Interview with Stephen Frears

HBO

What do you look for in a project?

STEPHEN FREARS

I look for a story that seems to be interesting, and worth spending the time on. And one that I think audiences will be interested in. And here was a story that hardly anyone knew, about one of the most famous men in the world. And it’s a story that books about the Supreme Court scarcely mention.

HBO

The use of archival footage gave the film a ‘reality’ it would not have had had you cast an actor in the role of Ali. What did you discover when you began working with that footage?

STEPHEN FREARS

Well the first thing was relief, in that I didn’t have to cast an actor to play Ali. It was presented as archival footage in the script. Once that was decided then you just slowly work it out. What you discover is that it’s just another story you have to tell. And so you slowly find pieces that tell you what you need to know. And so it really just builds and builds. And then you’re trying to find material that isn’t the most familiar material in the world.

HBO

You must have pored through a tremendous amount of footage?

STEPHEN FREARS

Yes. It was a matter of finding the bits of material that tell the story most clearly and most dramatically, and entertainingly.

HBO

Were you familiar with Ali’s trial?

STEPHEN FREARS

Not entirely. This is the first time I’ve ever fully understood that this is the way in which Ali was punished; that his license to fight was taken away, and his titles stripped from him. And during those years he couldn’t fight. His passport was taken away so he couldn’t go abroad, because there was a court case going on. So he really had no means of earning a living. And those were some of his peak earning years.

"You talk about the ‘Ali shuffle.’ This film is not about that. It’s a much more complex story. It’s a little bit of American history."
HBO

We’ve seen courtroom dramas before, but this story pulls back the veil on the U.S. Supreme Court, whose inner workings are notoriously secretive.

STEPHEN FREARS

Yes. I’m told there’s never really been a film like this made about the Supreme Court. And so you have these nine very, very clever, different, complicated people, sort of slugging it out. I found all that very, very interesting.

HBO

Since this is a historical drama, did you approach casting differently?

STEPHEN FREARS

No. I mean, I’ve never met a Supreme Court justice in my life, but I imagine they’re quite impressive. Someone like Ruth Ginsburg, you’d think, oh my goodness, she must be a very considerable woman. And so you try to cast to that standard. You don’t try to patronize people. When I cast Helen (Mirren) as the Queen, you needed someone who has the gravitas and heft to play the Queen. And again here, these are actors who are very clever, very qualified, and very, very powerful. So automatically, you’re going to heavyweights.

HBO

How much did the script change from the first draft you were sent?

STEPHEN FREARS

I’m sure we made some things clearer. I don't remember it changing profoundly. I mean, the film I’ve made reminds me of the film I first read. It’s quite straight-forward.

HBO

You seem to have a very craftsman-like approach to how you make movies?

STEPHEN FREARS

Yes.

HBO

There’s no smoke and mirrors.

STEPHEN FREARS

I’m sorry about that. I hope I haven’t let you down. I just sort of get on with it, and do it.

HBO

What do you hope audiences take away from the film?

STEPHEN FREARS

It’s just such an extraordinary story that happened in my lifetime. I didn’t know about it. It was sort of skated over, in some ways. Perhaps because Ali didn’t make a great fuss about it; he was so gracious, when the verdict went in his favor. I also think it’s a different way of talking about Ali. You know, you talk about the ‘Ali shuffle.’ This film is not about that. It’s a much more complex story. It’s a little bit of American history.