From f/x-free sci-fi in Code 46 to controversial graphic sex in Nine Songs, director Michael Winterbottom plays by his own rules. By Leigh Singer
Michael Winterbottom was once characterised by an admirer - as choosing his projects ‘with the consistency of a blind man shopping at a car-boot sale.’ It’s testament to the youthful-looking 43-year old director’s confidence that throwing this description back at him elicits only wry amusement.
‘It's not random, it's more a question of what seems interesting,’ he shrugs good-naturedly. ‘Each time you’re looking for something to make, you want it to have some other challenge to what you've done before.’
Which explains why unpredictability is the only vaguely predictable aspect of Winterbottom’s relentless work slate. Since his big screen debut with 1995’s lesbian serial killer movie Butterfly Kiss, he’s turned out over a film a year: from war-torn Welcome to Sarajevo to Altman-esque Gold Rush Western The Claim; from Madchester’s fizzing 24 Hour Party People to the semi-documentary, DV-shot immigrant road movie In This World. Itinerant, intelligent and generally impatient with the plodding, methodical pace of most filmmaking, his first science fiction film, Code 46, was never likely to rival Spielberg or Ridley Scott for elaborate sets and special effects.
‘Once we decided we were going to set it in the future, it just seemed like it would be easier and more fun to do by seeking out real places,’ he explains. ‘I like working on location. The idea of building a whole world would be a nightmare. The opportunity to go to Shanghai or Dubai was so much more exciting than the idea of shooting in a studio in London.’
Set against most formulaic futuristic blockbusters, Code 46 is a genetic aberration. As forbidden lovers Tim Robbins and Samantha Morton get trapped in a system where “empathy viruses”, memory erasure and widespread cloning warp any hope of romance, we’re far closer to Brief Encounter than Close Encounters…. Perhaps more satisfying cerebrally than emotionally it still reflects its makers’ (longtime collaborator Frank Cottrell Boyce wrote the script) roving, organic intelligence, though apparently Winterbottom’s predilection for slightly chaotic improvisation was tested by a complex, multi-national crew and shoot - and caused a degree of disquiet to leading man Tim Robbins.
‘Tim is someone who likes to prepare, likes to discuss the script, his character, his motivations,’ his director concedes. ‘Sam [Morton] is the opposite, she likes to be spontaneous, not to rehearse too much, be free to try out different things each time and that's much more my way of working.’ Winterbottom grins like a cheeky schoolboy. ‘To me, we were very organized and disciplined compared to how we did the last film.’
Indeed, compared to In This World, Code 46 was back-to-back Matrix sequels and Winterbottom scarcely hides which method he currently prefers: ‘I like to try and work with the same small groups of people over again because the more you know each other, the easier it is to be flexible about the way you work, the implications of doing something that might go wrong are not so bad. On In This World there were the camera and sound guys, me and the two actors. And we did Nine Songs the same way. In a way that's the perfect world from my point of view.’
Ah yes, Nine Songs, that Daily Mail readers’ choice, with its provocative mix of real, graphic sex and gigs from hip bands like Primal Scream and Franz Ferdinand. It sounds like the most obvious censor baiting but for Winterbottom, ‘If books can write about sex in a serious way, why can't film? We’re not making a porn movie, it's a love story.’ While Nine Songs languishes in a ‘legal situation’, Winterbottom is already battling to fund his next project, a freewheeling adaptation of Tristram Shandy.
‘I thought this was going to be quite easy because it's a comedy and it's got Steve Coogan,’ he says, shaking his head, mimicking would-be financiers. ‘“We love the idea of improvisation but we just want to get the script right first..."’
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