Roger Michell - Interview

20 April 2005

Roger Michell

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Roger Michell - Interview
Roger Michell - Interview
Roger Michell
“The sun, the crows, the blackbirds, the sheep. This body with its guts hanging out.”

Roger Mitchell directed the UK’s most commercially successful film – Notting Hill – making him one of the most sought after professionals in the business. His version of Ian McEwan’s best-selling book “Enduring Love” is a masterpiece of adaptation. One magazine presented it with ‘scene of the year’ for the terrifyingly stunning opening sequence, which many fans of the book could not imagine translated to screen successfully. Contact Music caught up withMr. Michell in ‘The Bond room’at Premier PR to learn more about the dramatic opening, Jed’s craziness and why he wouldn’t make a film in Syria…

I was very impressed with the film, best film I’ve seen for a long time.

Oh good, thank you .

Reminded me of Hitchcock, the tension. What techniques did you use to keep that tension going?

God I don’t know, erm, really good music and really good bits without any music, you know, juxtaposition of fast/slow. It’s also all in the context. If you know something bad is going on, then the more you slow the action down the better. But if you don’t know that something awful is about to happen, then it’s better it goes fast.

When he picks up the knife for example, it always struck me the more unprepared we were for him picking up that knife and stabbing her, the better. I don’t think he’s prepared for it. He hadn’t thought about it and there’s nothing personal about it. He’s not doing it because he hates her, he’s doing it to make a point, and that’s really frightening. That’s really scary, that’s much more scary than someone saying, “I’m gonna kill you,” threatening you and then stabbing you. He just goes wooo waaa wooo, here I am, what are you gonna do about it?

On the DVD, Bill Nighy says that whenever anyone said “this would be a great opening for a film,” a little piece of you dies. Why is that?

It was a very famous opening to the book and when you’re making a film, its horrible when you meet people who say, “That’s my favourite book” because you think, “Oh fuck, they’re not gonna like the film.” You know, they’re gonna keep saying, “Oh well the book this and this…”

But with this film everyone says, “It’s my favourite book and that’s the best opening of any book I’ve ever read. How are you going to do the opening of the film?”

So in the end I just told people that we’re going to cut the balloon, we weren’t going to have the balloon, because it was just too much pressure. But it meant that we did try really, really hard to make the beginning even better than the book.

When you see the dead doctor, it’s quite a graphic image. How important was it for you to make that image as graphic as possible?

Well it’s very graphic in the book and I like the idea that they go to this field and see this guy who’s sitting up, as though he’s alive, or he’s just resting. It’s only when they get round to the front they see the terrible injury that’s been caused. What makes it truly horrific, and wonderful, are the sheep. The sheep are still eating. They’re still eating grass, the flies are buzzing, and the birds are still singing. The demise of this man is really being ignored by the rest of the natural world. It means nothing to these sheep that this guy is dead!

I think that makes it more horrific. If you imagine them discovering the body…thunder and lightening. Dusk. It would have been less sharp, less impressive. It would have left less of an impression than rocking up there in this really beautiful field. You know, the sun, the crows, the blackbirds, the sheep. This body with its guts hanging out.

Empire magazine gave-

Yeah they gave us the best opening gong.

What drew you initially to turn the book into a film?

There’s quite a lot of thoughtful issues, but it’s also a thriller so that it’s neither one thing nor the other. It’s not just a mindless action movie but it’s also not a boring conversation and this seemed to absolutely fit the bill. It’s really a film, and a book, about love and about whether love really truly lasts. I found that a very compelling and interesting area.

You had to invent some more characters, was it hard casting those characters?

No, in fact Bill Nighy’s character we wrote for Bill. I think the cast were all really good and I think it’s a really good example of an English film where the casting has such depth. Even in the smallest parts the actors are really good actors. Even the stuttering student. He’s an actor called Ben Wishaw who’s just won an Olivier for playing Hamlet. He’s gonna be a big, big star I think, and in fact he’s just played Keith Richards in this Rolling Stones Film that’s just come out (The Wild and Wycked World of Brian Jones).

Really? An aspiring Jonny Depp…

Yeah that’s right.

Claire’s (Susanne Morton) brother was he in the book?

No he was invented. I think he might be an offstage character in the book, but he’s certainly not an onstage character.

I thought he was good to keep because I like the film being filmed with these examples of love. This guy is in a terrible state because he’s left his wife and his young children for the au pair. There’s that scene where he brings this au pair in to the social world, its like “what’s he done?” This woman doesn’t even speak English. He has this very interesting speech, he describes love as being like a bird that suddenly flies away. You can see he’s actually thinking about what he’s given up. He’s thinking about his marriage and this Polish au pair, even though she doesn’t speak English, picks up the smell of this. “Bird? What bird?” She’s thinking ‘what the fuck are you talking about your wife for?’

