'Why would I want to meet Lance Armstrong? He's a liar' says director Stephen Frears

Stephen Frears has the press riveted as he talks about his movie on the rise and fall of the American cyclist

Director Stephen Frears - maker of cinematic delights (The Queen, 2006; Dangerous Liaisons, 1988) and the odd dud (Mary Reilly, 1996) - enters leisurely and purposefully a meeting room in London's Corinthia hotel.

He is here to talk about The Program, his new movie charting the rise and fall of American cyclist Lance Armstrong and about the moral quandaries of sports doping.

In a nondescript black shirt and heaving into a chair, he answers questions in characteristic one- liner repeats with deadpan force, looking at journalists as if they were an unusually thick chopping board.

Someone asks why he made the film at all.

"I thought it was a good crime story. Spectacular crime," he says.

Who was the victim?

"Who was the victim?" he echoes.

Pause. He is thinking or is horrified by the question.

"A lot of cyclists who weren't doping. I would precisely question your premise. I mean, I don't even know if there were any victims. It was more complicated than that, wasn't it? He (Armstrong) brought all this money into sport. You'd ask where the body is. But there's not one that I know of. I think it was very, very spectacular. I think he was a very, very clever man, but he was also a very, very stupid man."

Why?

"Because he got caught." He laughs. And then he glares, silent.

That Frears suffers no fools is clear enough. At the ripe young age of 74, one imagines he has seen enough not to give a hoot about what anyone else might think.

In the film, Armstrong is portrayed in his glory and warts as a cancer survivor, winning trophies in a culture where performance- enhancing drugs were the norm, channelling his fame into fundraising for cancer research before getting nasty with people who threatened his empire.

Is there a message Frears wants to convey?

"Message?"

Pause. Again - that look from him.

"There was no message."

Pause.

"Yee-uhss…"

An inaudible sigh.

"It's a complex world. When they come to the start of the race, everyone can see. They see the needle marks. They're under no illusions. When they stripped him of his title, they couldn't give it to anyone else because the first 30 riders were all taking drugs."

Frears grins slowly - at himself and at the reporters around the table. The Cambridge-educated and BBC-trained maker of cult film My Beautiful Laundrette (1985) holds court, but does not always play the eager raconteur. Instead, he now and then prefers to sit back and confound his interviewers with unflappable taunts.

Does the director admire Armstrong?

"Admire him?" he echoes again.

Pause.

"It was a very spectacular crime. He didn't just go and steal a packet of cigarettes from a tobacconist. He did it on a big scale and that's always admirable."

He contends that he never bothered to get in touch with Armstrong.

"Why would I want to meet him? He's a liar. No, I didn't meet him."

Why not?

"Well, he likes to have control, doesn't he?"

What do you think he thinks of your film? Or what he has done?

"His psychology isn't my responsibility."

What about journalist David Walsh, who was responsible for exposing Lance in the film?

"Yes. I know him quite well."

How?

"Obviously... to get him to sell the book to us, we had to meet him. And it was clear whose side we were on."

And then, surprisingly, Frears changes the subject, offering a new piece of information like an afterthought. He mentions Michele Ferrari, an Italian cycling coach and physician implicated in his film.

"Now I think Ferrari is suing us."

How does Frears feel about it?

"Riveted. Absolutely riveted."

Somewhere in the 20 minutes you have with Frears, you imagine him collecting such precious little awkward non-moments to recount to his wife, painter Anna Rothstein.

Someone asks about preparation for the movie. Frears says he never really considered the issue - he simply went ahead and did whatever he wanted - down to the casting of Ben Foster (Lone Survivor, 2013) for the role of Armstrong.

"If we hadn't found the right man, there wouldn't have been a film."

Were there any conflicts of opinion between director and star, considering Foster's separate acknowledgement that "we have very different approaches"?

"He prepared his performance. I then made a film. I don't quite know what you mean. What conflict?"

Did he know Foster took performance-enhancing drugs on set? "I was very shocked. I didn't expect him to do it for the film."

What is Frears' stance on doping?

"Taking drugs? I don't have a policy either way. What I disagree with is the lying and bullying," he says, referring to Armstrong's behaviour.

Has he done drugs himself?

"Well, I smoked joints. I was never good at it."

Performance-enhancing drugs?

"I'd love to... I'd probably be a bit too old for it. But anything to enhance my performance would be great."

The air in the room is tingling with frustration and anticipation. Reporters sit at the edge of their seats, aware that the clock is ticking; aware that it would be too easy to hate this man's cynicism and conceit. And yet, everyone - to use Frears' own words - is riveted.

Foster, who plays his anti-hero, only minutes ago separately recalled the director's roar of a response to the actor wanting to contact Armstrong directly for research: "I DID NOT MEET the goddamned QUEEN to make The Queen...! Okay, maybe cut out the goddamned."

Journalists had been primed for a potentially "difficult" interview. Still, the director is happy to continue indulging the press today.

But somewhere, somehow, he sees the farcical humour behind the entire Program endeavour and its extrapolations - his film, his refusal to take a moral stance on doping and his pussyfooting with the press and their hackneyed attempts to pin down his film as a black-and-white either/or condemnation of the troubled Armstrong; the "good storytelling" in the movie, the dreary lessons to be learnt in the wider sports and media worlds.

"Corruption is so pervasive, you could only laugh about it."

But Frears resuscitates Lance Armstrong as a man he does not want to pronounce on, but finds himself coming back to indict - or vindicate. Or maybe neither.

"He wasn't an interesting man. He got into interesting situations," he says. "Well, he rose very spectacularly and fell spectacularly. For a man to set up a charity and then use this charity to raise whatever it was - half a million - for cancer awareness. And then to use the cancer awareness to seal his corruption.

"To keep a secret for this long and to have suffered for the past three years - that's quite spectacular."

•The Program opens in Singapore tomorrow .

MOVIE REVIEW: The Program a tour de force

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 18, 2015, with the headline 'Lance Armstrong's spectacular crime'. Print Edition | Subscribe