your Ears"), Christopher Hampton ("Dangerous Liaisons"). . . . Was that ever a drawback in the collaborative medium of film?

A: There are no drawbacks. They're a great sort of educators. When you first read their work, it's endlessly illuminating. "Dangerous Liaisons" was such a wonderful piece of writing, but that didn't mean I wouldn't read a scene and say, 'What do you mean here. . . .' Christopher and I would be endlessly collaborating, usually on planes, driving other passengers mad. Just seeing the range of his intelligence and humor was a treat.

Q: More of a treat, I'm guessing, than the next one with Hampton. ["Mary Reilly," starring Julia Roberts and John Malkovich, cost $40 million but grossed a mere $6 million in the U.S., after re-shoots and rumors of discord on the set.]

A: That was quite a battering at the time. The problems were really to do with the script and, of course, everyone thinks they were to do with the studio or Julia. But they were always to do with the script. If you don't have a script right, you shouldn't start.

I think it was a great mistake to make it at that price. It was owned by a studio, and they have their own economic patterns. The studio wasn't unpleasant; I just don't think it's a good idea for me to work with those kinds of budgets. Anyone who's rushing to get into that situation . . . I wouldn't advise it!

Q: You've admitted you also had trouble as a director dealing with the "star" images of people like Julia Roberts and Dustin Hoffman ["Hero"].

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