By Iain Blair
Much like the royal subjects of his new film Victoria & Abdul and his 2006 offering, The Queen (which won him his second Oscar nomination), British director Stephen Frears has long been considered a national treasure. Of course, the truth is that he’s an international treasure.
The director, now 76 years old, has had a long and prolific career that spans some five decades and that has embraced a wide variety of styles, themes and genres. He cut his teeth at the BBC, where he honed his abilities to work with tight budgets and schedules. He made his name in TV drama, working almost exclusively for the small screen in the first 15 years of his career.
In the mid-1980s, Frears turned to the cinema, shooting The Hit, which starred Terence Stamp, John Hurt and Tim Roth. The following year he made My Beautiful Laundrette for Channel 4, which crossed over to big screen audiences and altered the course of his career.
Since then, he’s made big Hollywood studio pictures, such as the Oscar-nominated Florence Foster Jenkins, The Grifters and Dangerous Liaisons, as well as Mary Reilly and Hero. But he’s probably as well-known for smaller, grittier vehicles, such as the Oscar-nominated Philomena, Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight, Cheri, Dirty Pretty Things, High Fidelity, Prick Up Your Ears and Snapper, films that provided a rich palette for Frears to explore stories with a strong social and political conscience.
His latest film, Victoria & Abdul, is a drama (spiced with a good dash of comedy) about the unlikely but real-life relationship between Queen Victoria (Judi Dench) and her Muslim Indian servant Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal).
I recently spoke with Frears about making the film, which is already generating a lot of Oscar buzz, especially for Dench.
This seems to be a very timely film, with its race relations, and religious and class issues. Was that part of its appeal?
Absolutely. When I read it I immediately thought it was quite provocative and a very interesting story, and I always look for interesting stories, and the whole relationship was part of the fun. I thought it was a brilliant script, and it’s got so much going on – the personal story about them, all the politics and global stuff about the British Empire.
You’ve worked with Judi Dench before, but she had already portrayed Victoria in Mrs. Brown back in 1997. Did you have to twist her arm to revisit the character?
I said I’d only make this with her, as she’s a brilliant actress and she looks a bit like Victoria, but I think initially she passed. I’m actually not quite sure since I never had a conversation with her about it. What happened was, we organized a reading and she came to that and listened to it, and then she was on board.
What did she bring to the role?
Complete believability. You absolutely believe in her as Victoria. She can do all that, playing the most powerful woman in the world, and then she was also human, which is why she was so fond of Abdul. It’s the same as directing someone like Meryl Streep. She’s just so skillful and so intelligent, and their sense of their role and its direction is very, very strong, and they’re so skilled at telling the story.
This doesn’t look like your usual heavy, gloomy Victorian period piece. How did you approach this visually?
I have a wonderful production designer, Alan MacDonald, who has worked with me on many films, including Florence Foster Jenkins, Philomena and The Queen. And we shot this with DP Danny Cohen, who is so inventive. From the start we wanted it to feel period but do it in a more modern way in order to get away from that lugubrious feeling and the heavy Victoriana. When we got to Osborne House, which was her holiday home on the Isle of Wight, it’s anything but heavy and lugubrious. It’s this light and airy villa.
Fair to say the film starts dark and gets lighter in tone and color as it goes on — while the story starts lighter and more comical, and gets darker as it goes along?
Yes, because at the start she’s depressed, she’s dressed all in black, and then it’s like Cinderella, and she’s woken up… by Abdul’s kiss on her feet.
Did that really happen?
Yes, I think it did, and I think both servants kissed her feet — but it wasn’t under a table full of jellies (laughs).
You shot all over England, Scotland and India in many of the original locations. It must have been a challenge mixing all the locations with sets?
It was. The big coup was shooting in Osborne House, which no one has ever done before. That was a big thrill but also a relief. England is full of enormous country homes, so you just go down the list finding the best ones. I’ve done Balmoral twice now, so I know how you do it, and Windsor Castle, which is Gothic. But of course, they’re not decorated in the Victorian manner, so we had to dress all the rooms appropriately. Then you mix all the sets and locations, like putting a big puzzle together.
How was shooting in India?
We shot in Agra, by the Taj Mahal. The original statue of Victoria there was taken down after independence, but we were allowed to make a copy and put it back up.
Where did you do the post? How long was the process?
It was about five months, all in London, and we cut it at Goldcrest where I’ve done all the post work on my last few films. Philomena was not done there. It all depends on the budget.
Do you like the post process?
I love being on location and I enjoy shooting, but it’s always hard and full of problems. Post is so calm by comparison, and so different from all the money and time pressures and chaos of the shoot. It’s far more analytic and methodical, and it’s when you discover the good choices you made as well as your mistakes. It’s where you actually make your film with all the raw elements you’ve amassed along the way.
You worked with a new editor, Melanie Ann Oliver, who cut Les Mis and The Danish Girl for director Tom Hooper and Anna Karenina for director Joe Wright. How did that relationship work?
She wasn’t on set, but we talked every day about it, and she became the main conduit for it all, like all editors. She’s the person you’re talking to all the time, and we spent about three months editing. The main challenge was trying to find the right tone and the balance between all the comedy, jokes and the subtext — what was really going on. We went in knowing it would be very comedic at the start, and then it gets very serious and emotional by the end.
Who did the visual effects and how many visual effects shots are there?
I always use the same team. Union VFX did them all, and Adam Gascoyne, who did Florence Foster Jenkins and Philomena with me, was the VFX supervisor. The big VFX shots were of all the ships crossing the ocean, and a brilliant one of Florence. And as it’s a period piece, there’s always a lot of adding stuff and clean up, and we probably had several hundred VFX shots or so in the end, but I never know just how many.
How important are sound and music to you?
They’re both hugely important, even though I don’t really know much about music or sound mixing and just depend on my team, which includes supervising sound editor Becki Ponting. We mixed all the music by Thomas Newman at Abbey Road, and then we did the final mix at Twickenham Studios. The thing with composers like Thomas Newman and Alexandre Desplat who did The Queen and Florence is that they read me really well. When Alexandre was hired to score The Queen, they asked him to write a very romantic score, and he said, “No, no, I know Stephen’s films. They’re witty, so I’ll write you a witty score,” and it was perfect and won him an Oscar nomination. Same with this. Tom read it very, very well.
Did you do a DI?
Yes, at Goldcrest as usual, with Danny and colorist Adam Glasman. They’re very clever, and I’m not really involved. Danny does it. He gets me in and shows me stuff but I just don’t pretend to be technically clever enough about the DI as mine is a layman’s approach to it, so they do all the work and show me everything, and then I give any suggestions I might have. The trick with any of this is to surround yourself with the best technicians and the best actors, tell them what you want, and let them do their jobs.
Having made this film, what do you think about Victoria now?
I think she was far more humane than is usually shown. I never really studied her at school, but there was this enduring image of an old battleaxe, and I think she was far more complex than that image. She learned Urdu from Abdul. That tells you a lot.
Industry insider Iain Blair has been interviewing the biggest directors in Hollywood and around the world for years. He is a regular contributor to Variety and has written for such outlets as Reuters, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe.