Published on: 29 September 2021 in Longform
Remembering Roger Michell
Reading time: 14 minutes and 38 seconds
We are deeply saddened to hear of the death of Roger Michell, who passed away last week at the age of 65.
Roger began his career as a director in the theatre, where he enjoyed successful spells at the Royal Court, Royal Shakespeare Company, and later the National Theatre. The skills he possessed as a stage director also followed him to the screen, which he moved across to after graduating from the BBC Directors’ Course. In a starry filmmaking career, he produced iconic cinema moments, achieving mainstream success with Notting Hill, and eliciting fantastic performances from cinematic legends such as Peter O’Toole in Venus and Samuel L Jackson in Changing Lanes – the latter singling him out as his favourite director to work with.
Away from his own filmmaking, Roger was a champion of directors and directing as a craft. Roger was one of a number of directors who made up the Century Club, later to join with DPRS to become Directors UK, and he served on the Directors UK Board for many years. Roger also fought for directors’ rights as co-Chair of the Directors UK film committee – developing the Creative Rights Minimum Terms for Feature Film alongside Iain Softley – and was a mentor and an inspiration to many throughout his career.
Directors UK has reached out to directors who have known Roger throughout his life and career. Read tributes from Susanna White, Iain Softley, Sofia Olins, Charles Sturridge, Tim Sullivan and Paul Greengrass below.
“He was always there for people. Constantly in touch, he came to be in the centre of many people’s lives.”
I first met Roger when I was a callow eleven-year-old and he was a confident thirteen going on thirty-five-year-old teenager. He had one of the leading roles in the school production of The Thwarting of Baron Bolligrew and I had the slightly lesser prominent, but equally important I liked to think, role of third peasant (non-speaking). It was a dynamic I later realised that persisted throughout our long friendship. Even at that age Roger had a quiet, avuncular kind of authority about him. I wonder whether it had something to do with the tragic suicide of his older teenage brother. I think it probably did. He was familiar with death and the transience of life from an early age.
Roger was a master of silence and how to use it. It was a skill that was central to his directing style. If people had questions in the rehearsal room or on set he would never be tempted to provide a solution on the spur of the moment. He preferred to ruminate for a moment. Then, more often than not, actors in particular would find their own answer and instantly volunteer it for his approval. Once granted they would walk away with the solution, delighted with Roger’s brilliant direction when in fact he hadn’t uttered a single word. It was truly sublime direction in my opinion. A gift.
Rog was many things. An artist, a writer – he was great with words and it’s our loss he didn’t write more – and a friend, a confidant to many. He was always there for people. Constantly in touch, he came to be in the centre of many people’s lives, which makes his death all the more difficult to deal with. A great cook, sommelier, raconteur, obsessive kitchen surface wiper-downer and inept magician. He was always curious. An empty day was just that for Rog. Empty and therefore a waste. He could be a bit of a bloody expert but then aren’t we all. But his genuine curiosity about things meant that if you talked about something he had no knowledge of, he would ask you about it with such an open-minded innocence that it was tempting to think he was taking the piss. But he wasn’t.
He had consummate, exquisite taste when it came to his work, something which was entirely lacking in his personal dress sense. He was a terrific reader of scripts and an avid note-giver; which I know to my cost and ultimate benefit. The most infuriating thing about his notes was that the more drastic they were, inevitably the more right he was. Roger always liked to read friends’ and colleagues’ writing at early stages, even if not involved in the project. He and I always read each other’s work in the knowledge that the other would be completely, sometimes painfully, honest. This included screenplays, articles such as this, speeches, anything. I will miss that honesty and the knowledge that I’ll get an unvarnished opinion on something. Indeed I would’ve sent him this, and as I write I’m trying to think what he might say.
But above all Roger’s greatest gift was a rare one. He had this extraordinary capacity to listen intently to anyone he met. This not only meant that he made them feel instantly valued and interesting, but it fed his endless appetite for learning about people and the human condition. This library of personal knowledge built over the entirety of his life then fed into his work. It’s what made it authentic and so real; this together with the fact that he had an innate nose for the fake, the pretentious the unauthentic. His ability to listen also made him a genuine collaborator when working, open to others’ ideas or opinions.
Roger was remarkably confident in his work choices. He had a sure instinct of what was for him and what wasn’t. His braver choices were perhaps made in things he turned down, rather than the work he ended up doing. He would have occasional doubts but once the choice was made he’d move on. He once told me when we were discussing work and careers ‘Never look back. Always look forward. Looking back is fatal.’
But without question Roger’s greatest role in life and his most instinctive, was that as a father to his four children Harry, Rosie, Maggie and Sparrow. He delighted in them. Was curious about everything they did. Supportive, challenging, engaging. He was just a bloody great Dad. He made time for all of them, not just as a group but individually. He made sure he had time with them all, one on one, when they would have his undivided attention. This has led to them all growing up with a great sense of their own identity. He was such a massive, central part of their lives that his loss for them must be devastating.
That was the thing about Rog. He was always available. Tragically for all of us he’s left behind, he no longer is.
“He had such an easy charm about him, but was completely resolute in standing up for the profession.”
I first met Roger when I applied for a training scheme for young directors to shadow more experienced directors on feature films. I didn’t get accepted onto the scheme but several years later, when I was still struggling to make my first feature, Roger came up to me and said he regretted not giving me the opportunity. He said at the time he had felt that I didn’t need the traineeship as I would succeed anyway, but he had subsequently realised how women were struggling to break through. I was so surprised that he had remembered but that was the sort of person Roger was — he thought deeply and considered the consequences of his actions.
