Stephen Frears on Philomena
“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”
Director Stephen Frears notes that, “We added it because we re-shot a little bit and that was one of the scenes that got written.”
Frears’ directorial career encompasses films and television projects since 1968. American viewers became aware of his name through movies in the 1980s like “Prick Up Your Ears,” “My Beautiful Laundrette,” “The Hit,” and “Dangerous Liaisons.” Since them Frears has gone back and forth from British and American cinema, most notably with films like “The Grifters,” “High Fidelity,” “Dirty Pretty Things,” and “The Queen.”
Frears worked as an assistant to Lindsay Anderson on the 1968 British film “if ….”
“We were making it was the time when Bobby Kennedy got assassinated, there was all the trouble going on between students and policemen. It seemed very, very topical. You could see this film caught the moment. When it succeeded I wasn’t at all surprised,” says Frears adding, “I kept up with Lindsay. I think I saw him last about three weeks before he died.”
With his latest film, “Philomena” Frears delves into the true story of a mother’s search for the son she was separated from after giving birth while a resident at a convent orphanage in Roscrea, Ireland. Judi Dench stars as Philomena with Steve Coogan playing Martin Sixsmith whose non-fiction book “The Lost Child of Philomena Lee” served as the basis for the screenplay (that Coogan penned with Jeff Pope).
Frears spoke by phone to Free Press Houston about his career, the art of directing and making Philomena. While the movie has some comic notes it’s mainly a serious drama, whereas Coogan’s known for his comedy films. “I never did think that,” says Frears. “Steve’s a very intelligent fellow; I had confidence in him. Pairing him with Judi was very good. I knew that people would be surprised but in the best possible way.”
The production shot around London and for four days in Washington D.C. “A lot of the Washington stuff I did in London, and a lot of the Irish stuff I did in England, it’s all to do with tax nowadays,” explains Frears.
While Philomena opens at a specific orphanage it sparks genre similarities to “The Magdalene Sisters,” Peter Mullen’s 2023 film about inmates at an asylum run by nuns. “Magdalene Sisters, I think, I’m not 100-percent sure, really covered a lot of orphanages,” says Frears, adding “I believe that movie was shot in Scotland. But Roscrea, like other orphanages, took in laundry from the local community; in that sense it was unpaid labor.”
The search for Philomena’s son takes her and Sixsmith to America, only to find that her son passed away from AIDS (nine years previously) and that he was a high-ranking lawyer in the Reagan administration. From there, the duo attempt to track down people who knew Philomena’s son, including his former partner. On shooting at the Lincoln Memorial Frears notes: “Places like that they’re not there for the filmmakers, they’re there for the public. They set up rules, and you fight them all the way really. They were very, very kind to us, I think we got away with murder because we had Judi Dench with us.”
Philomena mixes images of Super 8 film of the young lad with the present day footage. “A lot of that is of the real boy, some I recreated. The original material is so powerful, you are also telling a story so you need the images to tell certain things. You keep the balance in direction,” says Frears.
“You do it instinctively. I don’t remember a moment when I said this is too funny, or we need a joke here. The boys got it more or less right [referring to the screenplay’s authors Coogan and Pope],” says Frears.
“When I first read the script I gave them a copy of Frank Capra’s “It Happened One Night” because I could see there are similarities,” says Frears. Those similarities would be the air and road trip on which the two leads embark. “There’s was always an argument, well is it a tragedy or is it a romantic comedy, or an odd couple movie or whatever expression you like to use. You realize that in those sorts of films there are rules where the whole story turns upside down, so I was trying to follow those rules. I was taught to direct what’s in front of me. I came out of the theater and that’s what you do, one week you do a comedy and the next week you do a tragedy. You specialize in both, and I’ve always hovered between the two.”
A crucial scene where Philomena confronts her son’s former partner is a lynchpin to the third act. “I knew that that was a big moment,” Frears says. “How far should the car be from the door? How long should I draw this out? How long can I keep this moment going? There are things like that you are thinking about the whole time. But I knew that that shot was at center of the architecture. I knew that when Steve was failing to get in, it was her point-of-view. When you’re directing you’re running those things in your head the whole time.”
Other films that Frears has helmed that have been released in the last year include “Lay the Favorite,” and the HBO film “Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight.”
“Philomena” is currently in area theaters including the River Oaks Three. “Philomena” has been nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actress and Best Adapted Screenplay.
- Michael Bergeron