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Director Series-Roger Michel-Venus

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Venus, directed by Roger Michell, is the comic and tender story of a veteran English thespian whose amatory and erotic feelings are rekindled by the arrival in London of a brash teenager from the hinterlands who is the grand-niece of an acting chum.A gifted cast, led by 74-year-old Peter O’Toole, whose bravura performance is already getting buzz for a possible eighth “best actor” Oscar nomination, endows this latest version of the Pygmalion myth with charm and emotional depth. Others include veteran English actor Leslie Phillips, Vanessa Redgrave in a cameo role, and newcomer Jodie Whittaker, in her screen debut, as the object of O’Toole’s affection.Michell, whose last two films, Enduring Love and The Mother, were critically lauded for their insightful exploration of life’s eccentricities, reteamed on Venus with award-winning screenwriter Hanif Kureishi as well as with several crew keys. These include director of photography Haris Zambarloukos, editor Nic Gaster and costume designer Natalie Ward. Production designer John Paul Kelly, whose credits range from Bloody Sunday to the recent remake of Lassie joined Michell’s below-the-line ensemble.Michell, who comes from a theatrical background and whose notable film achievements range from directing the BBC production of Jane Austen’s Persuasion to popular hits like Notting Hill, recently talked to Below-the-Line about the emergence of his Venus, which opens in theaters in mid-December.Below the Line: London is the overall setting for Venus. But many of the specific locations are in the Kentish Town section of the city, which is where you reside. What was behind that choice?Roger Michell: I honestly looked far and wide in London before ending up shooting Venus in my own backyard. I love making films in parts of the world I know very well. I haven’t made a film outside London for five years now for various reasons. When finding locations for any story, you want an area that is appropriate to the socio-economic milieu from which your characters emerge.Kentish Town is a mixed area—some of it is affluent, some less so. It’s an exciting area where you have tectonic plates shifting. It’s also an area where you can imagine Peter O’Toole’s character Maurice and Leslie Phillips’ character Ian living in close proximity but in differing financial circumstances.BTL: What did you want your production designer John Paul Kelly to convey?Michell: You always want to try to make each location and set as particular as you can; so you quite subtly push the worlds of the film apart from each other. You can tell Maurice is less affluent than his friends, and he still lives in the old family house where he lived with his wife when they were young and their children grew up in it. But this family house is becoming cracked and run down and all those elements add to the story, to the narrative of the film.BTL: You also did some of the interiors at a studio?Michell: Yes, we shot at the old Ealing Studios in West London, which is famous for, among other things, those early Alec Guinness films like Kind Hearts and Coronets.BTL: Tell me about your collaboration with director of photography Haris Zambarloukos. This is the second film you’ve done together.Michell: I call the shots and he does the lighting—that’s how I work with cinematographers. I’m the one who decides where the camera is and what the lens is and what the camera movement will be. And he lights it. It’s something we work out quite far in advance, and it’s all quite planned. It’s something I’ve always done. I’ve always considered it part of the director’s job.BTL: You come from the theater. How have you developed your cinematographic and other technical film skills?Michell: I’m developing them on the job. Like most directors, I’m learning as I go along, every time I do a film. I’m very keen on the idea that the director directs the whole film and doesn’t just sit there in a canvas chair looking like they are directing. Directors need to get involved in all parts of production, not just with the actors, but with all aspects of how the film looks. Films will make themselves if you don’t watch out. Films are like machines. If the director doesn’t interfere there will be a default setting on which to proceed.David Mamet once famously said that all the mistakes are made in preproduction. I’m of the view that everything should be planned out in advance to the nth degree. And on the day you shoot you can change your mind, to do something completely different. But you have to have a plan in your pocket—otherwise the film will run away without you.BTL: What’s your procedure during preproduction?Michell: I try to get all the departments to constantly talk to each other. I will make sure to find time for myself and the production designer and the director of photography and the costume designer and the props designer to sit and work through the script together, as a script. It takes many, many sessions around the table.BTL: The film was shot in 16mm?Michell: Yes, super 16mm with some 35mm for a few panoramic shots.BTL: