The gritty new thriller CHANGING LANES isn't exactly what you would expect as the next film from the director of the shiny, happy romantic comedy NOTTING HILL...and British filmmaker Roger Michell is OK with that. "Yes," says Michell, "It's a departure from the world of NOTTING HILL. But, in fact, NOTTING HILL was a departure from everything that I was doing before that, so it's not as if I was doing just romantic comedies, and now I'm 'changing lanes', so to speak."
For Michell, it's important not to get stereotyped as one particular kind of filmmaker. "Whenever I make a film I get that same kind of film offered to me again," Michell explains, "After NOTTING HILL I was offered more romantic comedies. So obviously you have to be careful. You have to be sure to do what you want to do, not what they think you want to do. I responded to this film on an instinctive level. That's how I knew it was the film I wanted to do next."
Surprisingly, Michell also wanted to do the tense drama of CHANGING LANES because it was a brake from the hard labor of comedy. "Romantic comedies are much harder work. With romantic comedies you don't find it funny after day four, so you have no idea if it's going to be funny when the audience sees it. You have to just seem to remember that you found it funny once. Whereas, on a film like CHANGING LANES you feel the thrill of it on the day that you're shooting, and you can tell it works."
Also, the director feels that comedy creates bigger risks for the artists. "There's nothing more dispiriting than making a comedy and having a scene where you think they'll laugh and nobody laughs."
Although it's true that Michell doesn't want to be hemmed into making the same kind of film over and over again, he didn't pick CHANGING LANES just for the simple reason that it was different from his previous work. He also did it because he responded to the material. Michell notes, "I found the script to be a traditional page turner. I really, really wanted to know what was going to happen next. The plot wasn't profound, but what gives it a spin is that you don't know who to root for. You don't know who's right and who's wrong."
Many critics have noted that when foreign directors make films about American life, the "outsider" quality to the film seems to sharpen its point of view. Michell believes this quality might be a part of his latest effort. "I think that's the one of the reasons that GOSFORD PARK is so good. Or why SENSE AND SENSIBILTY was so good. Because these are directors who are making anthropology, if you like, about foreign worlds. I don't know if I brought that kind of touch to bear on this movie or not. That's not for me to say. It's for the world to decide."
"Directing is the most supreme form of tourism available to man. I mean, I saw more weird things about New York than I ever would have otherwise. And this is coming from someone who felt like they knew New York pretty well. But it's wonderful to be taken around to see the jails and the AA meetings."
Unlike most Hollywood films, Michell was able to cast this project quickly and painlessly. "Sam [Jackson] and Ben [Affleck] were my first choices for these characters. I'd seen Ben in a lot of different kinds of films and I though he was a good actor, but I had never seen him in this kind of a role."
"The reason I thought Sam would be good for this role is DIE HARD. When I saw that DIE HARD he really stuck in my memory. He played someone who was very ordinary, but who was just trying to get through this horrible day that he and Bruce Willis were having. That made me believe he could play this rolein complete antithesis to Shaft and to the other larger-than-life characters that he's been playing. He brought a kind of 'lost humanity' to the role."
Also in the cast is legendary director/actor Sydney Pollack. "It was kind of scary having him on set. He's the consummate filmmaker, so his presence makes you stay on your toes. You're hyper-aware of everything you're doing. But he's great to have and wonderful to work with. And he was perfect for the material."
The material in question is a morality tale that's partially set in the lofty offices of powerful, but corrupt attorneys. "This isn't saying that all lawyers are immoral. It's saying that some are. It says that they live in very, very difficult morally ambiguous waters. They make a lot of very trick, Eron-like decisions. And sometimes they're right, and sometimes they're wrong. Sometimes they prove to be wrong when they honestly thought they were right. They're the interface between the real world and us. The law separates us from an anarchic world, and we have to have that."
Overall, Michell found making CHANGING LANES to be a wonderful experience. "I loved doing it. I'm excited to see how audiences respond. I believe they're really going to appreciate it," he concludes.