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Stephen Frears Gets Drawn Into “Tamara Drewe”

Stephen Frears Gets Drawn Into “Tamara Drewe” (photo)

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“So dinosaurs rule,” demurs Stephen Frears as he cracks a rare smile getting up from his chair. It’s perhaps as close as he’ll get to accepting a compliment on “Tamara Drewe,” a brilliantly devised reworking of Posy Simmonds’ graphic novel about a seductive young woman’s upheaval of the small English town of Dorset that itself is an update of Thomas Hardy’s “Far From the Madding Crowd.” As vibrant as the bright blue Mini Cooper Gemma Arterton’s Drewe rides into town in, and as cheeky as the Lily Allen album she puts on blast, the comedy appears to be the work of a director a third of Frears’ 69 years, though it has an easy wit and canny eye for observation that only comes with age.

Being one of the few resounding successes of this year’s Cannes Film Festival, “Tamara Drewe” has worked her charms on Telluride and Toronto, a disposition that seems to agree with its director, who spoke about adapting his first graphic novel, the widening gap between art and entertainment in movies and the future of British films in the face of the recent decision to shut down the UK Film Council.

You’ve done other adaptations, but with this one, does having a visual reference in addition to a textual one change the way you approach the film?

Yes, I’m sure it did. I thought the comic book was so wonderful and I think the artist is such a brilliant woman, so I found it very liberating, but I really liked recreating frames she had done. When they made silent films, they would find a relational painting and say let’s light it like that and I would frames of the book and say, oh look, let’s do that because it’s so economical. It’s so beautiful. So I didn’t find it at all restrictive.

09022010_GemmaArtertonTamaraDrewe.jpgWe once talked about “Dirty Pretty Things,” where you said the scene where Chiwetel Ejiofor discovers a heart in a hotel toilet was the point where you knew you wanted to do the film. Did that have a similar pull for you in this one? I’d think the scene where Dominic Cooper’s drummer Ben Sergeant’s seduces Tamara in with his banging of pots and pans in her kitchen might’ve been one.

No, not as much as [Tamara Drewe] getting over the stile in hot pants. [laughs]

You’ve known Posy Simmonds for nearly 40 years. Why did it take this long to become collaborators?

Because I’m not very imaginative. In the end, somebody else had the idea, somebody got a script written and then they send it to me and when I read the script, I knew Posy, I just don’t have a mind…I’m not a producer, I guess.

You live in Dorset and I could imagine the opening conversation of this film, which takes place during a writers’ retreat, being one that could be similar to ones you’ve had with friends. Did this touch on a few personal notes for you?

My friends are writers, but they’re very good writers, so they’re not struggling in this way. I mean, I know what writers are like and writers say what’s good about this film, it’s very, very good on writers. It’s done from the inside, as it were.

I’ve heard you say the same thing, but I’ve been telling people this is the type of film that doesn’t seem to exist anymore – the clever middle-class comedy.

Well, of course, I like that about it.

Beyond economics, do you think there’s a reason for that?

I can see the way the world works. I can see the studios are no longer capable of making films like these for economic reasons. Grown-up films are harder to make. There are fewer of them. I don’t know. It seemed to me pretty obvious this should be made. It was so funny and so inventive and so fresh. But whether it’ll find an audience, you never know that.

09072010_TamaraDrewe.jpgComics have become legitimized, but do you take some satisfaction in taking something considered mildly déclassé by some and turning it into something that’s appreciated by a highbrow crowd?

I was conscious that I was making a film from a graphic novel, which is very fashionable, but that it was the most unlikely graphic novel in the world and it wasn’t about a superhero. It was always very funny and very intelligent.

At Cannes, you discussed the growing separation between art and entertainment in film…

Well, that’s just a particular beef of mine. When I grew up, there was no such thing as an arthouse cinema. The popular films that were made were made by highly intelligent men and so there wasn’t this separation. I suppose that somebody like me, I don’t like the separation. I want films to be intelligent and popular.

