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Jay Allison, Curator of "This I Believe"

Peabody award-winning independent radio producer Jay Allison. His radio series include "Life Stories", "Lost and Found Sound" (with The Kitchen Sisters) and the "Sonic Memorial Project." He created -- an online resource for newcomers to radio production. Along with producer Dan Gediman he created the "This I Believe" series, currently on NPR, modeled after the Edward R. Murrow series. Many of the essays are collected in a new book, and on CD.


Other segments from the episode on October 16, 2006

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, October 16, 2006: Interview with Jay Allison; Interview with Stephen Frears.


DATE October 16, 2006 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: Jay Allison talks about revived version of 1951 radio
series "This I believe," new companion book with same title and
public radio

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Edward R. Murrow launched a radio series in 1951 called "This I Believe."
Each installment featured someone, often someone famous, reading a personal
essay about the guiding principles of his or her life. "This I Believe" was
recently revived and airs regularly on "Morning Edition" and "All Things
Considered." My guest Jay Allison hosts the series and co-created it with Dan
Gediman. They've also just edited a book and a collection of companion CDs
called "This I Believe" that feature essays from the new series, along with
ones from the original series. Allison is considered one of the most
important independent producers in the history of public radio, and he's won
all the big awards, including five Peabodys. He lives in Cape Cod and founded
three radio stations to serve the area. He also founded, a Web
site that serves as a showcase for audio pieces and a forum for radio
producers. It was the first Web site to win the Peabody. Let's start with
Edward R. Murrow's essay that launched "This I Believe" in 1951.

(Soundbite from "This I Believe")

Mr. EDWARD R. MURROW: We hardly need to be reminded that we are living in
an age of confusion. A lot of us have traded in our beliefs for bitterness
and cynicism or for a heavy package of despair or even a quivering portion of
hysteria. Around us all, now high like a distant thunderhead, now close upon
us with the wet choking intimacy of a London fog, there is an enveloping cloud
of fear. There is a physical fear, the kind that drives some of us to flee
our homes and burrow into the ground in the bottom of a Montana valley, like a
prairie dog to try to escape, if only for a little while, the sound and the
fury of the A bombs or the hell bombs or whatever may be coming.

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: That's Edward Murrow introducing the original series, "This I
Believe." Jay Allison, welcome to FRESH AIR.

Mr. JAY ALLISON: Hi, Terry.

GROSS: You know, Murrow talks in his commentary about us living in an age of
fear and confusion.

Mr. ALLISON: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: Do you feel like we are still in that kind of age?

Mr. ALLISON: Well, don't you? Yes, I do. And I think we're afraid of each
other. And we are certainly afraid of the other. And partly because we don't
understand them, and I think there's something so disarming about hearing
someone and hearing them on the radio, and they sneak past your defenses and
you can't help sense them as human beings. You know, we don't have earlids, I
always say, and it leaves us a little bit vulnerable to ambush by the emotion
that's contained in another person's voice.

GROSS: Your new book and the CDs that come with it bring together new essays
written for your version of "This I Believe" and combine that with some of the
essays recorded for the original 1950s series, and since the new essays are
airing a lot on NPR, I thought we'd go back and listen to another one from the
1950s. And this one features Margaret Sanger who founded the first birth
control clinic in the United States in 1916 and founded the American Birth
Control League, which later became Planned Parenthood, and this is her talking
a little bit about working, you know, fighting for the availability of
contraception. Do you want to say anything about this, Jay, before we hear

Mr. ALLISON: Her essay, it begins in a way that is resonant with a lot of
the essays that are written for us now, and they are about belief forged in
hardship and tested by difficulty and in proximity to death and illness which
are the times when life becomes most precious and you maybe think most deeply
about it. So many of our essays come as a result of an experience with
illness, particularly cancer these days, but Margaret Sanger begins her essay
saying all our basic convictions must be tested and transmuted in the crucible
of experience, and sometimes the more bitter the experience, the more valid
the purified belief.

GROSS: I don't think I ever heard Margaret Sanger's voice before hearing this
commentary. So why don't we hear it? This is from the 1950s version of "This
I Believe."

(Soundbite from "This I Believe")

Ms. MARGARET SANGER: As a nurse, I was in contact with the ill and the
infirm. I knew something about the health and disease of bodies. But for a
long time I was baffled at the tremendous personal problems of life, of
marriage, of living and just of being. Here indeed was a challenge to build
beyond thyself. I believed it was my duty to place beyond motherhood on a
higher level than enslavement and accident. For these beliefs, I was
denounced, arrested, I was in and out of police courts and higher courts, and
indictments hung over my life for several years. But nothing could alter my
belief because I saw these as truths and I stubbornly stuck to my convictions.

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: That's Margaret Sanger as recorded in the early 1950s for the radio
series, "This I Believe." Jay Allison produces the new version of "This I
Believe," which has been running on NPR programs, and now he's edited a book
and CD collection of new and old "This I Believe" essays.

You've done a lot of reports over the years for NPR and also for "Nightline."
But you've also done a lot over the years facilitating other people to tell
their stories...

Mr. ALLISON: Yeah.

GROSS: ...and to make their programs, and I guess I'm wondering why you've
wanted to spend so much time facilitating other people's ability to use the
audio medium to do their work and to tell their stories.

