Director Roger Michell has spent much of his career making movies in the rural areas of London, whether it be in his most famous film Notting Hill or his latest, Venus, which reunites him with screenwriter Hanif Kureishi (The Mother).
It’s the story of two elderly veteran actors, Maurice and Ian (Peter O’Toole, Leslie Phillips), and the disruption caused when Ian’s niece Jesse (newcomer Jodie Whittaker) comes to stay with him and Maurice becomes smitten with the young woman.
ComingSoon.net spoke with the British director that some film lovers might consider eclectic about his latest film, its legendary star, and other related topics.
ComingSoon.net: When I spoke to Hanif, he suggested that some of the ideas from “Venus” came from him sitting around a café, much like in this movie, with you and Stephen Frears. You’re a lot younger than the picture he painted Roger Michell: (laughs) Ancient, lurching old man
CS: He also said you hung out at Starbucks, which also killed my illusion from the movie of these filmmakers sitting around this quaint tiny London café sipping tea. Michell: It wasn’t a Starbucks. I don’t know what he’s talking about. He hangs out with some older guys, but he has this ridiculous self-image of himself being ancient, which is not true. He’s quite a young guy, but he likes to believe that he’s a footstep away from the grave.
CS: This movie came out of your work with Hanif on “The Mother.” When did Peter O’Toole enter the picture, was it while you were still writing it? Michell: No, he was high on the list, but it wasn’t written for Peter. He was practically the first person we were interested in, and he came on really early in the proceedings.
CS: Obviously, you don’t have to audition someone like Peter O’Toole, so you just send him the script? Michell: Yeah, what you do is meet these people, and you sort of eye each other up and sniff around each other to make sure you’re going to get an okay. He’s a very interesting person ’cause I never met him, and I was struck simultaneously by his vigor and his fragility, and both of them are very present in the film. And both of them are really essential to the success of the film.
CS: Do you know if he had seen any of your other movies? Michell: I gave him “The Mother” to watch. I said, “If you don’t like this film, you won’t want to do my film,” and he watched it and decided he wanted to be in it.
CS: He’d never seen “Notting Hill”? Michell: I don’t know. I don’t normally ask people if they’ve seen “Notting Hill.” It’s not a question I normally like to ask people. It’s sort of a personal question.
CS: Once you had Peter O’Toole on board, it must have been difficult to cast the role of Jesse, his “venus.” Michell: Well, with a part like that, you know you’re just going to have to see everyone in town and everyone out-of-town in fact, and you’re just going to have to keep looking until you find someone who you think is perfect for the role. You know it’s going to be an unknown person, and in fact, you relish the idea it’s going to be an anonymous person, someone you’re going to kind of discover in a strange fringe theatre or in a drama school or somewhere out of town. So that’s a rather exciting and scary prospect, because clearly, the film won’t work unless you have the right Jessie. We saw a lot of people, and it became obvious to me that if Jessie was too immediately beautiful or too like Lolita than that would tip the film in a very unpleasant way into a chasm. If she’s enormously fat, then that wouldn’t work either. Josie is marvelous because she starts out the film as a spotty, pot noodle scoffing minger, but then she transforms herself into a swan. It’s the ugly duckling [story] really.
CS: But is that a real transformation she undergoes or is that only through Maurice’s eyes? Michell: No, I think it’s through the course of the film, she physically seems to become a different person in her own wonderful way. Rather like Hanif and I did this film called “The Mother” a few years ago, which also describes the same strange transformation in a granny, who was being f**ked by “James Bond” at the time. You should see that film, particularly in relationship to this film, it’s almost a companion piece.
CS: How did you end up finding Jodie? She’d only done some theatre before doing this movie, right? Michell: She left Guildhall early to do a play at the Globe Theatre in London, so she’d done one play and one TV episode. I found her because I have a wonderful casting director who dug her up. I didn’t see her until quite late in the process then recalled her three or four times, screen tested her. It’s one of the moments where in the room, you make one choice, but when you watch the screen tests, you make another choice. Something is revealed by the camera, which is not clear in the room.
CS: Can you get an actor like Peter O’Toole to come in to do readings with these actresses during the audition process? Michell: Yeah, he did. He came and read with the last three. I wanted him to be a part of the process of choosing the girl obviously, and he came in and read with the top 3 girls.
CS: What about getting Leslie Phillips to play his long-time friend? He has to have as much chemistry with Peter as she does. Michell: Yeah, in a way. I think it’s less critical, and also Leslie’s a known quantity whereas Jodie wasn’t. Leslie was hard to cast, and I was very pleased to find Leslie. Leslie was very pleased to find us. Leslie said to me something like, “I thought I’d never be offered a part like this again in my life,” which was terribly sweet.
CS: Had he not been working for a while? Michell: No, he works all the time. He does the Lord of the Manor in a TV murder-mystery, and he’s famous in the UK for much lighter material. He’s a comedy star there.
CS: Did you and Peter have any concerns about the material and sensitivity towards Jodie in terms of having her in this role where she’s having a semi-sexual relationship with a much older man? Michell: That she might be offended or upset by it? I had no concerns about it at all. She’s an actor and she’s read the script and she knows what it’s all about. She was very up about it, she got it. That was not a delicate area that we had to biscuit around. I find it’s always an issue with sex in films, you have to really be completely head on about them in talking to actors. You can’t be coy about it or you make things difficult. You have to be clear about what’s going on, then people are fine. It takes the fear out.
CS: What’s it like working with Peter on set? Being the legend that he is, one can only imagine that he does his scene and is then off to his trailer Michell: Well, he didn’t have a trailer and he’s very collaborative. He would obey instructions very happily and would have great ideas and is very professional guy who’s very pleasing to work with.
