Roger Michell’s Blackbird Drama Takes Flight

Roger Michell (center) directs the eight-person cast of 'Blackbird,' from Screen Media.Screen Media

Noted filmmaker Roger Michell likens the setting of his newest film Blackbird to an Agatha Christie mystery.

“You have eight suspects who end up completely isolated in this house together and you don’t know who’s the killer,” the BAFTA-winning director says by phone from his home in Suffolk. “This is a similar situation, except there isn’t a killer; but there’s someone who’s going to be killed.”

The killer in Blackbird isn’t a human, but a fatal disease, whose victim has decided to take it upon herself to determine exactly how and when she will die. The drama is based on the award-winning Danish film, Stille hjerte (Silent Heart), written by Christian Torpe, who adapted his screenplay with a New England setting. Besides the language and location changes, some of the story has shifted and one previously male character is now female. Yet the central story remains the same: a terminally ill woman brings three generations of her family together for one last get-together before she dies.

Michell, whose directing credits include Notting Hill, My Cousin Rachel and Venus, gathered a mix of seasoned veterans and up-and-coming young actors to create the ensemble. Oscar winners Susan Sarandon, plays the matriarch, Lily, who is dying of ALS and wants to depart on her own terms, and Kate Winslet stars as the older and relentlessly responsible of her two daughters, Jennifer. The film also stars seasoned actors Sam Neill as Lily’s dutiful husband, Paul, Rainn Wilson as Jennifer’s awkward husband Michael and Lindsay Duncan, as Lily’s lifelong best friend, Liz. Rounding out the cast is Mia Wasikowska, who plays Lily’s emotionally fragile younger daughter, Anna; Bex Taylor-Klaus as Anna’s girlfriend, Chris; and Anson Boon as Lily’s teenage grandson Jonathan.

Though the story is set ostensibly at a Connecticut beach house, the film actually was shot in the U.K. Winslet herself suggested to Michell the location near Chichester, close to her real-life home, and served as sort of an unofficial hostess for the five-week shoot.

The worldwide pandemic that has disrupted so much of the film industry on both sides of the pond hasn’t slowed down Michell. His next feature, The Duke, starring Dame Helen Mirren and Jim Broadbent, debuted to positive reviews recently at the Venice Film Festival, and he continues to write future projects.

Screen Media, a Chicken Soup for the Soul Entertainment company, will release Blackbird in a limited number of theaters and on VOD Sept. 18. It has partnered with Fathom Events for an exclusive nationwide cinema premiere Sept. 14and Sept. 15. Each screening will be accompanied by a special introduction by Michell and exclusive behind-the-scenes footage.

Angela Dawson: The only people in this film are your eight-member cast. There are no extras or anyone else at all.

Roger Michell: We were shooting a scene where they’re walking on the beach. On the day we were there, there were some other people walking around and I suddenly realized it was very important not to have anybody else in the film—not to have an extra in the distance or even have boats going past on the water. I felt they needed to be completely isolated. So, that was part of the challenge and also part of the delight of this piece. It’s just these eight people rattling around in this amazing house.

Dawson: Kate Winslet helped you find the beach house location.

Michell: She suggested I look at that house because she lives nearby. I kind of resisted it, at first, thinking it wouldn’t work but I ended up using it as a last-ditch attempt to find the right place. When I went to see it, I could see that it might be almost like a ninth character.

Dawson: What’s the meaning of the title, Blackbird?

Michell: Paul McCartney’s Blackbird song was once in the script. As a result of that, the script, temporarily, was called Blackbird. Then we cut the song out because it didn’t seem to fit anymore but the title stuck as a temporary title. When we were making the film, we had a competition amongst the cast and crew to come up with a perfect title for the film and we had thousands of entries. The prize was a case of champagne, or something.

And yet, as post-production, drew to a close, it became clear that Blackbird still remained the best title. I can’t really explain why. The film ends with the sounds of a blackbird laid over shots of this empty house. So, the blackbird, in some way, embodies the spirit of Lily.

Dawson: Can you tell me about casting Kate Winslet as Jennifer? She’s the perfect daughter, almost to a fault.

