Of All Frears
The 'Dirty Pretty Things' director says the difference between 'indie' and 'mainstream' usually
boils down to one thing: money.
by Mike Russell
Director Stephen Frears’ award-winning “Dirty
Pretty Things” (which Miramax bowed in New York
and Los Angeles on July 18) is one strange little egg.
On one level,
the tightly plotted film works as a slightly bizarre
Hitchcockian thriller – telling the story
of Okwe (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a mysterious illegal immigrant
working in London who finds himself drawn into a web of
black-market organ trafficking. But the film’s lurid
plot is grounded (and given a deeply human voice) by Frears’ direction – which
focuses squarely on the film’s desperate immigrant
characters, one of them played by “Amélie” star
and Gallic supersprite Audrey Tautou.
Mind you, and
if you posit any of the above observations about “Dirty Pretty Things” to Frears, avoid
using the word “lurid” (for reasons that will
soon become clear), Mr. Frears is nothing if not direct,
and it’s a directness earned through experience:
He spent much of the ‘70s and early ‘80s working
in British television, cultivating a reputation as a superb
craftsman and friend to actors. He followed the crime spoof “Gumshoe” (1971)
and darkly funny thriller “The Hit” (1984)
with a string of unforgettable low-budget British dramas – “My
Beautiful Laundrette” (1985), “Sammy and Rosie
Get Laid” (1987) and “Prick Up Your Ears” (1987) – before
breaking into the Hollywood studio system with 1988’s “Dangerous
Liaisons.” Since then, Frears, perhaps more than
any other working director save Steven Soderbergh, has
moved between small and Hollywood-sized budgets – helming
an eclectic range of comedies and dramas that includes “The
Grifters,” “High Fidelity,” “Hero,” “Mary
Reilly,” “The Van,” “The Snapper” and “The
Hi-Lo Country.” He’s currently at work prepping “Monkeyface,” a
heist film starring marrieds Michael Douglas and
In Focus talked
to Mr. Frears well past midnight (his time) about “Dirty Pretty Things,” “High Fidelity,” fun
with accents, working with actors, the economics
of indie filmmaking and one very good pirate movie. An
The interesting thing
about “Dirty Pretty Things” is
that its subject matter – if stated in pitch form – is
really lurid, verging on the ridiculous. I mean, it’s
like: “Nigerian doctor on the lam falls into an interracial
romance – even as he’s slowly being drawn into
a secret organ-harvesting ring.” Even the movie’s title is
lurid. And yet the movie feels, moment to moment, very
intimate and grounded.
Um. ... Yes.
How did you pull that
off? [long, awkward pause] I
know that’s such a
huge question. ...
I was going to say ... That’s kind of my job, isn’t
it? I can’t answer your question. You just sort of
get on with it, don’t you?
Well, let me ask some
smaller questions. The actor who plays Okwe, whose name
I am not going to
mangle here [His
name is Chiwetel Ejiofor – Ed.].
... He gives an extraordinary performance. And what a soulful
did you find him?
He’s a wonderful British actor. He was in the Royal
Shakespeare Company and all the proper things that [actors]
in England do. He came in and auditioned, and did it all
actually sort of correctly – in the most straightforward
[According to the
film’s press notes, “Ejiofor
impressed Frears with his lauded performance in a stage
production of ‘Blue/Orange.’”]
In one sense, he knew more about it than
I did, didn’t
he? It kind of was like his father’s story. I don’t
mean that his father was a ...
– His father wasn’t
on the lam from the Nigerian government. ...
No – but he left Nigeria during the civil war. I
think that’s right. I might be wrong. ... But not
as a refugee.
[Ejiofor’s] just a very, very fine actor. We couldn’t
have made the film if that actor hadn’t been there.
And it’s a tough role to fill. Were you at any point
pressured to get a big star – a Denzel Washington?
Well, no. When I read the script, I said to the producers, “Look – you
can make this with Denzel Washington or you can make it
with an unknown.” Because apart from Djimon Hounsou,
who was in “Gladiator,” there really aren’t
any famous African actors. ... And I said, “Personally,
I think it should be made with an unknown.” I think
everybody thought it was the right way to do it.
The script for “Dirty Pretty Things” was written
by Steven Knight – the guy who came up with “Who
Wants to Be a Millionaire?”
Yes. He obviously hit the jackpot, and always wanted to
be a screenwriter.
What kind of fellow creates monstrously popular game-shows
and a screenplay teeming with rich human drama?
Well, somebody who’s curious about people and generous
towards people – and has a rather sharp eye for the
world. I know [Knight] has a Turkish friend – and
I think it was just things he saw. I give him really all
the credit for inventing a way into that world that most
people don’t look at.