Mr. ALLISON: Payback. You know, I got--I was an aimless youth
and--wandering through Washington at the time that public radio and National
Public Radio particularly began, and a guy there, Keith Talbot, the same
person who got my friend Ira Glass into radio, loaned me a tape recorder, a
little reel-to-reel machine, and said, `Hey, look, we're just looking for
interesting stuff,' and, you know, I'd been a theater director and I was
really at loose ends, and this tape recorder organized my life. I felt like
it gave me permission to go out and find out about things I didn't know about
and people I didn't know about and then take maybe those theatrical skills and
put them to use, shaping what they told me and try to find out what was
essential about it. And it was liberating and it also seemed as though it was
the point of what we should be doing on public radio, which is giving us all a
chance to speak and listen, and I love that idea. I loved the notion that we
could have and use this precious little space on the radio dial to talk to
each other in decent and revealing ways and funny ways and real ways. So I
just started every way I could to kind of pass that on, and I do it in all
sorts of ways now with--I buy tape recorders on e-Bay and loan them out and I
work with people in telling their stories. I've got Web sites that are built
to help people figure out how to use the gear and get their stuff on the
radio, and it's endlessly gratifying and much more interesting than telling my
own story over and over again.

GROSS: So, you know, you mentioned one of the things you do now. You have a
Web site called in which you showcase the work of new producers
and people who aren't producers but just want to work with audio...

Mr. ALLISON: Yeah, this people...

GROSS: talk a little bit about what the purpose of Transom is.

Mr. ALLISON: It's kind of a master class and a workshop and an audition
stage, and we invite great storytellers to come hold forth for a month at a
time, and everyone from people like Norman Corwin and Studs Terkel to Sarah
Vowell and Ira Glass and people from other media, writers like Rick Moody or
filmmakers like Errol Morris, all talking about this kind of documentary work
and trying to figure out how to tell about life in honest and in new ways,
too. I think a lot of what we do on public radio tends to sound like what we
did yesterday. And Transom's very much dedicated to the idea that we've got
to figure out how to change the tone, how to change the style, so we invite
people to make their own stories, we give them all the tools, so there are
pages and pages and pages there of everything from, you know, what microphone
to buy and how to work a digital audio editing system and all that stuff, and
then people send us what they made and we put that on the site. And now we
have an hourlong radio broadcast we distribute to stations called "The Transom
Radio Hour" that puts it altogether, puts together the, you know, imminent
storytellers with the new storytellers--all of it, the idea being to encourage
listeners to become participants, to make listeners the content of what we do.

GROSS: I want to play something that's on the Transom Web site, and this is
by somebody named David Greenberger, who I know you've worked with for
Transom, so before we hear it, tell us something about him and what kind of
audio work he's doing.

Mr. ALLISON: He's such an interesting guy. He used to work in a nursing
home up around Boston, and he would just talk to the people there and then bit
by bit almost began collaborating with them in a sense conversationally, and
they would tell him about their lives, which were rich and surprising, and he
would record and then write down what they say, and we worked a lot--we had
him come up to Cape Cod, Martha's Vineyard in Nantucket, where I live, and we
have our radio stations, and we just visit and talk with people, and then he
renders them in this amazing way where he becomes almost a lyricist and
vocalist and gets bands to back him up as he says their words in a way that
makes you hear them. It's different from a lot of the work we do which is
really about having a primary speaker tell his own story. David's a kind of a
translator/interpreter, and his notion is that you will hear these stories
more clearly through his--and I think you do, through the attachment he has
and through his memory of the conversation maybe than you would if it was an
old person speaking and your first thought was `This person is old,' and so
when David's voice says it, it makes you think differently about the content.

GROSS: OK, so this is David Greenberger and you can find this on the Web site.

(Soundbite of music)

(Soundbite of David Greenberger)

Mr. DAVID GREENBERGER: (Reading) "My husband's father was a genius. He had
16 patents in his own name and he was a brain, but he had no feelings, just
all brains. My husband, he did as little as possible. He didn't like to
work. I don't remember how long we were married, but it seemed like a long
time. It was a lot of fun to start with. He just got a little sober when he
got older and not much fun, and you got to keep me laughing if you want to
make me happy."

(Soundbite of fiddle music)

Mr. GREENBERGER: (Reading) "Anyway, he died. Gosh. I can't remember when
he died...

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: That's David Greenberger and that's one of the many pieces that's on
the Web site, which was created by my guest Jay Allison and who is
also the co-producer of the "This I Believe" series, and now the "This I
Believe," old and new from the Edward R. Murrow days and the new NPR days are
collected in a new book and CD collection.

When you started on radio, did people say to you, `Oh, you have a great radio

Mr. ALLISON: No, I don't think I do particularly. I mean, all my early
pieces, I wasn't in them at all. I just--they were just other people and the
one time--I did a piece about a tattooist in Washington, DC, and I actually
had to put in a line of narration. I was scared to death. I recorded it
probably 50 times, you know, just trying to get my voice to relax, you know,
because, you know, when you to talk, then you have to decide who you are and
how you sound, and that's very disconcerting, I think, for people. I mean,
every time I coach one of these "This I Believe" essays--I do them all over
the phone and people go to studios where they are, and they're so nervous, I
think, because this idea of `Who am I? How do I sound? How should I sound?'
And it's taken me a long time to feel remotely comfortable with it, and you
know, I still don't even. I mean, even sitting here and talking to you, part
of my brain is wondering how do I sound?

