Two-time Oscar-nominated director Stephen Frears said he did not believe in the concept of "the auteur" during a conversation at the Film Society of Lincoln Center last week. The filmmaker took part in a conversation with Steve Coogan, who both starred and co-wrote their Oscar Best Picture-nominated feature Philomena, in the Film Center Amphitheater as part of our ongoing Free Talks series.
During the one-hour chat, hosted by Film Society's Eugene Hernandez, Frears refuted auteur theory, which says that a filmmaker's style and control over all elements of a production give a film its unique personality. Frears used his 1985 film My Beautiful Laundrette as an example of the inherently collaborative trait in filmmaking. Laundrette centers on an Asian Briton and his white lover who strive for success when they open a laundromat.
"When I made My Beautiful Launderette, I knew nothing about Pakistan…," said Frears. "It was written by Hanif Kureishi whose father was Pakistani and his mother was English. It was the first time I had come across a Pakistani in England. Suddenly, this man walked in and brought me a complete world that I thought was interesting."
Stephen Frears and Steve Coogan talks Philomena with Eugene Hernandez. Photo by Richard Jopson
Continuing, he said that collaboration had allowed him to take on stories he had never thought possible: "If somebody comes to me and says, 'Do you want to make something about this world?' then I go off to a new adventure. It's a sense of curiosity and it's made life much more interesting. Curiosity is much more interesting than anything that is associated with what they now call 'auteurism.'"
Frears heaped praise on Coogan and co-writer Jeff Pope, who adapted the book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee by Martin Sixsmith into the screenplay for Philomena. Coogan said that he had read a story in the paper several years back about Philomena Lee, a woman who searched for the son taken away from her decades ago after she became pregnant and was forced to live in a convent.
"I did no work," said Frears perhaps somewhat jokingly. "You have two very good actors. If it's written well, they'll go for it." Coogan asked Frears to guide him as he starred opposite Dame Judi Dench as Philomena: "I asked him to keep an eye on me so I wouldn't become too over-animated opposite this subtle nuanced actress called Dame Judi Dench." Dench is nominated for Best Lead Actress for her role in the film.
Steve Coogan answers a question about the film. Photo by Richard Jopson
Coogan and Mr. Pope took the book version, which mostly emphasizes the story about the boy who later emigrated to America, and decided to make its author a main character. "The script was made after speaking with Philomena and Martin and that informed most of the script," said Coogan, who added that the story's comic elements were essential. "Only parts of it were from the book, most of it is based on conversation we had."
Coogan, who called himself a "lapsed Catholic," said that the film is in part "an open letter" to his parents, but also hinted that it was a reconciliation of sorts with the faith he grew up with. "I couldn't have a conversation with my parents, so I would just make a film instead," he said. "I have a complicated relationship with it, and I'm not a Catholic. There's something about that stoic simple faith that I respect. I wanted to get off my chest and recognize there's something I don't understand, but Philomena dignifies that with forgiveness."
Stephen Frears gets a laugh from the audience. Photo by Richard Jopson
Both Philomena Lee and Mr. Coogan traveled to the Vatican to show the film, which he admitted was critical of the Church. Photos splashed in the press of the pair speaking with Pope Francis I, who learned of Ms. Lee's story of being forced to give up her son because he was born out of wedlock.
"The conversation was about putting pressure on the Irish government," said Coogan. "In some ways, there's embarrassment and they just want all that to go away. The Pope was very nice." Coogan said that one of Francis' advisors said that the tone of the film was "consistent with the Pope's message," which focuses more on forgiveness and is less concentrated on dogmatic purity.
"Philomena was the first time I did something without advice from agents, etc., but because I wanted to. Hopefully there's some vindication in that," said Coogan.
Next up in our Free Talks series, Matthew McConaughey will discuss his Oscar-nominated role in Dallas Buyers Club on Friday, February 21.