Brendan Gleeson as Scott and Patricia Clarkson as Ellen in State of the Union.
When you've staged and shot a cattle drive, as Stephen Frears did in the 1998 western The Hi-Lo Country, capturing a conversation between two people seated at a table would seem to be a breeze.
But the intimate scale and confined space of the 2019 SundanceTV series State of the Union presented the British director with different challenges.
For one, he says, "You've got two actors, two faces. You haven't got much else."
Another challenge of State of the Union was its unconventional format: ten ten-minute episodes devoted to conversations between a married couple (Rosamund Pike and Chris O'Dowd) who meet in a pub before a weekly marital therapy session.
As is always the case for Frears, the initial appeal of the project was the writing. He has a long track record of successful collaborations with such writers as Hanif Kureshi (My Beautiful Laundrette), Alan Bennett (Prick Up Your Ears), Christopher Hampton (Dangerous Liaisons), Donald E. Westlake (The Grifters), Peter Morgan (The Queen) and, in this case, Nick Hornby, who first worked with Frears on the 2000 film High Fidelity.
Approaching a chamber piece like State of the Union also required close collaboration with his cinematographer, Mike Eley, and picture editor, Lucien Clayton, and their respective teams to create compelling visuals to bring Hornby's relationship-scrutinizing script to life.
"I give them a lot of credit," Frears says, "because it's not like normal direction. You have to pick your way through and find the story."
Ultimately, they were so successful at finding the story that State of the Union won three Emmys — Outstanding Actress in a Short Form Comedy or Drama Series (Pike), Outstanding Actor in a Short Form Comedy or Drama Series (O'Dowd) and Outstanding Short Form Comedy or Drama Series (shared by Frears, Hornby and producers Iain Canning, Hakan Kousetta, Jamie Laurenson and Emile Sherman) — and was renewed for a second season.
The new season, which premiered on February 14, revives the general structure of ten-minute conversations between a married couple prior to a therapy session, with some new elements. Most notable among them are the location and cast — this time, the setting is an American coffeehouse rather than a British pub, and the couple, played by Patricia Clarkson and Brendan Gleeson, is older, with decades of history and contrasting worldviews that bring fresh insights to the surface.
With its versatile format and rich possibilities for the examination of other fractured couples, State of the Union has the makings of an ongoing anthology.
"It's my franchise," Frears says with a smile.
Like the Marvel Cinematic Universe!
"Yes, in my modest way," he continues, chuckling. "All I say is, 'Where's the next one?' With the first one, I think Nick was working on some big Hollywood film, and he simply got bored and started to muck around with these two characters. That one went well, so he wrote another one. And I hope he'll go on writing them. They're a joy to do."
You've made many feature films, but you got your start in television at the BBC. How important was that in your development as a director?
It's where I learned how to make films. At one point I was making three films a year. You can't do better than that. John Ford made two-reelers in the '30s, Hitchcock made short films. You have to learn to do it and discover if you have anything to say.
The BBC gave you a foundation, and then you had success with movies like My Beautiful Laundrette, Dangerous Liaisons and so on. It doesn't sound like you abandoned television for cinema but rather, those were the jobs at the time.
It was complicated because when I was starting to make films in the '70s, British television was much better than British cinema. The best writers in the country were working in television, the best actors in the country. There wasn't really a cinema in the '70s. So, I worked in television, and then, if you work with the kind of writers I worked with, they're very, very clever people.
On different occasions when you have been asked what it takes to be a director, you have quoted Billy Wilder saying, "A director does not have to know how to write, but he does have to know how to read."
Yes. I can't write. I'm illiterate. I don't write at all.
When you read a script that appeals to you, how involved are you in story revisions and development?
I like to come in quite late. Normally, when I turn up, a lot of the problems have been solved. But if there's still a problem, then of course I raise the question. But I don't want to write them myself.
You've managed to avoid that and done very well.
Thank you, Billy Wilder!
Before State of the Union, you had worked with Nick Hornby on High Fidelity. What was the origin of State of the Union?
The first season came from Nick. He wrote to me and said, "Would you like to do this?" I read it and said, "Why would I not do it?"
What was the appeal of the material and the atypical format of 10-minute episodes?
I thought playing around with the structure was rather interesting, and the idea of 10-minute films was quite entertaining. And I love Nick's writing. It was just a pleasure to read.
State of the Union is small-scale and intimate, but you've done things on a much larger canvas. You even filmed a cattle drive in The Hi-Lo Country, your western with Woody Harrelson, Patricia Arquette and Billy Crudup.
Yes, I may be the only man in the world who's ever done a cattle drive.
So, you can handle a vast scale, but State of the Union is the opposite.
Well, you're really talking about being English.
How do you mean?
I came to America like a sort of child. I remember seeing North by Northwest and all that stuff outside Chicago, the crossroads where the bus is, and you just couldn't believe what you were seeing. I'd never been to America, and suddenly there was this enormous country. It never occurred to me that I would work there or live there. Coming to America was always a sort of adventure for me.
Some foreign filmmakers have disdain for Hollywood, but you seem to have a lot of respect for it.
When I was growing up, that was where the best films in the world were being made. By the late '50s, European films and other countries' films started being very good. But I basically grew up on British films, which were modest, and American films, which were monumental and glamorous and beautiful and told huge stories. I was absolutely in the middle. I can remember when I made Dangerous Liaisons with American actors. The joy of seeing those faces in closeup was so exciting.
You got your start in television, and after years of working primarily in film, you've been working more frequently in television lately.
The truth is, I go where the material is. I was offered very good things in television, so I did them.
You have a track record of success, so it sounds like you can wait for material to find you.
I live off good material. If I can't find good material, I'm in trouble. I think I've just been very, very lucky all my life.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.