David Michod likes an egg metaphor. Whether it’s having had all of them “in one basket” over the past few years as he worked on The King — which received a royal eight-minute standing ovation at the Venice Film Festival last night — or looking at a project like a precious thing he’s trying to stop from “getting smashed along the way.” Indeed, the fragility of the filmmaking process, as well as a desire to tell stories from an organic place and keeping his early success in perspective were on his mind when we sat down before The King’s Lido world premiere.
Michod, a former journalist, had a “gloriously rare experience” when he burst onto the global scene with 2010 crime drama Animal Kingdom. The film scooped the Grand Jury Prize in Sundance and scored an Oscar nomination among many other accolades (also spawning a successful TV series). Michod followed up with 2014’s dystopian The Rover and then Netflix’s 2017 comedy/drama War Machine.
The King puts Michod back in business with Netflix and reteams him with previous collaborators including Joel Edgerton (who stars and with whom Michod co-wrote the screenplay), Ben Mendelsohn and Robert Pattinson. Timothée Chalamet, who wears the titular crown, is new to the gang after a friend suggest Michod check out Call Me By Your Name. “I haven’t had that experience of someone giving me a recommendation and me following it up and having my mind blown,” he tells me in the Q&A below.
Based in part on Shakespeare’s Henry The IV [Parts 1 And 2] and Henry V, The King is an epic and intimate portrait of young Prince Hal, who reluctantly ascends the throne to become Henry V at a particularly turbulent time in English history.
Here’s our chat:
DEADLINE: As a former journalist, how do you feel about the whole process of being interviewed for your films?
DAVID MICHOD: I really like it. I feel like I learn about the movie that I’ve just made in the talking about it, because you talk about it in a way that’s different than the way you talk about it with the people you’re making it with. I always find that I learn something that’s inside me, but that isn’t fully articulated.
There’s also the fact that most often it means I’m getting together again with people I haven’t seen in quite a while. Every one of these people — we finished shooting the movie almost a year to the day — they’ve gone off and done other things, and I’ve just been obsessively looking at the movie over and over.
It’s so weird cause you spend years, Joel and I started writing this back in 2013 or we certainly started talking about it, and you go through long stretches of your life where all of your eggs are in one basket.
DEADLINE: Joel said when you were filming the Battle of Agincourt in The King he thought, “I’m glad David’s directing this, not me.” Was it daunting for you?
MICHOD: It has similarities to shooting, like, a car chase, but I’ve had other experiences that were similar in a practical sense in that you’re only getting four or five shots a day rather than 20 and that makes it tedious. There’s something about the resets and just the machine of it. Yeah, it was daunting. You have to do a lot of preparation. I like preparing in the thinking and the writing and the talking, but the preparation you need for these kinds of battles you basically need to work out the shots before you shoot it. Some of that I find just boring… The joy for me, the first joy of making movies, is being in a great location with great designers and artists around you and watching actors bringing dialogue that you’ve written to life. It’s just joyful. When it gets into that bigger stuff, it does start to become really technical.
DEADLINE: Although, those fire-ball catapults were very impressive.
MICHOD: (Laughing) I can’t believe we got to build them! For a long time during early prep I was assuming these things were going to be digital and if we got to build one it would be only one and there would be digital ones around it. But I don’t recall ever even being challenged. When I was asked how many I wanted, I said, “Well I don’t know, three?” always expecting to be told I couldn’t have it. And then however many months later I turned up in Hungary and there were these three gigantic things that blew my mind and that we could have shot for another week just watching them do their thing.
DEADLINE: How did you settle on Timothée? You got him just as he was taking off, right?
MICHOD: Yeah, he was on an escalator and you could feel it. It was so fortuitous that right around the time that I needed to find a Hal, he just sort of entered my orbit.
I share a house in Los Angeles with Luke Davies and I remember him coming home one day and saying, “Man, you have to go see this movie Call Me By Your Name. I reckon the kid in it could be amazing for you.”
