Stephen Frears, Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant team up for the first time on Florence Foster Jenkins, an inspirational, poignant, heart-warming comedy about love, music and the pursuit of dreams.
Early in March we were delighted to be invited along by Pathe to a preview of acclaimed director Stephen Frears' (The Queen, Philomena, The Program), new film, Foster Florence Jenkins. Starring Meryl Streep as the 'great singer' Foster Florence Jenkins, Hugh Grant as St Clair Bayfield and Simon Helberg as Cosme McMoon, a struggling young pianist who was to provide her accompaniment.
Set in 1940s New York, Florence Foster Jenkins is the true story of the legendary heiress and socialite who obsessively pursued her dream of becoming a great singer. The voice she heard in her head was beautiful, but to everyone else it was hilariously awful.
Her "husband" and manager, St. Clair Bayfield, an aristocratic English actor, was determined to protect his beloved Florence from the truth. But when Florence decided to give a public concert at Carnegie Hall, St. Clair knew he faced his greatest challenge.
We were intrigued to learn about the inception of the film and the real-life characters portrayed.
It was the glorious chasm between Florence Foster Jenkins’ self-belief and her startling failings as a singer that immediately hooked writer Nicholas Martin. “I heard a song on YouTube,” says the writer. “I was struck by the sincerity of her voice and I found it very moving, very funny and very sad. I kept going back to listen to it and wanted to find out about her life. It was then I realised the story of her journey to performing at Carnegie Hall would make a compelling musical film.”
The appeal of Martin's screenplay was immediate for the film's producers Tracey Seaward, working with Stephen Frears on their sixth film, and Michael Kuhn (The Duchess).
“When you read a script you're looking for something that's different and emotionally satisfying and I thought this was a mixture of funny and touching,” explains Michael Kuhn.
“I couldn't imagine anyone but Meryl Streep playing the part of Florence, so the next thing was to ask how would we get to Meryl. We had to get someone who she was likely to want to work with and Stephen embodies that having worked with many of the grandes dames of cinema - Judi Dench, Helen Mirren and so on - and I thought if he said yes we would have a reasonable chance.
"The thing I most admire about Stephen is that he never repeats himself so every film he does is a new adventure, he's always pushing forward to do something different and that's very admirable. He said right away that he would do it if Meryl would do it. So we sent it to her agent and she came back quickly and said she wanted to do it. It's often the case with good material that the film comes together quickly.”
“I read Nicholas Martin’s script and thought 'this is good fun',” says Frears. “It was witty, entertaining and interesting. It was a good story; it had good relationships and good jokes - what more do you want? There is a famous recording of her and I was told that back in the 60s people used to play it at dinner parties. I heard the real footage of her singing on YouTube and it was gobsmacking and I just started to laugh! The recording is so hilarious and dreadful, but also touching and so affecting.”
Florence Foster Jenkins is brought to life wonderfully by Meryl Streep. But for Streep, while familiar with the character, it was the prospect of working with Frears that most appealed.
“I have a vague memory at my first year of drama school of people passing around a recording of Florence singing. I remember some sort of screech that we were all screaming about. Stephen called me and said ‘I have a part for you, it's the worst opera singer in the world’ and I was thrilled. I said yes before I read the script because I've always wanted to work with Stephen. He has a reputation among actors as someone you really want to work with.”
The calamitous singing aside, the story for Streep had a very tender core. “It's about a long and happy relationship between two people whose self-interest was equally served by the relationship as by their honest feeling and affection for each other. The story has so much real emotion to it.
“The real Florence Foster Jenkins was the ultimate club lady,” continues Streep. “Those were the days when the professions were not open to women so there were women of means who to keep themselves busy did charitable good works. Florence was a great patron of the arts in New York and that's how she moved up through the social echelons of society. She kept the musical life of the city alive - she underwrote concerts at Carnegie Hall and spread around the money she had inherited from her husband and father.”
Once Meryl Streep had committed, Frears then went to Hugh Grant. “I told him I'd found something I thought he’d like, and he said yes within three days too,” he says. “I've always thought he was a very, very good actor and a brilliant comedian and I like people who can play light comedy.”
"I was vaguely aware of Florence Foster Jenkins,” says Grant. “I remember years ago my cousin sent me this tape of the worst singer in the world and thinking it was up there in the funniest things I'd ever heard. But I wasn't doing much acting because I was involved in the “Hacked Off” press transparency campaign. One of our supporters is Stephen Frears and he used to come to some of our events and would say ‘We should do a film together’ and I‘d tell him I wasn‘t really acting any more. But he sent me Nicholas Martin’s script which was truly brilliant, genuinely funny and real and touching. Meryl Streep was already cast as Florence so I had to do it.”
The Four Weddings and a Funeral star recalls working on the film as, "all frightening”. “Working with Meryl Streep was obviously frightening and I was a little bit frightened of Stephen too as he's got a bit of a reputation of making classy award-winning films, which is not really where I come from. I had to do a certain amount of serious acting in this and so it was all extremely intimidating for me. I ended up doing about a year's worth of prep as we had to wait quite a while for Meryl to be available and it was the most prepared I've been for a film!”
The third part of casting was also of vital importance. "It was a point of genius by the New York casting agent to think of Simon Helberg ,” concurs Kuhn, “as not only is he a really great comic actor, but also a really great pianist. We really lucked out with him because watching someone pretending to play the piano is really awful.”
Helberg came to the film not knowing anything about the characters but the screenplay and the chance to work opposite Streep and Grant, and with Frears sealed the deal for him. “When I read the script I ran the gamut of emotions. I laughed hysterically, I cried, I found it incredibly profound. It's about a love of music but also a love of life and how our own perception of life wins out however much it may be off key. It reminded me of a line in Being There, ‘Life is a state of mind'. There's a purity to Florence, there's no cynicism, it's all for the music, she's a dreamer. And Meryl is one of the most charming people ever to exist so that combination is pretty irresistible.”
We signed an embargo when we saw it but can say that all the leads are great and the film could well result in a record 20th Oscar nomination for Meryl Streep.
Foster Florence Jenkins opens at Showcase Cinemas May 6.