Queen, The: Director Frears

“The Queen” takes audiences behind the scenes of one of the most shocking public events of recent times, providing an illuminating, yet deeply affecting, dramatic glimpse into what happens in the corridors of power when tragedy strikes.

The setting for this fictional account of real events is the private chambers of the Royal Family and the British government in the wake of the sudden death of Princess Diana in August 1997. In the immediate aftermath of the Princesss passing, the tightly contained, tradition-bound world of the Queen of England (Helen Mirren) is abruptly brought into conflict with the slick modernity of the countrys brand new, image-conscious Prime Minister, Tony Blair (Michael Sheen).

The result is an intimate, yet thematically epic, battle between private and public, responsibility and emotion, custom and action, as a grieving nation waits to see what its leaders will do.

With a screenplay drawn from extensive interviews, research, discreet sources and informed imagination, as well portrayals of living figures of power, “The Queen” provides a stunningly fresh portrait of one of the modern worlds last great monarchs as she has never been seen before, as a vulnerable human being in her darkest hour, amidst the unprecedented media madness, stark emotions and PR maneuvering set in motion by Dianas death.

The film reunites director Stephen Frears (DIRTY PRETTY THINGS, HIGH FIDELITY, DANGEROUS LIAISONS) with screenwriter Peter Morgan (THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND), after the two previously collaborated on a Channel 4 drama about the earlier history of Tony Blair, The Deal. The producers are Andy Harries, Christine Langan and Tracy Seaward; the executive producers are Francois Ivernel, Cameron McCracken and Scott Rudin. The film stars Helen Mirren, Michael Sheen, James Cromwell, Helen McCrory, Alex Jennings, Roger Allam and Sylvia Sims.

Death That Changed a Nation

In August of 1997, Princess Diana, one of the most famous and idolized women in the world, died in a disastrous car crash in Paris. The global population was sent reeling into shock, the media went into a frenzy, and, in England, where reserve and stiff upper lips once held sway, a remarkable sea change appeared to take place in the fabric of society as the public came forth in unexpected displays of profound grief and emotion.

But the impact of the tragedy was felt in an entirely different way in the corridors of power. Behind closed doors, an intensely private battle of wills erupted between the newly elected British government and the Royal Family over how to handle the incident. Diana was already a contentious figure. Following her separation from Prince Charles, the Princess had refused to sit quietly in the background and disappear from public life, causing anguish for the Royals. The Queen and her family did what they were used to doing in the midst of family tragedy, they hunkered down in their own concealed world of ritual and protocol, hiding away at their Scottish retreat in Balmoral, only to be persuaded unwillingly into the public eye by the brash new Prime Minister, Tony Blair.

This remarkable clash between a regal Monarch trying to fulfill her ancient mandate and a savvy master of contemporary political public relations forms the heart of “The Queen.”

The events surrounding the death of Princess Diana could offer endless easy angles for a filmmaker: a terrifying car chase by ruthless paparazzi; a celebrity devastatingly killed in her prime; a controversial love affair cut short before it could blossom; and a press corps accused of causing the death of the woman with whom they were so obsessed.

Yet the movie takes a fresh approach, peering instead at the resonating effects of Dianas death as it shook the foundations of Britains relationship with its monarchy. The inspiration for the story began when producers Christine Langan and Andy Harries were working on a British TVn drama, The Deal, about the 1994 meeting that led Englands Labor Party figure Gordon Brown to allow Tony Blair to run unopposed for Prime Minister. The production, written by Peter Morgan and directed by Stephen Frears, was so successful that Langan and Harries were keen to team up with Morgan and Frears on a second project.

Drawn to the subject of contemporary British society, there seemed to be no more compelling story to tell than that of how the Royal Family clashed with both Tony Blair and the prevailing mood of the British public after Dianas death, reflecting all at once the vanishing potency of the monarchy, the ascendancy of the Prime Minister and the catalytic shift to a more demonstrative, open and image-driven British populace.

