Wednesday 12 January 2022

"Hanif has described us as being like Lennon and McCartney…” Tom Ryan talks to Roger Michell and Hanif Kureishi about their collaboration on LE WEEK-END (recorded in 2013)

Roger Michell, Hanif Kureishi

Tom Rya
n writes: 
I don’t envy those who have to run the gauntlet of interviews on the PR circuit, even if it’s all part of the game where filmmakers have something to sell and journalists are supposed to be somehow helping them. That’s the PR view of it anyway. International film festivals are among the many places where the game is played, and it was in late September, 2013, at the annual San Sebastian Film Festival, that I found myself sitting down for 30 minute, face-to-face interaction with veteran director Roger Michell (Notting Hill, Hyde Park on the Hudson, The Duke) and noted playwright-novelist-screenwriter Hanif Kureishi (The Buddha of Suburbia, My Beautiful Laundrette, Sammy and Rosie Get Laid). 

They’d just finished work on Le Week-End (2013), their fourth and what turned out to be their final collaboration. The Cambridge-educated Michell, who died suddenly in September 2021 at the age of 65, would clearly (and quite reasonably) have preferred to be elsewhere, and wasn’t especially welcoming to this upstart interviewer from Down Under. The extremely amiable Kureishi on the other hand greeted me like an old friend, although we’d never met before. A twinkle in his eye and a laugh on the ready, he exuded mischief.

In Le Week-End (2013), a sixty-something married couple from Birmingham find themselves at a crossroads. Nick (Jim Broadbent) and Meg (Lindsay Duncan) have taken the Eurostar to Paris to celebrate their 30th wedding anniversary. They’d originally gone there on their honeymoon and, it emerges, their return to the city of romance has been in the hope of rekindling theirs. 

The film was Kureishi and Michell’s third together about the sex lives of characters “of a certain age”. 

The first was The Mother (2003), in which a widow in her late 60s (Anne Reid) has an affair with a builder (Daniel Craig) who is also sexually involved with her daughter (Catherine Bradshaw). The second was Venus (2006), which revisits and revises the Lolita scenario with Peter O’Toole as the older man – elderly, in fact – and Jodie Whittaker as the teenager who catches his eye. The revision is essentially that O’Toole’s character is suffering from a debilitating prostate cancer. 


Lindsay Duncan, Jim Broadbent, Le Week-end

Le Week-End is your third film together about people getting older and coming to crossroads in their lives. Is this by design, or has it just happened that way?


Hanif Kureishi: Older people are just more interesting. I’ve got teenagers and I like them, but I don’t find them that fascinating. Whereas a woman of 60 who falls in love with a younger man seems to me to be much more interesting, as in The Mother. Or the Peter O’Toole character in Venus

It’s partly because the sense of peril increases. As you get older, you start to think, “How much longer am I actually going to live?” Maybe I’ll live another 10 years; maybe five. Maybe I’ll have a heart attack tomorrow.


But that’s not a subject that you always pursue. It just happens that you’ve dealt with that subject together.


HK: Something I’ve constantly pursued is what goes on between people. What goes on and is it worth doing? 

Roger Michell: I don’t think this is a film about old people really. And old people are getting younger. They have a higher expectation about living on over the last decade than they did, say, 20 years ago. And one of the results of that expectation, for example in England, is that divorce rates are spiking amongst the over-60s. Because people are looking at each other over the dinner-table when the children have left home and thinking, “What the fuck! Am I going to spend the rest of my life with a person I don’t even know any more, or like any more?” Or it’s all gone. And people are enabled through income, or Viagra, or whatever, to go off and have fun in a different way. And they’re doing it.

So, in a way, this film is really about young people who are suddenly empowered to have a new life. A key line in the film is: “What remains of us after the kids have gone?”


And we’re always surprised when we look in the mirror and see our fathers looking back at us rather than the person we think we are.


RM: Rather than who we are. And science is making us behave more youthfully. 