Michell: Yes. It’s completely transformative. (Jennifer) is not at all like Kate but it worked out brilliantly. She grabbed it with both hands. She’s the first person I cast in the film. She really wanted to do that part. She saw it as an opportunity to almost play it as a character part.
Rainn Wilson as Michael, Sam Neill as Paul, Bex Taylor-Klaus as Chris, Mia Wasikowska as Anna, ... [+] Lindsay Duncan as Liz, Susan Sarandon as Lily and Anson Boon as Jonathan. 'Blackbird' arrives in theaters and on demand on Sept. 18, 2020 from Screen Media.Parisa Taghizadeh

Dawson: Susan Sarandon had a tricky role in playing this dying woman. She played Lily with dignity. The only indications of her illness are subtle like her frozen hand and difficulty getting up and down the stairs. Did she know someone with ALS?

Michell: During our rehearsal period, we met with a woman who had ALS, or motor neuron disease, as it’s known here in the U.K. I’d actually met her before and was very affected by meeting her. So, I wanted Susan and some of the other cast members to meet her as well. That had a big impact on all of us. Not just technically in terms of how Susan should hold her hand or how she should walk, but also emotionally. It just brought the whole thing to a massively clear and shocking perspective for all of us.

We also spent time with a nurse who specializes in looking after people with ALS. So, we learned quite a bit about the disease. It’s a disease without any cure. It’s a cruel disease because it seems to be so arbitrary. It’s known as the 1,000-day disease because it’s usually 1,000 days between diagnosing the disease and the patient dying. There’s no remission. There’s no drug. There’s no palliative drug treatments. There are these stages in the disease, and the stage that Lily can’t quite bear is the next stage where she has to be intubated. You have to have that operation while you’re still fit enough to have the operation. So, it’s a particularly cruel descent into ignominy and being completely dependent upon people to look after you, which is when she makes her choice.

Dawson: Though the subject matter is grim, you’ve managed to lighten it up with humor. For example, when they’re considering smoking pot, one person points out that it’s illegal, to which Lily’s grandson notes that “So is killing grandma.” Was that scripted, or improvised?

Michell: That particular line was scripted but I was very keen to make the film as funny as possible. Everyone coming to see the film is going to expect scenes of harrowing sadness and emotion, but I wanted as many jokes as I could get into it. These situations provoke people into reaching into their sense of humor and sense of humanity. Humor and humanity are linked. I wanted it to feel like a funeral where people laugh.  It’s a kind of human safety mechanism that we laugh in the face of these hard, difficult events.

Dawson: You have a range of actors in this from Bex Taylor-Klaus and Anson Boon, who are still new to the acting profession to industry veterans like Susan Sarandon, Sam O’Neill and Lindsay Duncan. How was it directing this multi-generation cast?

Michell: We all became slightly subject to Stockholm syndrome; we became very connected with each other. I didn’t feel the age issue at all amongst the cast. I don’t think they did either. The two younger members of the cast—Anson and Bex—were initially in awe working with these incredible legends in their business, but that didn’t last long. There was a lot of laughter and camaraderie and bad behavior around the filming of the movie. Often, the seriousness of the subject is in direct disproportion to the giggling, chatter, gossip and fun that you have on the set. This was no except to that rule.

It’s odd making a film with such a small cast at one location. We were all living a stone’s throw from the location. Nobody did anything else for five or six weeks. They all lived in each other’s pockets and spent their weekends hanging out together. It was a kind of weirdly wonderful escape from real life into these other lives. You can sort of smell that in a way in which the ensemble behaved with each other and acted with each other. It’s full of spirits and detail and fun.

Dawson: Bex’s character, Chris, originally was written for a man. What made you decide to swap the gender of role?

Michell: In the original Danish film, that character is a man. It seemed to be another interesting way to move away from the original Danish script to make Chris a woman. So, that decision came about before we cast Bex.

Dawson: You’ve probably heard about the changes to the Oscar rules and criteria. As a filmmaker, what are your thoughts on incorporating more non-traditional casting and bolstering minority group representation?

Michell: Here in the U.K., we’ve been trying to do that for quite a long time but there have been no written, procedural laws governing how we make things and who we make things with. I’ve only read (about the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences rule changes) very briefly because the news only got here today about the Oscars. These are good initiatives with their heart in the right place. I think that’s absolutely clear. It will take us a little while to digest what they actually mean in practice and what happens if you want to make a period film. I need to review them more but, in principle, I think they’re a good idea.

Dawson: What do you think you’ll be working on next and when?

Michell: I don’t know. I’ve been busy up until now. I’m going to do some writing next and see how I can keep working.