A challenging and provocative filmmaker, Michael
Winterbottom's ability to come up with the unconventional is matched only by
the relentless energy he applies to his craft.
At the time of writing, Michael Winterbottom's new film, Genova, takes
his list of credits to 18 features completed over a period of just 14 years. To
label the British director a workaholic would be an understatement. Not merely
prolific, however, he also ranks amongst the most versatile and ambitious of
Winterbottom has consistently, and nimbly, switched between genres, bringing to
screen a diverse set of dramas, in addition to comedies and documentaries.
Often the genre-hopping takes place within the one film, as at times opposing
narrative techniques are combined, laying bare the process of filmmaking
Winterbottom, who hails from north west England, has identified a season of
international film shown on television as the catalyst for him joining a local
film club as a teenager. There he became inspired by German new wave cinema,
which appealed because these films dealt with a world that was more
recognisable to him than that portrayed in Hollywood movies.
He studied film at Bristol University before becoming a trainee editor for
television and cut his directorial teeth in that medium (most notably helming a
couple of episodes of Jimmy McGovern's Cracker in 1993) ahead of making
two 1995 films: Butterfly Kiss, a Thelma and Louise-esque road
movie featuring two lesbian characters – one of them a psychopath – running
amok in a motorway environment; and Go Now, a BBC telemovie starring
Robert Carlyle as a man who falls victim to Multiple Sclerosis.
It was during his time at Bristol that Winterbottom met his long-time producing
partner Andrew Eaton, with whom he founded Revolution Films. Another regular
collaborator has been the writer Frank Cottrell Boyce, though he hasn't worked
with the director since 2005.
The second half on the '90s saw Winterbottom complete a further five films of a
gritty nature that cemented his status as one of Britain's best filmmakers.
These include: Jude (1996), an adaptation of Thomas Hardy's bleak 1895
tale of forbidden love, Jude the Obscure; Welcome to
Sarajevo (1997), in which fact and fiction are blended together to
recreate the experiences of foreign journalists embedded on the frontline in
the Bosnian capital; I Want You (1998), a creepy thriller set at a
run-down seaside resort; With or Without You (1999), a Belfast-set
romantic comedy; and – best of all – Wonderland (1999),
a heavily stylised day-in-the-life of a group of working class Londoners in
which the city itself steals the show, particularly during the night-time
A consistent feature of Winterbottom's work is a focus on extreme human emotions,
but his project choices suggest he's at least as concerned about a film's
setting and mood, or the production approach he wishes to take, as the finer
details of story. Indeed, the stand-out characteristic of his work is arguably
his on-set flexibility – he prefers to place actors in real locations and allow
them to improvise – and his calling cards are as much his unrelenting
commitment and fast working methods as the films themselves.
At the start of the '00s, Winterbottom made The Claim
(2000), a big-budget, 1860s western based on Hardy's novel The Mayor of
Casterbridge (filmed in Canada), before getting his period teeth stuck into
the late '70s, '80s and early-'90s Manchester music scene for the comedic 24 Hour
Party People (2002), featuring Steve Coogan in the role of Factory
Records svengali Tony Wilson.
By this point music had been established as crucial element in Winterbottom's
work (from the use of pop songs to enhance the narrative in Welcome to
Sarajevo to the Michael Nyman score integral to the mood of Wonderland).
It would later be apparent in the shape of the live rock performances
interspersed among the unsimulated bonking scenes of 9 Songs (2004),
the director's graphic snapshot of a year-long relationship based purely on
sex. Prior to that film, which received a lukewarm critical response, came In This World (2002), a
dramatised documentary following two young Afghan refugees on their tumultuous
journey Pakistan to Britain; and Code 46 (2003),
a stylised sci-fi thriller centred around genetics.
Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story (2005), his adaptation of Laurence
Sterbe's nine-volume tome The Life and Opions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, Winterbottom essentially
turned a novel about writing into a movie about a movie, in the process handing
Coogan another lead role.
The documentary The Road to Guantanamo (2006), highlighted the experiences of three British Asians
suspected of terrorism and sent to the notorious Camp X-Ray. To follow up
Winterbottom worked with Angelina Jolie on A Mighty Heart (2007), an
adaptation of the memoirs of Mariane Pearl, whose journalist husband was
kidnapped and decapitated by Islamic fundamentalists in Pakistan in 2002.
Another documentary, The Shock Doctrine, based on Naomi Klein's
anti-globalisation book, premiered at the 2009 Berlin Film Festival, followed by
The Killer Inside Me, an adaptation of Jim Thompson's 1952 novel in
which a West Texas deputy sheriff (played by Casey Affleck) is slowly unmasked
as a psychotic killer. Upcoming projects include Seven Days, which
Winterbottom is shooting over the course of several years for Channel 4. Due
for 2012, the project charts the marital relationship of a man imprisoned for
drug smuggling. Winterbottom is also reportedly attached to direct an
adaptation of Martin Amis' dark 1989 novel London Fields, while another
project in the works is a film based on Craig Murray's book, Murder in
Samarkand, which recounts the author's 2002-2004 stint as the UK's
ambassador to Uzbekistan. Not content with that impending workload Winterbottom
is also developing Promised Land, about 1930s Palestine.
Does the man not require sleep?
- David Hull