Roger Michell

The Mother

Interviewed by Adrian Hennigan

“People in England don't want to make films really, do they? ”

Director Roger Michell is best known for directing the Hugh Grant/Julia Roberts romantic comedy Notting Hill. After barking orders at Samuel L Jackson and Ben Affleck in road rage drama Changing Lanes in 2002, he's now returned to the UK. He's currently shooting an adaptation of Ian McEwan's Enduring Love, with Daniel Craig, Rhys Ifans, and Samantha Morton. Now, though, you can see Craig play the young lover of a pensioner in Hanif Kureishi's dysfunctional family drama The Mother.

You said at Cannes that no one in London wanted The Mother to be made. Why do you think that was?

I think the subject matter of the film is quite challenging. You can't imagine cigar-chomping executives saying "Yes, I want to do a film about an old woman being ****** by a very young man!" Also, people in England don't want to make films really, do they? They only want to make films that are potentially going to be comedies. I had terrible trouble getting [current film] Enduring Love off the ground, infuriatingly so.

Because Working Title were going to finance Enduring Love...

They were going to do it, but they don't really like making films like that any more. They like Bridget Jones 2, 3, 4. They like that kind of movie at the moment - which is a shame.

Given those frustrations, what brought you back here after making Changing Lanes in Hollywood?

Well, I'm English. I have young children, I want to be with my kids, and I want to live in London. I want to tell stories about Europe - I feel profoundly European, I don't feel like an American. I feel odd about America at the moment because of what they're doing around the world, and it would be quite wrong to assume that I simply want to be an American film director. I actually would much prefer to be a director here, and I'm just about managing to do that in spite of so many people's desires to stop me making the films I want to make.

What attracted you to The Mother?

The oddness of the story, the strangeness of [Anne Reid's character] May's story, the way in which it anatomises the modern family, really. It looks at what our families are like now in the West - diasporised, fragmented, and pretty much dysfunctional in every department. The sexual relationship at the heart of the film is really only a part of a portrait of a dysfunctional family, which I thought was true and chimed lots of chords within me.

Did you ever feel you were making an overly pessimistic film?

No, I didn't feel pessimistic about it at all. I feel it's extremely optimistic. Edward Bond once wrote a play called Saved which contained scenes of babies being stoned in prams. It was considered at the time - and now really - to be one of the most horrifying, brutalising, and nihilistic pieces of drama ever presented on the English stage. In the very last scene, one of the characters mends a chair, that's all he does, he picks up the broken chair and he starts to mend it. And Edward Bond sees that as a huge shaft of optimism, the beginning of something. And that's really how I see the end of The Mother.

You've worked with Hanif Kureishi before, on The Buddha Of Suburbia. How did that help here?

It helped me because he's a friend of mine and I like working with him and I am not frightened to lash him to his desk and get him to work harder and make it better - which he did over a period of two years.

How did working in Hollywood affect your approach?

Well, for one Changing Lanes you could make 32 Mothers, so that was kind of weird and nice - it was a massive contrast. I had a very small crew for The Mother, we didn't have any trailers or caravans or Winnebagos, we didn't even have a generator. I'm not saying that it's wrong to make huge Hollywood films but it's just a different kind of feeling, a different sort of pleasure. But it's not the only pleasurable way of making a film. I can say that because I've done it a couple of times so I feel free now, I feel liberated to come back and make much smaller films without feeling, "Oh God, I wish we had another bit of equipment or a few more people or another pair of hands. I wish I had a trailer."

Although The Mother is set in the same geographical environment as Notting Hill, it's really another world. Did you go in thinking, 'This is the flip side to Notting Hill'?

I didn't think about it much. I thought it was quite a witty companion piece to Notting Hill and there's one shot which I've used in both films - which is looking down, I think it's Stanley Gardens or somewhere in Notting Hill. I think it's a fun idea to have those films in my portfolio because they are very different.

Of the two main characters, was it harder to cast the mother or the lover?

It was hard to cast both of them. The mother character, a number of people - particularly financier-type people - kept saying things like, "She's old but she's got to be like... Julie Christie would be really good." They wanted people who were famous for being devastatingly sexually attractive when they were young and probably still are, and I knew that that was completely against the rub of the cloth of the film, that it would actually ruin it.

I didn't really know Anne Reid. I'd seen her in a play, but when she walked in to meet us, before she sat down, she felt like the right person for it. And I don't know whether that was to do with her life or what I could sense about her as a person, but she's marvellous in the film. She's like Pygmalion, really - she transforms herself from this sort of granny you wouldn't notice in the supermarket at a bus stop, or at a bingo hall to this rather glowing woman. And I always wanted Daniel Craig to play the part but he turned us down several times, so I eventually asked if I could meet him to at least talk about it.

What was your clinching argument?

I don't know. I think he thought that all the people in the film were horrid, and I think that all the people in the film are fine. I guess he liked the idea of the way we were going to work, and I know he and Anne met a couple of times and that all felt good.

People always say things like "brave performance" when an older woman takes her clothes off. But Anne Reid's performance was very brave emotionally...

She was wonderfully up for the film, but she found it difficult - she found the way we worked bewildering to begin with. And she did find the prospect of the sex scenes very scary, and I completely sympathise with that. But I feel in a way that she is, in an odd way, almost transformed by the making of the film in the way that her character was. Seeing her at Cannes surrounded by paparazzi, wandering down the Croisette being feted, was marvellous, really marvellous.