Stephen Frears:

August 15th, 2016 by Karen Burg

Main Photo
Ritz Carlton, NY… Fittingly, Florence Foster Jenkins [Meryl Streep] has a over-the-top jewelry box setting for her singing debut… Photo by Nick Wall © 2016 StudioCanal. All rights reserved.

A chat with renowned director Stephen Frears, as witty and generous as his new film!

1940s New York socialite Florence Foster Jenkins [Meryl Streep] exuberantly pursues her dream of becoming the world’s greatest singer, despite having a terrible voice. Until now, her husband and manager, the aristocratic English actor St. Clair Bayfield [Hugh Grant], has managed to protect his beloved Florence from the awful truth about her vocal skills. But when Florence decides she’s ready to give a public concert at Carnegie Hall with her anxious pianist Cosme McMoon (Simon Helberg), St. Clair faces his greatest challenge.                                                                                                                                                                                  –Paramount Pictures 
Deftly directed by the legendary Stephen Frears, the film is highly nuanced, balanced between humor and melancholy, with a preference towards delight. It’s a smart comic ode to creative inspiration and long-lasting love that transcends illusions. When asked why this deliberately old-fashioned movie is relevant today, Meryl Streep instantly replies, “Because everybody tells you, ‘You can’t.’” And kindness is still important.
Frears kept up a pace that threw everyone into the heart of things, according to Simon Helberg. “Stephen works incredibly fast so it’s almost as though the film is a living being…He really understands being a conductor; there's no constant tinkering, his is a well-oiled machine. He's self-deprecating, but I think he’s found that balance of being serious about what you do, while not taking it too seriously.”
An apt description as you’ll soon see, when taking a few moments away from his next film [with Judi Dench playing an older Queen Victoria], the director has a brief chat with SET DECOR, punctuated with raised eyebrow, occasional chuckles and wry humor. And kindness…
SET DECOR: It’s great to get the director’s POV about how the sets help bring about your vision for the film.
Director Stephen Frears, holding up his hand:
Now this word “vision”…I haven’t had a vision in my life!
SET DECOR: Okay, perhaps, how they help bring credibility to film?
Frears: That’s better! The set makes it very believable, yes.
SET DECOR: And helps bring characters to life…
Frears: Yes, absolutely…
SET DECOR: So that when even without the actor on the scene, you get an essence of the character. And also a bit of backstory for the actors…
Frears: Yeah, agreed. Completely agree.
But not vision. I have no vision.
SET DECOR: When you started, did you have anything specific you wanted for the look or for the feel of the film?
Frears: Well, first of all, we made the film in London and Liverpool.
SET DECOR: Yes, Production Designer Alan MacDonald pointed out, “Liverpool was used as a canvas for mid-century Manhattan. Everything at street level in New York is so completely different now, but since all the ocean liners set off from Liverpool for New York, there was a cross pollination of architectural ideas between the two cities.”
Frears: Yes, there you are. So we never went near New York. It was always a studio film, which I like, because I grew up in that period when films were like this. And I remember Alan coming in early on with pictures of Florence’s apartment…I begin the other way around, I get everything from the script…so when I saw the photos, I said, “Oh, she really was eccentric.”
SET DECOR: Well, that’s part of it, isn’t it? That’s exactly what we’re trying to do, to show those elements.
And there were all kinds of wonderful details.
Frears: Yeah, but I’d be shaky on that.
However, as we were making the movie, we were very excited by the detail.
SET DECOR: There were so many! Such as the entrance hallway in Florence’s apartment with her collection of chairs of dead people!
Did that come from real life?
Frears: That was in the script, yeah. I imagine…
I’ve never thought about it. I imagine it was true.
SET DECOR: What a wonderfully odd detail! We noticed immediately the different kinds of chairs, but didn’t know the history until St. Clair explains it to Cosme!
Frears: Yes, and I remember we had a lot of trouble laying them out. “No bring this one over here…” [Chuckling]
SET DECOR: And in the apartment itself, there is such an eclectic mix of chairs. One would expect the more old-fashioned and antique, which are there in abundance, but there are also contemporary pieces…an interesting assortment that somehow seem to belong there…
Frears: Well, give the credit to the designer. Don’t give it to me.
SET DECOR: We will, and to the set decorator, Caroline Smith! They and their teams certainly deserve accolades, for what we see onscreen and for the immersive environment they offer the actors...
Frears: Yes, they’re brilliant! The whole time, they’re giving people confidence.
SET DECOR: You’ve worked with Alan several times…
Frears: Since THE QUEEN. I think everything since THE QUEEN. He just turns up. I don’t ask him to, he just turns up, and I say, “Oh, you’re doing this one, are you?”
SET DECOR: He says that Meryl Streep had suggestions of some items she felt Florence would have, so they added even more…that there was never a case of “over-decorated”!
Frears: Yes, I particularly remember photos of composers that Meryl wanted. There were so many things that all came together.
SET DECOR: Well, it all informs. In the bedroom scenes, we see details like the lovely blue embroidered silk coverlet, and the bed linens change colors to go with the storyline…
Frears: You know, I work with very, very clever people, especially Alan and Consolata, our costume designer. They’re both brilliant…and their teams, the people they’ve chosen to work with.
So when you tell me a thing like that, I feel faintly ashamed that I didn’t know, but also proud that I trusted them, and was clearly right to trust them. They’re working on these levels all the time, and in this way with Danny Cohen, the director of photography.
SET DECOR: Yes. To illustrate that degree with the bed linens example, they went from ivory when Florence was drained of energy to peach when she was happy because it made her look softer, prettier…
Frears: Yes, exactly…
SET DECOR: And then when she was dying, a heavenly sky blue…
Frears: Isn’t that somebody doing their job very, very well?
SET DECOR: Yes, in fact, that’s the set decorator. She’s in charge of the details.
Frears: That’s the set decorator, yes. So, they’re all doing their job really well. I hope I’m appreciative enough. They’re all phenomenally talented people and very generous with their talent…very, very generous.

