I sat down with English director Michael Winterbottom at the tail end of what was obviously a long, hard day of back-to-back interviews. Rather than my trying to get him discuss the same points of “Code 46” one more time, we instead kicked back with some beers and had a wide-ranging discussion covering much of his career up till now, which has spanned 11 films in 10 years.
Oops. Make that 12: His most recent, “Nine songs,” debuted at Cannes, where its sexually graphic depiction of a torrid affair marked yet another departure for this always-unpredictable director.
How much did your experiences on “In This World” (a tale of Afghan refugees) influence your ideas for this film?
In a sense, the world outside the cities in “Code 46” is the kind of world of refugee camps we experienced on “In This World.” People who are not wanted, kept out of the way and left to fend for themselves as best they can. The biggest difficulty in making that film was trying to get papers for the two refugees we were filming. As refugees, they had no passports, no possibility of getting visas. Filming was very easy, but the paperwork was a nightmare. Every country we went to assumed these guys shouldn’t be let in, even though we were making a film about them.
You have worked with the same screenwriter, Frank Cottrell Boyce, on a number of films now. Do you go to him with ideas, or does he come to you with scripts?
It’s different on each one. With “24 Hour Party People,” me and Andrew [Eaton, the producer] were stuck in a Canadian logging town — we were looking for locations for “The Claim” — and we had nothing to do, so we just sat around drinking beers. And we thought, let’s do a film inside, about something we know about and something that’s fun. Let’s do a film about bands in Manchester, do it with Tony Wilson as the main character, start in 1976 and end in 1992, get Steve Coogan as the main character . . . so the whole idea was, like, one conversation! Whereas it was the opposite with “Code 46,” it was very much a little at a time, it wasn’t any one person’s idea.
So it accumulates up to critical mass . . .
Yeah, exactly. Then you start writing the script, and you’re on clearer ground. Then the only problem is trying to get the finance. I’m due to start shooting a new project in seven weeks, and the financing still isn’t nailed down, so it’s a bit of a sore spot.
On “The Claim” you constructed an entire set in the middle of nowhere, whereas for “Code 46” or “Wonderland,” you’re shooting mostly on real locations, real streets. Do you prefer one or the other?
Yeah. Generally, my approach since “Wonderland” has been, whenever possible, to take the characters and insert them into real environments. On “Wonderland,” it was a question of how to capture something of what London’s really like, and how to shoot it in a simple way. We did some tests with a cameraman who’d mainly done news, a lot of war reporting. We’d just walk into bars, and we’d be having all this drama about should we ask people [if it’s OK], and he’d just walk in and start putting the camera right in their face and filming them! (Laughs.)
But, actually, no one really minded, people have gotten so used to cameras. What we found is that if you turn some lights on, or bring out a big microphone, everyone’s very self-conscious, but if you don’t, then no one’s bothered.
But on “The Claim,” that wasn’t possible; there obviously aren’t any 19th-century Gold Rush towns. But the idea was if we build it, let’s try and build it as real as possible, get people in as extras, but rather than try and control every shot, we’d say, “This is what you do, this is who are, now get on with it. We’ll film our story around you.” So in the bar in “The Claim,” basically we got 100 extras in, they had drinks and we filmed in and among them.
It was the same, a little bit, in “Code 46.” Because it’s in the future, things like Maria’s office, where she does the papelles, that’s a very traditional way of filming. The top half of her office is in Shanghai, above a museum, the bottom half is an underground station in London. So we’d piece bits together and create an artificial environment. But where possible, like walking down the street in Shanghai, we’d just take our actors and a very small camera and just film them on the street. Basically, my axiom is, “do it as simply as possible.” Unfortunately, sometimes that’s not very simple! (Laughs.)
What was the “look” you were trying to achieve in this film, to create a sense of the near future?
When you’re choosing places, it’s partly because of how they look, but also because of what they tell you about the people who live there. Like the way we used the desert: It shows you the struggle to survive, the idea of climate change and so on, but it’s also a powerful image. It has this vast emptiness, so if you put someone in it, they immediately look very isolated.
All the stuff we filmed was done with available light, so how it looks in the film is pretty much how it looks in reality. If you go to interesting places, you can get amazing images, not by creating them yourself, sticking some lights up there. You’re not necessarily making something look better by controlling it; often things look amazing without controlling them.
I imagine, though, that if I was talking to you a few years back, around “I Want You,” you’d be espousing a completely different philosophy . . .
Well, every film is completely specific. I personally don’t like the idea that you have to have “a way” to make a film! “I Want You” was like an outsider’s response to a very British place, because two of the characters are exiles. So I chose [cinemaphotographer] Slawomir Idziak, knowing that he has a kind of look, an approach. He doesn’t use so many lights, but he uses a massive amount of filtration.
On any shot you’d have four layers of glass between you and [the set]. When you watch his films, you feel this sense of a barrier. He did make Hastings, this seaside town, look strangely un-English. The English critics hated it! (Laughs.) But it’s very beautiful and it gives you a mood, and “I Want You” was very much a mood piece. I’d always wanted to use that song [by Elvis Costello], so we decided to build a film around it.
So each film needs it’s own look, I agree. And I used to change DoPs [directors of photography] from film to film because of that, whereas now I think the working process is more important. I’d rather work with people I know and feel comfortable with.
You seem to work with a team now, but the score-writers still change from film to film.
With the score, people have such a strong personality in the way they work, and each film is so specific, it’s hard to settle on one person. It’s the area that, as director, you feel is least under your control. The person writing the score comes quite late in the day, sees a rough cut, and then has to do it in a relatively short period of time. And you can talk about it all you want, but in the end, they have to do it.
But with, like, Michael Nyman, you must have a pretty good idea what you’re getting.
With Nyman you know you’ll get a Nyman score, but not necessarily exactly the Nyman score you want! It’s hard. Anything that’s creative is like that, like with actors. You choose the actors hoping they’re right, but sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. It’s the nature of making a film.
Tim Robbins and Samantha Morton seemed like an odd couple. What was your thinking behind that decision?
I was looking for two people who, at first sight, you wouldn’t think would be together. But then, when it happens, you have to believe they could be in love, and there’s something to the idea that it looks like a father-daughter relationship . . .
When it’s actually something else . . .
So, it was just a process of meeting people and thinking, yeah, these two look like they’ll work. But that’s all casting ever is. And once you’ve made the decision — unless you’re Woody Allen, willing to sack people halfway through — then it’s just a question of finding a way to make it work for them.
The two of them have very different styles in how they work — how did you reconcile that?
I didn’t, to be honest. That was something that made me feel they were right for the parts. It is supposed to be two people who have completely different world views, different ways of life, coming together. It’s true that they have completely different approaches to acting. To be honest, we alternated between trying to give Tim enough structure that he’d know what was going on, and giving Sam enough freedom that she wouldn’t feel trapped. There were a lot of clashes about where that borderline would be in different scenes.
But it feeds into their relationship, there is supposed to be this collision between two opposites, but they fall in love. I have to say, I don’t think Tim and Sam fell in love, but there was certainly the collision of two opposites! (Laughs.)
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