Roger Mitchell: King of the Hill

He had only one film on his resume, but somehow Roger Michell landed the job of directing one of the world's biggest movie stars opposite Hugh Grant in a sweet little love story that isn't so little anymore. Here's how Notting Hill, the first of Julia Roberts's two romantic comedies this summer, came together.

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Anything with the name Julia Roberts attached to it attracts attention. So when Roberts decided to star opposite Hugh Grant in Notting Hill, a medium-budget romantic comedy from the witty screenwriter of Four Weddings and a Funeral, Richard Curtis, questions popped up right away. Would it be like Four Weddings? In a way. Would it feature a big-time romance between Grant and Roberts? You bet. Who would direct it? Roger Michell. Who? That's right, a virtual unknown by Hollywood standards.

Born in South Africa and raised in Syria and Czechoslovakia, Michell attended Cambridge University, where he won the Royal Shakespeare Company's Goodbody Award for best student director. He cut his teeth at the Royal Court Theater as assistant director to Samuel Beckett and John Osborne, and from then on he directed theater and more theater, everything from Hamlet at the Royal Shakespeare Company in London to Some Americans Abroad on Broadway. After his award-winning four-part BBC miniseries The Buddha of Suburbia, Michell did, well, more theater. Then he made his feature film debut with the beautifully paced, subtle adaptation of Jane Austen's Persuasion. After that, though, he returned to theater. When Richard Curtis gave him Notting Hill, a simple love story about a travel bookstore owner whose life gets turned upside down when the world's most famous female face walks into his store and then later hits on him, he was drawn away from the stage once again.

MICHAEL FLEMING: Your film Persuasion was very admired, so you must have been getting scripts, but what made you want to do Notting Hill?

ROGER MICHELL: I started getting sent scripts about four years ago with Persuasion. I had no secret yearning to do a romantic comedy. It was the Notting Hill script that tipped me. What I like about it is what I liked about Four Weddings and a Funeral. It's about love, but it has depth that gives it the feeling that you're looking at the whole world turning, not just two characters in a fairy tale. Life is like that.

Q: When you decided to do Notting Hill, Julia Roberts wasn't attached to the project. How did that come about?

A: Richard Curtis, producer Duncan Kenworthy and I were sitting in our office one day talking about who we'd offer the female lead to. Julia Roberts was absolutely the first choice--Richard wrote it with her in mind. But we thought she was going to say no. We offered it to her just the same. And my God, she said yes!

Q: How did you approach her?

A: We got the script to her agent, who made sure she read it. Then we flew to New York to meet with her, and we all got on well. Then she said yes. We were completely thrilled. And more than a little surprised.

Q: Julia and Hugh have great chemistry. How were you sure they would actually spark on-screen?

A: Well, what I didn't do was say to Julia, "We'd like to test you to see if you've got the chemistry with Hugh."

Q: Julia's had a reputation for sometimes being hard to work with. On Conspiracy Theory, Mel Gibson broke the ice by giving her a freeze-dried rat, and she warmed to that spirit by placing cellophane wrap over the toilet in his trailer. How did you get along with her?

A: She was good-spirited all the way through the shoot, though she never did cling-wrap my toilet. We got along quite well and I'd love to work with her again.

Q: In Notting Hill Julia plays the biggest movie star in the world. Was she essentially playing herself?

A: It was very hard for her, because it looks like she's playing herself, but she wasn't. She was playing the part of Anna and she plays it outstandingly well--she's a very clever actress. There are obviously bits of herself that she can use. All actors put bits of themselves into their roles, and she's done a lot of research into this part.

Q: Anna suffers tremendously from being famous. Do you think Julia has suffered as much?

A: She's very sensible and wise about what's happened to her. She knows that in some ways it's the most wonderful thing that could have happened, but that in other ways there are disadvantages. She tries to lead a real life within the confines of her stardom. I was very impressed with her, not just as an actress but with her sense of what was going on around her. I think she's a very cool person. She's extremely witty and funny, too.

Q: Did you ever feel intimidated by working with her?

A: I did. She has an amazing gift from the gods. When she acts, some spirit of spontaneity fills her face, and it's like distilled real life that's happening in front of your eyes. I've never worked with an actor who is so brilliant at being able to burst into life like a flame from a match. But she doesn't like putting out that type of energy over and over--doing a lot of takes--and I can see why. It's like this miracle happens. It happens great three or four times, and then she gets tired.

Q: Was there a specific moment or scene where that shone most brightly?

A: There are a lot of moments, but when she comes back to Hugh and she just breaks down, I did one take of that.

Q: Does Hugh like to do a lot of takes?

A: Yeah. He likes to worry away at it, experiment. With Hugh I'd do five or six takes, and once I'd gotten what I wanted, I'd say, "Do one for you." Then he would ad-lib, put in odd words or new lines. And I've used a lot of them.

Q: Was the project written with Hugh in mind? The dialogue and dry wit seem to fit him like a glove.

A: I don't think necessarily that it was written for Hugh, though we thought he would be the perfect person to play the part. It's a difficult symbiosis, isn't it, between Richard Curtis and Hugh? Richard writes in Hugh's voice, and Hugh plays Richard's material exquisitely, but it's a mistake to think it comes out of effortlessness. Hugh doesn't just go out there and rock out. He works hard to make it work.

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