Michael Winterbottom uncensored

Film's most prolific director on experimentation and unembarrassing sex

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Road to Guantanamo Michael Winterbottom

Taken from April 2009 issue of Dazed & Confused:

“I started going to the local film club when I was 14 or 15. It was a New German season and they were showing films by Wim Wenders, Werner Herzog and Rainer Werner Fassbinder. They had this old 16mm projector and had to keep having breaks between the reels. It made me think about the way you had to go out and make films, and the technology that was involved in projecting them. It made me start to have a different kind of relationship with film. Jude the Obscure is one of my favourite books – I read it a few times as a teenager. When I was doing a one-year film course, they asked if there was any kind of film we’d like to make, and I thought of doing Jude. When I made the film, I wasn’t trying to shock people – it was more to do with the subject. Hardy’s book is a very powerful story about two people whose lives have been ruined by society. You want the portrayal to be as strong as possible. 

The starting point for 24 Hour Party People was that (producer) Andrew Eaton and I had been away in Canada shooting another film, and we were stuck in a bar for a weekend. We were saying how it would be nice to make a film closer to home, about something we really knew about – and we both thought it would be great to do a film about Factory Records and Tony Wilson. From the beginning, the idea was to make a comedy – it was never the plan to make it totally historically accurate. Though much of what was in it was true. Tony Wilson told us loads of stories and then we went and talked to all those other people. A lot of research was done. But the whole point was that people may all have slightly different versions of what happened, and it’s not as though those stories were rules when it came to making it.

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Still from 9 Songs

The whole spirit of Factory Records is what appealed to us about doing the film – it was very chaotic with people doing what they wanted to do and it was very relaxed and easygoing. We thought the film should be approached like that and be sprawling and improvised. Some of the music back then I really liked – I loved Joy Division! I went to the Hacienda in the early days, when it was pretty empty. But as much as the music was great and everything, there’s something particularly attractive about Tony and his relationship to Manchester, and the film was as much about Tony as it was about the music itself. He was a great comic hero. He was also someone who attracted a lot of flak, but he played on that. The thought behind 9 Songs was that it’s very frustrating when you do a film with a love story, in that you try to keep as simple and as direct as possible, but if there’s a sex scene, suddenly everyone becomes very embarrassed. There’s loads of awkwardness, and I’ve no idea why it has to be that way. So, I thought a film that was just about having sex would maybe be less embarrassing and awkward than a story with just a little bit of sex in it. We decided to start the film with two people in bed – we wanted to see if it was possible to tell, just by watching them in bed, what their relationship was about, When I told people about what I was doing, everyone said, ‘Well, you’ll never be allowed to show that in the cinema,’ and many people around me thought it would be deemed as pornographic. But it all boils down to filmmakers censoring themselves as, in fact, they didn’t have a problem with it.

“I thought a film about having sex would be less embarrassing than one with a bit of sex in it”

The way I work, you start with the basic shape and structure of the film, and then it’s then a question of trying to capture a kind of texture of the way people live, trying to capture relationships. It’s easy if you can go with actors on sets and try to experiment. With Wonderland, we took the actors into locations like Soho, Brixton and the London Underground, and just filmed them with a handheld camera. We didn’t even attempt to get streets closed, or anything like that, because it means that you can get more of a sense of what London’s really like. If you control places and close them down, you lose an essence of their life.

With most of the films I do, I develop the idea, then try and get the funding. With A Mighty Heart, it was different, and I already had Angelina Jolie in mind to play the part – it had been cast and the money was there straight away. They said they wanted me to make the film the way I normally do, so we shot in Pakistan, in the street, with a small crew. But most of Angelina’s stuff wasn’t shot there, it was shot back in a house. And she was incredibly easygoing.

I spent a couple of weeks in Genova with my two daughters, and the film gradually developed over the course of two or three years. There was a sense that it would be about people who were lost in a spiritual sense, and the labyrinth of the city streets there was a good physical mirror of that. The film involves a family that’s not from there trying to find a way of coming to terms with the death of the family’s mother. The story is told with small, subtle shifts. Even with the eldest girl – she’s having this glamorous time on the surface, but she’s really going through the same thing as the others.” 

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