When people found out you’d cast Daniel Craig they thought he was gonna be the Jed character.

Yeah exactly

Was that ever in your mind?

No but I was always interested in the idea that the two male leads could swap roles. It seems to me that half way through the film you’re forced to consider which one’s really the mad guy. Conventionally if you have two male leads, you cast a short dark one and a tall blond one. This is the reverse of that, but physically not dissimilar and they’re interchangeable in an interesting way. So that works for us.

The scenes at Bill Nighy’s place with his wife, how much improvisation did you allow, or was it all scripted?

Well a lot of that was scripted, it feels improvised, but a lot of that was scripted. I try and create an atmosphere where I encourage actors to, not make up lines maybe, but to be so much in the moment and in the feel of the scene that they can speak over each other’s lines and they all laugh or they’ll – do you see what I mean? I don’t pay too much attention to continuity. I don’t like actors having to hit focus marks you know, I like them to be free to really behave and allow it to feel spontaneous. What you’re trying to do is fake spontaneity, that’s your job as a director; to give the impression that what’s being said is being said for the very first time.

People compare Enduring Love to Fatal Attraction. Does that annoy you at all? Some people say it’s the male version.

Yeah, I mean its so really not, I think that’s a really good film Fatal Attraction, I haven’t seen it for years but I remember it as being a very strong film. I can’t really see any similarities except for the most obvious that they’re both stalking movies. He’s (Jed) suffering from much more complicated and clinically serious diseases. He’s quite psychotic, the character in Fatal Attraction, she’s never psychotic. He suffers from this thing called de Clerambault's Syndrome which is a real disease. What characterises it is whatever the person you’re stalking does, you interpret as being a sign of encouragement. So even if the man or woman you’re stalking turns around and says “Look just leave me alone, I hate you, go away, fuck off, I never want to see you again,’” they’ll go, ‘Aha but I know what you really think,’ and there’s no way out of that spiral. There’s no arguing with that, so I think he’s much madder than Glenn close.

So him standing at the window opening and closing the curtain is interpreted that way?

Precisely, a sort of Morse code

On the DVD there are some deleted scenes, why did you choose to delete those ones?

Well its tough isn’t it? I mean when I was reviewing the scenes for inclusion on the DVD I asked the same question that you just asked me, you know, (holds head in hands) “Why did we cut these scenes?!”

But at the time it seemed they were either holding the action up too much, or they were taking us down a blind alley, a cul-de-sac. When you cut the film you’re always trying to find the story, you’re always trying to be led by the story and you are sometimes surprised by where the film is leading you. Those two scenes in particular seemed to be blind alleys. Though since the film has been released a number of people have said “Well why doesn’t he go to the police? “

I don’t know in some ways I regret cutting the police scene because it shows that even if he had gone to the police, there would have been no resolution.

On the DVD there’s a short film ‘Burst’ did you have anything to do with that?

Yeah that was a competition we ran. We discovered we were gonna have a day free at the end of our schedule so we ran a competition in the unit. The 3 rd AD won it and we had the full crew at the winner’s disposal for a day, two cameras. It was great, a good feeling.

You grew up in Syria and Czechoslovakia, would you ever consider making a film around there?

No because I don’t think I could make a film that wasn’t in English. I don’t think I could really direct actors if I didn’t speak their language fluently. Quite often you see films directed, say by French directors, with English actors, and you can tell they can’t quite hear every nuance of the language. So much of the performance is about language that I would feel that I’d had one hand tied behind my back.

Do you have any more adaptations in the pipeline?

Huckleberry Finn I’m doing a film of Huckleberry Finn that’s being adapted by Michael Tolkin who wrote the play and Changing Lanes, one of my films.

Look out for Enduring Love in the shops, Roger Michell is a fantastic director and he’s brought the best out of an astoundingly talented cast. Jo (Daniel Craig) is a torn man after the accident and Roger Michell does a fantastic job of compelling you beyond your wishes to side with the vulnerable Jed (Rhys Ifans) who then tries his best to ruin Jo’s life completely.

The film was released theatrically in November 2004 when Bridget Jones 2 and The Incredibles were flavour of the month. If you missed the theatrical release because you were busy waiting for Renee Zellwegger to choose between Colin Firth and Hugh Grant then Enduring Love probably isn’t up your street, but if you like films to be mentally stimulating and gripping then you’ll enjoy this.

Alex Mula


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