Roger’s brilliance as a director is of course known to millions through his widely varied work on stage and screen. What singles him out for me is the clarity of his vision and his outstanding ability to get the most out of actors. I can vividly remember evenings watching his finely judged work in the theatre from Blue Orange to Nina Raine’s Consent, his brilliance in his wide ranging television and film work from The Lost Honour of Christopher Jeffries to Le Weekend and of course Notting Hill. One of my favourites, typical of Roger’s humour and indicative of how he was loved by the very best of British actors was the wonderful documentary Nothing Like A Dame.
I got to know him best through his work on the board of Directors UK where his intellect was channelled into championing the rights of directors across the industry with his characteristic good humour and warmth. He had such an easy charm about him, but was completely resolute in standing up for the profession that he was such a shining example of. It is so hard to believe that Roger has gone. He will be so much missed by so many. Our thoughts go out to his family.
“A dry and warm humour that could make the most difficult shooting day seem possible.”
I still find it difficult to get my thoughts together after the unexpected death last week of the Roger Michell, not only a friend but also a master director of the small screen, the big screen and the theatre, who managed to move seemingly effortlessly through the three mediums. Directors perhaps inevitably are judged by their credits, and Roger’s are of course very distinguished, combining a popular instinct with an innovative imagination but this does not entirely explain what directors actually do. As I tried to put into words how Roger was, the figure of Robert Altman came to mind, who like Roger was able to move his talent from genre to genre without compromising, always alert to a new opportunity wherever it comes from. Both men offered a mixture of safety and adventure, the sense that there was a rock upon which to base the most daring of performances, confident that every detail would be recognised, realised and encouraged, combined with a dry and warm humour that could make the most difficult shooting day seem possible.
I first met Roger twenty five years ago on the set of Persuasion, which he had decided to shoot entirely on steadicam (of course I was immediately jealous) and over the decades that followed I got to know him as a father (our children were close), through Directors UK as a fighter for directors rights’ (amongst other things he drafted the creative terms of the film agreement) and as a friend and counsellor in which role he was second to none.
At this frankly horrible time our thoughts are of course with his very talented family, but we can also reflect on an extraordinary body of work and the parade of brilliant performances that he gave us, which will last forever.
“He had a calm and understated but powerful presence.”
Like so many people who knew and loved Roger I was so deeply shocked and saddened to hear that he had died.
I first met Roger at Cambridge University where we were both studying at Queens’ College. Roger was a couple of years ahead of me and was already a leading light in the active drama scene by the time I arrived. I was struck by how, even at that young age, he had a calm and understated but powerful presence.
In the following years as Roger made his successful way in theatre and I made steps in TV and film our meetings were less frequent. But when we did come across each Roger was always warm, friendly and interested, greeting me with that bass voice and a smile on his face.
In time Roger himself moved into an equally successful career in film and we saw more of each other again.
While queuing for a visa at the US embassy in 2000 I was tapped on the shoulder. Roger was behind me in the queue. He laughed as he mused on what we both would have said if we had been told at university that in the future we would be standing in that queue together on our way to shoot films for US studios.
It was in recent years that I was so grateful to have the opportunity to spend much more time with Roger and it was thanks to Directors UK.
It was Roger who initially invited me to be seconded to the Board and then convinced me to stand for Chair of the Film Committee to take over from him.
In the following years with characteristic generosity and wisdom Roger was always supportive. At the end of my tenure I invited Roger back to Co-Chair with me and in the Campaign for Creative Rights in Feature film he worked tirelessly alongside me and others to its successful conclusion.
But what I cherished most were the occasional lunches and frequent phone calls when we would talk about projects, people we had worked with — Roger could always be relied on to speak directly — and with anything else that made us laugh. I loved his company and he was, as from the first times that I had met him, generous, warm and modest.
So often when such a powerful presence disappears from our world the inclination is to regret that one didn’t see them more often, spend more time with them. But I prefer to be comforted by the memories and be grateful for the good times we shared over so many years and for the fact that I was lucky to have known such a remarkable human being.
“He influenced and inspired me immeasurably.”
In the brief time that I got to know Roger, he influenced and inspired me immeasurably. He was my mentor these last six months. With no professional need to fill this role, when Roger agreed to do it, I was overjoyed. I can’t believe that I’m writing this because we spoke just days before he died.
I was worried about the edit I’d just finished for a film. He was typically generous and encouraging, but I was at a loss and feeling like I couldn’t pull all the elements together to improve it. He said, ‘You’ve just got a bit further to go. You can’t give up now, now’s not the time. Keep going.’ The conversation and his gentle persuasion propelled me into action and I felt that I could justifiably make the necessary changes. Of course, I didn’t know those words would take on so much meaning just a few days later.
Having been mentored before, I realise that a mentor in essence is quite a pure relationship, especially in film. It’s devoid of any self-serving motivation, you know that the help you’re getting is purely altruistic and solely for the passion of the medium. Very rapidly, our first call went from irreverent thoughts on home schooling kids to how I could cast actors from the Jewish Chronicle. I always felt that his interest was, in his words, ‘to make the decisions that would create the best possible film’, not to be bogged down by egos and other external pressures.
I now feel a huge void. I ache at the thought of the next steps without being able to talk with him. To learn from his never-ending supply of knowledge that was always wrapped in humour and frankness. I mourn for the longer friendship we could have had, and feel deeply sad for his loved ones and family. Thank you Roger, you will not be forgotten.
“One of our finest directors.”
Roger was one of our finest directors — at home in mainstream as well as art house cinema, distinguished in theatre, film and television.
His taste was impeccable, his command of the craft exemplary, and his leadership always wise and kind. He also possessed a wicked sense of humour.
He was a tireless advocate for uk directors and his loss is immense. We are all in his debt.