GROSS: Well you say you have to figure out who you are before you can start
recording. That sounds like a very theater thing to say, but you're not in a
role when you're playing yourself.

Mr. ALLISON: But we're performing, aren't we? I mean, I think that's
something that maybe a lot of the newspaper reporters who now are at Public
Radio need to understand is that it is a performance medium. We have to keep
people's attention. We have to be aware of rhythm and pace and climax and
scene setting and all those sorts of values that maybe aren't associated with
media that aren't based in time.

GROSS: Well, you just put yourself on the paradox of what we often try to do
in radio, which is like, `Be yourself, don't be phony, be natural, be
yourself, but make sure that you're lively and funny and focused and...

Mr. ALLISON: I know, it's not easy.

GROSS: know, so it's really hard, and it makes being yourself kind of

Mr. ALLISON: I think sometimes, I mean, I use a lot of my old theater
director techniques in working with people to get them to do that and some of
it is to find a different point of focus than any of those things and get them
to maybe just stand up instead of sitting down or to have them yell it through
one time and then say, `OK, good, now just speak it but just the way you did
when you were'--and people sometimes find--they have to get around themselves.
They have to get past themselves to be themselves.

GROSS: Jay Allison is the co-creator of the revived version of "This I
Believe" and co-editor of the new companion book.

This is FRESH AIR.

We just heard from one of the more influential producers in the history of
public radio. The only reason why public radio has survived long enough to
have a history is that listeners have cared enough to support it through the
years. Your station is fund raising today. Please call with a pledge. Thank


GROSS: Let's get back to our interview with public radio producer Jay
Allison, co-creator of the series and co-editor of the book, "This I Believe."

Now you moved to Cape Cod in 1986, and in 2000 you started a new NPR radio
station on the Cape, and another NPR radio station in Nantucket, and now
there's a third on Martha's vineyard. Was it...

Mr. ALLISON: Well, they're all really--what, they're three sticks, as we
call them. They're three transmitters, but they all come from one place.
It's hard to cover that area because as, you know, there's so much darn water.

GROSS: That's right. These are--you know, there's the Cape and then there's
the two islands. So was there no easy-to-hear public radio there? I know you
could, when the weather was good, draw in the Boston stations.

Mr. ALLISON: Yeah, they drifted in. But you know, Cape Cod and the islands
are not Boston, and I felt--I mean, being a public radio lifer, for one thing,
but also then just a resident of a community, I felt like, `Oh, this place
needs its own public radio station. We need to have our own identity
reflected. We need to understand each other better here. And so starting the
stations was to do that. And also, I wanted to know my neighbors better, and
I wanted the radio station to be a way that maybe that could happen.

GROSS: Well, you said, you know, you wanted the local stations to have a
sense of place, a sense of the local identity, and one of the ways you've done
that is through what you describe as `Sonic IDs.' Tell us what they are.

Mr. ALLISON: They're like tiny little portraits or stories that air
interstitially through the broadcast. I mean, most public radio stations now
have block programming, even like yours, with all due respect, and there's not
much time left to carve out the local identity, and some stations have, say, a
call-in show or other things, but we use the tiny little bits of time in
between to try to--like a signature for our place. So we go out and we record
stories and little portraits and overheard conversations and poems and songs,
and we invite the listeners to call in, and they tell us stories and all of
these air in like 30 and 60-second breaks and they're unheralded. They don't
have titles. It's just they just pop out so you have this sense of parallel
existence between the place you live and then the news you're hearing of the
world you live in, and if they're good, I think what you do is you look at the
radio, and if I'm sitting with someone and they're listening, and then I see
them turn to look at the radio when one of these comes on, then I know that it

GROSS: That's funny. You're looking at the radio. I know exactly what you
mean. I want to play one of the Sonic IDs that you did, and it's about
scallops clapping. Do these shellfish actually clap? What does that mean?

Mr. ALLISON: I need to correct you because they're called `scollops' up
where we come from but I came from--I grew up further south, and I actually
went on the air and introduced them as `scollops.' They, you know, clap their
shells, you'll hear. But the local `scollopers' called the radio station and
said, `Look, tell Allison we don't know where he comes from but up here we
call them `scollops,' so I had to go back and retrack the ID and now I'm
correcting you.

GROSS: So tell us what we're going to be hearing.

Mr. ALLISON: `Scollops' clapping.

GROSS: OK, here it goes.

(Soundbite from Sonic ID)

Mr. ALLISON: Listen.

(Soundbite of scollops clapping)

Mr. ALLISON: Scollops clapping. On Martha's Vineyard. You're listening to
the Cape and Islands NPR stations, a service of WGBH radio.

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: You know, I eat scallops but I--who knew that they make sounds like
that? I didn't know that.

Mr. ALLISON: Yeah, well, after they're caught, they sit there and they kind
of gulp.

GROSS: Oh. And there's another Sonic ID I want our listeners to hear and
this'll speak for itself.

(Soundbite from Sonic ID)

Mr. STEVEN HAMBLIN: The worst thing about living on Nantucket for a

(Soundbite of slow music)

Mr. HAMBLIN: probably the boredom.

Mr. ALLISON: Steven Hamblin of Nantucket.

