Philomena: Stephen Frears on Philomena Lee and Lance Armstrong

Philomena Stephen Frears

The acclaimed, Oscar-nominated film Philomena is out on DVD, Blu-ray and VOD Tuesday. To look back on last year’s hit, we were able to speak with director Stephen Frears by phone out of London, where he is editing his next film, a Lance Armstrong biopic.

Philomena is also based on a true story. Philomena Lee (Judi Dench) searches for the son she was forced by nuns to give up as a single mother. With the help of journalist Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), Lee discovers the truth and experiences America on the road. Frears answered any question I had about the real Philomena Lee, the ratings battle or his previous work, though he wasn’t the type for elaborate analysis. I respect that Frears was a man of few words who gets right to the point. I’d like to think he was speaking to me by phone on a headset, so that when I got off the phone he physically dropped the headset mic on the floor. 

CraveOnline: The message of Philomena that really spoke to me was that while Martin Sixsmith may be righteously indignant, anger is just too exhausting. Did that resonate with you?

Stephen Frears: Yes, I know too much about it, yes. But it’s an interesting argument between the two of them. So I found the argument between the two very, very interesting. It was enjoyable to shoot.

As the film came out around the world, have you found that the message resonated with audiences too?

I think so. I just assume that’s one of the pleasures they’re getting from it.

I imagine Philomena Lee was more hands-on with her movie than the Queen of England was on The Queen, yes?

[Laughs] No one’s ever said that before but I don’t think so. In the end, I showed it to her with a great deal of nervousness. Once she sort of calmed down, she was lovely. You try to show respect for people.

Sure, but did you have access to Philomena throughout the shoot?

She turned up occasionally.

Was that different to have the subject available while you were making the movie?

You mean whereas the Queen wasn’t available? No, not particularly. You try to do your job as well as possible.

Was Martin Sixsmith available?

Yes, I think he came on the set. I can’t quite remember to be honest but he was very nice, supportive.

Was it really just like making any drama, whether it was based on a true story or not?

Well, I’ve made quite a lot of films based on true stories in the last few years. Yes, in many ways you try not to distinguish them, but of course in your mind you’re aware you’re dealing with people’s lives. That creates a sense of responsibility and all those things, but nothing too daunting.

As the story goes in the movie, there were many obstacles that almost made Philomena give up. Did she ever talk about how close she came to giving up?

I think for a time she lost her faith, and then she was working as a psychiatric nurse and realized that wasn’t the way to go about things. It must have been a tremendous struggle for her. What’s astonishing is that she hasn’t lost her faith.

Certainly. Did it maybe take longer than the events portrayed in the film for her to actually go through with finding her son?

It wasn’t quite the way it was in the film. They found the grave quite quickly. Once she contacted Martin they were able to find the grave so it wasn’t quite like the story in the film. The film is based on, as it were, real things but then the relationship between Martin and Philomena is largely imaginary.

You were able to get a PG-13 for Philomena despite some profanity.

Harvey [Weinstein] did that.

Was it a big battle for him?

I think so, but I’m the wrong person to ask because I wasn’t following it or involved in it. I think Steve eventually went before the board.

Coogan did?

I think so but honestly you’d be better off asking him. [Confirmed by BBC America.]

When you were making the film, were you obligated to deliver a PG-13?

It comes down to how many times you say fuck. I mean, nobody told me not to do something. I don’t remember a moment like that.

And you had a script, so you shot the script as it was written?

I think so. I think so, yes. I mean, I don’t remember conversations about it to be honest.

Are you working on the Lance Armstrong movie at the moment?


Does that follow a specific period or his whole life up to now?

1993 to 2009.

As true stories and biographical films go, how does Lance Armstrong compare to The Queen, Philomena and Mrs. Henderson?

Well, it’s an extraordinary story. It’s an amazing story.

Is Sheryl Crow a character in the film?

No. In a way there’s too much material.

How is Ben Foster embodying Lance?

Brilliant, absolutely brilliant.

I enjoyed Lay the Favorite when I saw it at Sundance but I haven’t seen it since. Were there changes made after the festival?

There were changes. It wasn’t much fun.

That was with The Weinstein Company though, so you still came back and made another movie with them.

Yeah, I had no quarrel with them.

How much do you think about your classic films like Dangerous Liaisons and The Grifters today?

I don’t walk around thinking about them but I’m very proud of them.

Is that interesting that there might be film lovers who think about a movie forever, but if you’ve made it you move onto the next thing?

No, I can see what happened and how. They were both such a pleasure to make but you try to keep moving.

Do you have a movie lined up after Lance Armstrong?

Yes, but I think I’m not going to talk about it if you don’t mind.

Are you close to any titles for the Lance Armstrong film?

I won’t tell you what it’s called this week but it’s gone for a few days now on this title so we might be close to solving this problem. 

Fred Topel is a staff writer at CraveOnline and the man behind Best Episode Ever and The Shelf Space Awards. Follow him on Twitter at @FredTopel.