Down a long corridor at Goldcrest, the London post-production house, doors stretch before you, a dozen films being tweaked and trimmed. Occasionally, figures can be glimpsed at editing desks, peering at monitors. Eventually, Stephen Frears steps outside. In a nearby meeting room, he offers tea. His grey-white hair is on end, his bearing slightly rumpled. “I’m working,” he says. “I presume they do that at the Financial Times?”
This is said, as most things Frears says are, with a wry raise of the eyebrow, like a playful punch in the arm. The veteran director is now 74. He is at Goldcrest to edit his next movie, a biopic of the famously terrible opera singer Florence Foster Jenkins; he’s breaking off to discuss the one he made before it, The Program, a portrait of professional cycling’s supervillain Lance Armstrong. Played with eerie precision by Ben Foster, the film follows its subject through eight drug-fuelled Tour de France victories and on to his final, humiliating exposure.
Put like that, it sounds simple: more so than the reality of constructing a film about a man whose own version of events changed so much and who, before the fall, was deeply litigious. “But I’m told by people who knew him we got it right. Not very scientific, but it’s the best I can do.”
What is missing is speculation about the psyche that caused the scandal. Frears prefers a tone of brisk newsiness. “I wouldn’t have liked to set Freud on him. We just say, ‘This is what happened.’ The truth is, for an intelligent man, he’s monumentally stupid.” He winces at the thought of Armstrong’s inner life now. “Unspeakable, I would think. I’ve heard that when you see him, his eyes drop.” You might almost think Frears felt sorry for him.
“The thing is, cyclists are crazy.” I tell him people say directors are crazy too. “Different sort of crazy.” Really? But Armstrong seemed to crave what directors want too, which is control. “Ha! Luckily, I know the truth.” Which is? “Directors control certain . . . bits. And very little else.”
When we meet, Foster has just caused a stir by admitting that in preparing for The Program he also took performance-enhancing drugs. Frears beams and shrugs. “There’s a great line in Casablanca: ‘I’m shocked — shocked, do you hear me?’” He had, he says, no idea. “I’m really not interested in how actors deliver a performance. I just expect them to turn up and be brilliant. How they get there . . . nothing to do with me, guv’nor.”
On screen, as in life, Armstrong’s nemesis is David Walsh, the Irish sports reporter whose suspicions were confirmed only after first losing a £1m libel action; Frears’ film was adapted from Walsh’s book Seven Deadly Sins. In the past, the director has admitted to disliking interviews. “I find it less interesting than the rest of the process.” Because of their psychological rummaging? “Yes.” His eyebrow does a particularly spirited dance. “Also, journalists are scum.” Odd, then, to make a film with one as a hero. “I know. I must be out of my mind.”
Frears’ work rate is impressive. Florence Foster Jenkins will be the eighth film he’s made since he qualified for a pension in 2006. He puts it down to the example of his father, a Leicester doctor who worked 50 weeks a year. He likes, he says, to make the kind of smart mainstream films he grew up with but now seem endangered by the blockbuster. “Philomena was one,” he says, referring to the 2013 movie he made, based on real life, about an elderly Irishwoman’s attempt to find the son taken by nuns when she was a single mother and adopted in the US.
Typically for Frears, the plaudits mostly went to others — in this case the film’s screenwriters Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope, who won a Bafta for Best Adapted Screenplay. It’s a hallmark of Frears’ career: work with him and win a gong. He remembers making The Queen, the 2006 snapshot of the monarch, played by Helen Mirren.
“There’s a moment when Tony Blair says, ‘You were very young when you became Queen,’ and Helen says, ‘Just a girl’. I said to her, ‘OK, after that, let your eyes drift across the camera.’ And as she did, I thought, ‘Yes, now you’ll get the Oscar’.”
Mirren did. “It’s hardly selfless. The film grossed a lot because of Helen’s performance, so we all did well.”
Rather discreetly, Frears long ago became one of Britain’s most successful directors. There have been spells in Hollywood — the relationship began with 1988’s Dangerous Liaisons — but he has always returned, living in Notting Hill with his wife, the artist Anne Rothenstein. He says he misses the place too much not to.
London, or England? “England. I’m a provincial.” But how long have you lived in London? “Fifty years.” I can’t help squinting. And he still doesn’t see himself as a Londoner? “No, I see myself as a provincial. Are you looking at me like that because you don’t believe me, or you can’t believe how stupid I am?”
Frears got his start making TV films for the BBC, working among a skilled roster of writers and actors. “We made films about a fascinating subject, modern Britain.” He would, he says, go back to the corporation “like a shot”.
“Naturally,” he says, “I think the BBC is a great British institution, and I don’t trust the Conservatives as far as I could throw them. I also see that entire departments of managers doing jobs one person used to do doesn’t make the place easy to defend.”
What’s his solution? “A communist government, I should imagine.”
Joking (I think) aside, his politics are of the world-weary left. He likes the “modesty and eccentricity” of Jeremy Corbyn, “exactly the qualities the press can’t bear”. Tony Blair he still finds “deeply objectionable”. The former prime minister was also central to The Deal, Frears’ account of the original backstage Labour leadership carve-up with Gordon Brown. Since then, the director has made a speciality of real life: soon there was The Queen, after that Philomena, and now The Program. Has fiction become less interesting to him? “Something has definitely happened. It may be age. It’s the same with books. I don’t read fiction any more. It’s fact that interests me.”
But if Frears has been defined by one thing, it’s his refusal to be defined by one thing. His career has seen him work in countless genres: westerns, detective stories, comedies. As a young film-maker in the 1960s, he was amused by the rise of the auteur theory, the idea of directors as visionaries. “I never believed all that rubbish. I haven’t had a vision in my life.”
And yet by being so diverse, he never made himself a brand name. “I know. I’ve confused people.” Doesn’t it take longer that way for people to realise you actually know what you’re doing?
“Well, yes. That’s what I should have on my gravestone, isn’t it? ‘He actually knew what he was doing’.”
‘The Program’ is released in the UK on October 16
Main photograph: Anna Huix