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: So, Jay, how did this bored teenager find his way to the radio

Mr. ALLISON: Somebody found him. I mean, we have people going out with tape
recorders all the time. Like I said, I get old cassette recorders and things
off eBay and we invite our listeners to come borrow them and take them out and
record things. And that one was done by an intern and set to music and the
music's just right. But you know, a lot of the pieces we have are--it's kind
of an ongoing oral history project in a way because we'll go out and record
people who have been living there for generations and just the sound of their
voices--you can tell that sound, that accent is going, and we've recorded
people who have died soon thereafter. We continued to keep their stories in
rotation. You know, I have to go back and retrack it, and I say, `The late
whoever-it-was.' But bit by bit, over the years, we're developing this kind of
community oral history of people describing the place we live. That's what
they're all really about. We all live in this place together. We're all
neighbors, and here's another one of us.

GROSS: So has your listening changed? Do you actually listen to radio a lot?

Mr. ALLISON: Well, I do because we've got these little public radio stations
that I started, and I really love listening to them, and I love it when they
do something wonderful. When, you know, one of the--there's a moment on that
station that's thrilling, It--I--you know, it's thrilling to me. There was a
rare bird, for instance, out on Martha's Vineyard, and our local bird guy
called in on the cell phone in the middle of morning edition and said, `I'm on
my way--you know, there's hasn't been a falcon like this here ever in my
experience. Wait'--and he was yelling at other drivers, and it was all on the
air, and the thrill he had and the host trying to, you know, moderate it.
Completely unexpected, happening in the instance, and you know, for that, I
would listen to the radio.

GROSS: Well, Jay Allison, thanks so much for talking with us.

Mr. ALLISON: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: Jay Allison co-created the revived version of "This I Believe" and
co-edited the new companion book.

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. And this is NPR, National Public Radio.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Coming up, Stephen Frears talks about directing his new film "The
Queen" about Queen Elizabeth and Tony Blair in the week following the death of
Princess Diana. Frears also directed "My Beautiful Laundrette," "The
Grifters," "High Fidelity" and "Dirty Pretty Things."


* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Film director Stephen Frears talks about his new movie,
"The Queen"

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest Stephen Frears directed the films "My Beautiful Laundrette," "Prick
Up Your Ears," "The Grifters," "High Fidelity," "Dirty Pretty Things" and
"Mrs. Henderson Presents." His new film "The Queen" reflects on the place of
the monarchy in contemporary England in an era when the public and the media
are obsessed with celebrity. The film is set in the week following the death
of Princess Diana when thousands of people have gathered in front of the
palace to mourn her. But the queen insists on trying to keep the death a
quiet family affair and withdraws from the public. The new prime minister,
Tony Blair, sees the public response and tries to convince the queen she needs
to emerge and acknowledge the public's grief. The queen is played by Helen
Mirren, Blair by Michael Sheen. Sheen also played Blair in a film Frears made
for British television. In this scene from "The Queen," Blair calls the queen
after Diana's death.

(Soundbite from "The Queen")

Mr. MICHAEL SHEEN: (As Prime Minister Tony Blair) Good morning, Your
Majesty. May I say right away how very sorry I am.

Ms. HELEN MIRREN: (As Queen Elizabeth II) Thank you.

Mr. SHEEN: (As Prime Minister Tony Blair) Is it your intention to make some
kind of appearance or statement?

Ms. MIRREN: (As Queen Elizabeth II) No, no. Certainly not. No member of
the royal family will speak publicly about this. This is a private matter.

Mr. SHEEN: (As Prime Minister Tony Blair) I don't suppose anyone's had time
to think about the funeral yet.

Ms. MIRREN: (As Queen Elizabeth II) We've spoken with the Spencer family,
and it is their wish--it is their expressed wish--that this should be a
private funeral.

Mr. SHEEN: (As Prime Minister Tony Blair) Right. The public, ma'am? The
British people? You don't think a private funeral might be denying them a

Ms. MIRREN: (As Queen Elizabeth II) A chance to what? This is a family
funeral, Mr. Blair, not a fairground attraction. I think the princess has
already paid a high enough price for exposure to the press, don't you? No, if
there's nothing else, I must get on. The children have to be looked after.

Mr. SHEEN: (As Prime Minister Tony Blair) Of course. Well, goodbye, Your...

(Soundbite of phone hanging up)

Mr. SHEEN: (as Prime Minister Tony Blair) ...Majesty.

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: Stephen Frears, welcome back to FRESH AIR. What interested you in the
angle of this movie?

Mr. STEPHEN FREARS: Well, it was the idea of writing a film about the queen.
I mean, no one's ever made a film about the queen, except the very, very...

GROSS: Is that right?

Mr. FREARS: No, no, no. To me that was absolutely shocking to even suggest
it. So in that sense, it was incredibly interesting.

GROSS: Why is it shocking to even suggest it?

Mr. FREARS: Because she's the queen. She's my queen, she's not your queen.
I can see you got rid of her, but she's my queen.

GROSS: Well, that's the thing. You know, I think the Americans don't really
quite understand the place of the queen in English society and in the culture.

Mr. FREARS: Well, it is very, very hard to explain because it is so
contradictory to the notion of democracy. No, we're governed--we're
ruled--I'm not a citizen. I'm a subject, which is very, very galling and
humiliating. You have a head start on me. But we're ruled over by this
family in this extraordinary way. How much power they have is more

GROSS: When the film begins, Tony Blair has just been elected prime

Mr. FREARS: Yes.

GROSS: And he goes to meet the queen...

Mr. FREARS: Yes.

