In 1988, director Stephen Frears and playwright Christopher Hampton teamed to bring Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’ novel “Les Liaisons Dangereuses” to English-speaking audiences as Dangerous Liaisons. It featured a breakout performance by then 30-year-old Michelle Pfeiffer, who was nominated for her first Oscar, and the movie itself went on to win three Oscars, including one for Hampton’s adapted screenplay.
Over twenty years later, the trio have reteamed for another film set in historic France, Chéri, based on the works of French novelist Collette, this time with Pfeiffer playing retired courtesan Léa de Lonval, who is asked by her rival Charlotte Peloux (Kathy Bates) to show her fragile 19-year-old son, affectionately known as Cheri (Rupert Friend), the ways of the carnal world. Instead, the two end up falling in love, spending six years together before Charlotte finally steps in and tries to separate them by putting her son together with a woman his own age. It’s a very different film from Dangerous Liaisons but one that incorporates many of Frears’ trademarks, including amazing performances from the diverse cast.
We’re always trying to get interesting interviews here at ComingSoon.net, so instead of talking to Frears and Hampton separately, we thought it might be more interesting to put them in the same room together, since it’s something that’s worked well for us in the past. The results ended up being a rather strange experience, because Frears was clearly jet-lagged and a little more reticent to talk than normal, so his answers were brief. (We had interviewed Frears a few times before, so we knew he had a tendency to be dry, but even we couldn’t tell if he was joking or being serious half the time with some of his answers.) That left it up to the always generous Hampton to jump in as “Good Cop” with a more detailed answer when he realized Frears didn’t want to say much. Either way, we hope you find the results entertaining.
Miramax were also kind enough to supply ComingsSoon.net with an exclusive behind-the-scenes clip on the making of the film, which you can watch below:
ComingSoon.net: I’d like to go back a bit to when you first met. I’m sure everyone is interested in this movie because it reunites the two of you after making “Dangerous Liaisons” over twenty years ago. Can you talk about the first time you guys met and worked together?
Stephen Frears: It was earlier than that, ten years before that.
Christopher Hampton: It was a television film that I wrote in about the mid-’70s, 1975.
CS: Have you generally remained in touch ever since then?
Hampton: We live fairly close to one another.
CS: So how did the decision come about to start working together again? Were you already adapting this and then decided to bring it to Stephen?
Frears: It had a whole earlier life before me.
Hampton: And I hadn’t shown it to Stephen, really ’cause I genuinely thought it wasn’t necessarily up his street. We had lunch one day and he asked me about it. Then he said he’d like to read it, so I gave it to him, and very quickly, he acted.
CS: Had you read the books and was there something about them that made you want to do this?
Frears: Never read them.
CS: Had the two of you talked over the years about doing something else together?
Frears: It’s more silent than that.
Hampton: Occasionally, a thing comes up and it seems like a good fit all around. It’s like once every ten years or so. (chuckles)
CS: You actually combined Collette’s two books into one movie…
Hampton: I’m not quite sure how that happened.
Frears: We only really did the first book.
CS: It’s all over the production notes that the movie is based on both of her books.
Hampton: Who did that? It’s actually all based on one book except for the final sentence of the final voiceover, which comes from the second book.
Frears: That’s in the notes, is it?
Hampton: Apparently yeah, and it’s actually on the generic, on the credits. Nobody asked us about it.
Frears: I expect we’ll hear from lawyers.
CS: Even so, it’s such a rich story, so one could see this ending up being a very long movie. How did you approach condensing it down?
Hampton: My first draft was longer than the book, because I had a lot of trouble… the book is so impressionistic. She has a change of focus all the time. Often, a scene will be a 20-page dialogue scene, one scene, and then she’ll skate over the next major incident in a paragraph. I found there was an awful lot of adjustment to do, and when I had the first draft, then there was an awful lot of cutting back to do.
CS: What stage was the script in when you got involved?
Frears: Oh, complete. The fiddling was refining the whole time.
Hampton: We did go on working on it the whole way through shooting, but just adjustments.
CS: How does the collaboration work between the two of you? Do you usually try to spend as much of possible on set, Chris?
Frears: I like him on set, yeah.
Hampton: And I like to be on set. You know that you’re cutting out for quite a long time when you’re doing a film with Stephen. (chuckles)
Frears: It’s the end of life as we know it. (chuckles)
CS: But don’t you like to have the script as finalized as possible before shooting?
Frears: Yes, of course, but it is just refining things.
Hampton: I don’t know why people don’t do it more often, because the fact of the matter is, as you shoot and look at what you’ve shot, other things suggest themselves or things seem redundant or things seem worth adding. It’s just like that, and you can’t do that unless you’re watching the whole thing in this organic state.
CS: Which one of you threw out the idea of having Michelle play Léa?
