Multiple Oscar nominee Stephen Frears is a tough nut to crack. Amiable but terse, his excellent multilayered films do the talking for him, from his first collaboration with Christopher Hampton and Michelle Pfeiffer on 1998's Dangerous Liaisons to 2007's The Queen. In his latest film, Cheri (read Cinematical's review here), Frears turns his lens onto the cloistered and often duplicitous world of wealthy courtesans. Frears' films often focus on subversive outsiders who must make their own "family," as it were, such as Dirty Pretty Things, The Grifters, and My Beautiful Laundrette. But Cheri's delicious spin on sex, love, and aging is typical of its source material from author Colette, whose books Cheri and The Last of Cheri present a world of upside-down relationships and self-sufficient, frankly sexual women.
Michelle Pfeiffer leads the cast as the stunning Lea de Lonval, a famous courtesan whose friend Madame Peloux, played with busty abandon by Kathy Bates, encourages Lea to have an affair with Peloux's louche son Cheri, the pale and effeminate Rupert Friend. Neglected as a child while his mother was dealing with her affairs, Cheri is hardly likeable or loveable, but somehow their affair becomes less about sex and more about the love both he and Lea have lacked in their lives. Peloux throws a wrench into the whole thing when she plans a wedding for Cheri to another courtesan's child, Edmee, played by newcomer Felicity Jones. What happens after that surprises them all.
Cheri opens June 26th in limited cities. Visit the official website for more information.
Cinematical: What's the difference between releasing a movie like Cheri during Oscar season as opposed to the summer blockbuster season? Is it more or less stressful?
Stephen Frears: The problem with competing for the Oscars is it's very tough, so in a way it's quite a relief being [released] at another time of the year. You're all right if you've got the one that gets everybody's attention, but fighting for attention is quite difficult. I've released films in that season that have been just overlooked.
Cinematical: I read that Christopher Hampton thought at first that you might not be interested in the script.
Frears: I was. It was a brilliant strategy. I just thought the script was very funny and very sad, and a good story. And I like those sort of films where people don't reveal their feelings.
Cinematical: How did you go about choosing the cast? Did you know immediately that you wanted Michelle Pfeiffer?
Frears: No, but as soon as her name came up, you could see what a good idea it was.
Cinematical: Is it hard to approach an actress and say, "You're of a certain age, and we're casting this person to be of a certain age....?"
Frears: No, I know her better than that. I just rang her up and said, "Look, this is a good script." I wasn't embarrassed... In the end, actors want a good part.
Cinematical: There are a lot of maternal overtones as well as sexual in the relationship between Lea and Cheri. Do you think that's because the setting itself or is inherent to most relationships with great age differences?
Frears: Well, it wouldn't surprise me if it appeared in all relationships like that, somewhere, but of course he's not really had a mother before. He'd been neglected as a child, so it was not surprising that Michelle appeared to fill the gap.
Cinematical: Critics often mention that your films feature very strong women, like The Queen. Do you ever get tired of people asking you about that?
Frears: Well, I've never met a weak woman, so I'm not surprised. I mean, even I have noticed there are a lot of strong women in my films and that the actresses I work with tend to be bruisers.
Cinematical: Was there a lot of collaboration on set between you and Christopher Hampton as well?
Frears: Yes, I like the writer to be on set. All you're doing is making a film. You're not engaged in some sort of struggle with them. Anyway, I come from a writer's theater, and I've always grown up around writers, and thought they were generally smart.
Cinematical: Do people mostly approach you with scripts?
Frears: If I try to initiate anything, it's always a disaster. I'm at my most active by being most passive.
Cinematical: You've never approached a writer and said, "This is the idea I have. Put it on paper!"
Frears: Well, I sometimes I suggest things, but they treat the ideas with such contempt that I realize the ideas are dreadful.
Cinematical: What do you think is the difference between directing and writing? Directing is a type of visual language.
Frears: They can do it with blank bits of paper. I need all this equipment, and I need a lot of things to make it all come to life. But I guess that's the bit I can do.
Cinematical: What do you think about the fetishization of cougars in today's society, as opposed to in Colette's time?
Frears: I don't know a lot about that. I hear about this expression, but it hasn't reached England yet.
Cinematical: The soundtrack was really moving. Can you talk about your collaboration with that?
Frears: I knew that the soundtrack was where you express the interior feelings. It's a story about people that don't show their feelings, so on the surface it had to be all frivolous and frothy and underneath it, of course, there was a love story working itself up. And I knew that that would mainly come from the soundtrack.
Cinematical: It seems like it would be especially difficult to draw out a character like Cheri, who's very blank and he's not particularly likeable.
Frears: Yes, and then he turns out to be full of feelings.
Cinematical: How did you manage to draw him out?
Frears: Well, the truth is that's how Colette wrote. She described a boy like that... You would say of Prince Charles or the Queen that they are the most privileged people in the country , and in some ways the least privileged. The things that you and I take for granted, like maternal love and warmth and all those things, these rich people have gone without. But of course you and I know that they're absolutely vital to people, and that people who don't have them, miss them.
Cinematical: And much like the King and Queen, the only people that the courtesans can associate with are other courtesans.
Frears: That's right. It's a terrible life. Whereas we can have happy relationships with our wives, our children, you know, just lead ordinary family lives. Tragic figures... So will Paris Hilton find happiness?
Cinematical: Probably not. I mean, I don't wish it on her.
Frears: Well, you wouldn't wish it on anybody, wouldn't you? But it's probably harder for her to find it than most people.
Cinematical: Do you see that in Hollywood as well?
Frears: Yes, of course.... Mind you, if they were also happy, life would be really unfair, wouldn't it? [laughs]
For more on Cheri, see Moviefone's interview with star Michelle Pfeiffer