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MOVIES : Is Smaller Indeed Better? : The answer is usually ‘yes’ when talking about British director Stephen Frears. ‘Larger’ clearly wasn’t the way to go when he last took up with Hollywood--remember ‘Hero’? He’s back with ‘The Snapper’ and the beauty of a small budget

<i> David Gritten is a frequent contributor to Calendar</i>

Here’s the dilemma: You’re a talented, bankable film director with a string of critically praised, medium-budget, profitable movies on your resume. Now comes your first big-budget Hollywood film--and it’s a bomb. The critics are lukewarm, the public stays away in droves. What do you do?

Do you sit back and wait for the phone to ring, hoping that another big movie will land on your plate and that the one strike against you won’t count? Or do you go out and film a script for TV that you love, on a pitifully small budget, and hope for the best?

Stephen Frears took the latter course. It may be paying off.

His new movie, “The Snapper,” made for the British Broadcasting Corp. for less than $2 million, aired on British television to wild acclaim in May, then drew appreciative audiences to theaters in Britain, Ireland and France.

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“I’ve already doubled their money,” Frears says with a sly smile.

Coming after last year’s disappointing “Hero,” a big-budget project for Columbia starring Dustin Hoffman, Geena Davis and Andy Garcia, “The Snapper” is a vindication of the abilities Frears displayed on the Oscar-winning “Dangerous Liaisons” and the highly praised “The Grifters.” “Hero” cost an estimated $42 million but recouped only about half that amount in North America, making it one of 1992’s most notable flops.

“It really did quite well in the rest of the world,” Frears says now. “But it was very worrying and upsetting. Everyone was perplexed about it--it had a good script, good cast, good performances, but the people just didn’t like it. And you can’t quarrel with audiences. They cannot be wrong, and they have every right not to like a film.”

Frears decided not to brood. He had seen a script of “The Snapper,” written by Irish novelist Roddy Doyle, and jumped at the offer to film it for the BBC. He gave no thought to the implications of making an obscure, low-budget film after a costly, highly visible studio project.

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“I’m like a child,” he says. “Show me a script I love, and I have to film it. It’s as though you fall in love with it. You’re helpless, really.”

Doyle, of course, wrote “The Commitments,” the novel about an aspiring Dublin soul band that became a successful 1991 film directed by Alan Parker. Doyle wrote the first draft of “The Commitments"--his first attempt at screenwriting--but it needed much polishing, and he eventually shared screenplay credit with Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais. The script for “The Snapper,” however, was all his own work.

As a novel, “The Snapper” is a sequel to “The Commitments.” It deals with the family of Jimmy Rabbitte, the enterprising manager of the soul group in the first book. But as a film, “The Snapper” is emphatically not a sequel. Jimmy Rabbitte does not appear and the family name has been changed to Curley for contractual reasons; Fox owns the film rights to the Rabbitte characters and another film about the Commitments is not out of the question.

To confuse matters further, Irish actor Colm Meaney (a regular on “Star Trek: The Next Generation”) played Jimmy Rabbitte’s father in “The Commitments” and plays Dessie Curley, the head of the Curley clan in Dublin, in “The Snapper.”

“Colm got the job twice,” Frears says. “The two films are so different that essentially he’s playing a different character. I was under no illusions that I was making a sequel to ‘The Commitments.’ There may well be one, but that was definitely not the film I was making.”

The story of “The Snapper” (which opens in Los Angeles on Friday) centers on the eldest Curley daughter, Sharon (Tina Kellegher), a 20-year-old checkout girl, who lives in a small house on a blue-collar housing estate with her parents and four siblings. She becomes pregnant after a drunken liaison in a pub parking lot. Sharon upsets her family by refusing to reveal the identity of the father of the child (the title refers to Irish slang for baby ).

Despite her silence, rumors spread and Sharon’s loyal father, Dessie, feels the whole business is a blow to his and the family’s honor. Yet as Sharon’s pregnancy advances, Dessie becomes increasingly caring and even feels encouraged to study childbirth and pregnancy from textbooks--something he never did when his own children were born. The baby’s birth turns a fraught situation into a unifying occasion of joy.

“Reading Roddy’s work was like having a door opened on to a world you knew nothing about,” Frears says. “His writing is so funny, quick-witted and recognizable. When as a director you get a script like that, all you do in a sense is light the touch paper (for fireworks) and stand back.”

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The film’s fortunes have benefited from the 35-year-old Doyle’s growing literary reputation in Britain and Ireland. The ex-teacher recently won the prestigious Booker Prize with his novel “Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha.” When “The Snapper” played to a packed house at the Edinburgh Film Festival in August, Doyle received an ovation more befitting a rock star. In one of Dublin’s biggest theaters, the mega-budget Schwarzenegger film “Last Action Hero” was bumped a week early to make way for “The Snapper.”

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“I think the Irish like it because it’s a story that could have happened in Detroit or Brussels or anywhere,” Frears says. “It doesn’t deal with the Irish the way they’re normally treated--no green fields, or red-haired colleens, no mention of the troubles (over Northern Ireland). The film doesn’t patronize them.”