CS: How was Jodie while working with him? Was she aware of his legendary status? Michell: She appeared to be fearless. I think she was frightened but she seemed to be absolutely fearless, and she did a wonderful job both in acting and also in appearing to be fearless, which was probably two acting jobs in one. ‘Cause she was working with Peter and Vanessa Redgrave and Leslie and Richard Griffiths, and they’re all pretty robust, serious heavyweights.
CS: And she also had to push Peter down in one scene, so that takes some guts. Did Peter need a stunt double for that? Michell: I’ll leave you to work that out for yourself.
CS: Peter’s obviously an amazing actor, who continues to work regularly, so what do you think about all this Oscar buzz specifically for his performance in the movie? Michell: I feel two things about it. Firstly, I’d be delighted for Peter if he eventually got one, but I feel particularly strongly about the film, and I feel the film is actually very accessible and very enjoyable, funny and could be quite popular. If Peter does well in the nominations phase, that could really enhance the profile of the film in a really positive way. I think you have to look at these things, not cynically, but pragmatically. I would encourage any Oscar buzz as a result.
CS: I remember a lot of people liking “The Mother” and were raving about Daniel Craig’s performance in a similar way, but it didn’t get this kind of attention. Michell: It’s actually worth seeing, and I’m really very pleased with that film, especially now that Daniel is the biggest star in the world. It’ll be interesting to rediscover that film.
CS: Have you had a chance to see Daniel in the new Bond film yet? Michell: I have, I liked it. He came at it the right way, because he had everyone saying he’d be terrible, and he’s wonderful, which is much better than the other way around.
CS: Over the years since “Notting Hill,” you’ve jumped around between genres, doing thrillers as well as comedies. Do you have a preference to the style or genre you like working in? Michell: I think the preference is for jumping around, the preference is for doing different things, and not getting stuck in a particular genre. As you probably know, if you direct something which is halfway successful in a particular genre, you get offered nothing but that genre. So one is instinctively trying to dive into another genre.
CS: Is that why there seemed to be such a long gap before doing “Changing Lanes”? Michell: Was there a gap? It was two years in between “Notting Hill” and “Changing Lanes.” I’ve done 7 films in ten years, so I’ve been reasonably productive.
CS: That’s not bad. I mean, it’s no Michael Winterbottom, but I guess no other director can be that insane. Michell: (laughs) That’s true, but I do plays as well. Michael doesn’t do plays. During the same period, I’ve done five or six plays.
CS: It seems your recent movies have been very dramatic and character-based, so have you had a chance to work with any of your film actors on stage as well? Michell: That’s a good question. Lots of people in “Notting Hill” I’ve worked with on stage, lots of people in “Persuasion” I’ve worked with on stage, but I don’t think anyone in “Venus.” I’ve worked with Rhys Ifans on stage before I worked with him in film. And I’m about to do a play written by Joe Penhall, who adapted “Enduring Love,” at National, that’s called “Landscape with Weapons.”
CS: Tragically, a lot of those great British plays never get over here. Michell: This is a different theatre culture.
CS: Besides adaptations like “Enduring Love,” you’ve tended to lean towards doing movies based on original material. Do you enjoy the process of developing these ideas yourself or with a writer? Michell: Well, finding a book and finding a writer and putting them together, but almost without exception, I develop the material that I do. Unfortunately, it’s very unlikely I feel that a script is going to drop through the letterbox fully formed. They don’t tend to work like that.
CS: You developed “Venus” and “The Mother” closely with Hanif, so why don’t you have a writing credit? Michell: I’m curious about that myself, as well. I reckon I should start doing so. I should take a writing credit. I’ll have to tell that to him.
CS: Do you and Hanif have a third movie in this trilogy planned? Michell: We’re starting to talk about another film, yeah. This is in fact our third collaboration now. We did “The Buddah of Suburbia.” We’ve already started talking about another film, which uncharacteristically for us, will be set in Paris hopefully.
CS: Is that because filmmakers like Woody Allen are starting to usurp England? Michell: Yeah, why is he shooting those films in London?
CS: I don’t know. You always hear about the cost of shooting in England being very expensive, so is it difficult getting locations for your films? Michell: Yeah, this is a very particular way of working. Like I said, we don’t have trailers or huge catering vans, so it makes things much more flexible. You can shoot in places where normally you couldn’t shoot.
CS: Though you’ve become known as a London director, “Changing Lanes” was a bit of an exception in your filmography, being the one “Hollywood movie” you’ve done. Michell: Well, that was sort of attempting to be an art house movie masquerading as a Hollywood movie, and I think it’s quite successful in that respect. I’m very pleased with the film, and apart from the ending, which was a bone of contention between the studio and myself, it’s pretty much the film that I wanted to make. I didn’t have any studio interference, and I shot it in this amazing city. But it was a full-on thing if you’re shooting a scene in a coffee bar, you closed all the streets all around it, which is kind of weird and extraordinary, closing down the highway for Sunday after Sunday after Sunday. It was quite nice for me to retreat from that big circus to a much, much smaller more touchy-feely, personal side of filmmaking. And I haven’t worked outside the M25 (the main road around London) for five years now, and that’s really been to do with family things, my kids, and that type of thing. I’m about to make a safari outside the M25 again.
CS: If you’re next movie won’t be with Hanif, do you have something already lined up? Michell: Yeah, my next movie won’t be with Hanif. I’ve got a few ideas but they’re not fully formed enough to run yet.
Venus opens in New York and Los Angeles on December 21. Look for our interview with writer Hanif Kureishi later this week.