thu 14/12/2017

theartsdesk Q&A: Writer Hanif Kureishi and director Roger Michell | reviews, news & interviews

theartsdesk Q&A: Writer Hanif Kureishi and director Roger Michell

theartsdesk Q&A: Writer Hanif Kureishi and director Roger Michell

Their 20-year collaboration has yielded three films about getting on. Next up, Le Week-end

Kureishi and Michell: 'We gossip, we argue, we disagree, we fall out, we fall in'Photo: Montse Castillo

The careers of writer Hanif Kureishi and director Roger Michell are indelibly linked, with a collaboration that has now lasted 20 years. In 1993 Michell, then an accomplished theatre director who was relatively new to the camera, directed Kureishi’s adaptation of his novel The Buddha of Suburbia for the BBC, with great success. After a nine-year gap – and Michell’s phenomenal hit with Notting Hill –  they rekindled their relationship for the big screen, with Michell directing Kureishi’s original screenplays for The Mother (2003), Venus (2006) and now, their third film together, Le Week-end.

Like all good couples, the pair are busy and accomplished away from each other’s company. But together their work is enormously fruitful, mining their principal themes – relationships, ageing, sex – with a unique combination of edginess, unconformity and wit.

The Mother dealt with an elderly woman who embarks on an affair with a man half her age; in Venus an even older protagonist (played by the septuagenarian Peter O’Toole) enjoys a platonic relationship – albeit one teetering on the carnal – with a teenager. Compared to those films, Le Week-end seems positively normative; yet it too comes with a charge of the unexpected.

The film follows a couple in their late Fifties, university professor Nick (Jim Broadbent) and school teacher Meg (Lindsay Duncan), as they embark on an anniversary weekend to Paris, the city where they spent their honeymoon 30 years earlier. The Birmingham pair have so much baggage – individual and shared – that if they were travelling by plane, not the Eurostar, the excess would break the bank. And over the course of the weekend the questions each has about their lives, and in particular their marriage, bring the tensions between them to boiling point.

Jeff Goldblum co-stars as an American in Paris, an old student friend of Nick’s, whose colourful presence – and a successful career that contrasts with Nick’s – adds frisson to proceedings.

We caught up with Kureishi and Michell this week at the San Sebastian Film Festival, in Spain, where Le Week-end was in competition, Jim Broadbent winning the prize for best actor.

DEMETRIOS MATHEOU: You’ve known and worked with each other since the Seventies. Are you two beginning to feel like an old couple yourselves?

ROGER MICHELL: We’re not that old.

HANIF KUREISHI: We gossip, we argue, we disagree, we fall out, we fall in. The point is that we can do stuff together that we can’t do apart.

RM: Our differences and our similarities complement each other. We can fill in each other’s gaps, if you like. Hanif sees the world in a way that I never would, but which I nevertheless understand, I get, and I can work with.

HK: He has ideas that I couldn’t have. I’ll write a couple of scenes and give them to Roger, and then he’ll say, "Why don’t they do that?" And I’d have never thought of that. When you’re a novelist or a short story writer there isn’t anybody else to have better ideas, you only have your own bloody ideas. So it’s fantastic when somebody else has one.

Your producer Kevin Loader says that you, Roger, soften Hanif’s "rawer tendencies".

RM: Well, Hanif has described our relationship as being a little bit like Lennon and McCartney – he’s the raucous, nasal, fucked up weirdo, and I’m the bloke putting a nice bass line under everything, to keep the melody jiggling along.

You’ve made three films now involving middle-aged or elderly people, in the first two films as they interact with younger people. It's very rare and refreshing territory for cinema.

In a way, marriage is the only subject there is

HK: I find it much more interesting to write about older people. The film that I’ve written that Roger hasn’t read yet is about a 75-year-old woman and a teenage boy, along with somebody of 40, and somebody of 60. Because we live so long now I find it very interesting to write about older people. For them the stakes are so high. You’ve got little time left, so what are you going to do now? Also you think about how you've lived, what you've done.

I find that complexity much more interesting than writing about somebody of 21. I’ve got twins of 20, they’re not that interesting to write about. What the hell would you say about them? Their lives are not tragic or even that funny. But if you’re writing of a woman of 75, who has this huge history, and is thinking about the past and about death you’ve got much more substance. And you can cast them better, as well.

RM: We’re going to see more films about older people. Because people are having much fuller and longer lives, they’re making decisions about their lives that they weren’t a few years ago. For example, the divorce rate has spiked for people above the age of 60. In our film they’re literally looking at each other across a dinner table in Paris and thinking, "I could be alive for another 10 or 15 years. I have time now to have another life. I could go off and meet someone else." And I think that’s a huge revolution in our culture.

HK: Most films are about young people falling in love, and we see them having sex for the first time. It’s much more interesting to ask what’s it like to have sex with someone you’ve fucked for 30 years. That seems much more complex and darker and more interesting.

 

As in The Mother, Lindsay Duncan’s character is desired by a younger man, and it’s perfectly natural. Again we don’t see that too often in films.  

