Skip to main content
BFI logo











Screenonline banner
Stephen Frears: The Guardian Interview (2000)

On working with Cusack, Roberts, Hoffman and skilful crews

Main image of Stephen Frears: The Guardian Interview (2000)

Stephen Frears was interviewed by Adrian Wootton at the National Film Theatre on 17 July 2000.

1. Shooting High Fidelity

AW: How long did it take to make it, I mean, in terms of shooting, post-production, the whole thing?

SF: Twelve weeks to shoot it, and then four years to listen to everybody arguing about music. [Laughter] Which seemed like that. Films always take two years. I mean your life is sliced up into these two-year chunks when you make a film. So it ended up being two years. [Pause] Lying under a tree. [Laughter]

AW: The question is, what's the next two years? The answer is: lying under a tree. And what about the, the kind of production crew, I mean, did you very much determine who you wanted to work with, apart from the casting side of it?

SF: Well, because we shot it in Chicago, we had principally a Chicago crew, who were very nice people. And I took, you know, you take an editor and a cameraman and a, it's quite, it's quite a straightforward process. I worked with a young cameraman called Seamus McGarvey because I thought it was about young people, and there ought to be somebody young on the crew to sort of balance it out. So Seamus was terrific. I mean, it's, the truth is the people who make films are very, very skilful. I mean, wherever you go, you always find good crews.

2. Working with stars

AW: Does it make it more difficult to direct John Cusack on the project because he was involved in the writing, and because he was involved as a producer? Because he's got more say?

SF: No. No. What actors want to do is give good performances. The fact that they're, you know, more powerful than Joseph Stalin is sort of running [Laughter] parallel with this. But basically they want to give good performances. And John has opinions. I mean, this is one of the nightmares about other people is that they don't necessarily fall at your feet and do what you want.

Anyway, so John would argue the whole time about this and that, but not to the point of, I mean not in that, not in quite the way you imagine. He argued, I mean, it was all that business of music where all the arguments came out. No, and I mean, he basically wanted to give a good performance, at which point, you know, you're all on the same side. But he's a, he's also a bright guy so of course the things he said, well, sometimes they were interesting, and sometimes I guess not so interesting, like anybody would be. But he didn't corruptly, you know, use his power or anything like that. I've never met an actor who did that, to be quite honest. They, it's one of the rather difficult things is that as well as being very powerful, they're probably extremely good actors.

AW: It must, the question I was going to ask, you said you'd never met an actor like that, but isn't it difficult when somebody, you know, like say Julia Roberts for example, who has all that baggage and is earning a multi-million pound salary for being a 'star' - that must be different from working with John Cusack who's -

SF: No, she just wants to give a good performance. I mean she's perfectly capable of behaving sensibly as well as stupidly, I guess, but that's just true of everybody. I mean, she was adorable in that sense. And Dustin Hoffman who's supposed to be so difficult, you know, all he wanted to do was be good. So, you know, I don't have a sort of history of oppositions and antagonisms and fights that I've, I mean I read about them in other people's, in other people's life histories and I'm always riveted, but I've always had a lot of time for what they had to say and for their talent.

AW: The final thing I wanted to ask you on that was, that if an actor - Dustin Hoffman for example famously, and Morgan Freeman was talking about it only here on Friday - if an actor is used to doing fifteen or twenty takes to pump themselves up for a performance, rather than another actor who's used to doing three takes and then off and move on, what do you do? Do you adjust your shooting style to those actors or do you try and persuade them to work in a different way?

SF: Well, you're always confronted by the fact that if they're no good, you haven't got a very good film, so actually it's in your interests to, you know, all you want them to do is give a good performance, so of course certain actors do it on take seventeen and some do it on two. I guess that's what you're trying to find out, where they're going to be good at, and you try and, you know, you organise it so that you're receptive, you know. If you're lucky, they're good, and if you're really lucky, you're photographing them when they're being good. It's only common sense. The idea of saying, I mean I've always wanted to say: 'I'll only do one take', but I've never had the nerve to do it. But I've always thought that if you said on the first take, 'Right, that's it', after take one, they'd think, 'Oh my God, blimey, he's one of those'. [Laughter] But I've never actually had the nerve to do it.

Click titles to see or read more

Audio & Video Clips
1. Shooting High Fidelity (1:25)
2. Working with stars (3:55)
Frears, Stephen (1941-)