Frears: Well, it was sort of in the air really.
Hampton: It’s quite hard to remember. It was a very short list we had of possible actresses.
CS: Having been twenty years, was it easy to get right back into the relationship you had established 20 years earlier or was it very different?
Frears: Well, we’re all older and crabbier I’d say. We were like children when we made “Liaisons.” Look, I knew that she could play a European woman, which you’re halfway down the road like that.
CS: How did you approach her to play the part?
Hampton: We sent her the script and then we went to Los Angeles and talked to her.
CS: Had you been in touch with her over the years or did this script just show up at her doorstep out of the blue?
Frears: Every now and then I’d speak to her.
Hampton: Very occasionally. I had written a script in about 1990 from an Edith Wharton book called “Custom of the Country,” which she wanted to do and I wanted her to do, which never got married for the usual dreary reasons.
CS: So you already had this previous working relationship with Michelle. What about casting Rupert?
Frears: We tried to find an American man and failed. Young American actors are very good, but I think they just found the character so hard to understand, then Rupert just did a very good audition. He earned the part.
CS: He’s been in a lot of period pieces and other movies but always a supporting role or a small scene. Had you ever seen him in any of those movies?
CS: You generally just go on your instincts from the audition rather than trying to see other work they’ve done in other movies?
Frears: I go out of my way to avoid seeing any films in case they depress you.
CS: You said you wanted to find an American actor and the film does seem to have a mix of both American and British actors, so I was curious about that decision…
Frears: Well, first of all, they’re all playing French people, but I simply couldn’t find an American boy, so you then rationalize what’s in front of you really, say, “Alright, for this film we’ll pay no attention to it.”
CS: But was that ever a concern? You obviously can’t have them using a French accent or speaking in French, because that would be a different movie, but when they all have different accents…
Frears: Well, as I say, they’re all clearly actors and they’re playing a French film. They’re not trying to pretend they’re the real thing or anything.
Hampton: The concerns did cross our minds, but nobody seems to have mentioned it so far.
CS: In terms of working with Michelle again, there’s always this thing in Hollywood and the media about “recapturing the magic” whenever two people work together again after having a hit. Did those things concern either one of you or you just make the movie and pretend the previous movie didn’t happen? What’s the general mindset?
Frears: Well, in a way, I slightly wish the other film hadn’t happened, because I know perfectly well that’s what people will fix on, but to me, it was just a new job.
Hampton: I mean, of course, it’s us and Michelle and it’s set in France, and it’s a historical film, but actually, they’re completely different sorts of stories.
Hampton: So the comparison isn’t very helpful I don’t think.
CS: But it’s going to happen no matter what, there’s no way to avoid it.
Hampton: Yeah, sure.
Frears: Journalists are the odd people that they are.
CS: Sure, journalists are lazy people who see too many movies and have to find an immediate hook, but you have to admit that it’s a good selling point, because people who like “Dangerous Liaisons” will be interested to see what you guys do together a second time. How about casting some of the other roles like Felicity Jones and Iben Hjejle?
Frears: Well, Iben I knew from “High Fidelity” and Felicity is a young English actress. We just go out and sort it out and find the good people.
CS: Do you generally try to test the actors together before deciding on them?
Frears: Rupert shot a test, really, and he did it very well, and he’s obviously very good looking and people spoke very well of him.
Hampton: But did you audition him with Felicity?
Hampton: No, I don’t think so.
CS: You can just tell that they’ll work together by putting them together in your mind?
Frears: Well, the real question is, “What was the chemistry going to be like between he and Michelle?” Well, Michelle was in California, and he was in London, so you were only going to find out on the day and by the grace of… well, it really depends if you’re lucky or not. And if they hadn’t got on, life would have been a nightmare.
CS: Did Michelle want to meet this young actor or spend some time getting to know him beforehand?
Frears: No, because you could see the impossibility of it. You could see the problems. In the end, you’re either lucky or you’re not, and in this case, we were lucky.
Hampton: I think Rupert has been slightly underrated in my view in the response that the film has had so far, because he’s actually doing something rather difficult and he’s doing it very discreetly. He’s not apologizing for the character, and he’s kind of embodying this difficult boy in a way that is remarkable. I think he’s great.
CS: I was curious adapting the material, how much do you worry about the readers who are fans of the books, because they’ll generally be the first people who’ll be interested in the movie, or do you have to make the movie in the way you see it and hope they’ll like it?
Hampton: I’m certainly not one for choosing books and then massively altering them or in brackets or in quotes “improving them.” I want to try to translate the book as accurately as possible into a different medium. That’s really what I’m setting out to do, so I don’t really worry about what the fans of the book will think. I’m just trying to think of ways to make the book work as a movie without changing anything.
CS: Since you hadn’t read the books, do you have to go back and make sure it doesn’t get too far away from them while you’re filming or modifying the script?