GROSS: ...and he wants his government to be very informal. He is...

Mr. FREARS: Yes.

GROSS: ...the queen's 10th prime minister. Her first was Churchill and their
styles are completely opposite. She's very...

Mr. FREARS: Well, he was...

GROSS: Go ahead.

Mr. FREARS: ...he was elected on a very moderning platform. You know, he
came in saying he was going to change everything, which Britain needed at the
time. And he was enormously popular, won a huge majority and was thought to
be in touch with the people.

GROSS: So he comes in, this like popular figure, in touch with the people,
`Call me Tony,' very informal, and the queen is, of course, all about
emotional reserve and traditional formalities...

Mr. FREARS: Yes. Absolutely.

GROSS: And you know, they're in a couple of scene together, but mostly the
Blair scenes and the queen scenes are separate...

Mr. FREARS: Yes.

GROSS: It's almost as if you're making two different movies, shot in
different styles...

Mr. FREARS: Absolutely.

GROSS: ...with different--it's like two completely different styles of
filmmaking. Can you talk about that a little bit?

Mr. FREARS: Well, the royal family that week were up in their house in
Scotland. Well, their house is like some fairy land. It's very, very remote,
rather old-fashioned, rather Germanic. You know, very like Disneyland, big
towers on the buildings and things like that. They were completely cut off,
so, yes, we did shoot it in a different style to illustrate their sort of

GROSS: So, are there things you did in terms of the filmmaking to shoot the
queen's scenes and the Tony Blair's scenes differently?

Mr. FREARS: Yes. I shot the Tony Blair on 16-millimeter, and I shot the
queen on 35. I mean, quite...

GROSS: What's the difference between the two and why did you do that?

Mr. FREARS: Well, 16-millimeter, which I don't think you use a lot in this
country, but in my country, it's much more sort of demotic. Most of
television is shot in 16-millimeter or it was shot on 16-millimeter.
Thirty-five-millimeter is a much more beautiful, you know, image that you
associate much more with Hollywood movies. So it was really to demonstrate
the difference between the two worlds.

GROSS: You know, I think one of the questions the film asks is like what's
the role of the royal family in an era of celebrity. I mean, the royals were
like the celebrities in a while, but now we have TV and we have movie stars to
gossip about, and celebrities have kind of like replaced the royal family in
some ways.

Mr. FREARS: I thought you were going to ask me what the role of the royal
family was in a democracy. Apart from the queen, the children are all treated
like celebrities. Diana was treated like a celebrity. They fit effortlessly
into celebrity, but it's their role in democracy that is eccentric and

GROSS: But do they have a role in a democracy? I thought their role was to
be celebrities, you know, but to be a different kind of celebrity than...

Mr. FREARS: They--well, that's right, but, of course, the queen doesn't like

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. FREARS: She resists that. She's never given an interview in her life.

GROSS: Never? Wow!

Mr. FREARS: No, no.

GROSS: So is there an official role for the royal family in a democracy?

Mr. FREARS: Only in the most peculiar and complicated and British sort of
way. It is most mysterious how it all works. Of course, the events of the
film--that's the only time really in my life when the queen's ever been
criticized and appear to get something wrong, to misjudge the mood of the
country. Normally, she gets it right and is praised for that.

GROSS: And she was criticized for withdrawing the family for private grief as
opposed to joining with the public...

Mr. FREARS: Yes, but not realizing...

GROSS: ...and sharing their grief.

Mr. FREARS: ...but not realizing what the public wanted. That the public
wanted something more demonstrative and the queen wasn't capable of doing it,
or didn't, of course, want to do it and was very reluctant.

GROSS: Now Helen Mirren is incredible as...

Mr. FREARS: Incredible.

GROSS: the queen in your movie, "The Queen," and she's an unlikely
choice in some senses and a perfect choice in others. I mean, she already
played the first Queen Elizabeth. At the same time she's also famous for her
roles as sexually kinky women...

Mr. FREARS: Sexy women. Yes.

GROSS: Yeah. I mean, and two of the movies I can think of are "The Cook, the
Thief, Her Wife and His Lover"...

Mr. FREARS: Yes.

GROSS: ... and also a Paul Schrader film, "The Comfort of Strangers."

Mr. FREARS: Yes.

GROSS: So, tell me about casting her.

Mr. FREARS: Well, it wasn't--Helen wasn't my idea. She was really the
producer's idea. He also produces "Prime Suspect," and I think he said that
one day...


Mr. FREARS: ...sitting in a reading for "Prime Suspect," he thought that
Helen, in a certain light and from a certain angle, looked like the queen. So
he came to me and said would I be interested in making a second film about
Tony Blair, this time about these events and with Helen playing the queen. So
Helen and I met, and I thought she'd be very good. I mean, I can't pretend I
gave it a lot of thought. She just seemed a very good idea.

GROSS: Are there things you told her about what you wanted from her in the

Mr. FREARS: No, no. If you're British, you know, the queen has been in my
life for 60 years so I don't really have to talk about her a lot. The queen
will have been in Helen's life for more or less the same amount of time. You
know, she's absolutely part of our national psyche. I mean, I guess you don't
have anybody like that in America because you don't have a permanent head of
state, but she--you know, if you post a letter in Britain, there's a picture
of the queen on it, so she just is part of our lives. So we start from a sort
of common basis of an enormous amount of knowledge. You know, we know a lot
about the queen; at the same time, of course, we know nothing about the queen.
So there wasn't really one of those little conversations that you can imagine.