People say that kind of stuff all the time and I go, “Okay…” But I went and watched the movie and I haven’t had that experience of someone giving me a recommendation and me following it up and having my mind blown.
Totally coincidentally, Dede (Gardner) and Jeremy (Kleiner) were producing Beautiful Boy and Jeremy said, “You’ve got to check out this kid” and he showed me some screen tests. And, again, I had my mind blown. There is something so soulful, something deeply attractive to me about the training, what I knew of the work that Timmy had to do to realize that character in Call Me By Your Name, cause I knew that if I was casting a 22-year-old New Yorker to play Henry V, he was going to have to do a lot of work. I had every faith that he would do it. I haven’t had that feeling before. I was just so sure that someone so young would just do it and find it and make it great.
DEADLINE: You said during the Venice press conference for The King that having people around you who can appreciate the filmmaking process is a comfort. What’s the scariest part for you?
MICHOD: It’s all of the fear I can trace back to some form of fear of future embarrassment, which is the slightly glib way of putting it. But it’s a fear of failure that is very heightened because the movies are so big and take so long to make. I’d happily fail all the time if I was making something that I’d made in a day.
Things land in the world in different ways. I got spoiled on my first movie because that was kind of unanimously praised and as the years pass and the movies pass, I realize what a gloriously rare experience that is.
But the movies always feel to me like I’m holding a little tiny egg and I’m just trying to stop it from getting smashed along the way and there are so many forces that are, not actively trying to smash it, but threaten to make me lose my focus and accidentally drop it.
You know, there’s a part of me that gave up a long time ago wanting to understand why people like what they like or think what they think. So there’s a part of me that wants to not care. But you’re doing this for an audience somewhere out there, whatever that audience is, and you want to feel like it has landed somewhere.
DEADLINE: You’re making something that’s close to you, particularly when you write the project as well, so I would think if you can avoid focusing on who it’s for and stay true to what you’re trying to do then that maybe results in the best version of it? But you also have to be responsible, right?
MICHOD: I know that on some level I need to be cognizant of that stuff because I want to do it again, I want to make another movie. If I am disappointing people, disappointing my backers, then that’s gonna come back to bite me at some point.
But having said that, you’re absolutely right. There is no point doing it unless it feels true to me and that isn’t to ignore an audience, that’s just to try and imagine an audience of me, or made up of people like me. (On The King) I knew that if I was going to make a medieval swords and horses movie it had to be earthy and of me.
DEADLINE: After Toni Morrison passed away recently, her rules for work popped up on Facebook. One that might apply to what you’re talking about was: “Whatever the work is, do it well — not for the boss, but for yourself.”
MICHOD: I read that thing you’re talking about. I also remember the one “You are not the work you do; you are the person you are” and “Your real life is with us, your family.” That’s what this thing is for me (points to pink rubber bracelet on wrist). When we were shooting The Rover we were nine hours north of Adelaide in the middle of nowhere in this completely strange town. An old friend of mine, an actor who I used to share a house with back in 1998, he just rolled through town on a unicycle raising money for breast cancer. I hadn’t seen him in like 20 years and it was the most surreal experience. I’ve been wearing this ever since because it’s literally reminding me that I’m not curing cancer.
DEADLINE: The King reunites you with Joel and other people with whom you’ve collaborated in the past. Do you guys ever sit around and think, “Wow, look where we are now”?
MICHOD: Yeah, not enough though. I was thinking just before how this is our first day of press on this movie and having directed a movie with Ben and Joel now for the first time since Animal Kingdom, remembering how much fun — I mean that one was hard to make — but the traveling around with it was fun. It felt like a kind of ragtag bunch of bad boys with Jacki Weaver in the middle of it all, weirdly keeping us anchored, and thinking I hope this experience takes on a shape that is similar. I mean, it won’t, this will be over in a flash because it’s releasing really soon. Animal Kingdom was like we managed to drag it out for a year or something.
I do need to do that more often, I do need to stop and think about where I’ve landed. I can be sitting here today feeling so anxious. While (The King) press screenings were happening it made me feel sick. I was going (points to watch), “Right now, at this time, they’re probably in the Battle of Agincourt, and what are they thinking?” instead of going, “Look at this f*cking hotel,” you know?
