Oscar-winning filmmaker David Frankel—who took the 1996 trophy for Best Live Action Short Film ("Dear Diary")—probably remains best known for The Devil Wears Prada. Though that Meryl Streep picture caused a splash, he also hit it big with Marley & Me and Hope Springs, the latter of which reteamed him with Streep. Frankel's other films include Miami Rhapsody and The Big Year. Now, he's telling the story of singing sensation Paul Potts in One Chance. I caught up with Frankel while he was in town to promote the film to the press and the public, as he brought One Chance to the Mill Valley Film Festival. We spoke at San Francisco's Ritz-Carlton Hotel.
Groucho: All right, I think the natural place to start here is to ask you about your feelings about opera. You’ve expressed an interest prior to this script being sent to you—
David Frankel: Yeah.
Groucho: In making a movie about opera. And why is that?
David Frankel: You know, my parents dragged me to the opera when I was growing up, and it was—my Dad always wanted to be an opera singer—
G: Yeah, he trained as a teenager.
DF: He trained as a teenager and got steered into journalism late in high school...but still sings a lot. And I was intrigued with this—it’s a very mysterious art form to most people. And yet it’s survived for centuries, and when you immerse yourself in it, it’s kind of stunning. It’s really impressive. It just seemed like a world of larger-than-life drama and passion. And that just seemed like a fun world. So then combining that interest with this fantastic inspirational tale of a working-class guy who had that dream to join that magical circus, and which was true, was really compelling to me.
G: You confessed to being somewhat of an opera neophyte up to making the film, right?
G: Have you gotten more serious about your opera studies since?
DF: I’ve got to admit, no. I think the last full opera I saw was—I was in Salzburg and went to see Mozart outdoors. I mean to begin. But at the same time, especially in the audition process for this movie—I mean, going into the studio and recording Paul [Potts] doing his singing and then auditioning the actresses who then sing in the movie, I was just blown away by their wealth of talent. It’s an incredible thing to sit as far as I’m sitting from you, and have this incredible noise come at you. And that human beings can make these sounds is remarkable.
G: So this is based on the true story of Paul Potts and how he broke through on Britain’s Got Talent. What was it like working with your lead character and walking the streets that he experienced the story on and then going and making that story?
DF: Well, I’d had a little bit of experience doing that when, going all the way back, I’d done a number of documentary dramas for HBO. So I did From the Earth to the Moon and worked with astronauts.
DF: And that was, you know, that similar feeling of "What was it like the first time you saw the Earth from space?’ And you’d turn and Commander Dave Scott would be standing there on the set with you, and he’d say, "Well, it looked like this, and this is—", you know. " What’d you feel?" You would get that. And then when I did Band of Brothers, again, there was an opportunity to talk to the vets—a couple of them are still alive—and get their insight. And you always felt this real obligation, not so much to get all the facts of the storytelling right, but to get the emotional experience right. And that was my goal in making One Chance is—a lot of the events that happen in the movie are absolutely true to Paul’s life. Some of them, we’ve taken some dramatic license in the way they’re depicted, but emotionally completely true: a childhood of bullying and parents who, you know, weren’t always the most supportive and yet [he] somehow had this passion that he couldn’t shake to be a singer—and stuck with it really in the face of not just physical adversity but just discouragement. Most of us give up our dreams. Most of us accept reality. And thankfully, in his case, right, I think, when he might have taken a different path, he met this wonderful woman who believed in him unconditionally. Believed in his talent and loved him unconditionally. And that’s such a special thing. And that’s what I really respond to in the script was the love story.
G: Now you’re here, with this film, basically at the birth of a movie star...because James Corden’s been a TV star in Britain, he’s been a West End and a Broadway star, with One Man, Two Guvnors. And now he’s going to break through as a movie star, it seems clear.
DF: I hope so. I mean, I think he deserves it. And that was one of the fun challenges of—we wanted to find something that American audiences especially didn’t know so that you could lose yourself in the story of Paul Potts, and at the same time, when the movie’s over, you go, "Who is that guy? He’s amazing!"
DF: And I think that the same way you watch Paul Potts become a star, you watch James Corden become a star right before your eyes. And I think that’s really thrilling.
G: Did he lobby at first to be considered for the singing voice—because he does sing? And then when was the determination made to use Potts’ voice?
DF: He does sing. He has a beautiful singing voice. It’s more of a Broadway voice than an opera voice. He was doing One Man, Two Guvnors last summer in New York, and he went to train with an opera coach. And pretty quickly he learned: 1) he couldn’t hit all the notes in Nessun Dorma, which just is not in his range, and 2) it’s such a different talent, it’s just the use of the body is very different in performing opera. So—and it would have taken—I think he could have done it, given enough time, but we didn’t have enough time. And I also thought, you know what, the audience is coming to see Paul Potts, let them hear Paul Potts too. So it’s all Paul singing in the movie—every note that’s sung is Paul. And what was unorthodox about it was that we learned—we did some prerecording of Paul singing, and we learned that that really limited James’ performance. He had to sing to the performance that Paul had given. So in the end, most of the way we did it was that James would sing on set and then Paul came in and post-synched the singing. So that was an extra challenge, but it meant that Paul’s performance could match James’ performance rather than the other way around. And that was probably the right way to do it.
G: Yeah. That’s interesting. Now something else that is unorthodox about One Chance is that the lion’s share of audience that comes to see the movie it seems to me already knows the ending, right?
