MCN Columnists

By Andrea Gronvall andreagronvall@aol.com

A Conversation with Tamara Drewe Director Stephen Frears

By Andrea Gronvall

This fall when so many films are about heavy subjects like dirty politics, wrongful imprisonment, death and near-death experiences, one independent comedy stands out as a welcome oasis. Tamara Drewe is the latest work by gifted British director Stephen Frears, whose notable movies include, but are by no means limited to, The Grifters, Dangerous Liaisons, High Fidelity, and The Queen.

Based on the graphic novel by Posy Simmonds (who was inspired by Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd), this entertaining movie is a satirical look at a picturesque English country village, where a pompous mystery writer (Roger Allam) holds court at the writers’ retreats he hosts on his estate, in between churning out bestsellers and cheating on his long suffering wife (Tamsin Greig).

The return of former neighbor Tamara Drewe (Gemma Arterton)—once a Plain Jane, but now a stunning London sophisticate–turns everyone upside down. Things get even more complicated when she hooks up with a rebounding rock star (Dominic Cooper), an event that turns a bored, rebellious, lovelorn teen (Jessica Barden) into a stalker. Fresh off the film festival circuit, Frears recently stopped in Chicago to chat up his movie, which Sony Pictures Classics is now rolling out across the country in a platform release.

Andrea Gronvall: Tamara Drewe is so much fun, as well as moving. You’ve struck an interesting tone.

Stephen Frears: Well, those are the things I thought when I read the script [by Moira Buffini].

AG: How long did it take you to shoot, and how long to edit?

SF: It took me nine weeks to shoot. [The edit took from] December to about March. We just got on with it.

AG: What was the budget?

SF: I don’t know the budget. I’d happily talk about it, but I don’t know it. I choose not to know about it.

AG: One less thing you have to worry about.

SF: No, it’s that I find the numbers so frightening. I just finally said, can’t we make this cheaper?

AG: Well, your movie doesn’t look cheap. It’s beautiful to gaze at.

SF: We shot it late in the year–in September, not in mid-summer. By September the sun was starting to get low in the sky, so that’s when it looks especially beautiful. And this [the story] had to cover all of the seasons, so you wanted a time of the year that gave you the most possibilities. We were incredibly lucky. We shot in the west of Dorset. I have a house in Dorset; I go out for about three days, then I have to get back to London. It is stunningly beautiful, but then you just start to get restless.

AG: So the “weekenders” angle in the movie is true to life?

SF: Yes, it’s about rich people who bought houses in the country, thereby pricing out the local people.

AG: Well, gentrification is happening in a lot of places. I used to attend the Telluride Film Festival, when the town had loads of charm. But since it became a vacation-home magnet for celebrities, it’s been very built up.

SF: I was in Telluride this summer. It’s lovely, but it has become gentrified.

AG: In a lot of movies these days women characters are one-dimensional; one is either a femme fatale, or a gun-toting action heroine, or merely a decorative sex object, or impossibly good.

SF: I understand your complaint.

AG: The women in Tamara Drewe share some of these aspects, but what I loved about the movie is that they’re all so flawed.

SF: So, that’s what women want—to be shown as flawed?

AG: It makes them more interesting. Here you give them space, to be good and to be bad. That’s a neat trick to pull off. How did you decide on that tone?

SF: It was always in the story, the tone. The truth is if I didn’t show women like that, the women around me would crucify me. I don’t really have a choice!

AG: Who are those women who would beat you up?

SF: My wife, my daughter, the casting director—I mean, they’re all women around me. They would trample me into the ground.

AG: I found the tone of your film to be slightly different than the book’s. It’s a bit more larky.

SF: It has high spirits.

AG: Yes! It reminded me of Cold Comfort Farm. It’s delightful that there are so many layers to this tranquil country village that one might not suspect at first. If this were a Hollywood film, the actress playing the title character would be in every scene, and we wouldn’t get as much layering.

SF: They don’t do ensemble films in Hollywood?

AG: Not often enough. With buddy pictures, the two male stars may split the screen time, but more and more often, there’s one main star supported by actors in minor roles who don’t have many lines.

SF: Oh, I knew this was an ensemble film. In fact, when they asked me if I would make it I said, “I can’t make it with famous people.”

AG: It meshes as an ensemble piece; it’s more than just a springboard for all these talented performers to come on and do their clever bits, and then exit. I’m guessing it was the screenwriter who decided to introduce the two mischief-making local teenage girls, Jody [Jessica Barden] and Casey [Charlotte Christie] earlier in the movie than they are in the book.

SF: We all said, can’t we have more of the young girls–they’re so wonderful—so we brought them forward.

AG: The movie really becomes a triangle about three women, three generations—Tamara, Jody, and Beth, the mystery writer’s wife, played by Tamsin Greig. Shifting the focus back and forth between them not only propels the narrative forward in a really engaging manner; it also leads to a deeper understanding of the characters because we see how they view each other.

SF: That’s interesting, but it wasn’t that self-conscious.

AG: But even if it wasn’t self-conscious, this switching focus creates sympathy for characters who might be a little too hard-edged, or self-serving. Did you see Tamara as a kind of anti-heroine?

SF: No, because I don’t think like that; I just saw her as a gorgeous girl appearing in the middle of a village, causing chaos.

AG: Gemma Arterton is definitely gorgeous. And your other casting decisions: you picked solid actors like Dominic Cooper—I didn’t even recognize him in the film. It was a surprise to see his name in the end credits.

SF: Where did you know him from?

AG: An Education, and a few smaller roles.

SF: Again, perhaps because I don’t see all these films—no, I had seen An Education. He’s jolly good. But I’ve never seen Mamma Mia!

AG: He could start a whole new trend here. If more guys realized what a little eyeliner could do for smoldering looks—

SF: He’s great. My cousin said, “You want Dominic Cooper,” and I said, “Oh, okay.”

AG: Why did she say that?

SF: I never asked her.

AG: You obviously enjoy long-standing relationships based on trust and faith. Okay, then, why Tamsin Greig?

SF: Because she’s brilliant, absolutely brilliant. Various friends started working with her and I was rather jealous. She’s a very, very witty, striking woman. She never stops working in England. And only when I met her did I agree to make the film.

AG: In this role she seems like she has the kind of heft of an Emma Thompson—someone of that caliber. And what about Roger Allam?

SF: Well, he’s the best actor in England.

AG: He deserves to be discovered here in the U.S., too.

SF: Well, that’s not my problem—don’t blame me! They’re very good actors. You make these [casting] decisions instinctively. You try to think about it, but then you work a lot out afterwards: “Oh, that’s why I did that.” A lot of it is just instinct.

AG: Tell me a little about your new project.

SF: I’m supposed to make a film in Las Vegas, about sports book gamblers.

AG: What is the allure of that for you?

SF: Lay the Favorite, Take the Dog is a rather good book [by Beth Raymer], and a good script by a friend of mine, a chap called D.V. DeVincentis, who wrote the screenplay for High Fidelity. I like Chicago; I made High Fidelity here.

AG: You captured a lot of what’s appealing about our city. You also recently were in Toronto with Tamara Drewe; how did you find the festival this year?

SF: It’s become just business. It wasn’t the fun it used to be.

AG: Is there any film festival you like?

SF: Telluride! Telluride was heaven: very familial—friendship and intellectual curiosity. It’s absolutely terrific.

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