Roger Michell has quite the career of variable genres including valentines favourite ‘Notting Hill’ to underrated drama ‘Changing Lanes’ and incredibly intense ‘Enduring Love’ with old mate Daniel Craig. Adapting the classic novel ‘My Cousin Rachel’, he’s made a goth girl-power chiller with Oscar-worthy period detail and riveting performances all round. Talking with Roger, I first wanted to know all about the one and only late Peter O’Toole.
Always wanted to ask you about your time with Peter O’Toole while making Venus (2006).
RM – I could talk to you for hours about Peter. He was obviously eminent, elderly actor near the end of his career. It wasn’t his last film but in a way his last hurrah. He was fantastically adventurous, extremely funny and infirm, slow on his feet. On set he was terrified of getting cold and did anything to avoid being cold. He asked for a special GPA tent (like a canopy you see with workers over a manhole). We got Peter one with a little blow heater. Whatever the location was – by St. Paul’s Cathedral or in the middle of town, Covent Garden to Trafalgar Square – we put him in this little tent. Offering him a big trailer but refused to be in his little tent waiting to be called to the set. A wonderful guy, high maintenance but so what! He could be ferocious, grumpy but also startle you by being heartbreaking, lyrical and sweet, a one-off individual. I grew up watching Lawrence of Arabia, a key film to me. It made me think what directors do making me aware films don’t make themselves, David Lean was so engineered and thorough. Peter was seared into my imagination and all generations. So sitting around on a dusty street corner chatting to him about the charge of Aqaba and Omar Shariff was the best.
Was this a project you have worked on over time adapting My Cousin Rachel from the classic book?
RM – No, it was quite a brief gestation for a film, thee years. The book had sat on my shelf for years, never read it. Didn’t know a lot about author Daphne Du Maurier, beyond her writing was film-worthy (The Birds, Rebecca) and original ‘My Cousin Rachel’ 1952. My thoughts were, isn’t this just bodice ripper chick-lit from the 50s as many think of her. However the story is complicated, suspenseful, dripping with sexuality so reading half way through, ideas bloomed as how I may adapt it. Couple of days later, Fox was approached because they still own the novel.
That ceiling high bookcase featuring in many scenes is spectacular. Are they real books or set dressing fakes?
RM – All real books, in a house that hadn’t been disturbed since the 1930s. An elderly lady passed who had previously lived in a tiny part of it, leaving the house title to her nephew but he didn’t want it. So he gave it to another relative Bamber Gascoigne (famous person in England) who gallantly took the estate on and leases it out for filmmakers like me. We were the first feature. The books are not there anymore. After we filmed, they got donated to an Oxford college. When the books arrived, librarians leafed through to catalogue then started finding folded up letters from Lord Byron and more extraordinary treasures.
Rachel Weisz caught my imagination – she conveys guise, warmth, terror. Was she cast from the beginning?
RM – Sure, couldn’t imagine doing the film in any other way. Perfection of her look, age, an enigmatic quality. If you cover up half the Mona Lisa’s face by hand, she seems to be saying one thing with her eyes but cover up the other half, she’s saying something quite different. That’s at the heart of the Rachel enigma, pure unknowingness.
Maybe I will do that analogy to the movie poster as the portrait of Rachel Weisz also mesmerises.
RM – Good idea, I will try that too (laughs).
Did you always conceive her grand entrance one to remember?
RM – Yes, it’s a big entrance in the book. Clearly has to be in the film with such a build up. It’s 60 odd pages in before Rachel arrives. It can work for you and against you. If it’s too long, the audience may get anxious but if too short, there is no sustained drum-roll reveal. She’s at the window, turns and is startled by this guy who looks just like the man she married. It’s hard to make all that click and much of it also had to do with Sam Claflin.
Sam is in rare form, at his best ever, shows emotional range.
RM – He is wonderful in a difficult subtle part, it’s not straight forward strapping romantic male lead. He becomes the unreliable narrator, overwhelmed by his own obsessions, lusts, desires to the point of the audience guessing his intentions. He is gauche with infused charm. I watched him in The Riot Club and he stood out. Sam could be anything as an actor, outstanding talent.
Excessive candles feature in My Cousin Rachel. Are the fire brigade on standby or are they visual effects?
RM – (laughs) Not only are they real, many of those scenes are shot with only candlelight giving things interesting qualities, presence or mystery and what they would have felt like in that period. You may notice sometimes the candle has to be delicately stage-managed so that it’s lighting the right person at the right time. Actors handed them around.
Assume you’re mates with Daniel Craig having made two great films with him. Have you desires to direct a Bond film?
RM – Nearly directed Quantum of Solace, complications in the script held me back. Not feeling comfortable going into it but the Bond people were desperate to get a film out in 2007 because of 007. It came to the point they said they knew the script wasn’t right asking me to still storyboard the action sequences but I didn’t know what they were. A writers strike was about to happen and I didn’t feel right. Now I regret pulling out because they sensibly delayed for a year to try and get it right. My moment may have passed although I’d love to do a Bond movie.
MY COUSIN RACHEL – Now showing in cinemas everywhere.
Shane A. BassettSydney Unleashed is one of Australia’s premier entertainment publications exploring the latest in lifestyle trends. From Sydney’s finest restaurants, cafes and bars to the hottest in gadgets, products, and home entertainment, Sydney Unleashed is your one-stop lifestyle platform.