I’m so lucky that I’m here. I’m so lucky that I get to do a job that is kind of play, but I get paid well to do it. There are very few artists in the world that can say that. I think of all the musicians I know and all the writers and painters, they’re doing great work and a lot of them are making a living, but this is such a privilege to get to move in this world.
DEADLINE: You were involved in a game-changing moment with War Machine, the first time Netflix was investing a lot of money in a feature with a big star. Since then, they’ve done it more and more. You were at the cusp of that and are back with a big scale picture. How do you see the evolution?
MICHOD: I remember when Animal Kingdom came out it was so wonderful that it was so praised. But I also found myself looking around going, “I’ve arrived at the wrong time.” All the specialty divisions at the studios had closed, no one was making those mid-range Vantage or Warner Independent movies anymore. I have experienced this in other forms in the past, where one door closes and another one opens. That new open door was the Netflix door.
It felt exciting to us back then, which was only a couple years ago, kind of as an almost punk rock move to take a Brad Pitt movie into that world and it felt maverick in a very exciting way, a way that I embraced fully at the time. We got to make a bold movie in War Machine. It was tonally strange and it felt to us as if we were making it kind of wild. I felt incredibly grateful there were people who were willing to back us to do that.
Now a couple of years on, I’m working with the same people but the structure has changed. It’s become more formal, but I still felt freedom on The King. I want people to tell me what they think. I want to feel like my partners are actively involved, because I need them to support the movie when the time comes. We are all in this together… It feels like that relationship has evolved in a good way.
DEADLINE: Does Netflix share with you the number of times something has been viewed?
DEADLINE: Would you want to know?
MICHOD: I care in that I want to know that people are watching, but no, I find that there’s a certain freedom to be had to be spared that metric. So long as enough people are watching it to justify me getting to make another, then I’m happy.
I actually love not being put through the ringer of weekend grosses. I remember early on in the process, War Machine really didn’t have a theatrical release, it was a couple of screens where no one goes.
At first I thought, “I don’t care about the theaters.” And then I came to realize that you need them even if only to create a sense of event, you know? But I was also saying to them quite clearly, “I don’t want to be on 3,000 screens. I don’t want to subject myself to the anxiety of that.”
DEADLINE: So are you pleased that The King is getting a 21-day release?
MICHOD: Very, for that very reason. It’s contained, it’s curated, its fortunes aren’t wholly dependent on that aspect of the release and if you want to see it and you live in a certain place then you can. And that’s great because this movie plays really well on a big screen…
There’s something about it when it’s big and loud and you’re in an audience which is great, and I want as many people as possible to have that experience. But I love watching it on a great television.
DEADLINE: It is quite epic in scale. Do you approach the work differently knowing it is not specifically designed to be seen in a cinema?
MICHOD: Not in the concept. TVs are so great these days. Literally the day before I got on a plane to come here, I finished doing technically the television grade of the movie and the stereo sound mix, and that actually for me is my favorite way of watching.
DEADLINE: What’s the extent of your involvement in Animal Kingdom the TV show?
MICHOD: That’s a really strange experience for me. That movie was so seminally important for me and it was a big deal for me to surrender it to other people, to another process. I remember in the very, very early days, John Wells and Jonathan Lisco were actively keeping me apprised of what was going on and keeping me involved. But I came to the realization that for my own sanity, and probably for theirs, I needed to let them do their thing. I’m glad that it has a following of its own that almost has no connection to or bearing on my movie.
DEADLINE: Are you thinking about what’s next?
MICHOD: It’s really extraordinary. I haven’t been in this spot where I don’t have anything in the bottom drawer, I don’t have anything that’s half-cooked already. And it’s nice. Even Animal Kingdom, when you think about how long it took me to write that movie, it has always felt that I’ve been dragging something from the past into the present, you know? And whatever I do next will be of me now, which is kind of exciting.