Andy, Stephen, Pete and I wanted to team up on a film about another great British institution, says Langan. The Royal Family was an obvious choice and the death of Diana and how the Royal Family coped with that quickly emerged as the most promising subject. Diana had been a great cause of tension while she was alive; it was inevitable that her death would present the Monarchy with perhaps its biggest challenge of the past 50 years.

Langan continues: The most fascinating part of the story was the idea of looking into what went on behind the scenes. You had a brand new government for which there were huge expectations but four months into his premiership, Tony Blair hadnt really delivered a striking gesture. Suddenly, with the death of the Princess of Wales, Blair found a role to play by taking the lead. The real heart of our story became the unique relationship that developed in those few days between the Prime Minister and the Queen.

For Harries, it was his personal recollections of how the Royal Family and the Queen initially reacted to the news of Dianas death–with a thudding silence– that provided inspiration. He was struck by the idea of a Royal Family so tightly clad in their own sense of tradition that they couldnt and wouldnt break with protocol to face the nations worst tragedy; and with a public that seemed to hunger something indefinable from their figureheads.

These were some of the questions that Langan and Harries wanted Peter Morgan to probe in his screenplay, certain it would make for a gripping feature film. They also felt that Morgan, who cut his teeth on numerous prestigious television dramas and most recently co-wrote THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND, adapted from the novel about a young Scottish doctors searing encounter with Idi Amin, was the perfect man for the job. Morgan had already proven he possessed the skill of peeling back the veil on contemporary events and find within them compelling and comically-tinged drama.

Morgan was able to take advantage of numerous private sources, whom he is sworn not to reveal, but who gave him exceptional insights into the way both the Queen and Blair might have thought, talked, acted and felt during the crisis. These included former employees of Downing Street, former employees of the Palace, biographers, private secretaries, people who spent time at Balmoral as guests, as well as journalists and politicians talking off the record. By putting together a framework of exactly when and why Blair and The Queen interacted in the days between Dianas death and her public funeral, Morgan could then fill in the picture with informed imagination and conjecture as to what was said in their most secret conversations.

That territory, though rife with creative risks and potential controversies, was also of great interest to director Stephen Frears, whose list of credits include an impressively wide variety of Oscar-nominated films including DANGEROUS LIAISONS, THE GRIFTERS and the recent DIRTY PRETTY THINGS.

It is very hard to find subjects that have some vitality and havent been flogged to death, says Frears. This project was very appealing to me, partly because it meant I would be working with Peter Morgan again and partly for the subject matter, the conflict between the old world and the new world. Its really a story about the end of tradition, which has been both a strength and weakness in Britain.

The director was aware that he was stepping into a forbidden zone, but he had few qualms about doing so. When youre telling a story about people who are still alive, you become scrupulously responsible, he explains. You cant reach for the easy solutions. Making a movie about the Queen is almost like making a movie about your mother and in England, the Queen really does serve as the kind of symbolic, emotional mother of the country. So you dont want to be in any way perceived as unfair or facile. But how do you do that You do it by instinct I suppose. Youre more attentive to not leaning on your prejudices and you stay away from anything that might be unsupportable.

As a British subject, there was also a personal element. The emotions surrounding the Queen are quite complicated, Frears says. Shes a woman Ive known in some sense for 60 years, so digging through all those feelings, which were more complex than I expected them to be, was the difficult part.

Frears hoped that “The Queen” would veer in the opposite direction from what most people would expect in a film about the worlds most famous monarch. The whole institution is quite ludicrous, so its easy to make them seem even more ridiculous than they are. Thats what goes on all the time in England; theres a constant mockery, Frears notes. But we were focused on quite the opposite, on their human qualities as people denied a real life in a way. The Queen recently had her 80th birthday and it seems from a lot of the articles written that many people agree that, while the institution is idiotic and inappropriate, the woman is extraordinary.

Frears' keen directorial eye became key to the style and tone of “The Queen.” When you are dealing with complex and somewhat controversial matters, you must have a director with serious gravitas, and Stephen has that in spades, says Harries. Hes not just experienced, hes also incredibly smart. Hes a risk-taker; hes restless and he has a genuinely inquisitive mind. These are all rare qualities and necessary for this film.