To me, that’s sort
of the genius of the film: It sort of draws you in with
this very lurid
Well, I liked that – I like that it was told as a
sort of popular story. What you would call a “lurid” quality,
I rather liked.
I mean it as a compliment. Sorry.
These people weren’t presented as “victims
of a brutal system.” I like the fact that … they
were cheerful and pretty.
But there’s definitely
a tone of desperation to the film.
Yes – but if you’re making that sort of film,
you want people who are in jeopardy. I always liked the
popular form; that was always what appealed to me.
Now, you’ve made at least three films (“My
Beautiful Laundrette,” “Sammy & Rosie,” “Dirty
Pretty Things”) about the immigrant experience in
England. And pretty much every speaking part in “Dirty
Pretty Things” is played by some sort of immigrant – including
the immigration cops themselves, if I’m not mistaken.
Yes, one’s an Asian. The other one’s just a
dark Englishman. [laughs] The doctor who comes for the
[human] organs is English. ...
What level of research
do you undertake when you make a film like this? Did
you feel you had
to interview Pakistani
and Nigerian –
No. No, no, no. I basically bought what the writer said.
I didn’t have any grounds to question it. He presented
a world and I believed him. I mean, if there had been questions
about authenticity, I’d have asked them.
Do you find the immigrant
situation in England has changed at all since you made “My Beautiful Laundrette” nearly
two decades ago?
Oh, yes. “My Beautiful Laundrette” is about
the [English] Empire – you know, they’re all
people that we colonized, I suppose – and about the
ironic reversal of Empire. But “Dirty Pretty Things” has
nothing to do with the Empire; it has to do with this huge
migration that’s taking place in the world. This
story could have taken place anywhere in Europe — in
Paris or Milan or Berlin or somewhere. In that sense, it’s
a story of desperate people. You just see them endlessly
going West, toward the Pacific. It’s a huge problem
in Europe – and all over the world.
“Dirty Pretty Things” is far and away the most modern
film that’s been made in Britain. It’s an account
of modern Britain, just as “Laundrette” was
an account of modern Britain.
Have you ever heard anything about actual organ harvesting?
Oh, yes. Oh, yes. Yes.
As I was walking
out of the screening, a local film critic was telling me
story of some
bodies washing up in France – just
torsos. I was wondering if it was any sort of inspiration
behind “Dirty Pretty Things” at all.
Well, I think it’s just economics. If you’ve
got something you don’t need, and you can sell it
for that sort of money and you’re desperate, I mean,
it’s sort of logical, isn’t it?
Did you hear in the course
of making “Dirty Pretty
Things” any real-life stories about this sort of
There was a doctor in court the other day. Somebody said, “I
need a kidney,” and he said, “Where do you
want me to get it from?” [laughs] I mean, there’s
just a market for them.
I’m afraid so.
AUDREY TAUTOU and the LANGUAGE BARRIER
Let’s talk about Audrey Tautou. This is her first
English-language film – and she’s acting in
English with a Turkish accent.
[laughs] That’s right. We handled all the dialogue
very attentively. We spent a lot of time giving the actors
time to sort themselves out. She’s brilliant – absolutely
Have you seen “Dirty Pretty Things” with
audiences who speak with the accents used in the film?
You mean Turkish people?
Yes. Have you tested the film with a Turkish audience?
I don’t think I’d dare. [laughs] I lack the
courage. I’ll take it to Istanbul and see if I get
out alive. If I were a Turkish immigrant, I would like
to be played by Audrey Tautou.
[laughs] You actually
cast her without seeing “Amélie,” correct?
Yes. I then saw “Amélie.” I couldn’t
tell you the story, because I just sat there staring at
in that film. And launched a thousand hairstyles.
Is that right? [laughs]
Every female hipster in
America has the “Amélie” haircut.
Oh, really? Then she has much to answer for.
Tautou said in the “Dirty Pretty Things” press
materials that she’s glad you hadn’t seen “Amélie,” because
she was afraid that seeing her star turn in that film would
have affected your decision to cast her.
Yes. She came to the [“Amélie”] premiere
and said, “I don’t want you to see the film.” I
said, “Well, I’m going to see it. That’s
the end of it.” She’d become a very big star
in France, so I think there was a sense where she was glad
to get out of France for a bit.
She’s had sort of
an Audrey Hepburn splash over there.