There’s lots of variety and lots of camera movement, which prevents the film from becoming claustrophobic. But you do use a lot of extreme close-ups.Michell: Yes, a lot of the time. Venus is a film that exists really in terms of the relationships within it. It’s a film without any action sequences—no car chases. You are really dependent on being fascinated by the main characters, and how they interact with each other. So it’s very hard to resist putting a tighter lens on the faces. There’s so much going on, especially when you’ve got actors like Peter, Leslie, Jodie and Vanessa.BTL: Were there many takes?Michell: No. Normally two or three. I think that actors like to work like that—certainly Peter likes to work like that. If you do lots and lots of takes you tend to let the air out. As long as everyone is pretty well prepared and rehearsed, and you’ve worked out the technical aspects of the shot—where the camera might move so the focus puller can be alerted—it’s good to try and bottle it in two or three takes.BTL: Tell me about the editing process.Michell: This is the third film Nic and I have done together. We do two things. We immediately start to view the whole film, and to work structurally on the film, moving scenes around, throwing out scenes that are completely unnecessary or don’t work. At the same time we start a process of watching every frame of footage. And sit there and watch for performance nuances. There are little things that happen.BTL: The magic take?Michell: Yes, the magic take, and sometimes it’s not the take you think. Sometimes it’s not the one you thought you’d use on the day of filming. The jewel is in another take. Or as you put the film together you find the scene that you thought needed to be funny needs to be sad, and so you approach it in a different way. Or the scene you thought would be cut very quickly needs to be cut in a very leisurely way.BTL: Does Nic do a first edit?Michell: Yes. He does an assembly when we’re still shooting. We wrap shooting and two or three days later he will have caught up with us.BTL: How long was the first edit?Michell: It was long. I think the first edit was 2 hours 40 minutes. The film is now about 94 minutes. That’s always encouraging when you have a lot of material, and you know that you’ve got ways of getting yourself out of trouble. Slowly, the film starts to emerge and shows itself to us. You see this hulk of a ship coming out of the black lagoon, masts first. Oh there’s the funnel, it’s pointing that way. Then the form of this thing emerges. Then you have to extract—make it as compressed as you can. We left scenes out. We reordered the middle of the film and we changed some of the plotting.BTL: And the postproduction?Michell: We started cutting the film just after we wrapped and we finally locked the picture in July. It took around four or five months before the picture was completely locked. It’s very important
to have a very leisurely postproduction. It’s a false economy to compress that part of the process, and it’s the cheapest part. There are only a few people at work. It’s the stage where you can step up to the film a little, and try to be a bit more objective about it.BTL: What is Peter O’Toole like in terms of his interactions with the crew?Michell: He’s very chatty, very friendly—always involved in what everyone is doing. He’s always interested in a new kind of technology, or a new type of lens, or new lights. He was very popular on the set, a very popular member of the team. He was well liked and a lot of fun.BTL: How long was the shoot and what kind of budget were you working with?Michell: We shot eight, five-day weeks, or about 40 days. We wrapped the film on February 20 with the final scene on the beach. The budget was three million pounds [$5.9 million]. Some money came from Miramax, some money from the British Film Council. Most of the money from English sources.BTL: And you had a hard time raising that seemingly small amount?Michell: It’s always very hard to get films off in the UK, and it doesn’t seem to be getting any easier.BTL: But you have all the creative and craft elements there in such abundance.Michell: We don’t have one element—we don’t have the financial confidence. And we don’t have the markets. Even our domestic market is devoted pretty much to American films. And it’s much more dubious whether an English film will support the box office outside the UK. The whole thing is a self-perpetuating cycle of skepticism and doubt.If we had a few more film stars it would be a bit easier to persuade financiers. I’m very pleased that I helped bring attention to Daniel Craig, the new James Bond, by casting him in my last two films, The Mother and Enduring Love. I shudder to think what the box office for those films would be if they were released today, instead of a few years ago. And they are out on DVD. But I’m basically thrilled that in Craig we have another big English motion picture star.BTL: What’s next for you?Michell: Next I’m doing a play at the National Theatre in London, Landscape With Weapons by Joe Penhall. I don’t know what my next film project will be.

Written by Jack Egan

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