GROSS: My guest is film director Stephen Frears. His new film is called "The

We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Stephen Frears and he directed
the new film, "The Queen."

You've directed so many different kinds of films.

Mr. FREARS: Yes.

GROSS: You know, there was "My Beautiful Laundrette" about a Pakistani
immigrant in England who's gay. There's "Prick Up Your Ears" about the
playwright Joe Orton, and you know, jumping ahead to more recently, we have
"High Fidelity" about used record store owner.

Mr. FREARS: Yes.

GROSS: "Dirty Pretty Things" about illegal immigrants in England living in
this kind of world in which they try to stay invisible, and that's a thriller.
I'm leaving out a lot of films in-between. But there's such a great contrast
between "The Queen" and "High Fidelity," you know, between like the queen's...

Mr. FREARS: Maybe Jack Black should have played the queen.

GROSS: Yeah. The queen's palace and like...

Mr. FREARS: Yes.

GROSS: ...the used record store that "High Fidelity" is set in. "High
Fidelity" is based on a novel by Nick Hornby, and in the movie John Cusack
plays the owner of a used record store who always makes top 10 lists...

Mr. FREARS: Yes.

GROSS: ...not only of his favorite records but even of like his top 10

Mr. FREARS: Girlfriends. Yeah.

GROSS: Yeah, worst breakups...

Mr. FREARS: Everything.

GROSS: ...and top 10 best girlfriends.

Mr. FREARS: That's right.

GROSS: They're really top fives. I always call them top tens because I
always think of top tens. But--what was your connection to that material?

Mr. FREARS: To "High Fidelity"?

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. FREARS: Well, of course it was originally a British novel, and I guess I
understand that, and John Cusack I directed in "The Grifters." There was
nothing--I mean, well, I suppose the only thing I didn't particularly
understand was the music. But I understood the book, the rest--everything
else about the book, and once I'd got over the shock of transferring it
from--to the US from London, which didn't take long--as soon as I read the
script I realized that London was less important than I'd imagined. No, I
felt very, very at home with it. And also, everybody else on the set was sort
of world experts on music, so it was, I think, quite a relief--it was quite
helpful that I knew nothing about music. I could judge everything from sort
of different values and protect the film in some way.

GROSS: One of the things that I really like about the adaptation is first of
all you preserve the voice of the writer Nick Hornby...

Mr. FREARS: Yes.

GROSS: ... by doing a lot of voiceovers.

Mr. FREARS: Yes.

GROSS: In fact...

Mr. FREARS: That seemed very, very important.

GROSS: ...let's stop there for a second and play one of the voiceovers from
the movie and this is John Cusack, the used record store owner.

(Soundbite of "High Fidelity")

Mr. JOHN CUSACK: (As record store owner) I own this store called
Championship Vinyl. It's located in a neighborhood that attracts the bare
minimum of window shoppers. I get by because the people make a special effort
to shop here. Mostly young men who spend all their time looking for deleted
Smith singles and original, not re-released underlined, Frank Zappa albums.

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: That's John Cusack in a scene from "High Fidelity," which was directed
by my guest Stephen Frears. How--is it difficult to direct convincing
voiceovers like hat in a movie in which we're actually seeing--the character's
talking to us. He's on camera talking to us.

Mr. FREARS: Yes, in fact, we changed it. It was--when I originally read the
American manuscript, it was voiceover, and we changed it to direct address
because I thought it was so important. It was always clear to me that the
book meant a lot to people. You know, young people really cared about the
book, and you have to treat the book with tremendous respect and one of the
things that pleased me about the script that I read that was set in Chicago
was that it showed you a way to get to the important bits of the book. The
important bits of the book are, in fact, unspoken thoughts. They're John
Cusack's thoughts really. So we really were always trying to find devices
that would enable us to use the passages, these brilliant passages in Nick
Hornby's book which described the character's--you know, inside of his head.

GROSS: Something else I thought you really got right in the movie adaptation
is the record store really looks like a used record store, and John Cusack's
apartment is perfect. It's all kind of like sagging record shelves. You
know, it's not one of these like TV sitcom apartments with a great big kitchen

Mr. FREARS: Yes.

GROSS: ...a lovely living room. It's just all record shelves.

Mr. FREARS: Well, I know what it's like to be the depressed young man, so I
guess you start from that.

GROSS: Did you...

Mr. FREARS: I don't know. You're really only saying, `Well, you did your
job well.' You know, that was the job. To get that right. If you got that
wrong, you wouldn't have made half as good a film.

GROSS: Well, that's the point. You did it right.

Mr. FREARS: But there were people who would have--yes, but that's what I'm
paid to do--is get it right. I mean, that's what I celebrate really.

GROSS: Right.

Mr. FREARS: But there were people around, you know, I mean if I--if it
somehow looked the way you described, like something out of a sitcom, you
know, John would have told me. I mean, people would have queued up to say how
wrong we were. So we had a lot of experts on the set.

GROSS: When you started to make movies, let's see, what year was that

Mr. FREARS: I made my first film in 1967 and my first full-length film in

GROSS: OK. So what was going on then in the part of British film culture
that you were most interested in?