HK: I did write a scene when he takes Viagra in the bathroom and then gets into bed and says to her, “You’ll be pleased to hear I’ve taken the Big V.” Then she falls asleep and he lies there all night with his boner. I’m very disappointed that Roger didn’t put that in the film. Do you remember that?

RM: I do remember that. Yes. That would have been a great piece of cinematic art…


You two are really unlikely collaborators. I can’t imagine Hanif writing Notting Hill, and I can’t imagine Roger directing Intimacy.

Mark Rylance, Kerry Fox in Intimacy (Patrice Chereau, 2001)

RM: Why not?


Well, I’m saying on the basis of what I know of your work – and I’ve pretty much seen all of your films – I get a sense that…


RM: He’d be brilliant writing Notting Hill…. [Hanif guffaws]


But it would be a very different kind of film…


Hugh Grant, Julia Roberts in Notting Hill, (Roger Michell, 1999)

RM: And I’d find it very easy to make Intimacy. That would be totally my world. Not the film, Intimacy, because that wasn’t really the book, Intimacy.


The Patrice Chéreau film… But, Hanif, you adapted your book, didn’t you?


HK: No, no…


Whoops. I apologize.


HK: If I’d written it, I’d have put one joke in it.


So how does your collaboration work?


HK: We meet, we argue, we bitch, we talk…

RM: When we’re doing something together, it’s important. We don’t meet just to gossip, though we love to gossip. We meet to try to progress this idea a little further this day, and then the next day and the next day…


I get the sense that Hanif would bring a harder edge to the table when you’re collaborating, and Roger would be gentler?


RM: You a very incisive person, aren’t you? You make very incisive, quick judgements.


They’re not quick judgments. They’re based on my observations of your work. And I’m testing them. I’m not saying that’s the case. I’m asking you the question. How do you respond to that? Do you think that that’s an outrage and I’ve got it all wrong?


HK: It might seem that he’s the softie and that I like to have lots of oral sex in what I write, but I’m not sure that’s entirely accurate.

RM: I don’t think you’ve ever had oral sex in a film…

HK: I’d like to have more than I’ve had so far… 

RM: I think that what you’ve asked, Tom, is partly true. In some ways, we are similar in our outlooks; in our sense of despondency, and in other ways, we’re dissimilar. In that I fight to try to see the sunlight and Hanif tries not to. [Hanif chuckles] And I think that both our similarities and our dissimilarities work in our favour as collaborators.

Hanif has described us as being like Lennon and McCartney, and in that relationship I’m the McCartney figure and he’s Lennon. Over the last 30 years, we’ve witnessed McCartney trying to pretend that he’s the dark, adventurous innovator… I mean, Hanif is the writer, I’m the enabler. And we need each other.


So, when Hanif came to you with the project, what were your thoughts? You immediately responded to it?


RM: We got on the train to Paris, did the trip together and tried to work out what the film was going to be all about. We ended up with an idea and a structure. It all happens in three days on the train and in Paris. We did in an early draft have scenes back home, but we quickly learned that they were wrong and that they should go. There’s a lovely formal elegance about a film when you know the beginning, the middle and the end.


I want to know about the genesis of the film. 


HK: It’s connected to our generation and it’s about being in a couple with someone or other. And then breaking up or not breaking up. The people that we’ve known since we started working in the theatre, since we were in our 20s, how many relationships did they have, how many divorces, how many new relationships have they started, what happened when they had kids? That’s what we were thinking about. So you just take this couple and you can see this whole generation, the boomers, who are in their 60s now. That’s the genesis really. All we needed was a simple story.


And for you, Roger, it was as you’ve already put it and as Hanif has said?


RM: It was our age group and our preoccupation.


We’ve talked about the story as if it’s a two-hander, but there’s a significant third character. At what point in the planning and the writing did Jeff Goldblum character enter the scene?


