Stephen Frears

He takes us behind the cameras of Mrs. Henderson Presents.

Why is director Stephen Frears arguably the most writer-respecting man in movies? "I come from a writers' theater, the Royal Court," he explains during a recent conversation at Seattle's Fairmont Olympic Hotel, while discussing Mrs. Henderson Presents (see review). "It was like the Borgias. Full of very, very brilliant men, largely homosexual. I've never been anywhere so vicious." Nor so friendly to writers. He thinks Hollywood is nuts to make scripts an afterthought instead of a film's foundation. "Do you think I'm foolish in [my] sense that the writer is at the center of things?" he asks. No, I explain, but studios hold the opposite view, ham-fistedly rewriting, especially nixing unhappy endings. For example, Peter Weir was told if he gave Green Card a happy ending, he could buy a pool. If Frears would only shaft more writers, maybe he'd have a pool, too. "I have a pool! But I know what you mean." Frears notes that he talked the stubborn, sardonic Hanif Kureishi into giving My Beautiful Laundrette 15 seconds' worth of happy ending, and argues what's crucial is retaining story integrity. "The writers create the complete universe, and then you're invited to make a film about that complete universe." His job? "I do the human universe." That's how it works in Mrs. Henderson: The designers re-created a 1940s theater world gentler than Frears' Royal Court; Bent playwright Martin Sherman researched the period and tunes for his screenplay; and, at the stars' request, Frears shepherded Bob Hoskins and Judi Dench in their screwball comedy debut. He helped put a human face on the authentic setting—what Frears' daughter maddens him by calling "olden days" (a period encompassing Dunkirk and the Beatles). He was terrified that the song-and-dance numbers wouldn't be smoothly joined to the narrative. "I've seen too many films collapse when you stop for a number." Frears' method leaves little room for improv. "I've never found anyone who could improvise as well as a writer could write. Jack Black used to improvise in High Fidelity, but we'd always go back to what was written. It would stand out. I don't mean there was antagonism; we'd been mucking around, and these things would come out, and he could see it was just embroidery, too much. It was irrelevant to the scene." There is no embroidery in Mrs. Henderson, no word or bit out of place. Despite Hoskins' power as exec producer and chief instigator of the film, his performance (and Dench's, yet another to earn Oscar talk) is spontaneous without a bit of writer-bending improv. The script matches a retro trope of Sherman's creation—not Hollywood's. "It has to be coherent," says Frears. "That's what art is. Creating a coherent world—that's what my job is."

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