Director Stephen Frears reveals the real-life story behind latest movie 'Philomena'

November 25, 2013 8:20 PM

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TORONTO -- Director Stephen Frears says telling the story of a real-life character -- as he's done in his new film "Philomena" -- comes with a certain responsibility.

"The truth is you're really saying to people, please will you trust me with this bit of your life," Frears said in an interview at September's Toronto International Film Festival.

"You walk quite a difficult line. I find it very, very interesting ... All I can tell you is the audience is actually much more interested now in real life."

Frears says he wanted real-life events to speak for themselves as he told the story of an elderly Irish Catholic woman who went searching for the son that had been taken from her after being born out of wedlock.

"The film is what it is," said Frears. "If we've told the story as well as I hope we have, these events just simply happened."

Starring Judi Dench, "Philomena" strikes a fine balance, not only between comedy and tragedy, but also between criticism of the Catholic church and quiet respect for the resiliency of the religion's faithful.

"It's not very difficult to criticize the Catholic church, they make it very easy for you," said Frears. "But of course (the film) is full of admiration for Philomena's faith, which I thought was rather more important than the institutions. So it's more complicated."

While Frears has said he'd like the Pope -- who seems to him to be "a rather good bloke" -- to watch the film, the movie isn't intended to be a call to arms.

"I haven't acquired faith," he said dryly. "But you make a film about someone who is capable of doing that and of course you learn from it."

The movie is based on a book by former BBC journalist Martin Sixsmith, who accompanied a woman named Philomena Lee on her trans-Atlantic search for the child she barely got to know before nuns took him away.

After losing her son, Lee was virtually incarcerated at one of the Irish Catholic Church's Magdalene laundries, where unmarried mothers toiled to pay back the church for having taken them in.

In many ways, said Frears, a film inspired by reality can be more interesting than pure fiction.

"You discover a world you didn't know about, it never crossed your mind," he said. "Makes life interesting."

For Steve Coogan, who played Sixsmith and co-wrote the screenplay, making "Philomena" was an emotional experience.

"I was drawn to it," he said of the story. "It says this happened. I say in the film 'I think you need to say sorry,' and I think the church does need to say sorry, and it hasn't, but I think that people will be supportive of it because it dignifies people of simple faith."

Just how people like the real Philomena coped with what life had thrown their way was part of what motivated Coogan to turn the original book into a film.

"It just fascinated me how people deal with tragedy in their lives," he said. "Also I thought mother and son is a very universal thing, I thought it would chime with an audience."

Both the real Philomena and Sixsmith enjoyed the telling of their story onscreen, said Coogan, adding that Philomena in particular was "surprised and shocked and moved."

As heart-wrenching as the story is at points, the movie is also incredibly funny at others, a contrast that Coogan worked into the script for a purpose.

"I needed to do that because it's such a sad story, you need a bit of levity," he said, adding that there's a good bit of the real Philomena's words in the film.

"She is an outgoing woman, got a sense of herself, so that's honoured in the film."


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