Florence Foster Jenkins
Landmark Theatres interviews director Stephen Frears
Landmark Theatres: Florence Foster Jenkins was such a unique character. The love of music at the heart of the story drives her character and makes her more human. Did the theme of music drive your interest in making the film?
Stephen Frears: I like pop music, and all that, but I don’t have that love of music. She was a patron of music, particularly during the war. She paid for Toscanini. She paid for the New York Philharmonic. That really was her. It is a very touching quality.
LT: Agreed. And yet, when she sings, it’s a natural reaction to laugh at first.
SF: Florence or Meryl? [laughs]
LT: Well, of course, Meryl Streep is an excellent singer.
SF: You have to be a good singer to sing badly.
LT: Very true. Although you laugh at Florence first, your emotions change as she continues to sing.
SF: When I got the script, I listened to the real Florence on YouTube. And she is, at the same time, both ridiculous and heart-breaking. So, in a sense, you’re always dealing with that dichotomy—that someone sings, and you laugh, because it’s so preposterous, and then she touches you. It was always in the material, and it was always in Florence, and it’s always what Meryl was aiming for.
LT: How much did you work with Meryl Streep to get the right vocal performance?
SF: She did it before we shot. She worked with a coach in New York. She came fully formed [laughs]. I can’t pretend that I helped coach her sing like that. She worked that out herself. She showed it to me and asked my approval.
LT: Her singing was very specific and well-shaped. She really presented a deep character just within her vocal performance.
SF: That’s what it was about, really. I insisted on shooting the singing live. When she sang, she really sang, because it seemed to me that was a large part of it. In that sense, that was her performance. And she was very concerned that we weren’t making fun of the woman, or anything like that. So I guess she just did her job extremely well.
LT: How much were you involved in developing the script?
SF: The script that came to me is more or less what we shot. The whole time, you’re making sure the scenes are as good as they could be. But [screenwriter Nicholas Martin] really invented the story, and did the bulk of it before I turned up. I mean, it was a very, very good script to read, and it was no surprise that I grabbed it, and that Meryl grabbed it, and that Hugh Grant grabbed it. It was just a gift.
LT: Talk about the casting. It seems like such a dream cast for this story.
SF: Yes, it felt like that. Some days you’re lucky. These actors are all very, very good. Certainly Meryl and Hugh are both from the theatre. They sort of know their jobs extremely well. And Simon Helberg is brilliant. Nina Arianda is a great, great actress. They sort of know what they’re there for, and they know how to do it. So, it’s not very difficult. You have to make sure it’s in the writing, but you get actors of that level of skill, you’re okay.
LT: You worked with so many wonderful actors over the years. How do you bring out their performances? Do you rehearse much before you shoot?
SF: You treat them like grown-ups. You appreciate their talents. And you try to shoot the good bits, as it were. You know what they’re good at, and you try to take advantage of that. I’m not very good at rehearsing. I sort of like to make it up as I go along. I like it to be spontaneous.
LT: How did you make sure that you were crafting the scenes to get the right balance between humor and drama?
SF: You’re trying to balance the funny bits with the sad bits, really. It was written on the page, and then you do them as well as you can, and then you fiddle around a bit at the edges. I think I probably know how to do it instinctively. So, I don’t think about it a great deal.
LT: The movie also looks gorgeous. How did you and cinematographer Danny Cohen get the specific look of the film?
SF: I sort of knew how to make the film because I grew up watching Paramount comedies, so I knew what they were like. So I did whatever had to be done. He’s a wonderful chap, Danny—and very intelligent. And I guess we were just on the same wavelength. When I shoot, what I shoot, it’s very, very precise. That’s just what I do. When I watch the actors doing it, I know how to shoot the scenes. Because I’ve been doing it for a long, long time [laughs].
LT: Congratulations on the film, which has already opened well in the UK.
SF: Yes, audiences love it. The response has been terrific.