Jennifer Merin interviews David Frankel re “The Devil Wears Prada”

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DAVID FRANKEL’S DEVILISHLY SERIOUS ABOUT PRADA SATIRE

HBO’s “Sex and The City,” director David Frankel leaps from little box to big screen with “The Devil Wears Prada,” based on the same-title novel about the fashionistic world of editor Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep) and her fresh-from-school assistant Andy (Anne Hathaway).

“The character of Miranda attracted me to this project. She’s a character we don’t see often, if ever. She’s strong, powerful, funny and complex, and it was important to take her seriously– not to mock her or her world– because she takes it very seriously,” says Frankel. “So (screenwriter) Aline Brosh McKenna and I worked hard to create moments in the first third of the film showing characters clearly taking their jobs seriously. That allows- well almost forces– Andy to take it seriously, which encourages audiences to take it seriously and care.”

“If you stand outside the fashion world– or even in it–you see it can be silly, hilarious or self-satirizing. But, in fact, we all worry about what we wear and it’s a huge business. Someone has to make fashion decisions and only a handful of people do. So, isn’t that an interesting character? And wouldn’t working for her be fascinating? That was our approach.

MERIN: Is there truth to talk that Miranda’s based on Vogue’s Anna Wintour?

FRANKEL: Meryl based Miranda on a composite of people. We wanted to make Miranda well rounded. Yes, I want to see her warts, and yes, I want to see her be mean– but I also want to see her work ethic, what drives her and makes her excellent, and sacrifices she makes and how she charms people.

MERIN: How’d you get attached to “Prada?”

FRANKEL: (Producer) Wendy Finerman sent me the script. She’d been working on it for two years with four writers by that point. I’d never read the book. The script was funny, but it was a movie I didn’t want to make– a bit disrespectful, campier in tone, straining for comedy. I felt comedy should come out of the characters. The movie shouldn’t be jokey. We had to treat the characters seriously, make a funny movie without making fun of the characters.

MERIN: Did you reference Altman’s “Prêt-A-Porter” or other fashion-oriented films?

FRANKEL: I saw “Prêt-A-Porter” when it came out, but didn’t reference it. It seemed to highlight the fashion world’s silliness and what’s pointless about it. I feel people already know that– it‘s a preconception. In making our film, I wanted to show reality. Yes, clothes are superficial. We could walk around naked, and if everyone did, our lives wouldn’t be that different. But they don’t. So, clothes have meaning. They’re clues to character. Andy’s makeover is a character transformation.

The formative film for me was “Unzipped,” the Isaac Mizrahi documentary. He’s exuberant, flamboyant, funny– revels in some of the silliness of the fashion world, but is also very serious, and his life’s very demanding. “Unzipped” showed how difficult and challenging it is to be excellent every time out, and be judged mercilessly by so many people. Miranda, although not a designer, puts out a magazine every month– judging designers and being judged herself. The magazine that’s celebrating this world has to take it seriously.

MERIN: But doesn‘t “Prada” satirize…

FRANKEL: Well, yes. But there’s a fine balance point. I mean, in the movie, Nigel (Stanley Tucci) says at one of the photo shoots, “I can’t believe I talk about this crap all day.” And, that’s like all of us– you know, I can’t believe I’m on a movie set all day worrying about cameras and lenses. It’s the same thing.

MERIN: What would you say is your directorial strength– visual composition, working with actors, storytelling?

FRANKEL: I think I’m a good audience. That‘s the best thing I bring. I’m decent at all the tasks a director must do, and I‘ve done a broad range of work– Band of Brothers and Sex in the City in the same year. Most important is to be able to gage audience emotions and know, yes, this is funny– people are going to laugh here– and, yes, this is where they’re going to feel, and the rhythm of this dialogue is good or not. For everything else, I surround myself with excellent craftsmen and let them do their jobs. Like Patricia Fields (Costumes) or Florian Ballhaus (DP).

MERIN: So, where did you need most help?

FRANKEL: I got help everywhere. Great writing support, Jess (Gonchor) the production designer, the producers. Jokingly, I’d say, “I’m just here to get the ball rolling and say when to stop.”

MERIN: What’s your shooting ratio?

