Roger Michell interview: Morning Glory, directing films and working with Harrison Ford

Roger Michell, the director of films such as Venus, Notting Hill and Changing Lanes, chats to us about making movies, and his latest, Morning Glory...

For the last 20 years, Roger Michell has been directing for both television and cinema, working on both sides of the Atlantic on projects such as Notting Hill, Changing Lanes, The Mother, Enduring Love and Venus.

Out this week is his new film, Morning Glory, the ‘rom-job-com’ which stars Rachel McAdams as an ambitious young television producer who is tasked with turning around the performance of morning news show, Daybreak, and features strong support from the likes of Harrison Ford, Diane Keaton and Jeff Goldblum.

We had the chance to chat with Michell about the art of directing, the trouble with genres, and the best way to treat Hollywood movie stars…

As a director, you’ve helmed films in a variety of genres: dramas, thrillers and comedies. Is that all part of the plan, is that by design, or is it just how the projects have come along?

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I don’t think there’s a plan at work. I don’t have a plan, ‘I must cover all these genres before I die’. I’m never quite sure why I’m particularly attracted to projects. Quite often it’s only a year or two after a film that I realise why I was particularly interested in that subject matter or that story.

And you have to learn to be kind of bitten by the material, because the process of making a film takes so long. It’s so arduous and draining that you have to be very curious and interested in the subject when you embark on it.

And I suppose that puts a lot of weight on the work of the writer and the scripts coming through your door?

Yeah, it’s all to do with the script. Initially, it’s all to do with the script. I mean, it depends on whether it’s something that comes through the door, or, generally speaking, the stuff I do, I’ve developed with a writer. Or it’s a book that I’ve wanted to do or I’ve discussed with somebody who’d gone off and made it into a script.

In that sense, you’ve collaborated with a handful of ‘name’ writers, such as Hanif Kureishi. How does that relationship work out?

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It’s very collaborative, and we spend long periods between films developing. What starts as a little idea… we started on a project the day Peter O’ Toole was nominated for a Golden Globe, which is four years ago, I think, which is just coming to fruition now. So, it takes a long time.

And, otherwise, something’s come through the letterbox, like this script. It came through the letterbox about three years ago in an early draft, and I for some reason, was grabbed by it.

So, what’s your take on the creative role of the director, then? A lot of the popular discourse is very much influenced by the concept of the auteur, with the director as the sole creator. But you’re working with writers, such as Richard Curtis, who contribute just as much to the public’s view of the finished work. Morning Glory, for example, is billed as “from the writer of The Devil Wears Prada“.

No, I think writers are crucial to film. I mean, I think the most important things about a film are the script, the script and the script. And I think that the auteur theory should really only apply to writers who also direct, or directors who also write their own material.

I think the idea that it’s your film, that it’s the director who owns the film, is preposterous. It’s such a collaborative art. It’s the director’s role to marshal everyone else’s creativity and to try and evoke the best of everyone in the same world, if you like. To keep everyone making the same film, which is more difficult than it sounds.

But for that, then, to become ‘authored’ by the director, I think, is a wrong emphasis. It’s simply a historical error.

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With some of your films, that emphasis can be applied to the writer, especially when you’re working with literary figures, such as Kureishi, or adapting an Ian McEwan novel, or working with Richard Curtis, who has almost become a romcom auteur. Does that change things at all?

I think if you’re any good, you’ll make the material your own somehow. And I think that you have to feel very personally connected to the material to make the film sing. So, I don’t think that the author then becomes the ‘author’ of the film at all, no.

On my English films, I don’t take a possessory credit. On the last three English films I’ve made, it doesn’t say ‘A film by…’ at the beginning of the film. That just feels idiotic and arrogant. I do on American films, but that’s for different reasons.

Is that the convention over there?

It’s more of a courtesy. It’s sort of a complex, contractual thing.

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You’ve been working on both sides of the Atlantic throughout your career. What is the difference? Budget, I suppose?

I go to America to make big budget films, but people make wonderful low budget films in America, which I imagine are very similar in structure to the little films that we make here. So, what we’re talking about is the difference between studio films and independent films, and studio films are good because it’s a one-stop shop. Because one organisation pushes the button, and pays for the whole thing.

But they’re bad, because the films are so expensive to make, it means that the process is sometimes more complicated by lots of people having a view and lots of people wanting their voice to be heard, certainly in the post-production phase of things.

But when you take on a big-budget American film, a commercial film, I think you’d be foolish if you thought that you didn’t have to take some responsibility for that setup. You have to listen to what people say.

And how did that process work out with Morning Glory? The script came through your letterbox, then what?

A draft came through my letterbox about three years ago, and then we spent about a year developing the script, and then started to put the film together. Most of the director’s job takes place during the prep. As David Mamet says, “All mistakes happen in prep.” Because in prep, you make your film, really.

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You don’t have time to make your film while you’re shooting. You’ve got to have it all sorted out. Choosing all your locations, discussing with your DP how you’re going to start each day, and mapping out a schedule which will account for every hour of every day of your shoot, and rehearsing with your actors, and casting all your actors. All the myriad, literally millions of choices that you have to make as a director before you start shooting.

I’m sure people think that directing is hanging around on set with a canvas chair, being creative. And it really is nothing like that at all. There’s no hanging around. There’s no “Oh, where shall we go today?” Or “Why don’t we put the camera there?” There’s no time for that.

