Roger Michell was on a train when he first felt the symptoms. The director of the most successful British film of all time (Notting Hill: $360 million worldwide) was traveling from London to Paris to meet with a cinematographer about his next project, an epic World War II romance he was only months away from shooting. He caught the next train home and headed straight to the emergency room.
”At first, they couldn’t find anything wrong with me,” Michell, 45, recalls today, three years later, now fully recuperated and sipping a cup of English breakfast tea in a Beverly Hills hotel bar. ”But then they did an EKG and the nurse turned to me and said, ‘Are you aware that you’re having a heart attack?”’
As fate would have it, that heart attack may have saved Michell’s life—at least professionally. The film it prevented him from directing turned out to be one of last summer’s biggest bombs, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin (which ended up being directed by John Madden, who might want to think about upping his cholesterol). Instead, Michell took some time off, quit smoking, and now he’s following up Notting Hill with a very different sort of film, Changing Lanes, an edgy urban drama that just happens to be about the vagaries of fate—how the tiniest twist of it can alter the course of one’s whole life (see review on page 44).
”I suppose you could draw a connection between what happened to me and [the themes of] this movie,” the filmmaker concedes. ”But I really have no idea why I decided to do Changing Lanes — except that it wasn’t another romantic comedy. Romantic comedies are very hard and boring to shoot — much harder than this movie was — because they’re not funny while you’re making them. We did a read-through of Notting Hill on the last day of rehearsal and that was the last time I laughed for four months.”
Whatever else it may be, Changing Lanes is definitely no yukfest—and there isn’t much love to be found in it, either. Set during 36 hours in the spring in New York City, the film stars Ben Affleck and Samuel L. Jackson as a hotshot young attorney and a down-and-out divorced dad who cross paths during a fender bender on the FDR Drive, then spend the rest of the movie tearing at each other’s throats in an escalating war of nerves that nearly destroys them both. ”It’s being sold as a ‘road rage’ movie, but that’s just a marketing hook,” says Affleck, 29, who gained 15 pounds on a strict doughnut diet to play the puffed-up lawyer. ”It’s much more complicated than that. It’s a drama about morality and compromise and corporate culture and alienation from the workplace and the way institutions dehumanize people…but I guess I can see why the marketing people went with ‘road rage.”’
That there’s a movie to market at all is itself something of an accident—or rather a long, random string of them. Jackson, for instance, might not have signed up for the film had he not ”accidentally seen a play Roger had directed” in London a few years earlier. ”And then I saw Notting Hill,” Jackson, 53, continues, ”and I could see that he directed his movies the same way he directed his theater—that he was more concerned with the emotional aspects of his characters, that he doesn’t just use actors to take up space in a scene.”