Tarmara Drew - Director Stephen Frears
Director Stephen Frears © 2010 Sony

One of England’s most critically-acclaimed directors, Stephen Frears has chosen an eclectic array of movies to helm, including The Queen, Prick Up Your Ears, The Grifters, Marry Reilly and High Fidelity.

His new comedy Tamara Drewe is based on the graphic novel by Posy Simmonds which was serialized in the Guardian newspaper. She, in turn, was inspired by Thomas Hardy’s classic novel Far From the Madding Crowd. It follows the relationships in the quaint village of Ewedown, in the West country of England, particularly spotlighting the return to the village of Tamara Drewe (Gemma Arterton). Once an ugly duckling, she has come home with a new nose, thanks to a plastic surgeon, to oversee her late mother’s farm.

Her reappearance interests famous novelist Nicholas Hardiment (Roger Allam) whose wife Beth (Tamsin Greig) presides over the writers’ retreat held at their home; Andy Cobb (Luke Evans), Beth’s gardener who once had an affair with Tamara, and a rock star, Ben Sergeant (Dominic Cooper), a surly but sexy drummer who meets Tamara after he splits from his band.

How did having the storyboard of the graphic novel change the way you filmed this?

Well, because it was a graphic novel, you sort of wanted the film to honor the spirit of that. But it was just there, I can’t remember if I used it or didn’t use it. Sometimes you’ve got to recreate a particular frame, because it was so beautiful.

Posy had told the story very wittily. I’ve known her about thirty years. She’s such a brilliant woman, and I’ve come to see that she does what I do, I’ll do the scene in long-shot, I’ll do the scene (in close-up), she’s really making the same decisions that I have to make. I was lucky to start off with material that clever.

What did you think about the graphic novel of Tamara Drewe when you first read it?

My goodness, I knew it was original. (Producer) Christine Langan sent it to me, and said, ‘I’ve got something for you.’ I was flying to New York and I opened the envelope on the plane. I couldn’t believe what I was looking at. It happened like that with The Snapper. You can’t believe what you’ve been sent. Very, very nice!

Can you talk about the casting process?

Tarmara Drew - Dominic Cooper
Ben Sergeant (Dominic Cooper) © 2010 Sony

I wouldn’t make the film until I’d got it cast. My casting director said to me, ‘You’re casting this before you’ve decided to make the film?’ I said, ‘Well, what do you think financiers do?’

When I met Gemma Arterton she did immediately remind me of the drawings because she’s so curvy, isn’t she, she’s like a sort of line drawing in her own way. She’s a wonderful girl, warm and funny. I thought, ‘Oh, I’d like to watch her for 90 minutes. It was as simple as that, really.

Roger Allam is just wonderful – and somehow he’s like a sort of baron. He’s like the wicked villain in a pantomime! He’s just a brilliant actor who hasn’t really ever had a chance in films. Then I found Tamsin Greig. It was really only when I had those three – Roger, Gemma and Tamsin – that I thought I could make the film.

We had a read-through before I agreed to do it and Dominic was so funny. And the girls just said, ‘Oh, no, you MUST agree to do it and cast Dominic Cooper.’ ‘All right – whatever you say.’ I just do what I’m told! He was in Mamma Mia. Teenage girls do kill for him. Luke was hard to find. And he’s wonderfully sort of rural.

How much do the actors bring and how much do you work with them? I don’t know your style of directing.

Tarmara Drew - Luke Evans and director Stephen Frears
Luke Evans and director Stephen Frears © 2010 Sony

I don’t really have a style. I choose them carefully and then l really leave it up to them. They generally seem to be intelligent and sensible and do what I more or less expect. If something’s odd, I have a conversation with them. But I would prefer it to come from them, than come from me.

Did you have any weather problems shooting this?

Well the weather occasionally would turn out dim, that was a pain-in-the-ass, but the truth is we were so blessed, because ten days before we started shooting you couldn’t see more than thirty yards in front of you. The weather was appalling, then it suddenly cleared and there was this Indian summer, and it was fantastic.

Is the contrast between the past and present at the heart of the film’s comedy?

Tamara and Gemma are both very, very modern, in these rather ridiculous rural surroundings that feel a bit like they’re from another period, so it’s that combination of the location and the modern attitudes. If you make a film in Dorset, it’s just there, you can’t escape (Thomas Hardy), and I suppose somewhere down the line the whole thing is a sort of echo of Hardy or a pastiche of Hardy. But it’s not relevant to us making the film – I’m not making a gloomy novel.

What for you was unique about Tamara Drewe?

I can’t ever answer that question, ‘What kind of film is it?’ I say, ‘Oh, it’s a pastoral comedy.’ Well, you know – A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a pastoral comedy, but there aren’t a lot of them around. The English don’t make films about the middle classes. And when they are, they’re mainly period. I suppose you’d call Tom Jones a pastoral comedy, but it’s because it’s so drowsed in history. They just don’t exist – contemporary films set in the English countryside like this.

I could see immediately it was unlike anything else. I’m very pleased at how funny it is – though I can see it deals with sort of dreadful things! And I can only apologize!

Judy Sloane

Judy is Film Review Online's regular Los Angeles based reporter.