Mr. FREARS: It was about a rather poor time in British cinema. It was very,
very good time toward the end of the '50s and early '60s. Then it all became
about music. The Beatles came, the Stones came, and music really took over
from the movies. And all through the '70s, it was a very, very dull time in
British cinema. We were all working in British television, which was where
the good films were actually being made, and then it resurfaced again in the
middle of the '80s when I made one of the films that did it, I suppose. No,
there were various things happened. There were all the films out of Bill
Crest, "Chariots of Fire" and then I made "My Beautiful Laundrette." But that
particular time--what I really remember about it is the Americans left London.
In other words, there were various periods when the American studios had
offices in London to make films out of London, and then I guess, when they
start to lose money or the subject matter starts to run dry, the Americans go
somewhere else. I'm surprised...(unintelligible)...the American.

GROSS: So what was it about British television that made it a good place to
be making movies in the '70s?

Mr. FREARS: Well, we weren't really making movies. We were making films and
it was just a very, very creative period. Television was quite new in
Britain, and it was just where all the forward-thinking people were working.
So when I was making films in the '70s, they were being written by the best
writers in the country, they had the best actors in the country. It was a
sort of wonderful time to be working there. There was no commercial
obligations at all. You simply made them, they went out, people were
interested in them because, of course, it was a new subject, it was really the
new Britain that was emerging.

GROSS: And the new Britain that was emerging, that's something that you
really got in "My Beautiful Laundrette."

Mr. FREARS: Well, yes. That was, of course, late. And, no, I really mean
the Britain that produced--it really--you know, the climax was the Beatles

GROSS: Oh, that new Britain.

Mr. FREARS: The Beatles--yes, that new Britain.

GROSS: That new Britain.

Mr. FREARS: Well the Beatles were the product of huge social changes, which
were tied up with the war.

GROSS: So how did you get to that in your movies. Like what--how did you
connect to those changes?

Mr. FREARS: Well, I became one of the filmmakers who were making films
about--not about the sort of traditional view of Britain but about what it was
like to be British at that particular moment, having experienced all those

GROSS: And what...

Mr. FREARS: In a way...

GROSS: ...yeah.

Mr. FREARS: ..."My Beautiful Laundrette" was what it was like to be British
in the middle of the 1980s...

GROSS: Right.

Mr. FREARS: ...and to have had that sort of legacy of empire.

GROSS: Just getting back to the '70s for a second, what did the Beatles mean
in your life? I mean, you were much deeper into film than into music. But
did you feel the change...

Mr. FREARS: They were huge.

GROSS: ...either musically or culturally--yeah. Can you talk about that?

Mr. FREARS: Yes, there was a huge social change. I mean, basically, before
the war, there was no working-class culture. It simply didn't exist. And
then because of the war, there were changes in things like education, so
suddenly young people--young working-class people were being educated
properly, and they started appearing. They started writing books and they
started making films and they started making music, and eventually they turned
into the Beatles.

GROSS: And that...

Mr. FREARS: The Beatles before the war wouldn't have existed.

GROSS: I guess that also opened the door to making movies and music about
working-class people.

Mr. FREARS: Yes, that was really the big change that had happened.

GROSS: Now, "My Beautiful Laundrette," which was...

Mr. FREARS: Yeah.

GROSS: ...what years? Eighty-six or something?

Mr. FREARS: Eighty-five, eighty-six, yeah.

GROSS: So that's a film set in the Margaret Thatcher era...

Mr. FREARS: Yeah.

GROSS: ...and it's about being a new immigrant from Pakistan...

Mr. FREARS: Well...

GROSS: ...and being gay at the same time.

Mr. FREARS: Yes, it's really about--well, the immigrants were people who'd,
you know--they were the children of empire, really. The writer, Hanif
Kureishi, was born in England and was brought up, you know, went to an English
school, grew up with English kids, so that was what was really striking about
it. It was the first time it was written from somebody inside.

GROSS: Now you more recently did a movie about immigrants...

Mr. FREARS: Yeah.

GROSS: London. This was about illegal immigrants, who...

Mr. FREARS: Yes, and also not people to do with the empire. These were
people from Turkey and Spain and places. Not--nothing to do with the legacy
of having had an empire. Empire's a catastrophic thing.

GROSS: And what interested you in "Dirty Pretty Things," the film about the
illegal immigrants?

Mr. FREARS: Because it made sense. Like the "Laundrette," it made sense of
what I could see when I walked down the street and didn't understand. In
other words, you started noticing that London was full of foreigners and then
suddenly there was a script that explained who they were and what they were
doing there. Just as in the "Laundrette," you know, the things that were
around us, the news agents, the grocers, all those sort of shops were run by
Asians, and, suddenly, someone wrote a script which explained them and
explained a lot of things that nobody had understood before. And the same
with "Dirty Pretty Things." It made sense of what it was like to walk down the

GROSS: Now, of course, in "Dirty Pretty Things," it's not like a documentary
about immigrants...


GROSS:'s a mystery. It's a...

Mr. FREARS: Yeah.

GROSS:'s a pretty hard-boiled film noirish...

Mr. FREARS: Yes, yes.

GROSS: ...sort of thing, underground economy in human organs.

Mr. FREARS: Mmm. Well, of course, by then I'd been to Hollywood, and I'd
learned these corrupt habits, and what I always liked about the script was it
treated people as if they were in American films, so that in the end, these
young attractive immigrants would win. It wasn't like a normal pattern of a
British film where you would treat people like that as victims. They were
much more like stars of an American film.