When it came to casting, the challenges were obvious. The films roles were made up entirely of real, living people with well-established personas, not to mention legacies to protect. The trouble is that we already think we know these characters so well and theyre so familiar so the cast had to find a kind of collective line to ride in being human without being ridiculous, says Frears. It wasnt something that we talked about so much, but it was taken into account in choosing the actors.

Perhaps no role would pose as many potential pitfalls as that of Queen Elizabeth herself, a woman who, as a largely ceremonial yet protected symbol of a once imperial England, has never been depicted so intimately or humanly on the screen. Having reigned for more than half a century as Queen, she seemed an almost impenetrable character. But Andy Harries had someone in mind who he thought could pull it off. He had just overseen production on the award-winning television series Prime Suspect starring Helen Mirren, and she struck him as having not only the right appearance but also the talent and courage to take on the role. Shes the Queen of British drama and she looks a bit like the Queen. So I thought what a good idea, Helen as the Queen, he recalls.

Frears was quite pleased with Mirrens humanistic and layered approach. Im not sure Helen would have let us get away with any cheap shots, he remarks.
To get a better understand of the Queens inner struggles, Mirren did do a lot of research. Of course you also have to get certain things right, the hair, the hands, the stance, the walk, the voice, she comments.

I had photographs of the Queen in my trailer and watched tapes all the time. It was a bit intimidating, because each time I watched them I would feel I was failing her, failing the inner person and you are constantly trying to get to the inner person. There was one piece of early film, a simple little thing of about one minute of Elizabeth at about 12, getting out of a car and walking forward to shake someone's hand. I found it very touching. I watched it over and over. The more I studied her, the more extraordinary she became, as a person. She's not like Tony Blair, whos so forward. Shes back within herself, but its not a neurotic place or a confused place, its a very steady place, quite a confident place. Its a place of incredible self-discipline — and then she steadily comes out from that point and that's the person I was constantly trying to fight my way towards.

It was also essential to Mirren to create a real sense of the Royals as a family. So she gathered all the actors playing the various family members in the film — James Cromwell who would play Prince Philip, Alex Jennings who would play Prince Charles and Sylvia Syms who would play the Queen Mother — at her house so that we got used to the sound of each others voices as family and it wouldnt feel like being with a whole group of people talking in funny voices.

While finding the right actress to embody the Queen was paramount to the filmmakers, they already knew who would play Tony Blair: the same actor who had done such a stunning job capturing the Prime Minister in The Deal, Michael Sheen. One of the UKs most talented young actors, Sheens compelling transformation into the Labour leader-in-waiting had drawn rave reviews, so there was little doubt he could nail the charismatic persona of the Prime Minister. But, while he was playing the same person, Sheen realized that, four years later, Blair was now quite different. Not only had he won the battle for leadership of the Labour Party but he had also just enjoyed an historic landslide victory in the general election, with all the vast, new responsibility that entailed.

Sheen was especially drawn to “The Queen”'s dark, acerbic humor and underlying humanity. Peter Morgans writing walks a tightrope of insolence and boldness, he observes. Whats great about the script is that it mixes the domestic — the Blairs eating pasta in front of the television with the professional in a way that makes it all very believable. Theres something slightly shocking in seeing these famous people doing ordinary things. Peter and Stephen got those details right on The Deal and they get it right here.

“The Queen” marks Sheens third time working with Stephen Frears following MARY REILLY and The Deal, a collaboration Sheen relished continuing. Stephen constantly prods you to go further, he comments. Its an incredibly satisfying and rewarding experience, but I wouldnt describe it as a comfortable experience. His characters are always complex, and to get that complexity he is constantly getting you to dig and go further and further. You are very aware that he is manipulating you but you are happy about it because you trust him. When I was about to do a scene with Helen Mirren, he would say things like Shes so scary, isnt she just to create the context that he felt was right for my character. He has a little twinkle in his eye but it works.