Photo 3
Florence’s apartment, Hotel Seymour… Florence [Meryl Streep] takes music lessons from Metropolitan Opera voice coach Carlo Edwards [David Haig], accompanied by pianist Cosme McMoon [Simon Helberg] and always supported by St. Clair Bayfield [Hugh Grant]… Photo by Nick Wall © 2016 StudioCanal. All rights reserved.

Photo 4
Florence’s apartment, Hotel Seymour… Knowing of her ardent...and of the music arts, and being well paid by St. Clair, Carlo Edwards [David Haig] continues to coach Florence [Meryl Streep]… Photo © 2016 StudioCanal. All rights reserved.

Photo 5
Florence’s apartment, Hotel Seymour… Pianist Cosme McMoon [Simon Helberg] tries not to cringe when Florence sings! Note the bust of Verdi. Florence founded the The Verdi Club to keep his name alive and his works in fashion… Photo © 2016 StudioCanal. All rights reserved.

Photo 6
Florence’s apartment, Hotel Seymour… Florence [Meryl Streep] tells pianist Cosme McMoon [Simon Helberg] of her deep love of music… Photo by Nick Wall © 2016 StudioCanal. All rights reserved.

Photo 7
Florence’s apartment, Hotel Seymour… In a moment of vulnerability Florence [Meryl Streep] contemplates her next step… The apartment is so deeply decorated, we’re showing this image in two parts, left and right… Screen capture image © 2016 StudioCanal. All rights reserved.

Photo 8
Florence’s apartment, Hotel Seymour… It comes as no surprise that Florence [Meryl Streep] is an impulsive collector, among her collection, chairs of artists who have died…the hall entryway is lined with them…and there is an eclectic mix of chairs throughout… Screen capture image © 2016 StudioCanal. All rights reserved.

Photo 9
Florence’s apartment, Hotel Seymour… Dr. Hermann [John Sessions] tends to Florence [Meryl Streep] as she deals with another flare-up of her chronic disease, with St. Clair [Hugh Grant], as always, by her side… Photo © 2016 StudioCanal. All rights reserved.

Photo 10
Florence’s apartment, Hotel Seymour… St. Clair [Hugh Grant] agrees to host a luncheon in which Florence [Meryl Streep] will announce her singing debut… Photo by Nick Wall © 2016 StudioCanal. All rights reserved.

Photo 11
Florence’s apartment, Hotel Seymour… The Verdi Society luncheon…note the bust of the composer is now the centerpiece, properly scarfed for the event! Florence has a penchant for sandwiches and potato salad. To ensure there is enough for her guests, her claw-footed tub is filled with the latter, from which her maid refills gorgeous Sèvres bowls. Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant. Photo by Nick Wall © 2016 StudioCanal. All rights reserved.

Photo 12
Florence’s apartment, Hotel Seymour… Bayfield [Hugh Grant] and McMoon [Simon Helberg] toast the success of Florence’s debut. Bayfield had carefully manipulated and monitored the audience and coverage… Note the wall of composers in the background… Photo by Nick Wall © 2016 StudioCanal. All rights reserved.

Photo 13
Florence’s apartment, Hotel Seymour… Florence [Meryl Streep] is thrilled with the reviews, which her maid Kitty [Brid Brennan] reads to her… Note the bed linens are now a soft peach, which enhance the glow of happiness. Earlier they were a pale ivory, to reflect her depleted energy and poor health… Photo by Nick Wall © 2016 StudioCanal. All rights reserved.

Photo 14
Carnegie Hall, backstage… The response has emboldened Florence [Meryl Streep] to perform at Carnegie Hall on October 25th, 1944. She has given away 1000 tickets to service men and women in support of their efforts and losses. Ticket sales to the general public sold out in one day! Allan Corduner, Simon Helberg, Hugh Grant.Photo by Nick Wall © 2016 StudioCanal. All rights reserved.


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