It’s proving to be a couple of busy months for legendary director Stephen Frears, fresh off his delightful true-life story Philomena making an Oscar run in 2013. Not only does he have his Lance Armstrong biopic The Program opening US theaters this Friday (March 18th), but his newest Florence Foster Jenkins also hits UK screens May 6th. It appears the filmmaker has embraced telling the tales of real people whether of empathetic note or infamy.
This hectic schedule made cementing an interview very difficult, regardless, we were still able to procure a few soundbites from the extremely laconic Frears about Armstrong, the wonderful cast and crew who worked on the film, and the state of sports at large. Check out the full conversation below.
The Film Stage: Lance Armstrong was very much a bona fide hero here stateside. Did he have that same heroic status in England or was he relegated to being more of an adversary?
Stephen Frears: Well I only really tuned into it after he was stripped of his titles. So I missed the heroic period. So I didn’t really go through all of that. I mean I sort of remember his name on the back pages. But I really tuned in after he’d been stripped of his titles.
What is your opinion on sports as entertainment versus business? Should we be angry at what Lance did? Was our joy any less authentic?
The sport I know best is English soccer. And now soccer is sort of played by young millionaire mercenaries. You see a quality of game that it never occurred to me that I would see in my lifetime. But at the same time it’s not what it was when I grew up. So I guess you win and you lose because the level of skill is now phenomenal.
You’ve been developing The Program since day one. What made the story appealing to you?
I think it’s just a fantastically modern crime story. It’s a terrific story.
You have John Hodge adapting for the screen. He’s been working alongside Danny Boyle for years now. What about his work put him in the conversation?
Well he’s a very clever man and he’s a scientist so he understood all the scientific stuff.
And how involved was David Walsh on the production? [The journalist who wrote Seven Deadly Sins: My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong on which The Program is based.]
He was involved whenever we asked him to be involved. He didn’t sort of try to intervene or anything like that. When you asked him a question, he’d give you an answer.
Lance is depicted very much as believing he was a savior to the sport. Do you see that as delusion on his part or perhaps a hard truth?
Do you know more than I know?
Do I know more than you know?
Is that right that he thinks he saved the sport?
I got that impression from your film, yes.
I hadn’t heard that before. I can see that his arrival coincided with a lot of people’s desire to sort of elevate the whole thing. For example, the guy from San Francisco [Thomas Weisel] who wants to build an American team to take on the world. So in that sense he was both lucky and unlucky.
Did Armstrong finally admitting to everything make it easier to shine him in such an unsympathetic light?
Well it did in a sort of way. There was an interview he did with the BBC—which he did in his cycle shop in Austin—where he sort of admits to it all. I think with Oprah he was quite ambivalent—the Oprah interview. In a sense it’s—I think what the film shows is what happened. We told the story right. I guess that was sort of a relief that [we] weren’t going to be challenged on matter of fact. I think that became easier. Once I’d seen him sort of admit it that made it easier to digest.
He’s still always denied what happened in the hospital with what’s-her-name [Betsy Andreu]. He’s always denied that. Perhaps he has admitted that now.
There’s no defending it now.
How was it working with Ben Foster who really transformed himself in this role?
Ben is fantastic. I don’t know what I thought, but there’s no way you can find out before that he’s going to play it like that. He was terrific: Ben. You’re lucky.
And Chris O’Dowd—how did he come aboard?
I met Chris O’Dowd and I think he’s great. We asked him. All Irish people love cycling so he knew a lot about it. He’s a clever man.
Working with Chris, Steve Coogan on Philomena, and now Simon Helberg on Florence Foster Jenkins—you have three very funny comedians taking on more nuanced roles. Do you like giving guys like them that opportunity?
I don’t know how to answer your question. All three are very, very good. So I don’t know how to answer the question.
Do you then maybe think Hollywood is guilty of typecasting them?
Oh, I don’t think about things like that.
Jesse Plemons had a huge 2015 working with you, opposite Johnny Depp in Black Mass, and with Steven Speilberg on Bridge of Spies. What are your thoughts on him?
He’s a fantastic actor. The idea that people like that exist makes your job worthwhile. He’s a wonderful fellow and a wonderful actor.
Yes. It’s great to see him finally getting the spotlight.
Yes. Absolutely. Absolutely.
I saw the trailer for Florence Foster Jenkins and it looks great. Any news about when Paramount plans to release it stateside?
Any news about what?
An American release.
May. It’s coming out in May.
In America as well? I thought that was just for the UK.
Don’t ask me exactly when, but I think they told me it was going to open in May.
Oh, very cool. We’re excited for that one. How about what you’re shooting now? Can you tell us any details?
Yes. I’m not shooting anything now.
Oh, they told us you were on location.
No, no, no. I’m, not shooting anything now. [jokingly] Or if I am they haven’t told me.
What is next for you then?
Well I don’t quite know, but it wouldn’t surprise me if I made another film this year.
Well thanks for taking the time to talk with us and good luck on the release of both films.
Yes. Thanks. Fingers crossed.
The Program hits theaters in limited release on Friday, March 18th.