Getting Direct With Directors...
Roger Michell
No.5: Roger Michell

Roger Michell made his movie debut with Jane Austen adaptation Persuasion in 1995, before directing one of the biggest British films of all time with 1999's Notting Hill. A heart attack prevented him directing Captain Corelli's Mandolin (the words 'cloud' and 'silver lining' spring to mind), but didn't stop him going to Hollywood for road rage drama Changing Lanes. He's subsequently returned to England to make the low-budget, coming-of-old-age family drama The Mother. Read on to discover the most famous person in his contacts book, the biggest pain he's worked with, and a good answer - finally - to our Norman Wisdom question.

Why did you become a director?

I became a director because my father was a diplomat, and I think my interest came from watching my parents perform at close quarters, watching them have to be other people. I started directing and writing little plays when I was very young - when I was about eight. And as I went through school I became more and more interested in acting and directing. By the time I was about 15, I decided to be a director. I directed lots of plays at school and then went to university and directed lots of plays there. So I've been pretty much boringly single-minded about it for a very, very long time. I was intensely ambitious in my late teens and early 20s to become a theatre director, which I did. About ten, 11 years ago I started directing TV and films as well.

If you weren't a filmmaker, what would you be?

I have no idea. I've never really thought about it. I really haven't given it a thought. I hope I don't have to consider that.

Do you ever regret being so focused from such a young age?

Yeah, I do now. I wish I'd partied a lot harder in my 20s, but maybe a lot of people think that anyway. I mean, I was so absurdly committed to it and I took myself much more seriously than I do now.

What other director would you like to see at work?

I would love to have seen [Federico] Fellini working. I would love to see how he worked with his crew and how he composed shots, how that all worked. I'd also love to see Spielberg working on a big action thing, because apparently he works really fast - he won't hang around, he really likes to shoot, shoot, shoot. And I'm like that as well. I love going on other people's sets, because when you're on your own set you're always completely freaked out and nervous and worrying and thinking about work all the time. Whereas other people's sets seem so relaxed, and slow. No one seems to be doing anything. Everyone is just sitting around gassing.

"If he so much as uses a dolly, I wanna know about it kid!" Sydney Pollack with Ben Affleck in Changing Lanes

Do you ever get the opportunity?

No, not really. Whenever I do, I grab it. That was one funny thing about having Sydney Pollack on Changing Lanes. He clearly just loved hanging out on the set; he never went to his trailer. He would just come and sit next to me at the monitor and say: "Why are you doing that? Oh that's interesting, why do you do that?" and "How do you do that?"

What was the last movie you paid to see?

I've been shooting for four weeks [on Enduring Love] so I've got into a bit of a black hole on that front. Can't remember. I know the last movie I've seen - I've seen three movies recently. I saw L'Homme Du Train this morning, which I thought was completely charming. I watched Michael Winterbottom's In This World yesterday, which I thought was utterly beguiling as well, very interesting, raising a number of very interesting issues about film and documentary. And I watched Danny Boyle's film, 28 Days Later, which I didn't manage to see when it was in cinemas.

What was the last movie you walked out of?

I remember it very clearly. I'm not going to say what it was, it was an English film and I took my son - it was his 11th birthday. I thought it was excruciating but he thought it was even worse. He insisted that we leave halfway through, which I thought was a big plus for Harry - the kid is very discerning. It was a bad English film.

Do you believe in God?

No.

Sorry for the dreadful link, but did your heart attack change your perspective on life?

God, heart attack, I see it... It changed me less than you might think. People want you to have some kind of 'out of body' experience and suddenly... obviously it reinforces your sense of mortality but we all in various degrees start to confront those feelings. I'm 47 so the idea of being endlessly alive is long gone. Having a heart attack simply makes those feelings more vivid, if you like. One expects to die as opposed to putting off the notion of death. It's not a bad thing to face up to that expectation.

Who's the most famous person in your contacts book?

Oh, most famous... David Bowie is quite famous. Harold Pinter, I would put Harold up there with David Bowie in my astrology of famousness.

What's your favourite movie quote?

Movie quote, ****! God you should have given me notice of this. Movie quote... movie quote... keep asking, I'll think of that in a minute.

Which filmmaker do you consider the most underrated?

No, I don't know, I'll have to think about that.

And overrated?

