Stephen Frears at the Rome Book Festival “How Books Are”

Stephen Frears signing autographs in Rome
British film director Stephen Frears was in Rome over the weekend where he appeared at the festival of books and reading at the Auditorium Parco della Musica - Libri come: Festa del Libro e della Lettura. The festival hosted encounters with both Italian and international writers over 3 days and looked at how books are written. The talk with Stephen Frears was billed as Creative writing for cinema – who better, indeed, than Frears, who has brought so many book adaptations brilliantly to the screen.

The discussion was led by Valerio Cappelli, a reporter and critic for an Italian daily newspaper the Corriere della Sera, but sadly his questions were either so excruciatingly bad that he was actually jeered by the audience on some occasions, or took the form of rambling monologues ending with a closed question to which the director could only answer with a yes or no and a slightly baffled expression! Admittedly, Cappelli got off to a bad start by asking Frears if he had bugged Buckingham Palace in order to prepare for the movie The Queen (bad joke) and by asking a long question about what he felt about Tim Burton's recent film version of Alice in Wonderland (Frears hadn't seen the film and we were there, after all, to hear him talk about his own work). The beginning of the talk was also beset by technical problems – the simultaneous translation headpieces worn by Frears and Cappelli were on the blink and the talk was interrupted several times before things got properly underway. The presence of a translator on stage or an interviewer who could at least speak better English would have made for a far more effective discussion.

What saved the evening from being a total fiasco, however, was Stephen Frears' dry sense of humour and his complicity with the increasingly frustrated audience, inevitably at the expense of Cappelli who seemed unable to turn the situation around. I'm convinced that Frears actually took pity on him eventually, and then took charge of things himself. After a lengthy clip taken from Dangerous Liaisons it was Frears who spoke first, expanding upon Cappelli's earlier reference to the film by Miloš Forman (Valmont) based on the same novel and made shortly afterwards. Forman's film was spectacularly overshadowed by Frears' version – a situation he summed up as a “very sad story”. Christopher Hampton scooped the Oscar for the screenplay (based on the play, Les liaisons dangereuses, which was itself a theatrical adaption of the novel by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos) and Frears was keen to give huge credit to Hampton's impact on his work. Asked whether Hampton was Da Ponte to his Mozart, he joked: I may well be his Salieri!...or he may be my John the Baptist...but that's even worse! That would make me Jesus!...

The next clip was another book adaptation – High Fidelty - based on Nick Hornby's best seller and starring John Cusack who had brought Frears the project and was one of the screen writers. The conversation took a more technical turn as Frears discussed the transformation of what was originally a voice-over monologue in the original screenplay into the frequent use of direct delivery to camera in the final film.

My Beautiful Launderette, which first introduced Frears to international audiences, was co-scripted with Hanif Kureishi, who is now a hugely important figure in contemporary British literature. Sadly, this film was mentioned by way of introduction only, but at least it got a passing mention! I was most disappointed by the absence of any questions about Prick Up Your Ears. The film's exceptionally clever screenplay by Alan Bennett follows the story of the writer John Lahr as he researches the very book about playwright Joe Orton upon which the film is based, a book which also makes extensive use of Orton's infamous diaries. Surely, a Stephen Frears film with so many literary references deserved at least a passing nod at a book festival!

Cappelli seemed more than happy, if not relieved, to hand over final questions to the floor. Asked whether he'd like to bring Shakespeare to the screen, Frears replied that he already thought that some of his films, for example, The Queen (which had been the third and final clip of the evening) was already Shakespearean in essence, but that he'd rather watch a Shakespeare play at the theatre, not at the cinema - You know who's going to die at the end! What about a musical? somebody shouted from the audience, to which he replied rather whimsically: Well... I suppose if Gene Kelly were still alive...

At the end of the discussion his admirers crowded the stage and in spite of requests by the organisers to wrap things up he stubbornly sat down and stayed put until he'd signed every last autograph!