G: The climax—there’s no chance of a spoiler really. In knowing that, how did you approach that climax in order to succeed with an audience, I guess?
DF: Well, first of all, I think the how is always more interesting than the what. And we’ve seen that time and again with episodes of every TV show ever made—when you know how it’s going to end—and most movies how they’re going to end. And we suspend disbelief, and that’s what happens. I think you go on this ride, and even though you get in his shoes, you feel for [the characters], and you have the emotional ride even though...it’s going to a place, you know—like sex, you know where it’s going—
G: And like comedy.
DF: It’s still good.
DF: You know, it just was important to make it feel as real as possible. And that was—you know, we faced a challenge. Do we use the original clip of Simon Cowell and the other judges? Or do we recreate that with Simon and the other judges? I always felt like their initial reaction was so powerful in telling the story that I really wanted to—I was desperate to use it. And there were technical challenges because it was shot in standard def and not high def and, you know, 2007 seems like so long ago in the world of cinema. But we used a lot of tricks I think make it work.
G: Yeah. Yeah. So, I know you get asked this all the time, but you’ve worked with Meryl Streep twice, and I wonder if you have any special insights—
DF: And Owen Wilson twice.
G: I wonder if you have any special insight into Streep’s process. Is there a story that comes to mind that illustrates what it’s like working with her?
DF: You know, the very first day that she worked—well, it probably wasn’t the very first day; it was the third day that we worked together. And it had gone pretty smoothly the first couple days, and I finally had to give her a note. And it wasn’t an acting note. I just—I wanted her to hold her look a little longer, for technical reasons. I wanted to be able to cut—I wanted to go to Annie and come back to you and still have that look on your face. And that felt a little bit unreal to her. And I said, "Well, you know, it’s—" and she called me out on that. She just felt like that wasn’t true to the moment. And I said, "Well, okay, fine. You know. You’re right. Do what feels true to the moment." So, she won the argument. But I won the war. She held the look longer, and it works properly in the movie. And that’s who she is. In other words, she understands the complete truth of the character and she also understands you’re making a movie. And so her commitment to the filmmaking process is so brave. She knows that it’s going to be edited. And so she’s not afraid to fail. Because she knows anytime she fails, it won’t be in the movie. And that ability to fail is what allows her to go—and it’s not that she’s ever bad—but it allows her to explore, so that no take is ever the same. And she knows you’ll pick one that’s hopefully the best. We struggled when I did Hope Springs. I mean there were ten good takes. For both Tommy and Meryl. And we actually included on the DVD the museum of acting. I said, "Take a look at this, You know, I don’t know which take—any one of these could have been in the movie. They’re all extraordinary and different—and the shadings." So that’s the thrill of working with people who are the best at what they do—maybe ever!
G: Yeah. You’re signed, I think, to make a film, Magyk, is that right? Are you working on that?
DF: You know, I had been working on that with the producer and Warner Brothers. We did a test with ILM up here, and it’s in limbo at the moment. I would say back burner. I don’t know. It may proceed. It’s a fantastic series of books, you know—real fantasy world. Like, I enjoy the books, gave them to my kids, they got hooked on it, and I know millions of kids have loved the books and—so maybe it will get made. There’s no plans right now.
G: That sends you back to the pile of scripts.
DF: Yeah. There’s—I’m still sifting through. I don’t know what’s next.
G: So going back to One Chance for a minute, I read in the press notes that Corden came up with the idea of how to introduce Potts’ family.
DF: Yes, for the opening scene where there’s no dialogue.
DF: James wrote that scene.
G: How did he come to write that scene? I know he’s a writer.
DF: The process—he’s a writer, because he wrote a lot of Gavin & Stacey. The process in our case would be—we had our original screenplay by Justin. And then there were some rewrites done to that, which a bunch of people, including me, worked on. And then, as we approached the shooting, I would say, "Gee, I’m not totally happy with this scene." And I would write a version of it, and I would give it to him, and he would then rewrite it literally. Like, I would hand him my computer and he would sit and rewrite it. And in that case I did a version of the scene, and I handed it to him, and he said, "No, they shouldn’t talk at all. It’s terrible!" And it was like three pages of dialogue: [makes an "out the window" sound]. And he said, "They should just do this." And he described the scene. And I took notes and wrote it up, and he said "Perfect," and that’s what we shot.
G: That shows a lot of trust and flexibility on your part as a director.
DF: Well, collaboration with really, really talented people is the best part of my job. And it’s all about letting them do what they do best. And James has fantastic instincts, so that’s where you’re giving to the audience...you know, that gift.
G: Well, lastly, I think I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask you about shooting in Venice, which had to have been both stressful and glorious.
DF: Yeah. It was mostly glorious. I love Venice. I was married in Venice. So, for me, going back there every time is very romantic. And it’s a very romantic time in this character’s life. And of course the production was fearful. "Ohh, the Italians are so slow and you’re moving on boats, and there’s wine and how will you get any work done?" And in fact, they were marvels of efficiency. The boats were faster than working on trucks. The crew was incredibly dedicated. You had to get lucky with the weather of course, but it’s fantastic—the whole experience. And we actually went back and shot a little bit more a few months ago and everything went really, really smoothly. So I just love it. I love to share my love and passion for the city.
G: That certainly comes through. Well, thanks for talking to us. It’s been great.
DF: Oh, my pleasure. Thank you.