He made his cinematic name directing Notting Hill, but Roger Michell, 64, has had an eclectic and impressive career ranging from working at the Royal Shakespeare Company, through landmark TV series like The Buddha of Suburbia (1993) and then movies including The Mother (2003) with Daniel Craig, 2010’s Morning Glory starring Harrison Ford and My Cousin Rachel in 2017.
His latest, The Duke, has been winning rave reviews at this year’s virtual Venice Festival, but we Zoomed him to talk primarily about his ensemble family drama Blackbird, featuring Kate Winslet, Susan Sarandon and Sam Neill (available on DVD and to stream from 28 September), as well as some of incredible people he’s met during his working life.
Blackbird is about a woman (Sarandon) with a degenerative disease who brings her family together one last time before ending her own life. Was there any concern about tackling a hot button topic like euthanasia?
I don’t think it is very provocative to be honest. It’s not instructing people to rush out and campaign for euthanasia in our country and other countries. All the arguments and all the debates that I’m sure families would have in this situation, all happen before the movie starts, so it’s not really an issue-driven film.
You shot the film at a gorgeous house in West Sussex that just happens to be 30 seconds from star Kate Winslet’s own gaff? How did that come about?
[Kate] kept going on about this house next to her being perfect for the film and of course I was like, ‘I know what you’re up to, you’re just trying to have a lie-in in the mornings.’ I saw lots of other houses in the South-East, [but] she was right.
It’s basically one location, with a small company of actors. There’s a danger a film like this could end up feeling a bit theatrical.
I worked hard to make it not feel like a play and actually I don’t think it would work as a play. I tried to squeeze every ounce of juice out of that location so it feels like something you want to go and see in the cinema.
Maybe next time you could chuck in a few more explosions...?
I was very worried about the lack of explosions. Perhaps there could have been a small explosion in the kitchen. A coffee percolator could have exploded (laughs).
You worked with Bill Murray for Hyde Park on the Hudson (2012). Everyone on the internet seems to have a story about him, do you?
I have hundreds of Bill Murray stories. Every moment with Bill Murray generates a story.
I’ve got two young children, who five years ago were much younger. I’m babysitting because my wife is shooting something. The phone goes in the afternoon and it’s Bill Murray. Which is very characteristic of Bill because he’ll just phone you without any warning and say ‘what are you doing?’ I said, ‘I can’t go out, if you want to, it’ll be boring, but you can come here, babysit and I’ll cook you something to eat.’
So Bill Murray comes over and it’s time to do the bedtime story and I say to my five-year-old Maggie, ‘I’ve got my friend Bill here who’s very, very good at telling stories, he’s an actor, would you prefer Bill to read you a story or would you prefer me to read you a story?’ And she says, ‘Daddy, I’d prefer you to read me a story.’ A decision that – when she realises the enormity of her choice – she’ll regret forever and ever.
You collaborated closely with David Bowie on The Buddha of Suburbia. How did you find that?
[I have] very fond and quite surprising memories of David Bowie. He’d never written a score for a film before and he was incredibly humble about it. I remember the first time I met him, he came into the cutting room literally holding a yellow lawyer’s notepad and a pencil and as we sat and went through the film noting all the spots where I felt we needed a piece from him, he would studiously scribble it down.
He was incredibly good at it, but it wasn’t something he did first time, it took a little while, a few drafts, a few passes on it before it started to make sense.
You’ve talked in the past about quitting Bond film Quantum of Solace. Now that they’ll be rebooting it with a new 007, are you interested in trying again?
[Laughs] Too old, too old. They need a young tyro for that job. Just talking about it makes me want to have a lie-down.
They need a woman actually, that would be great to get a woman to direct a Bond film. The Bond franchise is culturally in a hard place I would have thought right now and they’re going to need to retool it for the world that we all now live in.
Do you regret leaving (Michell left because the script wasn’t ready and the film company were pushing for a quick release date to avoid an impending writers’ strike)?
I regret it terribly, but it was a very particular situation.
I got increasingly unrelaxed to the point where this was actually going to make me miserable for years doing this, never catching up, never being able to prepare it properly, never being able to design the film that I wanted to do because there’s no script.
You’ve worked with many megastars, like Julia Roberts in Notting Hill, but Harrison Ford in Morning Glory (2010) is one of the biggest. You went to the Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull set to meet him – that must have been epic?
Harrison came strolling in literally wearing his Indiana Jones costume, practically carrying the whip, certainly carrying a hat and that’s how I first met him. It was vertiginous.
But he’s the sweetest guy.
A few years ago, you made an Ellie Goulding music video just using mobile phones.
Which was utterly thrilling, I must say. Making a little film, with a proper crew, but on phones. Lots of phones.
Where do you sit on the digital versus film debate that seems to never stop raging amongst top directors?
I just know when I’m working digital allows me so much more freedom than film did. And I will never willingly go back to the hiss of incredibly expensive film rattling through mags.
Can you see yourself shooting a feature film on a phone?
I totally can. In fact, I’m actually thinking of a subject right now to do over the next few months on my iPhone. Last week I was doing a little test with my 8-year-old who’s a skateboarder. We went to the park and I was on my bike doing tracking shots behind her while she skateboarded along and they look unbelievable.
It’s all about the sound at the moment, at the moment the sound is terrible.
You worked with Daniel Craig early on his career – did you always know he was going to be huge?
I thought he had a pretty good chance of being a massive film star.
[Before this year] the last time I went to Venice was with Enduring Love (16 years ago) with Daniel Craig and Rhys Ifans. We all went to Venice together and I remember at Heathrow, someone coming up to Dan and saying, ‘are you Craig Daniels?’ And I thought that’s not going to last for very long.
And now your children are following in your footsteps – your son Harry Michell releases his film Say Your Prayers on Monday. You’ve previously recalled a meeting you had when you were 21 with legendary theatre director Trevor Nunn who advised you not to be a director because it’s so hard. Did you not pass on the advice?
I never had that conversation with Harry because it was too late. He started doing amazing things as a schoolboy, writing plays and doing really interesting productions of plays at school. The game was up.
He’s very determined, which is a big part of doing what we do. I’m glad he’s doing so well.
Do you ask for his advice now?
He’s very helpful with my projects. He’s a cruel, but intelligent critical voice.
Blackbird is on Digital Download now and on DVD 28 September from Lionsgate UK.