Directed by Roger Michell (The Mother, Notting Hill, Venus, Enduring Love) and based on Bille August’s acclaimed 2014 drama Silent Heart, Blackbird stars Sarandon as Lily, who is suffering from the debilitating terminal illness, Motor Neurone Disease, and wants to die before it progresses any further and completely destroys her quality of life. As her husband (Sam Neill) and three generations of her family (played by the likes of Kate Winslet, Rainn Wilson and Mia Wasikowska) gather around her, new tensions and old issues quickly arise. Susan Sarandon is typically strong in the lead role, and while it’s now difficult to imagine anyone else playing the part, Lily was originally going to be embodied by Diane Keaton. “Diane, who I love and who I’ve worked with before [on Morning Glory], had a big problem with finishing a film where she was running late and she was starting to freak out, so she couldn’t do it,” Michell explains. “I’d cast everybody, and I was on holiday in Corsica, and then Diane had to withdraw. I thought the film was over. We immediately went to Susan. We offered it to her in the evening, and when I woke up in the morning, I turned my phone on, and she had accepted it.”
Was there a lot of rehearsal? How was that process?
“Yeah, I always do. I always rehearse for at least a week before we shoot. I’m a theatre director originally, and I still am. So I am a great fan of rehearsals. Some actors are, some actors aren’t. Some actors aren’t used to rehearsal, but I haven’t yet met an actor who doesn’t eventually say after we’ve rehearsed, ‘My God, that was so useful. I feel so confident. I’m so clear now about the rough journey I’m going to make in the film.’ So I spent a week doing rehearsals, and doing research. We even met people who suffer from what we call Motor Neurone Disease, or ALS. We met people who care for sufferers with Motor Neuron Disease. In that week, we also do all the costume fittings together. So everyone feels that they’re part of the same process. And we spent a day actually rehearsing in the house that we shot in. So by the time we started shooting, there wasn’t that horrible feeling of actors meeting for the first time on the set. You know, it’s six in the morning, and they’re turning up to do something quite difficult with an actor that they’ve never met before. I don’t know how they do that.”
The film is set in the US, but you shot it in the UK…did you ever think about setting it in the UK? Or do those suicide laws prevent you from thinking about that?
“No, the suicide laws are more or less the same in the UK, but I felt that it was an American story. I can’t even really remember why we shot it in the UK. It was always much better for me because I live in the UK. But I would have happily shot it on the East Coast of America.”
Do you think films like this represent a strong business model? Many people like to see these films, and they’re tired of special effect films…
“There is what we call the ‘grey pound’, which is an increasingly valuable sector of the audience, because people who have retired can go to a movie any day of the week. They don’t wait until Friday. They can go to matinees. These films sometimes do break out in that way.”
Americans are often very shy about the subject of death. Did you ever have any concerns about an American audience for this?
“No, I never really think of it that way around. Maybe I should think of it that way around a bit more. I always think about what the film’s going to be like more than what the audience is going to make of it.”
What was your conversation with Susan about death and whether any of us would choose that option with Motor Neurone Disease?
“Well, we have to get into the mindset of this particular illness, which has no cure, and has very little palliation available, and has these kind of catastrophic marks in the road. There comes a moment where lots of systems break down at the same time where you suddenly have difficulty in swallowing and you have to commit to have an operation to be fed with liquid milk shakes through a tube. But you have to have that operation while you’re still fit enough to endure it. That’s the terrible, awful particularity of it…holding that tube in your hand for the first time and seeing a can of the protein drink. It really came home to me – how a Motor Neurone Disease sufferer would suddenly become completely a victim of other people’s care. That helped us understand the decision that a person makes. We met people who suffer from the disease and talked to them about it.”
The title reflects a hyperbole…
“The title is a strange relic…it’s an old story, the title. At one point, there was a moment when in the script, some of the characters sang Paul McCartney’s song ‘Blackbird’, and at that moment the obvious choice was to call the whole film Blackbird. Then for various reasons that scene disappeared, but the title was stubborn and it just clung onto the film. And for some reason, no other title that we could come up with felt as appropriate to the film as Blackbird. So it is oblique. You can hear blackbirds in the film. You can hear blackbirds and you can see blackbirds. And at the end of the film you feel that the voice of the bird is the voice of Susan’s character.”
What was the mood like on set?
“Well, the usual rule of thumb about filmmaking or theatre is that the more serious and gloomy the subject, the funnier the atmosphere is, and the lighter the atmosphere is on set. Comments during comedies are very serious business. It’s rather gloomy and difficult to do, but when doing this kind of material, the actors are just extraordinarily badly behaved and funny and good fun to be with. There’s a lot of laughter, and a lot of silliness at times, which is how I like it.”
Kate Winslet is a very sexy woman. Did she tell you what attracted her to playing this uptight daughter?
“She loves the challenge. She is very beautiful and sexy, and she loved the opportunity to play a character part. She does it consummately. Kate was the first person to commit to doing the film, so that generates a lot of interest amongst other actors. If you start with Kate Winslet, you are in a really strong position because a lot of other people will pay special interest.”
Do you think you did your job well if someone goes to see this film and doesn’t cry a little bit?
“It is a two tissue movie. People are affected by it. Not everyone will be affected by it, of course, or people who are somehow immune to these kind of ideas…but I’d like to meet them! Yeah.”
There are many big names in the cast, but I love the young actor Anson Boon…how did you cast him?
“I just auditioned a lot of young guys. When you get old as a director, you don’t know any of the youngsters, so you have to see your casting people to find out who’s out there. I auditioned Anson several times, and he was outstanding. Very, very good.”
Sam and Susan worked very well together too. Do you do a chemistry test or something like that with actors of that stature?
“No, I don’t think you could possibly do a chemistry test. To be honest, I’m not a huge believer in this chemistry thing. Good actors are good at chemistry. I’ve worked with actors who are lovers on screen who don’t particularly like each other. I found that on one notably, the chemistry was absolutely glittering in the movie…”
I don’t know if you’re talking about Notting Hill or not, but…
“I couldn’t possibly comment.”
That film is still huge. Are you surprised by how much love the film still gets?
“It’s bizarre. It is odd and sometimes slightly annoying. Of all the films that I’ve made, that’s the one. I was a judge at a film event recently, and I enjoyed my time there, but people only really wanted to talk to me about Notting Hill. And indeed there was a special screening of Notting Hill, but you know, it’s a nice problem to have. Maybe it reminds people of being young. We talk about memories. Every time that we hear a song that we first heard when we were teenagers, it takes us back, and I think that the same is true of film. It reminds you of a happier, more innocent time perhaps. I love watching very old films because they suggest a world gone by. I would love to do a proper re-cut of Notting Hill, because there was so much material. The original assembly for the film was three-and-a-half hours. I’d love to do a re-cut, including big scenes that were left out.”