The Essay (Radio 3)
A director envies Steven Spielberg’s heedlessness.
A likeable series of The Essay had five practitioners of stage and screen reflecting on their daily grind. The most interesting (13 February, 10.45pm) was written and delivered by the director Roger Michell (Persuasion, Notting Hill). Ostensibly it was a softly-spoken account of his emotions on the first day of filming a feature, but he used some rather violent language. The mobile loos lined up in the fields on location seem to him this first morning to be "evil". The camera-tracking machine is "infernal". The trailers for make-up and actors "sinister".
Michell recalls another director once confessing he'd rather be run over by a car than face the first day on set. I had a friend - an actor starring in a BBC sitcom recorded live in front of a studio audience - who used to pray quietly for a terrorist attack on White City to prevent recording going ahead. Ridiculous, clearly, but nerves can make you feel as though someone has taken away your old spectacles and given you a pair of super-powerful binoculars that simultaneously render your other faculties (sight, touch, taste) horribly quadrupled.
Michell recalls noticing "young pheasants coughing in hedgerows full of wild flowers" when he really ought to have been concentrating on something else. Julia Phillips, producer of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, once described Steven Spielberg on set as being unaffected by anything around him. "Everyone thinks this is because of his powers of concentration; I think it is because he doesn't care about anything but the movie he is working on."
An acquaintance who appeared in the film of War Horse told me that Spielberg would sit with his iPad watching John Ford movies between takes, completely absorbed by this - and only this. Michell, it appears, does not share the bliss of Spielberg's heedlessness. Yet it does mean Michell can describe for us - in the most rewarding detail - the various groupings on set. Focus pullers with their "skateboard shoes in pastel macaroon colours". Grips "massively shod like shirehorses". The sound department in their strange silence ("paradoxically the quietest of the clans"). You sense he could have talked about this kind of thing for hours, his mind skipping and skipping, like a stone flung across water.