by director Roger Michell
Every new project I approach with the nerves of the novice, and every first morning is like the first day at a huge and unfamiliar school.
My most recent effort, Hyde Park on Hudson, was no exception. On first days you try and do easy things. Well, nothing is exactly easy, but at least you try to schedule a gentle way into the film. More than 100 people are meeting up, many for the first time, stupidly early in the morning, with a view to collaboratively produce a complicated, expensive and technically demanding object: that is, a few hundred feet of usable film.
For the first of 40 days of shooting, we decided and prepared to film scenes featuring Bill Murray and Laura Linney as FDR and Daisy, and an exquisite 1935 open-top Ford Phaeton.
I drive myself an hour to set. Although car and driver are on offer, I have learnt over the years to covet this little bit of the day when I am alone. Today, a first day, I am uncharacteristically cheerful and confident. I can allow myself to almost whistle as I take the exit and follow the green location signs.
The field is alive with strangers. I get out of the car, put on my boots, then check the contents of my rucksack: script, script notes, storyboard, call sheet, biro, banana. Then I wander up the hill hoping to recognize someone. Anyone will do.
There's Barrie, my first assistant director. This is our fourth film together. He's a tough Scottish nut but inside I know that he, too, is nervous as a kitten.
I go and find the actors in the big make-up trailer. If they're nervous, they don't show it. Bill is having FDR's liver spots stuck on and teeth fitted. He is cheerful, almost sunny. In fact I think he is looking forward to this day with a childlike excitement. It's infectious. The atmosphere in the trailer is appallingly relaxed: loud country music is playing, there's coffee and banter, and Laura is teasing me about my shorts and the green-rimmed shades I picked up at the Oxfam shop. "Now you look like a proper film director!" she shouts as I clamber back down onto the grass. Well, I don't feel like one.
I walk down to the set. Martin, our car wrangler, brings the Phaeton up. It has been in his loving charge for a month now and he has pampered it like a thoroughbred. It gleams, inside and out. We have tested it on all terrains; have put cameras in it, alongside it and upon it; have let Bill Murray loose on it, twice, and it has effortlessly cleared every hurdle. Shortly after 8:00am the actors jump in the front and Lol Crawley, the cinematographer, with a camera on his shoulder, plus Derek, the focus puller, and I, clutching a handheld monitor, fold ourselves and our equipment into the back of the open-topped car. Around us, crew circle like technicians making final adjustments to astronauts: a second ND filter for camera, the microphone in Laura's lapel tweaked, the rake of Bill's hat increased just so, a jot of powder above an eyebrow, a final focus check from hand to ear to gear lever to cigarette. The whole unit is now quiet and focused and purposeful. I look in the monitor and see for the first time the actors in full make-up and costume, in the glorious car, against the trees, back-lit in the early sunshine, all within the thrilling confines of a frame, and am hit with a rush of excitement: this is going to be all right after all. I look around at the open faces of the crew.
Then everything goes quiet. And in that quiet moment, we become one crew. In the stillness, my nerves and self-consciousness evaporate, and I am suddenly in my element. All those thousands of hours of my life spent in rehearsal rooms, or backstage in dark theatres, or staring at scripts or screens or conjuring writers or standing on sets, come to my rescue. Directing is, after all the planning and wrangling and intellectualization, instinctive. At least it is for me. But instinct is also paradoxically learnt, or at least accreted, through experience. As I get older, I at least begin to know that I know some things.
Barrie calls it—"Sound speed!" echoes faintly from the undergrowth, and the magic clapperboard goes on: day one, slate one, take one, CLAP! A short momentous pause. Then, for all to hear, "ACTION!"
The 32nd president of the United States dabs the throttle—and instantly the engine cuts out with the sort of rattle usually associated with deathbeds.
"CUT! HOLD THE ROLL!"
An hour later, we are all still standing in a loose circle around a number of white-faced mechanics who are armpit-deep in 80-year-old engine parts.
When you see the movie, watch for the careless, summer-sun-filled driving sequences and you will, I'm sure, detect no trace of our pain. But then, nothing prepares you for those first days. However well they end up going, you still feel like you've been hit by a truck.