By Iain Blair
At first glance, the long film career of acclaimed British director Stephen Frears might look a little schizophrenic. He’s made big Hollywood studio pictures and high-profile films with big stars, such as The Queen (his second Oscar nom), Mary Reilly, Hero, the Oscar-nominated The Grifters and Dangerous Liaisons. But he’s probably better known for such smaller, grittier, non-star vehicles as My Beautiful Laundrette, The Snapper and The Van, films that provide a rich palette for Frears to explore stories with a strong social and political conscience.
Either way, Frears has always embraced a wide variety of styles, themes and genres. He cut his teeth at the BBC, where he first honed his abilities to work with tight budgets and schedules, and 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 he turned to the cinema, shooting The Hit, starring 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.
He’s also a director who’s happiest when he’s on location, and he got plenty of fresh air shooting his latest film. The Program is the true story of the meteoric rise and fall of one of the most celebrated and controversial men in recent history — Lance Armstrong, the notorious seven-time Tour de France champion.
I talked with Frears, whose credits also include Philomena, Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight, Chéri, Dirty Pretty Things, High Fidelity and Prick Up Your Ears, about making the film, his love of post and why he has no plans to retire.
How do you go about deciding what your next project will be and what made you choose this?
I just look for interesting stories. I’d read about Lance Armstrong and thought it was really interesting, relevant and a really good modern crime story.
What were the biggest challenges of making this?
I knew nothing about who Lance Armstrong really was, I knew nothing about cycling and I knew nothing about drugs. How about that? I know a bit more now.
Did you meet Armstrong?
No, I never did, but then I never met the Queen either. He’s still an enigma to me. He’s a very odd bloke who still, to this day, won’t quite come clean.
You love location shooting. Where did you shoot and how long was it?
We shot for about three months. It was tough since we shot in the Alps in autumn, so we were fighting the weather. We also shot in Belgium, which doubled for northern France, and some scenes in Texas, Italy, Paris and Geneva. We had to shoot the Tour on location, because of the majestic landscapes and settings, and then we had that great contrast with all the tiny hotel rooms.
The great Danny Cohen, who also shot the Oscar-nominated films The Danish Girl and Room, shot this. What did he bring to it?
A fantastic eye and a real sense of what it’s like for the riders racing at 40 or 50 mph down these mountain roads. We used a mixture of small cameras on the bikes, with cranes and helicopters, and he’s a brilliant DP. I loved working with him so much that I used him on my next film.
Where did you do the post? How long was the process?
It was about six months, all in London, and we started off in a small cutting room in Bloomsbury, near the British Museum, and then moved to Goldcrest for the rest of the post.
Do you like the post process?
I love it, and it’s so different from the 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. This was a very complicated film to make, as it covered a lot of years and races, and all that had to be pieced together in post. The truth is, a little cycling goes a long way, so we really had to balance all the races with all the drama behind the scenes. You don’t want to bore the audience with endless races.
You worked again with editor Valerio Bonelli, who cut the Oscar-nominated Philomena. How did that relationship work?
He didn’t come to the set. He just started assembling as we went. I really depend on my editor to have an objective view of what I’m doing. He’s a very clever editor, and I remember him as a film student. It was a very long, complex process, and he had to fill in scenes that were a bit sketchy in the script. He did a brilliant job.
Who did the visual effects and how many visual effects shots are there?
Union VFX did them all and Adam Gascoyne — who did Philomena with me and who’s doing my next film — was the VFX supervisor. We probably only had a 100 or so, and most of them were clean-up work — as it’s a period piece — and building up the crowds that line the Tour route. It’s quite amazing to see them, like this huge traveling circus that moves around France.
How important are sound and music to you?
They’re so important to any film. I was lucky to work with composer Alex Heffes, who I didn’t know at all. He gave me what I didn’t know I needed because I haven’t a clue (laughs). I don’t know much about music, so I entirely depend on my composer and my sound team. I had a great team — sound editors Ian Wilson and Becki Ponting, and mixers Mike Dowson and Craig Irving.
Did you do a DI?
At Goldcrest, with DP Danny Cohen and colorist Diana Vasquez. I don’t pretend to be technically clever enough about the DI, so they do the work and show me things.
How has post changed since you began back in the ‘60s?
All the technology, especially with Avid and digital sound mixing, is a huge change. I think filmmaking today is a much more hit-and-miss affair. All the new technology sort of encourages that approach since you can sort of put it all together in post far more easily, whereas the films I make are made with great precision. So that sense of craft isn’t as dominant as it used to be, but the new technology has certainly improved things so much, and I love what you can do in post now. It’s much faster and more efficient.
Did the film turn out the way you hoped?
It was a huge film to pull together and, as always, it turned out far better than I ever imagined. I’m always surprised at how my films turn out — that they’re so complete and the characters are so believable. I never know going in quite how the film will turn out, although you learn over the years what will probably work.
I just finished filming Florence Foster Jenkins with Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant. It’s about a New York heiress, played by Meryl, who wanted to be an opera singer even though she was a dreadful singer and the worst singer to ever appear at Carnegie Hall. It’s not a comedy, but a lot of it’s very funny and a lot of it makes you cry. What more do you want?
Do you ever think of retiring?
Not really, although, since I began the whole industry’s changed so much. It’s unrecognizable today. First off, it’s a young man’s game. When I began, everyone involved was my age — and now I’m 74. There are a few old guys like me still directing — Clint, Woody, Ken Loach — but not many. I just feel grateful that they keep letting me make films. As long as I keep finding great material that’s interesting to me, I’ll keep making films.
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.