He muses on this while sitting over lunch in his neighborhood Italian restaurant in Notting Hill, a chic but cosmopolitan area of west London. Frears, 52, is a roly-poly man with a hangdog expression and perpetually tousled hair. Today he is dressed in an rumpled pink shirt, baggy jeans and sneakers, a reminder that Glenn Close (who starred for the director in “Dangerous Liaisons”) once described him as looking “like a stadium after the game.”

Frears says he stumbled into directing. At Cambridge he studied law, tired of it and became producer of the university theater group. He was an apprentice director at London’s Royal Court Theatre and met filmmaker Karel Reisz, for whom he was assistant director on “Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment” (1966). Frears fulfilled the same role for Albert Finney and Lindsay Anderson, respectively, on their 1968 films “Charlie Bubbles” and “If . . . .”

At age 26 Frears directed a 30-minute short, “The Burning"; it landed him a job at the BBC, where he learned the craft of film directing. Frears’ left-wing sympathies meshed with those of other filmmakers at the BBC in the 1970s, Ken Loach among them. He made 30 films for TV, working with such writers as Alan Bennett, Tom Stoppard and Christopher Hampton. He also made small films released in the United States like “Gumshoe” and “The Hit.”

Frears’ reputation was clinched with his 1985 film “My Beautiful Laundrette,” which was written by Anglo-Pakistani writer Hanif Kureishi and simultaneously examined race relations, sexual politics and the economic state of Britain. Originally made for Channel 4 television, “Laundrette” became a feature hit internationally. In 1987 its companion piece, “Sammy and Rosie Get Laid” (also by Kureishi), bombed, but that year Frears had also scored another hit with “Prick Up Your Ears,” an account of the life and death of gay British playwright Joe Orton.

Hollywood inevitably beckoned, and Frears quickly made his niche in 1988 with “Dangerous Liaisons,” which won three Oscars (including one for the screenplay, by Frears’ old colleague Hampton). More important from a career point of view, Frears shot the film for a mere $14 million and watched it gross $90 million at the box office. Martin Scorsese then asked him to direct Anjelica Huston, John Cusack and Annette Bening in the 1990 film version of Jim Thompson’s novel “The Grifters.” The gritty result had critics and audiences slavering.

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And then came “Hero.” As Frears tells it, the film’s hugely disappointing performance stopped him in his tracks only temporarily: “Look,” he says, a little irritably, “I’m a middle-aged man. I make movies. If one doesn’t work, I go on to make the next one.”

And now that he has finished “The Snapper,” it turns out that Hollywood hasn’t lost faith in him after all. Frears is preparing a film for TriStar called “Mary Reilly,” a reworking of Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” told from the viewpoint of Dr. Jekyll’s housekeeper, who will be played by Julia Roberts.

“She seems wonderful,” Frears says of his new leading lady, who reportedly will be paid $10 million. “I met her briefly in Chicago and thought she was quite lovely.” Al Pacino’s name has been mentioned for the Jekyll/Hyde character, though Frears is also said to have been pursuing Daniel Day-Lewis for the role. “No one else has signed yet” is all he will say. The film starts shooting next year, with Frears reuniting with Hampton as his screenwriter.

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In person, Frears is like a walking advertisement against the auteur theory, consistently downplaying what he does as a director.

“That’s only because people talk such nonsense and try to place directors on a pedestal,” he says. “I mean, I know how much I owe my cameraman. I know how decisions get made on set.”

Part of the reason he flourished at the BBC, he thinks, “was because they got the scripts right first and then came to you to ask you to direct. Nowadays in Hollywood they have a phrase which makes my heart sink. They talk of getting ‘director’s input’ on a script. It means they haven’t the faintest idea what to do.”

This is why he prefers to work with outstanding or distinctive writers--Bennett, Stoppard, Hampton, Kureishi. Frears: “Yes, well, of course--I’m no fool, am I?”

Predictably, Frears wants to team with Doyle again, right after “Mary Reilly” if possible: “Roddy’s writing a script of his novel ‘The Van,’ the third in his trilogy about this same family. But it’s hard to talk about it, because I don’t own the rights to anything and have no claim. I’m in a position where I’m waiting to be asked.”

His directing career now spans a quarter of a century, and he is now in that rare position--a veteran British director who has not flown the coop to Hollywood. In this respect he can be bracketed with two other left-of-center filmmakers--Ken Loach and Mike Leigh.

“I won’t be moving to the States,” Frears says with a dry chuckle. “I have my children (four by two marriages) in school, other lives than my own to consider. Not that it’s easy making films in Britain.”

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At this point Frears broaches the subject of politics, and his dislike for former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and her Conservative government dominates the next few minutes. Its policies, which have cut off subsidies and tax breaks, he says, have made it harder than ever to raise money for films to be made in Britain.

“My God,” he says, “Ken, Mike and I are still at it. We should be given knighthoods.”

Surely, his interviewer asks in mock horror, he would never accept one? Not from a government he despises so?

“Don’t you believe it,” Frears says teasingly. “But I do think that for us to keep going after 14 years of this government, it’s quite extraordinary. Not being defeated--that’s a very good quality.”


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