Stephen Frears is best known for his string of box office hits, but away from the film studio he is also an enthusiastic teacher. And his classroom technique? 'I just sort of gossip with them,' he tells Wendy Wallace
Those who can, teach", runs the Government's latest recruitment slogan, and film director Stephen Frears certainly qualifies. The 59-year-old first made a name for himself with My Beautiful Launderette in 1985 and has since cemented his reputation with a string of productions for cinema and television, including the box office hits The Grifters, Dangerous Liaisons and, most recently, High Fidelity, from Nick Hornby's book of the same name.
But where is the premier league director as autumnal storms and floods threaten to overwhelm Britain? Not in Hollywood, not even at home in London's Notting Hill, but in the unglamorous classrooms and studios of the National Film and Television School in Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire. Teaching, it transpires, is his highly valued second string. "You can become so blinkered as a film director. I benefit enormously from teaching," he says.
Stephen Frears cites not his clutch of Oscar and Emmy awards and nominations as his consolation and inspiration but his students at the school. "I prefer to come every day," he says. "You become as involved with the students as they'll let you be."
He has taught at the school since the mid-Eighties, combining work with young directors and making his own films. "I work hard, and when I stop I come and teach here," he says. "It's exhausting making films, and a tremendous relief not making them." He is enthusiastic about his colleagues at the college, whom he describes as "very attentive and conscientious, full of what are now thought of as old-fashioned values".
Frears talks a lot about values; he is astonished that when earlier this year he said he liked "time to think", it made headlines in the Guardian.
Unusually, he finds teaching a respite from the stress of his main job; he enjoys getting away from the overheated atmosphere promoted by multi-million-dollar film budgets. "Teaching is less hysterical," he says. "People aren't losing millions of dollars. There aren't those sort of pressures. But you see how anxious the students get and you can't help but be affected by that."
He is modest about what he has to offer students. "I just go out and sort of gossip with them really, and look at their work and talk to them about it," he says. "I suppose you try to teach them to be realistic and to have some artistic ambition. You want them to make better films, to do good work. And of course you have an obligation to make them employable."
While that last sentiment might chime with the Government's perception of education's function, Frears's pedagogical style appears to be more Zen than DfEE. "Most film-making consists of working out what questions to ask," he says. "So you ask the students, have you thought about this? And this? And this? It seems to me of some value for them to have someone around as experienced as me. They say it's valuable."
Sarah Gavron, who completed the three-year postgraduate fiction directors' course at the college at the beginning of this year, rates him as a teacher. "He watches the cuts and makes you put back all the shots you're ashamed of, and tells you that you can't hide," she says. "He doesn't mince his words, but you genuinely feel he's on your side. When I'm shooting I feel as if he's standing over my shoulder." Ms Gavron's graduation film, Losing Touch, has won an award in Los Angeles and earlier this month was screened at the National Film Theatre in London. "He is the best teacher I've come across," she says. "He doesn't say too much, but comes in with very select comments which are absolutely brilliant, and he appears to get a lot out of teaching."
Are young directors intimidated by his reputation? "I imagine I'm quite intimidating, then found to be the lovable idiot that I am," he says, dryly. "I tell them when things don't work. If they're not told here they'll be told sooner or later. But I hope I am accessible, and sympathetic."
These were not qualities Frears found in his own early teachers. He went to public school in the Fens, where, he says, staff "churned out education for the sons of Norfolk farmers. It was very conventional and unimaginative. When the time came for me to think for myself, I was completely unequipped for it. But I could learn the dates of kings and queens." He trod a predictable path into studying law at Cambridge. ("My father was a doctor. I was brought up to be a member of the professions.") It was a family friend - grammar school headteacher Harry Davis - who opened the young Stephen Frears's eyes to the role of education. "If you'd been been to public school - which meant you came from a privileged background - you were not connected to life. This sensitive man, outside the idiotic system of public schools, quickly explained to me how life and education intersected."
So Frears began the process of thinking for himself - which is what he tries to teach students. "It changed my life - being taught to rebel against convention, not to accept what you're offered. To think for yourself, which seems the only thing that matters."
His own four children, though, have also been to fee-paying schools. "It now costs a fortune to give a child what I would call an old-fashioned, comprehensive education," he says. He has a 17-year-old and a 15-year-old at King Alfred's in north London, a liberal, arts-oriented private school. "I don't have a particularly dogmatic or ideological approach," he says. "The people who have taught them there are marvellous. The children are literate and interesting and their eccentricity, their individuality, has been allowed to flourish."
It took Frears time to accept the role of teacher, with its implied maturity. "I was always the youngest person on the set," he says. "And when I came to teaching, by which time I was in my forties - and still thinking of myself as the youngest person on the set - the students said, 'Are you afraid of the actors?' And I said no. And they said, 'Do you know where to put the camera?' And I said yes. And you realise you can't go on pretending you're Peter Pan. You have learned an enormous amount, just by working for a number of years. You can't deny that - however much you might try. I'd wanted to for years, because it was safer, I suppose."
He pays tribute too to his own film-making teachers - directors Lindsay Anderson and Karel Reisz and cameraman Brian Tufano. The directors gave him values, he says, and the cameraman taught him how to put his ideas into practice. "Brian's good at teaching people, looking after people who are inexperienced and appreciating what it is you offer in your inexperience.
"I know how I evolved and what helped me. I suppose you can only teach who you are, saying, 'This is what I do'. Someone else might do something differently."
Frears grows animated when he talks about his students. "They're sweet," he says. "They make a film, then they hide bits of it, because it's too frightening, because it exposes them. So you slowly winkle it out of them. And what they did in the first place is usually perfectly all right. Sometimes it is like running a psychiatric clinic. A lot of film-making, as you're endlessly saying to the students, consists of growing up. There's usually a stage where they sort of collapse - they have to come to terms with what they don't know, before they can learn."
He enthuses about what the students offer him - "In teaching, you're forced to deal with other people's thoughts; that's the most stimulating thing" - and says their most valuable teachers are their peers. "They learn far more from each other than they do from us. You can see them teach each other, as they slowly start to absorb the grammar of making films. And just being side by side in the cutting room, competing. I imagine there are quite savage conversations between students."
Frears credits his partner, Anne Rothenstein, a painter, with teaching him a lot. "I was terrified to draw. But all she had to do was make me less afraid. It's really teaching people to look at things. Everything else follows from that - being given the confidence to look at the world, to use your imagination and feel things."