FRANKEL: With Meryl, it was on the lower side– because she’s good from the beginning and I didn’t want her to get mad at me. I kind of tortured everyone else– I‘d say it was probably 15 to one.

MERIN: How do you know when you’re done?

FRANKEL: They usually say you have to stop. No, really, you have an instinct, just know the choreography of performance and camera came together. In comedy, it’s if you laugh– especially if you’re still laughing on take ten.

Often, you have something you’re going for, and you drive poor actors into the ground until they give you that. But I have them do what I imagined last– it’s more interesting to see what they imagine. That’s why I do many takes– I want them to do every variation they can think of. ‘Cause that’s when magic happens– when they’re being the characters, not when they’re told who the character is.

MERIN: Do you set shots in advance?

FRANKEL: I like to see what actors do first– that comes from my having seen this great documentary on Stanley Kubrick’s passive planning. He didn’t say anything to actors– just saw what they did. Inevitably– well, 99 percent of the time– their instincts are better than anything I’d think of. Then we figure out shots. Shots aren’t that important. I mean you want them to be sexy, but the most important thing is the characters.

MERIN: What’s a sexy shot?

FRANKEL: When there’s intimacy and you have the privilege of getting to know someone who’s attractive. A scene’s sexy ‘cause it‘s a place I‘d want to be. Paris’s sexy, New York’s super sexy.

MERIN: Patricia Fields’ costumes create characters. Did you and she use color to key emotions or mood?

FRANKEL: The biggest design conceit is he whiteness of the office. We wanted it to glow– like the inside of a compact. This was a special cage, dramatically different from Andy’s life on the lower East Side. So the office gives the film contrast– every time you step out of it you sense you’re leaving a rarified world. Beyond that Pat had full license to do her work– and I think it was the design factor more than color that determined individual styles.

MERIN: Is there a big difference for you between small and big screen directorial experience?

FRANKEL: Well, I got to work with movie stars like Meryl Streep and that was fantastic. Also, film’s a director’s medium. On Sex and the City, there were many terrific writers with whom you’d collaborate on set. Here, the studio was supportive and confident, and sent me off to make the film. That’s a little scary until you sort of find your legs. There is a more expansive budget. The studio managed the film like one of their children. I got everything and everyone I hoped for in the movie.

And, it’s really satisfying and fun to sit in a room full of people in front of a really screen. You don’t get that experience in TV. (Published in New York Press)

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Jennifer Merin

Jennifer Merin is the Film Critic for Womens eNews and contributes the CINEMA CITIZEN blog for and is managing editor for Women on Film, the online magazine of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, of which she is President. She has served as a regular critic and film-related interviewer for The New York Press and About.com. She has written about entertainment for USA Today, The L.A. Times, US Magazine, Ms. Magazine, Endless Vacation Magazine, Daily News, New York Post, SoHo News and other publications. After receiving her MFA from Tisch School of the Arts (Grad Acting), Jennifer performed at the O'Neill Theater Center's Playwrights Conference, Long Wharf Theater, American Place Theatre and LaMamma, where she worked with renown Japanese director, Shuji Terayama. She subsequently joined Terayama's theater company in Tokyo, where she also acted in films. Her journalism career began when she was asked to write about Terayama for The Drama Review. She became a regular contributor to the Christian Science Monitor after writing an article about Marketta Kimbrell's Theater For The Forgotten, with which she was performing at the time. She was an O'Neill Theater Center National Critics' Institute Fellow, and then became the institute's Coordinator. While teaching at the Universities of Wisconsin and Rhode Island, she wrote "A Directory of Festivals of Theater, Dance and Folklore Around the World," published by the International Theater Institute. Denmark's Odin Teatret's director, Eugenio Barba, wrote his manifesto in the form of a letter to "Dear Jennifer Merin," which has been published around the world, in languages as diverse as Farsi and Romanian. Jennifer's culturally-oriented travel column began in the LA Times in 1984, then moved to The Associated Press, LA Times Syndicate, Tribune Media, Creators Syndicate and (currently) Arcamax Publishing. She's been news writer/editor for ABC Radio Networks, on-air reporter for NBC, CBS Radio and, currently, for Westwood One's America In the Morning. She is also a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association. Read Merin's recent articles below. For her complete archive, type "Jennifer Merin" in the Search Box (upper right corner of screen).

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