When did you start to notice that separation occur?

Well, it started in the late ’50s.

Really before you even started…

It was before I started making films, but it started in very specific ways. The cinema started going in two different directions and that always seemed to be a pity. And the films I always most liked were popular and intelligent. You know, a film like “Apocalypse Now” or “Taxi Driver,” they’re not arthouse films. So in my stupid way, I’ve gone on trying to square the circle. You know, a film like “Singin’ in the Rain” is made by clever people. It seems to me to be very, very good art, “Singin’ in the Rain,” but it’s made in a completely mainstream context.

The old adage is you shouldn’t work with children and animals: did you enjoy the challenge on “Tamara Drewe”?

Well, I made a Western, so I’m good at cattle. I’m a master of cattle. And the young teenagers I had in the film were brilliant. Absolutely brilliant.

What’s more difficult: directing cattle or filming real crowds enjoying Sergeant’s fictional band Swipe at the End of the Road Festival in Dorset?

09082010_tamaradrewe88.jpgThe rock concert you have to stage, you have to grab. You have to be very, very fast. The cattle stampeding, you had to be very patient. You can’t do it like “Red River.”

The film starts on a bittersweet note since it bears the logo of the UK Film Council, which was recently shuttered. While filming, were you aware how dire a situation it was?

I knew there was a credit crunch. I knew the country was in a mess. Yes, of course, and in a way, there’s a small amount of public money for films and I’ve been given this much, a bit of it and you don’t want to waste it. You don’t want people to think, oh, that was a waste of money.

How do you think this is going to shape the future?

It’s very, very difficult because the thing that’s really at issue doesn’t have to do with the Film Council, it’s to do with what public money they will give to films. The Film Council was very much identified with New Labour, so I’m not surprised they scrapped it. It also had faults, so I’m not surprised they scrapped it. It did certain things extremely well. It’s really what they put in its place that’s important.

As a filmmaker who came up under the BBC and having a son who is starting a career as a filmmaker, you would seem to have a unique perspective. Do you break into the business the way it is today?

No. In the end, it’s really a competition about capitalism and it’s very, very interesting. There are at least two kinds of capitalism and in a way, the studio system was much more stable. And of course, at the time, its overthrow seemed a good thing. Now, you also miss its stability and this sort of tooth and claw competitiveness is very destructive.

On a slightly more frivolous note, do you have a favorite experience from a film festival?

I drove through the most beautiful country in the world [for Telluride] last weekend, so that’s very nice. Toronto, I’ve twice won the audience award and Cannes is heaven. Listen, I’ve had a charmed life.

“Tamara Drewe” opens in New York and Los Angeles on October 8th before expanding into limited release.

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…

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IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.

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IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).

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IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.

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IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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Reality? Check.

Baroness For Life

Baroness von Sketch Show is available for immediate consumption.

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Baroness von Sketch Show is snowballing as people have taken note of its subtle and not-so-subtle skewering of everyday life. The New York Times, W Magazine, and Vogue have heaped on the praise, but IFC had a few more probing questions…

IFC: To varying degrees, your sketches are simply scripted examples of things that actually happen. What makes real life so messed up?

Aurora: Hubris, Ego and Selfish Desires and lack of empathy.

Carolyn: That we’re trapped together in the 3rd Dimension.

Jenn: 1. Other people 2. Other people’s problems 3. Probably something I did.

IFC: A lot of people I know have watched this show and realized, “Dear god, that’s me.” or “Dear god, that’s true.” Why do people have their blinders on?

Aurora: Because most people when you’re in the middle of a situation, you don’t have the perspective to step back and see yourself because you’re caught up in the moment. That’s the job of comedians is to step back and have a self-awareness about these things, not only saying “You’re doing this,” but also, “You’re not the only one doing this.” It’s a delicate balance of making people feel uncomfortable and comforting them at the same time.

