Michael the machine
Is Michael Winterbottom a machine? He’s now on to his 10th film this decade: you’ve got to admire the workrate. Last year he made Road to Guantánamo, the year before A Cock and Bull Story. This year’s effort, A Mighty Heart, comes out next week and he’s already halfway through his next—a strange little ghost story set in the Italian city of Genoa, where he’s spent most of the summer. In between, he’s filming scenes for a five-year, prison-sentence drama with John Simm called Seven Days, which won’t be finished until 2012. Where does he get the energy?
‘We made a conscious effort to keep things as simple as possible,” he says. Winterbottom is sitting around waiting to begin a night shoot in Genoa. He doesn’t behave especially like a human dynamo: he’s cheerful, dressed normally and looks like any other fortysomething. But you get some indication when he starts talking: words come flooding out in a seemingly endless stream.
‘When you start out you’re a bit at the mercy of outside factors, but by deciding to work through Revolution with Andrew, and by deciding to keep to a small crew and people you know, the process of setting up a film is simple. Apart from getting the money. So something that seems big and complicated when you start out actually starts to get simple as you go on. The more often you make a film the easier it is. That’s part of why we make quite a few, and there’s usually two or three we’re working on at the same time.”
Andrew is Andrew Eaton, the producer partner who has worked on all but one of Winterbottom’s films since Go Now in 1995; Revolution is the company they established together that has been the conduit for Winterbottom’s output since. (The only exception is the 1997 film Welcome to Sarajevo, with which Winterbottom briefly flirted with FilmFour.) The details of the Winterbottom-Eaton set-up are important, because the way they have chosen to make their films has determined the nature of what they do, and very often sharpened the impact of the films they have made.
In the late 1990s, they were among the first high-profile British filmmakers to embrace the possibilities of digital filmmaking, installing editing suites in their production office and creating a virtually self-sufficient in-house operation. At the same time, they concentrated on paring down the number of people they needed to bring with them to shoot the film. The effect on Winterbottom’s filmmaking was liberating.
Unlike, say, Mike Figgis, Winterbottom and Eaton have largely stayed away from digital’s visual trickery, preferring to capitalise on the mobility and flexibility the format gives them, forging in the process a semi-documentary form of cinema.
His first two digitially shot films—24 Hour Party People and In This World—were spectacular achievements in very different ways and stepped his filmmaking career up from the stolid character dramas for which he had hitherto been best known.
So here in Genoa the smallness of the crew is everything. Deep in the city’s old town, wedged in a maze of medieval alleyways, the production has taken over a flat for the purposes of the evening’s shoot. And, by the standards of a film set, there is hardly anyone here. The cameraman, Marcel Zyskind, sets his own lights, free of the usual squad of riggers, electricians and cablemen. There’s someone with a microphone and tape recorder, a couple of people dealing with the actors’ costumes and make-up, someone else looking after the props.
The scene Winterbottom is shooting involves his lead actor, Colin Firth, thundering into his small daughter’s bedroom; why, he wants to know, has she been scribbling endless pictures of her dead mother?
On set Winterbottom is suddenly a very different figure. The affability has pretty much disappeared; there’s no mistaking that he is entirely focused on the task at hand. In a small but telling indication that he really wants to keep on top of things, he has a small monitor strapped to his hip. It shows how he has harnessed technology to allow him, literally, to stay light on his feet. All the cumbersome procedures of the conventional film set have been jettisoned and the actors, in particular, really like it.
Firth is unabashed in his appreciation. ‘He makes it seem like the most obvious way to work of all,” he says later. ‘It is a tiny unit, which means everyone is at the heart of the process. You’re part of it in a way that in conventional films is just not the case. For very obvious reasons, in ‘normal’ filmmaking you spend hours waiting for the lighting and the rigging and the setting up. It has the effect of sapping energy. It drains you.”
As the man at the sharp end of things on Genova, Firth talks through Winterbottom’s on-set techniques. Rehearsal is pretty much dispensed with, says Firth, and when they go through a scene a second time, Winterbottom shifts the camera’s position. The camera is also turning over from virtually the second they arrive in any given location.
‘He doesn’t say ‘action’, he doesn’t say ‘cut’, he’ll just catch your eye and give you an indication that they are rolling.” Nor, it transpires, is there a continuity person, hence the apparently casual, semi-random editing style Winterbottom has developed.
If digital filmmaking has helped Winterbottom to establish an extraordinary level of productivity, it’s also helped him extract natural, unforced performances from his casts. That skill became crucial when Winterbottom turned to using non-professional Afghan refugees as the cast for his most radical experiment in stripped-down, on-the-move film-making, In This World, in which he achieved rarely equalled levels of naturalism.
In This World also gave Winterbottom a cause. He’s returned to it twice since then—with Road to Guantánamo and A Mighty Heart—and is planning a fourth: an adaptation of former diplomat Craig Murray’s celebrated memoir, Murder in Samarkand. But Winterbottom denies he has any special affinity for reactive, issue-based filmmaking.
‘Things we’ve done have been things we just thought were good ideas. We go through phases, obviously. Not all good. When we were doing A Mighty Heart, we were driving through Pakistan and it felt kind of similar to In This World. This is when you think: We’ve done this before. What’s the point of doing this again?”
Still, A Mighty Heart represents one of his and Eaton’s occasional forays into Hollywood. An adaptation of Mariane Pearl’s account of the search for her husband Daniel’s kidnappers, it was a project brought to them by Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt. ‘Unusually for the films we’ve done,” says Winterbottom, ‘it was completely their project. Brad got the rights to the book in the first place, Angelina knew Mariane, and we were brought in to make the film.”
Mention of the minor media controversies around the Hollywood pair—the scuffles Jolie’s bodyguards got into in Mumbai, the attempt to control journalists’ questions before the film’s premiere in Los Angeles—has the director bristling in defence of his actor.
‘It’s a bit hypocritical of the media to complain about them, because, having witnessed the way the press behaves toward people like that, it is pretty disgusting. All they were trying to do was say: what we want to do is talk about the film, not our babies or private life. They weren’t insisting people had to write a good review.”
Genova lacks the Hollywood money of A Mighty Heart, but you sense that parsimony is a deliberate choice: with more money comes more interference and the consequent evaporation of control over what you do. Winterbottom returns to the theme: ‘With digital, if you have the gear, then costs virtually disappear. Look at 9 Songs; we made it all ourselves and hardly spent anything. But there’s still a problem after that—getting a film into the state where it’s ready to show in a cinema is still really expensive.”
But it has its compensations. As the sun goes down over the Ligurian hills, there’s no doubt that, after the rigours of the Middle East, Winterbottom and Eaton are enjoying their time in Italy. Is this a film or a holiday, I ask. ‘The cat’s out the bag,” says Eaton. Winterbottom laughs. ‘We’re trying not to let anyone know. The last two films were in Pakistan and Afghanistan, so we thought, it’s a reward.”—