Yes, absolutely. You know, I think it was so overwhelming,
the success of that film, that the idea of doing something
completely unexpected appealed to her. I’m sure,
like all Europeans, she would love to get into English-speaking
films. And she’d always wanted to be in a film that
And her role! There are
some fairly degrading things that happen to her in “Dirty Pretty Things.” I’m
thinking of the scenes in the sweatshop where she works.
Oh, yes. She’s a brave, modern girl. She’s
not some shy ... She’s a modern, pretty girl.
Now, I also read in the press materials about the challenges
you faced by using so many actors with limited English-language
Yes. Well, there were only three of them.
How did you get around that, precisely?
I had a very, very good voice coach. [laughs] And
we got away with it. Afterwards, you’d think I must have
Would you do it again if you had to go back?
No! It was actually insane – and we got away with
it. I don’t know why we were allowed to do it. The
voice coach that we had was just fantastic. We spaced it
out so we’d have time to rehearse … for the
next English-speaking scene that they were going to have
to do. And they just had heroism and courage. [laughs] I just believed they could do it.
BEHAVING SENSIBLY: ‘INDIE’ v. ‘MAINSTREAM’
You seem to leap back
and forth pretty routinely between what most people define
as “indie” and “mainstream” films.
But is “independent” a term that’s grown
too nebulous to be useful? If “Sixth Sense” starred
Steve Buscemi instead of Bruce Willis, would it be an indie?
If Will Smith played Okwe in “Dirty Pretty Things,” would
it be a mainstream film?
No – because it really has to do with economics,
doesn’t it? In other words, if Will Smith had played
Okwe, you would have no choice but to make a studio film,
wouldn’t you? Because you would have been involved
in a large budget. And who knows what that would have led
to? In the end, you’re sort of deciding how to pitch
the film economically. I think that’s a very, very
I remember the two big American films that
I made. The first one I made [“Hero”], that particular
film involved a plane crashing into a bridge and into a
river – which I didn’t know how to do cheaply.
I was conscious of a different economic world that I was
Often, you don’t have a choice – if the subject
matter requires a lot of production value, you have no
choice: You have to make it with a lot of money, which
means going to a studio, which means having a star and
all the things that come with that. Other films, you might
not need that. In other words, you just try to handle what
you’ve got and pitch it sensibly, economically.
Do you find when you’re working with a small, “lower-scale” cast
that you’re able to keep the film more personal?
Yes – but that would include “High Fidelity,” for
example. It’s just when you start making a film with
more money, there are more people involved and more people
to be dealt with – and also you’re making the
film for a much larger audience. You try to be sensible,
Does the tightrope on
a film like, say, “Mary Reilly” feel
like it’s much higher?
No. It’s just that, the truth is, [“Mary Reilly”]
should have been a BBC film; it should have been a tiny,
little-budget film made in England. But it was owned by
a studio, so you sort of couldn’t take it from one
to the other. That was all. We were basically all standing
in the wrong place. You know, I couldn’t make my
way through it; if you’re standing in the wrong place,
it’s very, very hard.
If one were
to ask what the “line” is between
a “mainstream” film and an “indie” film –
I don’t know what the
line is. I simply know that you read a script and you think, “This film is worth
spending this much money on or that much money on.” I
can see that this can get an audience of x, but not an
audience of 10x. You just try to work from that.
“High Fidelity” is
a good example of a movie that managed to straddle those
Yes. But it wasn’t terribly expensive. We kept the
costs down – but there was nothing there that involved
the costs going up. You would say that we behaved sensibly
on the film.
‘ HIGH FIDELITY’
Did you anticipate “High Fidelity” enjoying
the success on home video that it’s enjoyed?
You’re telling me news I’ve never heard.
The DVD seems to have made its way
onto every film geek’s
[“High Fidelity”] seems to me a description
of all people of a certain age – therefore I’m
not remotely surprised.
It’s just the story of their
lives. I always thought it was just an account of a young
man growing up. And then, when you’re asked to make
a film that’s about music, I could see its potential
An awful lot of people have come and told
seen it five or six times. I mean, it’s terrific.
That’s one of the first DVDs I’ve
ever seen where I liked every deleted scene.
Oh, God. They do all that now. I’d forgotten about
Many of the best deleted scenes involve Jack Black cavorting
Oh, well that’s just Jack larking about. They weren’t deleted;
they were just alternative takes.
Some of them were. And they were all equally funny.
Yes. Well, he’s brilliant.
Who would you have cast
as Jack Black’s character
if Jack Black hadn’t been available?
Jack – twice – tried to run away from the film.
I couldn’t think of a replacement, so I went and
got him back.
How did you get him back?
English charm. I also threatened to break his legs. I can’t
remember. But I got him back twice.