HK: Something had to happen. Somebody else had to walk through the door. If you were teaching writing, you’d say, “There’s this couple and the door has to open and somebody else has to walk in.” It just seemed like a natural progression of the story, but it seemed like we spent ages working out whether it should be two people, or one person.

RM: Originally he was French. 

HK: And at one point he was Indian.

RM: He was Indian, but we couldn’t find a voice for him.

HK: I felt we had enough Indians in the story.

RM: Then he became American, and the revelation was that he had remarried. That was the revelation. And that the son was there from New York at the weekend. So he’s the second party on a “weekend” in the film. That was a big help to make that discovery. 


In terms of the dramatic machinery, he seems almost like a deus ex machina figure who arrives and kind of provides the resolution to the film, who allows that whimsical ending to work.


HK: Yah.


Without him, I can’t imagine that.


HK: He had to come back.

RM: Yeah. But I think it’s slightly harsh to describe him as a deus ex machina


Yes. It’s more subtle than that.


RM: Because a deus ex machina has a different function. They came and solved the ending, whereas Jeff is simply a catalyst for them solving their own problem. And, in a way, resolving his, his self doubt.


Why these two actors? What did Lindsay Duncan and Jim Broadbent bring to the film? 


RM: Obviously when you begin working on something like this, you start thinking about actors at the very early stages. You start putting faces into the album to see if they fit the evidence, if you see what I mean. Are they the photofit? Do they have all the required ingredients? And then you start to realize what the elements are. 

Early on, we realized that one element was that the woman was still sexy. You know, she’s hot. She’s 60 but she’s a hot 60. So that narrows the field quite a lot. Because there are lots of super-duper actors of that age who aren’t still sexually glowing. So that was a very important component.

And Jim brings this extraordinary quality of extraordinary ordinariness to the part. You believe he’s an Everyman and yet there’s something….


[To Kureishi] At yesterday’s press conference, you rather unkindly described Le Week-End as “a Woody Allen film with jokes”. [To Michell] How did you originally conceive the film.


RM: Not like that.

HK: When I say “a Woody Allen film”, it’s because it’s really based around the characters and the conversations.

RM: I would be very, very careful though about implying that Woody Allen films aren’t funny.


But when you read the script, how did you see it?


RM: Well, I didn’t read the script. The script arrived slowly over the years. It was a developmental process. How did you see the film?


From where I sit, I saw a British realist film where characters out of, perhaps, one of your other works, or Mike Leigh’s, are transplanted to Paris and placed in a different situation in a way that Mike Leigh characters never are.


HK: Yes, they’re usually on a sofa.

RM: And no-one says, “Do you want a cup o’ tea?” That’s how most Mike Leigh scenes start.


But you didn’t think of it in that way? Because they’re so English. They could have been the characters out of Another Year, almost.


RM: I think the film is much more structured than Another Year. I actually liked Another Year, but, as you know, Mike’s films are always written collaboratively with that whole group, and therefore they are less tidy than this film tries to be.


Thank you for your time. [But Hanif isn’t quite finished. He has a question to toss at me in the wake of the Australian election a couple of weeks earlier that brought the Liberal-National Coalition to government with Tony Abbott as its leader.]


HK: So you’ve got a new Prime Minister!? [He’s clearly looking to get a rise out of me.]


I’m not looking forward to what lies ahead.


HK: [Laughing] You’ve got a whole five years, dude.


Mmm. Hopefully not. We seem to have become a nation addicted to musical chairs and I can’t see our new PM staying too long in that game. 


Editor's Note: This  interview  was recorded by Melbourne film critic Tom Ryan as the basis of a feature article for The Age when the film Le Week-enwas first released. Previous posts in this series can be found if you click on the names Ken Loach Pt 1 Ken Loach Pt2  Colin Firth (Part One) Colin Firth (Part Two) Lawrence Kasdan (Part One)Lawrence Kasdan (Part Two) Costa-Gavras Jonathan Demme (Part One)  Jonathan Demme (Part Two) Click on the names to read the earlier pieces

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