GROSS: That's an interesting way of looking at it.

Mr. FREARS: Well, I was very struck by that immediately. I always liked it.
I love the fact that they won.

GROSS: Stephen Frears directed the new film "The Queen."

This is FRESH AIR.


(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is film director Stephen Frears. His films include "My
Beautiful Laundrette," "The Grifters," "High Fidelity" and "Dirty Pretty
Things." His new film is "The Queen."

Now when you started your movie career, you first were an assistant to Lindsay
Anderson. His most famous...

Mr. FREARS: Lindsay Anderson and Karel Reisz.

GROSS: Yeah, for the movie "If" and then Karel Reisz was most famous in the
US for his movie, "The French Lieutenant's Woman." What are some of the things
you learned from working with them?

Mr. FREARS: Well, they were both extraordinary men, and they taught me, I
mean, not just about films, they taught me about life. But if you were to ask
what the lesson was, it was that there was a connection between cinema and
life, and maybe that's slightly gone away now. You know, I learned how to
live really from the cinema, you know, how to kiss girls, things like that.
You learn--our lives in Britain were so narrow, were so unimaginative, and the
world--I learned about the world and growing up and things like that from
films because there wasn't anywhere else to learn them.

GROSS: Now which films taught you about, say, how to kiss a girl?

Mr. FREARS: Oh, every high school film that was made in the '50s. I mean,
not ones that were particularly famous but, you know, the whole introduction
of American culture. I mean, I can remember the first time I heard Elvis. It
was just astonishing to sit in England and hear these extraordinary people
from the South. I didn't know the South existed in those days. You know,
we're a small island. We were so cut off from everything, and it was quite a
hard time because of the war. So, suddenly, you were introduced to these
very, very colorful alternative ways of living.

GROSS: One of the things you've done in your career is discover some really
interesting actors.

Mr. FREARS: Yes. Fantastic. Fantastic.

GROSS: I mean, just in "High Fidelity" you have Jack Black and also Todd
Louiso, who's starting to become I think a little better known now.

Mr. FREARS: Is that right?

GROSS: He played one of the guys in the record store.

Mr. FREARS: Oh, he's a wonderful man.

GROSS: Yeah, yeah. He's really...

Mr. FREARS: Yes, I mean, you know, the truth is I had no idea that Jack was
going to act the way he did. You know, I thought he'd be good in the film but
I didn't know what was about to emerge. So, you know, I could see I was the
sort of midwife, and I must, in some way, have given him room to do that. I
asked him afterwards what--why that had happened, and he said he had always
kept his head down and suddenly someone said, `Well, why don't you stick your
head up?' But I wasn't really aware of what I was doing. I must have somehow
made it comfortable for him to do that.

GROSS: Why did you cast him? What did you see in him?

Mr. FREARS: Well, I--the boys, you know--I was working with these three boys
from Chicago. I said, `Who should play this part?' and they just said, `Jack
Black, without any doubt.' And then when I was casting it, I met other people
but I never found anyone I thought would be as good as Jack, but that doesn't
mean I knew what Jack was going to do. I hadn't seen tenacious D and that
sort of stuff he does. I just remember the first day that he shot, him
starting, and I was just amazed, and then very, very soon realized that what
he was doing was absolutely phenomenal, and I should just be grateful and shut

GROSS: One more question about "The Queen."

Mr. FREARS: Yeah.

GROSS: Did you run into any resistance in making "The Queen"? Resistance to
having a movie about the queen or about Tony Blair?

Mr. FREARS: No, the palace are above these things. They neither approve nor
disapprove. To take a position would be political and they're in that sense,
nonpolitical. I mean, there were a few people who owned castles in Scotland
who, you know, thought it was somehow improper, but that just meant we had to
look more carefully and be more imaginative. So, no, we ran into no trouble.

GROSS: So now that you've made "The Queen," are you hoping that one day you
will be knighted by the queen?

Mr. FREARS: I don't expect to be knighted. It'd be...

GROSS: This might be your thing here, and this might...

Mr. FREARS: No, no, no. I say what Peter O'Toole says. `I only accept
awards from republics.' That's a whole separate issue, the honor system. I
mean that's...

GROSS: Would you actually reject an award like that?

Mr. FREARS: I'd probably be rather pleased to be offered it, but my wife
would leave me.

GROSS: Would she really?

Mr. FREARS: I think so, yes. I'd rather have my wife...

GROSS: So she's really opposed to the monarchy?

Mr. FREARS: She's opposed to the privilege. It's really to do with
privilege. And you know, quite rightly, she's opposed to it. And I'd rather
have my wife than an honor.

GROSS: So she would try to convince you to decline? Yeah?

Mr. FREARS: She wouldn't try to. She'd succeed.


Mr. FREARS: With one blow of her handbag.

GROSS: Well, Stephen Frears, a pleasure to talk with you. Thank you so much.

Mr. FREARS: Thank you very much.

GROSS: Stephen Frears directed the new film, "The Queen."


GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.

We'll close with Jack Black from the soundtrack of "High Fidelity."

(Soundbite from "High Fidelity")

Mr. JACK BLACK: (Singing) "I've been really trying, baby, trying to hold
onto this feeling for so long. And if you feel like I feel, sugar, come one,
whoa, come on, whoo! Let's get it on. Whoa, baby! Let's get it on, let's
love, sugar."
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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