HK: Lindsay is hot, and a beautiful woman. She’s luminous.

How do you feel about your earlier books about young people?

HK: The Buddha of Suburbia is about a 17-year-old kid looking at older people and thinking what ludicrous idiots they are and how terrible it is to be 40. And I remember thinking exactly that, when I was 17. One of the advantages of being a writer is that as you get older you develop a much broader sense of the world. It seems as though The Buddha is written by somebody else. And yet it’s very close to how I was then. If I want to know how my life was when I was 17 years old I’d read that book. But I wouldn’t ever read it again.

The Buddha of Suburbia is also about marriage, as is Intimacy.

HK: In a way, marriage is the only subject there is. All my work has been in a sense about the same thing: what is it like to be with somebody else?

The switches in tone in Le Week-end between very funny and shockingly serious are frequent and dramatic.

RM: We were trying to make a portrait of a marriage that includes the light and the dark, and what’s particular about this story is that the light and the dark follow upon each other very swiftly, as in any real relationship and not just one that’s lasted for 30 years or more. So that contrast was intentional.

Jim and Lindsay are brilliant. You really do feel that they're a couple, that they’ve been together for a long time

Why have you made Nick and Meg lefties?

HK: Many of my friends are what you would have described as lefties. Having spent or indeed wasted my life amongst radicals, leftists, Maoists, Trotskyites, it seemed to me that the time was right to put them into a film – the bitterness and disillusionment that we’ve all suffered is perfect for contemporary cinema.

Did you go to university with people who fell short of their potential, like Nick?

RM: There are far more people more successful than us.

HK: Actually Nick goes to Birmingham and works in a rather ordinary place, because that’s his integrity. He doesn’t want to be a glamorous and successful figure, he wants to teach ordinary people. I have friends from university who are like that.

RM: I think Nick started out with great idealism, before the education system overtook him. We spent time at a university in Birmingham – probably the third most prestigious university in the city, or the least prestigious – with the person who teaches philosophy there. And it was a shock to hear him talk about his work and how he felt he was treated and how he felt about his students..

How did going to Birmingham help in making the film, given that the whole thing is set in Paris?

HK: One of Roger’s fantastic qualities, I think, is that he really fixes the characters. How much does this person earn? Where do they live? How do they speak? Where are they from? If they’re going to get divorced, they’d have to cut this, or that. It’s a huge specificity, which really helps you locate and make the character believable, first to yourself and then to the audience. It’s a Royal Court thing and I think it’s very important.

RM: We also wanted the characters to be provincial. We wanted the impact of Paris to be heightened by the fact that they don’t come from Notting Hill, say. That makes the impact of the dinner at Jeff Goldblum’s house even more startling.

How early in the process did you have Jim and Lindsay in mind for the parts?

RM: Well, this one has been cooking for seven years, when Hanif first sent me the script. We did this trip ourselves back then, seven years ago, we took the train to Paris, did some of the things the characters do. And I remember that we were talking about the actors even then, at the Sacre Coeur. Then slowly the characters come into focus and it becomes clearer how you should cast them.

To what extent did they improvise?

RM: There isn’t much improvisation, a little bit. We worked with the actors for a long time, we read the script with them as it was developing, around the kitchen table, many times, then rehearsed for a week in London. So they came well-prepared. But Jim and Lindsay are brilliant. You really do feel that they're a couple, that they’ve been together for a long time.

Jeff Goldblum (above, second from right, with Broadbent, Duncan and Michell) has an acting style that is so different to that of the Brits. Was there a risk that he could destabilise what you’ve already established?

RM: He came right at the end of our shoot and it was a big tonic for us all to have Jeff for the last three days. I’ve worked with him before so I knew what to expect. He’s a very committed, eccentric man, unlike anyone else I’ve ever worked with. It was an exciting risk that paid off.

We watch as Nick covers their hotel wall in pictures, which reflect his personality. Who actually put that together?

RM: I did the wall. Hanif sent me some quotes. We assembled it on our recce around Paris, picking up leaflets and postcards. Obviously we knew that Beckett would be in there, Sartre, we wanted some Godard.

HK: Basically people from the Sixties and Seventies, mainly the Sixties, who would have been cultural heroes.

There’s a lot of Godard in the film, not least when we see the clip from Bande à part, and the title, which is a sly reference to his Weekend.

RM: The spirit of the French New Wave informs the film in several ways. The New Wwave films would have been the ones our characters watched when they were young, when they were students, full of fighting spirit. It’s set in Paris. It's also in the way I shot the film, in 21 days, without a generator, without lights, in the kind of stripped-down way that many of those films are made. I didn’t want it to be as self-conscious as those films, but I wanted it to have a breathless joy. In this case Nick an Meg are breathless because they literally can’t breath, they’re old.

HK: We should have called it Panting.  

  • Le Week-end is released in the UK on 11 October.

Overleaf, watch the trailer for Le Week-end

 



 

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