Magazine article The Spectator

'British Successes like the Queen Are Freaks'

Magazine article The Spectator

'British Successes like the Queen Are Freaks'

Article excerpt

For somebody so revered in Hollywood, there is something rather deliciously, grottily British about Stephen Frears. A remarkably prolific director for both television and cinema, in the last four years alone he has managed to produce three films that have all scooped major prizes: Dirty Pretty Things, Mrs Henderson Presents and The Queen.

He has directed six women to Best Actress Oscars, himself been nominated for Best Director twice, and has won or been nominated for a further 65 international awards. But here he is, standing on a street corner in Soho dressed in a scruffy T-shirt and trousers, puffing on a roll-up and grumbling about the UK's newly imposed smoking ban.

Were it not for the fact that we have just emerged from an editing suite upstairs, where I have seen what can only be described as a master at work, I would have walked past without noticing him -- as indeed, hordes do during the course of his precious cigarette.

And yet -- upstairs. Frears is back in the editing suite today not to work on a film of his own, but to oversee the completion of Gods, the second feature by a 31-year-old Peruvian film-maker called Josué Mendez.

The two directors, so many miles apart both geographically and professionally, were brought together as part of the Rolex Mentor-Protégé initiative, which seeks to pair up six blessed young creative artists with a luminary from the same field every two years. It's not hard to see what Mendez gets out of this extraordinary opportunity -- he describes it, almost breathless with his good fortune, as 'a once-in-a-lifetime dream!' -- but I wonder why Frears himself deigned to take part in the scheme, especially as he has just told me that you only learn to make films by making films.

Does he see an inherent value in such a collaboration? 'I suppose so, ' he shrugs.

'We both learn something. I'm just not quite sure what it is.' I suspect Frears, with his grudging charm, is being disingenuous. He holds the David Lean chair in fiction direction at the National Film and Television School in Beaconsfield and has said elsewhere that he loves to watch young film-makers in action.

Although he himself 'learnt on the job', becoming an apprentice at the BBC after taking a law degree at Cambridge, he also admits that he would not be the director he is now without the 'wonderful teachers' he had in the likes of Lindsay Anderson.

Today, then, he is giving back. Before Mendez even started filming Gods, a strikingly shot probe into the life of Lima's idle rich and their spoilt, beautiful children, Frears was on a plane out to Peru to discuss various aspects of the script with the young director, flagging up potential beartraps he might fall into. 'Of course, he still had to make those mistakes, ' he smiles. 'You have to learn the hard way.' Back in the booth, Mendez and his editor Roberto are discovering the hard way that the editing process is about control of information; about the million tiny decisions you can make about how you feed the audience; about how you change infinitesimally what you want it to know, to see, to understand -- or indeed, not understand.

'This is where you can really teach something, ' Frears tells me, apparently relishing their anguish. 'Here in the edit. This is where there are so many possibilities, this precise moment; this is where the decisions are to be made, where the patterns you're not even aware of emerge. …

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