There are two sides to director Roger Michell’s filmmaking career. On one side you’ll find flashy, star-driven vehicles that include Changing Lanes (Ben Affleck and Samuel L. Jackson), Morning Glory (Rachel McAdams and Harrison Ford) and, his biggest success, Notting Hill (Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant). On the other side are intimate, performance-driven dramas that include Daniel Craig’s breakthrough work in The Mother and Enduring Love and Peter O’Toole’s final Oscar-nominated turn in Venus.
Michell’s latest, Le Week-End (opening March 14 in select cities), is very much in that second mold. Boasting terrific work from Jim Broadbent and Lindsay Duncan as a sixty-something married couple looking to recapture their youth on a romantic Paris vacation, the film is a penetrating and bittersweet look at the challenges of long-term committed relationships. No cutesy Best Exotic Marigold Hotel sort of senior antics here. We spoke to Michell about working on the project, how he selected his stars, the influences of the French New Wave and the comparisons between Le Week-End and Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy.
Paste: This is your fourth collaboration with screenwriter and author Hanif Kureishi, and it seems that together you specialize in telling stories about mature characters. What is it that attracts you to their stories?
Roger Michell: That’s rather accidental. It’s not my intention to tell stories about old people. Unfortunately, these people [in Le Week-End] aren’t much older than I am. This one is more of a precursor autobiography than it is an examination of a foreign country. I’ll be 58 this year, and Hanif will be 60. These people are probably 60, maybe 62. They have the same cultural hinterland as we do. They listened to the same records when they were young; they watched the same movies; they kind of tasted the hidden thrills of the ’60s in the same way we did. It’s more about my generation. I’ve made a couple of other films with Hanif [Venus and The Mother] that do have elderly people having relationships with much younger people, but it isn’t part of some particular interest.
Paste: But you don’t usually see a relationship movie about people of this age. Is that something that made the project even more exciting to you?
Michell: Most love stories are about the beginning, aren’t they? That’s got so many in-built dramatic tropes: the moment when they meet, the first kiss, they sleep together, have a row, get back together again. This is a whole different shape; it’s about a couple who may not make it through the movie. It attempts to be a portrait of what marriage really feels like. And not necessarily marriage after 30 years, but also marriage after five years or a year, even. People live together, and they love each other and hate each other within the space of a few minutes. That’s what this is trying to show with a kind of humorous ruthlessness. That’s what human relationships are often like; they’re not linear. They don’t fall neatly in a movie-like shape. Quite often, they’re very conflicted and complex and fucked up like these two are.
Paste: Obviously, casting is crucial here since it’s nearly a two-hander. Can you tell me about choosing Jim Broadbent and Lindsay Duncan as the leads—Jim being so recognizable whether you’re a fan of Mike Leigh or Harry Potter, and Lindsay being perhaps not as well known to American audiences. What made them perfect for these roles?
Michell: I think it’s their humanity, really, that swings it. They feel like they’re a proper married couple; they don’t feel like a pair of actors wandering around Paris. They feel like they’ve been together forever. The details of their performances, the way in which they look or don’t look at each other, the way in which their body language is so conditioned by years and years of cohabitation, both happy and sad. They find each other’s rhythms in dialogue—they’ve grown into each other in a way, like a pair of trees in a hedge. That’s what I think they’ve achieved most remarkably.
I’ve known them both for years. I’ve worked with Lindsay quite a lot in the theater. She came into my mind very early on in the genesis of the story. Jim, a little bit later, but obviously I was completely thrilled when he decided this was something he wanted to do. He brings a kind of honesty to it, which is not like a lot of his other work. Not that his other work is dishonest in any way at all, but he often performs people who are very different from him. I think on this he was opening up bits of him in a way that he doesn’t always do.
Paste: You also have a strong belief in rehearsal. What kind of insights came out of that in terms of their history together?
Michell: I like to rehearse in a room for a week without the pressures of camera and crew. I like the actors to have that space to feel comfortable and explore. A lot of it is very mundane things like, “What does it feel like wandering around with that luggage? How do you relate to each other when you’re wheeling these suitcases around on cobble streets?” I got them to pack their luggage and choose their props—what books to read on the train, etc. We were very meticulous in the detailed approach to it, and then we spent time working on the scenes, but in a very gentle way. We worked out strategies for it looking like they were married. [We had to] figure out what do married people look like? You can spot them in a crowd. If you sit down for five minutes, you can decide whether the couple in front of you are married or not. What are the tells? What’s the difference between people in the first flush of romantic love and people who have been married? There are differences.
Paste: So you had a week of rehearsal and under a month of filming. Did it feel like you were always running by the seat of your pants?
Michell: When you’re filming, you’re always doing that, so that’s no different. We shot it in 21 days. We shot it rather like a nouvelle vague film. We shot it without generators—a lot of it was handheld, a lot of it was on the hoof. We shot in real streets, using the people who were there and then running after them after the take to try to get them to sign a release form so we could use them in the film. It was a great adventure, wonderful fun to make.
Paste: There are several French New Wave touches and references in the film. What made you choose those influences?
Michell: Those are the films those characters would’ve watched. They are trying to recreate some of the life-filled mischief of those films. They’re trying to do Breathless, but now they’re literally breathless because they find it hard to walk up stairs. But it’s very much part of their youth and what they’re trying to rekindle.
Paste: And then there’s an interesting third wheel who pops up at a certain point in the story: Jeff Goldblum. He adds such an interesting energy to the film. You’ve worked with him before in Morning Glory, but what made you think of him for this role?
Michell: We were writing for this voice before we cast him. That part started off as a Frenchman and became briefly an Indian and then an American. Once we figured out he was American, we started writing for Jeff in the forlorn hope that maybe Jeff would consider doing such a small part such a long way away from home. Jeff being Jeff, he leapt at the opportunity and was fantastically enthusiastic and helpful. He came for a week to do this. He brings an extraordinary flavor and burst of American chutzpah and energy to this grumpy British couple.
Paste: This film has drawn comparisons to Richard Linklaker’s Before series, and some have even suggested it could almost work as a later installment. What’s your take on the comparison?
Michell: I like those films but I don’t see any real connection between them apart from the color of the heroine’s hair—that’s very similar. But I don’t see [the films] as similar at all. The whole point of Richard’s films is the characters are—in spirit—American. They talk about what they feel all the time. They love talking about what they feel. They’re in the Woody Allen tradition of putting it all out there and talking unselfconsciously about feelings for 90 minutes. This is an English film, and it’s about people who—the last thing they want to do is talk about how they feel. It’s an entirely different sort of literary tradition, if you like. It could be an unhelpful comparison.
Paste: I’d tend to agree, but in the spirit of those films, what would you think of revisiting your characters somewhere down the line? Maybe check in to see how they’re doing in 10 years or so?
Michell: Gods. [laughs] Yeah, in principle I’d hate to close the door on that. I don’t know whether we’d do Il Week-End or Los Week-End—I don’t know, but yeah it’s a funny idea.
Paste: Before we go, I just have to say I really enjoyed the film, and I think it’s one of your best. I wonder if you ever evaluate your work in that way, or is it too difficult?
Michell: I feel very proud of the film, but I feel proud of the other films I’ve made. They’re like your kids. I’m sure you’ve heard other directors say that before, but you don’t like to choose between your kids. I feel I’m getting a bit better at directing as I get older. I’ve got a lot to learn. Generally, I still feel on an upward curve. It’s a difficult job, and there’s a lot to learn. I’m slowly learning how to make the sort of films I want to make, as opposed to learning how to make films that other people make. I’m starting to feel more confident about that. It’s an adventure, which I’m continuing to enjoy.