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  M.   September 28, 2010

It took Stephen Frears more than four decades of directing for TV, stage and screen before he finally got an opportunity quite like Tamara Drewe, his adaptation of author/illustrator Posy Simmonds’s celebrated graphic novel about love, lust, lies and gossip in the English countryside. It’s hardly new thematic terrain for Frears, whose deft touch with sordid secrets and those who keep them has served him exceedingly well from Dangerous Liaisons to The Grifters to Dirty Pretty Things and last year’s underrated Chéri. But those sources didn’t have beloved illustrated sources providing guidelines and clues — not to mention challenges.

Itself loosely based on Thomas Hardy’s classic Far From the Madding Crowd, Tamara Drewe stars Gemma Arterton as the title character — a brassy, sexy yet achingly vulnerable young London sophisticate whose return to her hometown sets off an unlikely romantic chain reaction involving a pompous novelist (Roger Allam), a rock drummer (Dominic Cooper), a modest handyman (Luke Evans) and pair of teen girls who observe the proceedings like some cheeky, unholy hybrid of Tweedledee, Tweedledum and Greek chorus. Their bucolic social orbit will never be same.

And neither will Frears, apparently, who briskly spoke with Movieline this week about the risks and rewards of his ambitious adaptation experiment (which opens Oct. 8 in limited release).

So: Why Tamara Drewe?
I loved it.

That’s easy.
Yeah, I loved it. When it was put to me to make it into a film I thought it was a wonderful idea.

What specifically did you love about it?
It’s so fresh! It’s such an original way of telling that sort of story. I thought it was lovely.

Going waayyy back to Tamara Drewe’s inspiration, were you a fan of Far From the Madding Crowd?
Well, I’d read it. I mean, it’s like, “Are you a fan of Shakespeare?” It’s part of your life, really. But if you trace it back, Hardy writes the story, then Posy starts to muck around with it… It’s gotten quite a ways along by the time it got to me. I sort of ignored the Hardy. Look, stories of adultery are quite familiar, aren’t they? To get something fresh out of it is really brilliant. To tell it through jokes is brilliant.

The ensemble feel itself is so crisp and fluid; it feels like a soap opera in a way—
Should I be pleased or offended?

I mean it as a compliment. I love soap operas and melodramas! How did you approach that element of the storytelling?
When I was approached to do it, I said, “Look, I can’t do this with famous people.” Most films, you get famous people, and they bring the money and all that. I said, “I can’t do it like that; I can only do it if you let me get it right. Which means casting the right actors.” So first of all they agreed to that, which was good of them; I appreciated that. And then you just do it, really, wherever’s there’s tragedy, wherever there’s comedy. It wasn’t difficult. I have a good ear; you do it almost entirely with your ear. You can hear when it’s to insensitive or something. That’s what was so interesting. It’s a film of pitch, really.

It’s a film of pitch, but there are also allusions to the comic-book form: The split-screen, the color palette…
Yes, that was quite deliberate. I loved all that. I mean, Terry Gilliam would have done far more. In my timid way, that’s the best I could do!

What went into the visual adaptation of Posy’s work?
I suppose I did all those things because it was a graphic novel. You could tell things very quickly, very economically. I suppose I was learning from Posy. Now that I think about it, I can see that what Posy does is what I do: You can do this scene in long-shot, you can it far away, you can do it over the shoulder… She’s compressing all of that. So in a sense I was learning from her, and it just seemed appropriate. It seemed appropriate to honor the comic-book origins of the film, and also, that’s part of its charm. Honoring Posy was very much part of our film. She’s brilliant.

How involved was she in the adaptation itself?
Every now and then I’d have her over to give me notes. I’d wince in horror.

You’re kidding. Why?
[Shakes head] She’s like a razor. She’s got a very good mind. But it’s always good to have someone with a very, very good brain around the place.

I’ve heard that’s an advantage.
It helps! Both she and the screenwriter [Moira Buffini], who’s also a very, very clever woman. So I had two of the buggers.