I think the notion of the director is overrated. We can apply that to all directors in history. I think the notion that it's simply a film by the director is corruption, and therefore I would nominate the auteur theory as being the most overrated director. I think it's wrong, film is very very collaborative. It's almost as collaborative as theatre, and to say that the film belongs to the director is wrong. I no longer put 'A Film By' at the beginning of my films because it just seems vain and stupid.

When did you stop doing that?

On The Mother.

Do you believe in test screenings?

I do. For certain types of film they're fantastically useful. They're like previews in the theatre - when you do a play you usually have six or seven previews before you open it, from which you learn. The trick in the test screening is to listen to the room more than looking at the cards. If you sit in one of your own films, you are exquisitely alert to the rustling of sweet papers, to the coughing and shuffling, and to the moments where people decide to go and urinate. You will learn enormously about your film, and you may not like what you learn. But you will learn. And the thing then is to be empowered: to either change it or not change it. What's wrong is where the market research becomes the editor; that isn't right.

How seriously do you take reviews?

I don't take them seriously in as much as I don't think you should believe the good ones unless you are going to believe the bad ones. It's been so devalued now that there are so many reviews - the biggest turkey of a film you've ever seen in your life, they'll be able to dig up about four quotes for the poster saying it's outstanding. So it is bull**** really, especially now you can go to Rotten Tomatoes and you can see there are a thousand reviews for your film. It's just too boring to even read them, let alone be worried about them or be happy about them.

So you're saying you don't go onto Rotten Tomatoes and check?

I do actually. When Changing Lanes came out I was looking at the 'tomatometre' regularly because it gives you a percentage of good versus bad, and that was good to know - that you have kind of won because it's like 80% good and 20% bad [77% positive]. Beyond that I think you have to be careful about not becoming distraught about reviews.

Who's the biggest pain you've ever worked with?

My daughter [Rosie]. She's in The Mother, she's the little girl at the beginning of the film. She was a pain because she's like an actor but she doesn't have the... she doesn't conceal what she's feeling. So after a third take, if I say "We're going again", she'll say "Why? Who made a mistake? I was good. Was it you?" And then she'll say things like, "I'm not doing it again until I've had lunch!" So she was a real pain, and I'm working with her again on Enduring Love - I hope she won't need slapping around.

What's the best piece of advice you've ever been given?

That's a good one. When I was 21 or so I won an award for student director and the prize was like 50 and a drink with Trevor Nunn. And so I went to the Aldwych, to his office, and he was sweet and charming and lovely. He poured me a gin and tonic and said: "Under no circumstance become a theatre director, it will completely **** up your life. This award is named the Buzz Goodbody Award after a director who topped herself, an RSC director who topped herself because she was so miserable. Don't even think of becoming a theatre director, go off and do something sensible with your life." That's the best piece of advice, and the reason it's good is because that's what you should always advise people - "Don't do it unless you're utterly compelled to do it." Because it's hard and it's very competitive and it's full of car crashes at the side of the road.

And the worst?

That's hard, the worst advice... "Don't worry, we can fix that with CGI."

Jean-Pierre Léaud in The Four Hundred Blows

What are your three favourite films and why?

Amarcord, Le Quatre Cents Coups, and, oh god, Lawrence Of Arabia. Amarcord - because I think it's the greatest film by the greatest European director [Fellini]. It's like a novel, it's so rich and so complicated and yet so anarchic and so amazingly cinematic. Quatre Cents Coups because I saw it when I was not much older than Jean-Pierre Léaud's character in the film and it shocked me into realising that cinema could transport you. And Lawrence Of Arabia because it just has majesty - it has majesty stamped on it from the first frame to the last.

Finally, what do you think of Norman Wisdom?

Norman Wisdom? I think he's interesting, I think he's... I saw him do an interview with Jonathan Ross once where he had a glass of water in front of him and he spent the whole 20 minutes nearly taking a sip, and it was astonishing. There's something rather interesting about him because his persona was that of a boy - he had a cap, like a kid's cap, his trousers were too short, his clothes were too short - and yet there's something profoundly priapic about him as well. And it's this odd sort of tension - this innocent boy who you imagine has got this huge erection throbbing somewhere as he gads about with Shirley Eaton or whoever it was. It's that kind of tension which I'm sure has sustained a very long and wonderful career.

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