Had you read Hornby’s novel “High Fidelity” before
you made the film?
I had – but I didn’t think there was a film
in there. When the three boys [screenwriters John Cusack,
D.V. DeVicentis and Steve Pink] came to me with a film
that’s set in Chicago [instead of the novel’s
London setting], naturally I was skeptical – but
when I read it, I realized the setting of Chicago was perfectly
The spiritual core of
the “High Fidelity” novel
definitely seemed to stay intact, despite the relocation.
Well, I realized how important it was to many, many people.
I thought, “If I muck around with this, I think they’ll
come after me with guns! So I’d better treat the
But also, the book was so rich – the language was
so enjoyable, the things [Hornby] was saying were so enjoyable – you
just wanted to cram as much of the book in as you could.
The strength of the book is the stream of
consciousness, the interior monologues. And in what the
boys wrote – even
though I think we probably changed everything in it – I
saw that you could get to these interior monologues. And
that was really, I think, the secret.
On the “High Fidelity” DVD’s
extras, John Cusack goes out of his way to sing your
Hm. Well, if you don’t get good actors, you’re
sunk. Actors deserve all the praise that’s going – not
necessarily the salaries that are going, but they deserve
all the praise that’s going. [laughs] They’re
tremendous people, and very courageous.
How do you define your responsibilities in working with
You make room for them to blossom, if that’s the
right word. You give them space in which to invent and
express themselves. And I suppose you conduct an intelligent
conversation with them about what they’re doing.
Obviously, Cusack wanted
to work with you again because of your collaboration
on “The Grifters” – which
was sort of the transition for him into a mature actor.
Yes – I often get people in transition, I’ve
noticed. [laughs] Julia Roberts, to her credit, was trying
to do something different when she made “Mary Reilly.” She
wanted to try a different path. Good for her. All you can
do is admire people’s adventurousness.
She went off and did some “serious” films – some
of them not as successful as others – but when she
came back to doing “Julia Roberts films,” the
romantic comedies that made her famous, it seemed like
her acting was informed with a new intelligence. I’m
thinking specifically of “My Best Friend’s
Wedding,” which has a real dark edge to it.
Well, the intelligence was clearly always there. She’s
a very bright woman – and a terrific actress.
Well, let’s talk about your next film, “Monkeyface.” It’s
a $50 million racetrack-heist movie, correct?
“Heist-ish” or “$50 million-ish”?
What do you mean by that, exactly?
You won’t get an answer out of me. I don’t
approve of telling stories. But it’s a good story.
Let me try. We know it’s
a racetrack-heist film starring Michael Douglas and Catherine
it lean more towards suspense or comedy?
I’m not going to answer. Only because I sort of never
quite know these things until I’ve made the film.
Understood. Are there any other key details of the plot
we should know about?
No. He’s a man and she’s a woman.
Is there any particular character or situation in the
script that convinced you that you had to make it?
No. You read something and you think it’s great.
It’s quite simple.
Do you have any hesitations about directing a married
couple in a film?
[long pause] I don’t know. I mean, I’ve only
been asked to do this one film by this one married couple,
so I don’t sort of have a worldview on the subject.
[laughs] I’ll tell you when I’ve done it.
Judging from your past
work, I could see you being a fan of both Kubrick’s “The Killing” and,
say, “Dog Day Afternoon.”
Why “Dog Day Afternoon”? Oh, because of the
Are you a fan of heist movies generally?
Well, “The Killing” was a fantastic film.
Do you have any other favorites?
What was that one – Burt Lancaster’s first
film? It’s “The Killers.” No, it’s
not “The Killers.” It is “The Killers,” yes.
It was the first film that Burt Lancaster did, directed
by Robert Siodmak. Absolutely wonderful.
Even before Lancaster’s
Yes. And then he went on to do the pirate films. That’s
very impressive that you know about the pirate films. When
I was a child, I fell in love with “The Crimson Pirate.”
I have that on video. Absolutely adore it.
“Stop him, you fools! It’s the Crimson Pirate!”
It seems that your films have a certain
stylistic consistency to them – even between big and small budgets. Do
you find there’s something in a story that attracts
Well, of course, only in retrospect. I’m not very
conscious – I mean, I tend to do things so on instinct.
Someone once told me I made two films
in which women kill the men they love – “Dangerous Liaisons” and “The
Grifters.” I hadn’t actually noticed this coincidence.
So I don’t sort of dwell on it all. But I can see
that “Dirty Pretty Things” and “Beautiful
Laundrette” are both about immigrants. But I don’t
think that’s really – I mean, who knows why
you choose the films you make?