I’ve always been fascinated with your approach to the subject and theme of scandal — people’s involvement with it, and how secrets affect them. Was that thread a consideration at all on Tamara Drewe?
[Long pause] I can see that I’m very drawn to bad behavior. I think I’d put it like that: A sort of general naughtiness. I remember thinking on [Dangerous] Liaisons, “The worse these people behave, the more fun it is.” So I was always drawn to that — trying to explain it, to understand it, to deal with it. I suppose that has to do with my character, which I don’t pretend is very, very good. I don’t recognize the word “scandal” — that’s not a word I would use. I think it’s more about things that are unstated in relationships that are going on the whole time. That’s interesting to me.

It doesn’t even have to be couples. I mean, take the cover-up in Hero, or the class tension in The Queen—
Right: People aren’t telling the truth — there’s a second part of the story going on. Life is more complicated than how we see it. In Tamara Drewe, they’re fallible people. They’re flawed people like we all are.

The comic-book trend in movies is kind of out of control. Did you have second thoughts about contributing to that wave?
It was amusing that I was making a graphic-novel adaptation and it wasn’t about a superhero. But since then, people tell you things, and I did find the form very, very interesting. It’s been a really interesting film to make, and I think about it continually. It was much less laborious, you know? Normally someone walks in the room, you say, “Hi, how are you?” There’s this naturalistic pattern. You can leave all that out.

And you’re still thinking about it?
I tend to stumble on things. I spend years working them out. I stumbled onto making films about Tony Blair, and I’m still trying to understand him. He’s so incomprehensible.

Do you think you have something left to say about Tony Blair?
No, I don’t have anything left to say about Tony Blair. It’s just that I stumble onto things and spend all this time trying to figure it out.

Do you think you got this form right? Would you revisit the graphic novel?
I don’t have an opinion, really. It depends on the idea. I guess if it were done by someone as clever as Posy, I’d love to. It’s inseparable from her cleverness: She has educated me in it. I remember Terry Zwigoff’s films, which I found interesting but slightly outside my experience. Really, it’s just a way to keep your mind fresh.

Many critics say there’s nothing fresh at all about the comics genre.
It was fresh to me!

The complaint is that we lean on comics because everyone’s out of ideas.
I don’t really see those films. Being very old, I don’t see the films you’re talking about.

The Dark Knight? This is what passes for masterful cinema! Trailblazing art!
Right. Well, one thing about being old is that I don’t have to see them.

Even if it’s critically acclaimed and commercially huge?
I did see the Terry Zwigoff film — the one with Steve Buscemi [Ghost World] that I thought was really interesting. I thought, “Oh, this is very new.” But I didn’t see The Dark Knight. I did see Avatar.

I think everyone saw Avatar.
I went with my daughter. She said, “It’s a boy’s film.”

Was it?
It might be! I don’t know anything.

When are you going to make a 3-D film?
I thought the first 10 minutes of Avatar were wonderful; I loved the 3-D there. Possibly never.

Tamara Drewe would have been great in 3-D.
Can’t you go back and… oh, you know.

Convert it?
That’s right.

It’s the big new thing!
2001, they’re doing.

What are you doing next?
I’ve got to get a job. I may make a film in Las Vegas. [Lay the Favorite, Take the Dog]. There’s a good story in Las Vegas, New York, Curacao. What a combo! It’s about sportsbook gamblers.

Drama? Comedy? Thriller?

Human drama. But all those things. Good fun.

They’re cutting me off. This has been a pleasure. Good luck with the film, I look forward to the reaction—
I do, too. I hope we can bring the pleasure back.

How do you mean?
Well, when I grew up, you went to the cinema. There was no art house. There was just the one. This was in the ’40s and ’50s. There was no art house; there was only the cinema. You saw films made by Hollywood or the European filmmakers — whatever. They were immensely entertaining and made by highly intelligent people. And then the world became divided. And my folly is to try to stick around! [Laughs]

I hesitate to use the word “resent,” but do you… well, resent that change?
No. Look, it just used to be so much fun. Going to the pictures used to be very, very enjoyable. A lot of the pleasure seems to have gone out of it. So my futile task is to try to restore the pleasure to it.