Interrogating Stephen Frears.

Examining culture and the arts.
Feb. 8 2007 2:44 PM

The Queen and I

Questions for Stephen Frears.

(Continued from Page 2)

Slate:How much are you trying to imitate the actual queen and Blair—how important was verisimilitude to you?

Frears: It's hard to describe. You just sort of get on with it, don't you, in a rather British way. Helen Mirren is a very good actress. When she came out looking like the queen, with her makeup on, and her wig, I was amazed. Michael Sheen looks nothing like Tony Blair, but after five minutes you think he is Blair. There are two things you are considering: historical accuracy or verisimilitude, but also that you are making a drama.

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Slate:The film has to imagine quite a lot about what happened behind the scenes. Was there much discussion between you and Peter Morgan about the fine line between documenting and imagining what happened?

Frears: He says that he writes it out of his imagination and then gives the script to people and asks them, is this believable? And they may say, it's a bit more like that. And there are times when we were filming, and I would say, I don't think the queen would say such and such a line. Or Blair.

Slate:Where did you get the details of the queen's daily life from—the clothing, for example? I loved seeing her walk around at night in her fluffy dressing gown.

Frears: It's not hard to get that stuff. Balmoral hasn't got central heating—so she walks around in a dressing gown holding a hot water bottle. It hasn't got central heating! Why not? Surely they can afford it. I think when the queen was a child, her nanny published a book, with a lot of information, details of the life of the young princess; that's what I mean about lifting the veil. Recently there was a big story about the queen and Tupperware—and how she's always putting leftover bits into Tupperware. All that means is that she was brought up in the war, when there was hardship, and has a deep sense of thrift. There was a tremendous amount of excitement about whether she and Prince Philip slept together. I can tell you the people who say yes, they do; and people who say, no, they don't. So we chose to show them as sometimes sleeping together, sometimes not. Since the film came out, many people have given me more details; I keep saying, why didn't you tell me earlier?

Slate: How closely did you and Peter Morgan work on the film? Did the two of you make adjustments to the script as you went along?

Frears: Oh yes, the whole time. And indeed rehearsal consisted in rewriting the scenes to shape the material. What you're constantly doing—if you're working with an actress as intelligent as Helen—is you're constantly editing the scenes, constantly refining what is written. That's the principal job—to refine each moment. I might say, This is a bit boring. Or I don't believe this line. And then there was the elimination of our prejudices. That came toward the end. You could see that a line was not helpful to the drama but released your prejudices.

Slate:For me, the moment when my sympathies started to shift toward the queen, a bit, was when she goes out for the drive by herself.

Frears: Yes. That's what someone said to me the other day—when she starts to drive, you realize, oh, it's all a lot more complex than it seems, isn't it.

Slate: One of my favorite small touches was when Cherie Blair suggests to Tony that he has a "mother thing" for the queen—psychologizing even his respect for her.

Frears: That was me being kind to the writer. For some reason, I found the idea of psychological explanations for these people's behavior presumptuous. Peter took that moment seriously, as a motivation for Blair's behavior. When I read the script I said to him, you can't take this seriously! Whatever else, I think it is impolite to ascribe psychological motivations to people. But it's a good joke.

Slate:Well, as a viewer, I felt the film had a certain impatience with psychological explanations.

Frears: You've had it from the horse's mouth.

Slate: What do you think the future of the monarchy in the 21st century is?

Frears: God knows. She's enormously popular, the queen. She has an 80 percent approval rating. There isn't a movement toward republicanism or anything. But that situation is confused by the love and respect people feel for an 80-year-old woman. There may be changes after she dies. Then again, they are clever people; they've survived for what, 300 years. And the people around her, her aides, are just as clever as the people around Blair.

Slate:I read earlier this week that Shilpa Shetty of Big Brother will meet with the queen and Blair. What do you make of that?

Frears: Oh, I saw that, too. Was she going to the commons or the palace? This is a matter of national importance in Britain. I don't know what to make of it. You have to ask someone cleverer than me. Clearly someone thought it was more important than the number of people who died in Iraq last week.

Meghan O'Rourke is Slate's culture critic and an advisory editor. She was previously an editor at The New Yorker. The Long Goodbye, a memoir about her mother's death, is now out in paperback.

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