“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.
We 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.
Comics 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?
The 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.