Frears: I read the books, yes of course, after I read the script. She was a very clever woman, Collette, so you monkeyed about with her at your peril, and she often turned out to be rather smarter than us… so attempt to subvert her weren’t generally very successful. I have made… I mean, a film like “High Fidelity,” I had a much greater sense of responsibility on that, thinking “Christ, people really love this book.” Or “The Snapper,” being in Ireland and realizing how much it meant to people.
Hampton: In fact, Collette’s slightly out of vogue at the moment, in other words, I don’t think she’s very much read or not as much read as she deserves to be, even in France. In that sense, the pressure’s not… but people who love the book do love it.
CS: How about working with Alexandre Desplat again on the music after working with him on “The Queen”?
Frears: Well, I sort of fell in love with him, I think he’s a wonderful man, but I also knew that the music was very important, that that was where the characters feelings would be most expressed. It’s a story about people who don’t express their feelings, so the music is one of the ways you should what’s going on underneath. I think he’s brilliant.
CS: There’s been a lot of talk about this movie due to the age difference between the characters played by Michelle and Rupert and how that turns on the normal cliché of a young woman with a much older man.
Frears: It’s very topical at the moment I hear.
CS: Apparently. “The Daily News” had a two-page story on it, but when you wrote this script or started making the movie, can you set aside any judgments you might have about that sort of relationship to be able to find the characters?
Hampton: Absolute not, you can’t judge the characters.
Frears: No, I don’t think so. I knew that Collette had written it in a subversive spirit, which I liked.
CS: Why do you think it’s such a subversive thing for an older woman to be with a younger man?
Hampton: Well, people disapprove of it, and certain things people disapprove of is almost a good thing to endorse in my point of view.
Frears: Yes, yes.
CS: It does make sense because we do see older men with younger women all the time.
Frears: That’s what I grew up seeing.
Hampton: In the discussions one had early on, before we were writing the script, there were one or two voices that said they couldn’t understand from the script what it was she saw in him, and I actually said, “If she was a 50-year-old man, and he was a 25-year-old girl, nobody would ask those questions.
CS: You narrated the movie yourself, so was that just a decision at the last minute because you’d already done it?
Frears: No, I was doing it as sort of a guide track and then people kept saying, “Oh, it’s very good.” I thought it ought to be a woman, it ought to be Collette, so I ended up doing it.
CS: I was surprised you’re not credited for doing it.
Frears: No, no, no, I keep quiet about it.
CS: When you make a movie like this, is it important for an audience to get something out of it, besides drawing attention to Collette’s work?
Frears: No, you just want them to have a good time, really. I mean, the script made me laugh, it made me cry, and that’s quite sufficient.
CS: For a filmmaker to spend as much time making a movie as it takes to make one, you’d think there would have to be more to making a movie than that, since you must have other choices of what you could do.
Frears: No, it’s never quite like that. I mean, I had a good time reading it and you want them to have the same experience.
Hampton: It’s quite unusual and delicate to take a subject which has such tragic undertones, but a light surface, and that was the problem, was how to deal with that really, how to get that lightness without selling short the melancholy of it as well.
CS: You did “The Queen” and “Mrs. Henderson” back-to-back just because that’s the way it worked out, so do you have another project you want to do next?
Frears: Just trying to get a job, that’s all. I’m just trying to sort my life out, that’s an ongoing struggle.
CS: But at one point you were going to make a movie called “The Burial” based on a New Yorker article.
Frears: Yes, that came up a few years ago.
CS: Is that still in development and something you might do?
Frears: I don’t really know.
CS: And how about yourself?
Hampton: I’ve done another script based on Steinbeck’s “East of Eden” which I’m hoping they’ll do. I hadn’t realized before I read the book that the James Dean movie is only the last 100 pages of a 600 page book and that the main parents were James Dean’s parents, and I found the book really exciting.
CS: So with all that extra material, you can make a very different movie with it, I’d assume.
CS: Considering your pedigree as a playwright, how do you decide when you read a book that you like, whether or not to do it as a screenplay or for the stage?
Hampton: Just instinct really. I have no formula. I either just emotionally respond to it or I don’t. Sometimes, you can see a book’s very good but you don’t want to do it for reasons you can’t explain.
CS: I talked to Peter Morgan a few months back when he was doing “Frost/Nixon” and he had probably decided he was going to direct “The Special Relationship” at that point. Are you going to be someway involved with it as a producer or consultant?
Frears: I don’t know, I don’t know.
CS: Has he asked you look at the script and offer you advice?
CS: Do you think it’ll still feel like the third part of the trilogy with “The Deal” and “The Queen” without you directing it?
Frears: I don’t know. I have no idea.
Chéri opens in New York and L.A. on Friday, June 26.