It’s like a terrible war being prosecuted by a chaotic army. And you have to be so prepared, so organised, otherwise you don’t get through the day.

So, all the creative stuff happens – I’m exaggerating – before. Your really great creative thoughts happen when you’re sitting and reading the script and working out in your mind how you might shoot it, and how you might light it, and what the side choices might be. That’s the fun part. And then the post is the fun part, where you do the final rewrite of the film.

The shoot is process, that’s the tough bit.

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So, is it not fun?

The shoot is a nightmare. It’s absolutely horrible. I wouldn’t recommend it.

But you say rehearsals are important for the actors.

That’s something that I do, but my background’s in theatre. So, I choose to rehearse the actors on all my films.

With this film, you’re working with some very big Hollywood names – Harrison Ford, Diane Keaton, Rachel McAdams. Was it different from working with Peter O’Toole or Leslie Phillips?

Well, they were younger. [laughs] That’s for sure. No, they’re actors. They’re film stars, but they’re also actors. And I think they like being treated like actors.

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I’ve never met an actor yet who doesn’t like the process of rehearsal, even though they might blanch at it to begin with – “Oh, I’ve never done that before!” But it’s reassuring. It’s creative. It’s a space where actors can work with each other without the pressure of hundreds of technicians staring at them and the sun going down or up, or time ticking away.

When working with that class of star, do egos come into it? In Adventures In The Screen Trade, William Goldman recounts anecdotes of directors and writers having to tiptoe around their actors, not necessarily because of personality issues, but simply the machinations of stardom. Is that part of the nightmare of shooting?

No, no. I think that there are people who present those difficulties, but none of this lot were at all like that.

I’ve been lucky so far, in that I haven’t had any kind of hissy fit actors, who would have sat in their trailers, or who would continually arrive late or the usual horror stories.

I think people respond to how they’re treated, and I think if you treat them properly, and you make them feel secure, and you respect them and treat them like actors as opposed to film stars, they’ll behave like actors. People like Harrison Ford are always early on set, always ultra-prepared. They’re very collegiate. They like sets, they like crews, they like being around. They like work. So, I think they enjoy themselves.

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That’s something that’s said about Harrison Ford. They talk about his background working in manual trade as influencing his very professional approach to acting.

I think that’s right.

One of the draws, for me, for the film was definitely to see these actors whom I’ve not seen in many comedic roles for some time, like Diane Keaton, Harrison Ford, and especially Jeff Goldblum. Was that a reason to get them on board?

Well, you aim high. You go for the top of the list. When you’re casting, you have a list of ten people, and you go for the top one first. And usually you end up with number seven.

On this occasion, we ended up with all our number ones. Jeff was in New York anyway. He’s been doing Law And Order, and he’s been producing it as all.

He was over here last year, as well.

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He did a play, didn’t he? But he had a week, so we got him for a week and he was wonderful.

The film is almost like a rom-job-com.

You’ve got to come up with a better way of saying it. Rom-job-com sounds slightly weird.

It’s a bit of a mouthful. How would you term it?

It’s a workplace comedy, and it’s not, strictly speaking, a romcom, because Patrick [Wilson]’s the girl in the film, in a way.

Traditionally –

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He would be the girl! I think it’s absolutely fair that the tables are eventually turned in respect to gender. But the key relationship is –  the spine of the film is the relationship between Rachel and her dad/mentor.

Whatever the relationship is, that’s the ‘romantic’ thing that the audience yearns to be resolved, I suppose. And for Rachel to find a family. She starts the film effectively an orphan, with this ghastly mother. And he starts the film effectively a widow, a childless widow. And they both end up forming this strange but vaguely functioning family. I suppose that’s the spine of the film.

I like the fact that the work world is so detailed, and so interesting. I found it really interesting to go and see how these films are made, and talk to people who make them.

Because, in this country, it’s different. Our Daybreak hasn’t been doing so well on ITV. But morning news programming must still be a huge institution in America.

It’s enormous. It’s much bigger than it is in Europe. Morning TV shows in America are the cash cows who support the rest of the networks, and there are three / four of them. And they’re incredibly competitive and they are incredibly successful, and they constantly try to gazump each other and scoop each other. It’s a very, very vibrant, weird, interesting world.

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There’s also the conflict in the film between ‘boring old’ news and the more light entertainment approach. Do you see a resonance there with cinema, perhaps? A conflict between populism and inscrutable preciousness?

I didn’t feel that. I can see how you could extrapolate that from the film, but I didn’t feel that making the film.

The film is particularly about morning television. It’s not about news. It’s not trying to say that news is being dumbed down, or has been dumbed down. I think there are all kinds of issues with news, particularly in America, which are not actually to do with dumbing down. They are much more serious than that.

They’re to do with the vitriolic extremism which some people would say was a component of the shooting of the senator last week. But always, in morning broadcasting, there’s going to be this debate about the balance between hard news and fluff. And the film doesn’t attempt to answer exactly what that balance should be, but it tries to raise the debate about what people really want, what they think is the right diet for them.

I suppose it comes back to doing your job, and that’s what Harrison Ford’s character is hired to do, to anchor this show. He’s not presenting a news show.

But ironically, it’s his action of going in, doing this piece of hard-nosed reporting that saves the day.

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So, if you had to give a title for the genre, what would it be? ‘Workplace comedy-drama’?

I think it would be workplace comedy drama, yeah. Boring, but accurate.

Mr Michell, thank you for your time!

Morning Glory is released this week.

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