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IFC: Unlike a lot of popular sketch comedy, your sketches often focus more on group dynamics vs iconic individual characters. Why do you think that is and why is it important?

Meredith: We consider the show to be more based around human dynamics, not so much characters. If anything we’re more attracted to the energy created by people interacting.

Jenn: So much of life is spent trying to work it out with other people, whether it’s at work, at home, trying to commute to work, or even on Facebook it’s pretty hard to escape the group.

IFC: Are there any comedians out there that you feel are just nailing it?

Aurora: I love Key and Peele. I know that their show is done and I’m in denial about it, but they are amazing because there were many times that I would imagine that Keegan Michael Key was in the scene while writing. If I could picture him saying it, I knew it would work. I also kind of have a crush on Jordan Peele and his performance in Big Mouth. Maya Rudolph also just makes everything amazing. Her puberty demon on Big Mouth is flawless. She did an ad for 7th generation tampons that my son, my husband and myself were singing around the house for weeks. If I could even get anything close to her career, I would be happy. I’m also back in love with Rick and Morty. I don’t know if I have a crush on Justin Roiland, I just really love Rick (maybe even more than Morty). I don’t have a crush on Jerry, the dad, but I have a crush on Chris Parnell because he’s so good at being Jerry.

Jenn: I LOVE ISSA RAE!

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IFC: If you could go back in time and cast yourselves in any sitcom, which would it be and how would it change?

Carolyn: I’d go back in time and cast us in The Partridge Family.  We’d make an excellent family band. We’d have a laugh, break into song and wear ruffled blouses with velvet jackets.  And of course travel to all our gigs on a Mondrian bus. I feel really confident about this choice.

Meredith: Electric Mayhem from The Muppet Show. It wouldn’t change, they were simply perfect, except… maybe a few more vaginas in the band.

Binge the entire first and second seasons of Baroness von Sketch Show now on IFC.com and the IFC app.

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G.I. Jeez

Stomach Bugs and Prom Dates

E.Coli High is in your gut and on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Brothers-in-law Kevin Barker and Ben Miller have just made the mother of all Comedy Crib series, in the sense that their Comedy Crib series is a big deal and features a hot mom. Animated, funny, and full of horrible bacteria, the series juxtaposes timeless teen dilemmas and gut-busting GI infections to create a bite-sized narrative that’s both sketchy and captivating. The two sat down, possibly in the same house, to answer some questions for us about the series. Let’s dig in….

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IFC: How would you describe E.Coli High to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

BEN: Hi ummm uhh hi ok well its like umm (gets really nervous and blows it)…

KB: It’s like the Super Bowl meets the Oscars.

IFC: How would you describe E.Coli High to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

BEN: Oh wow, she’s really cute isn’t she? I’d definitely blow that too.

KB: It’s a cartoon that is happening inside your stomach RIGHT NOW, that’s why you feel like you need to throw up.

IFC: What was the genesis of E.Coli High?

KB: I had the idea for years, and when Ben (my brother-in-law, who is a special needs teacher in Philly) began drawing hilarious comics, I recruited him to design characters, animate the series, and do some writing. I’m glad I did, because Ben rules!

BEN: Kevin told me about it in a park and I was like yeah that’s a pretty good idea, but I was just being nice. I thought it was dumb at the time.

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IFC: What makes going to proms and dating moms such timeless and oddly-relatable subject matter?

BEN: Since the dawn of time everyone has had at least one friend with a hot mom. It is physically impossible to not at least make a comment about that hot mom.

KB: Who among us hasn’t dated their friend’s mom and levitated tables at a prom?

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

BEN: There’s a lot of content now. I don’t think anyone will even notice, but it’d be cool if they did.

KB: A show about talking food poisoning bacteria is basically the same as just watching the news these days TBH.

Watch E.Coli High below and discover more NYTVF selections from years past on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

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