Fiercely intellectual, well spoken and Northern; is it any wonder that Michael Winterbottom works so well with frequent collaborator Steve Coogan? In an interview with The Guardian in 2010, Coogan told journalist Laura Barton that “the very worst thing you could say about a Michael Winterbottom project is that it is a Noble Failure. It would never be a bad piece of work.”
To say that Winterbottom’s work is understated is perhaps something of an overstatement. It’s a term used to describe virtually everything in his varied oeuvre from his 1995 debut Butterfly Kiss, about a serial killing lesbian and her partner/accomplice, through to the much celebrated television programme The Trip, the third series of which was broadcast on Sky Atlantic earlier this year. Even with the impending release of his rockumentary On The Road – which was shot over three weeks as a docu-drama following London band Wolf Alice on a tour bus in that typical fly-on-the-wall kitchen sink style that has been used to such great effect across his 22-year-long career – Winterbottom cannot escape ties to his collaborations with Coogan. The trailer proudly boasts that On The Road is “from the director of 24 Hour Party People and The Trip“. And, indeed, nor should he want to be disassociated from these.
Everybody has a favourite Winterbottom movie. Go Now may have produced a semi-breakthrough to a wider audience than his debut, and a year later his Thomas Hardy adaptation Jude would be screened at Cannes garnering much critical acclaim, but for a lot of people, their introduction came with his biography of the Madchester scene and Factory Records. 24 Hour Party People starred Coogan as record label impresario Tony Wilson in 2002 and brought Winterbottom into the public conscious in a way his earlier films had not. It had all the themes that one would associate with everything he had done before; it addressed sex quite openly and lacked the stereotypical British prudence, the structure allowed for improvisation from the cast, and of course it was stuffed full of iconic pop songs. It plays with the audience’s perception of reality as characters frequently break the fourth wall to weave in and out of fantasy, toying with what is fact and what is purely fiction.
Improvisation plays a huge part in almost all of Winterbottom’s films. In On The Road, actors Leah Harvey and James McArdle spend three weeks in character as roadies on tour with Wolf Alice. They are given lines, prompts or questions to ask the band members, but there is also a reliance on the actors to improvise responses and reactions. Similarly in The Trip, Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story and his BAFTA winning In This World (2002), large portions of the film are composed of intricately designed improvisations.
Despite his associations with Coogan, Winterbottom is not exclusively a comedy film maker. Although dramas such as The Look of Love, about the life of controversial Soho entertainment businessman Paul Raymond, can give the impression of being comedic, there is a very tragic and often meaningful purpose behind their creation. His half-documentary half-drama The Road to Guantanamo (2006) co-directed with Mat Whitecross (Supersonic, Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll) was a harrowing look into three Pakistani Britons who were detained in Guantanamo Bay before they were released without charge after three years of torment and torture. The film featured a starring role for recent Emmy winner Riz Ahmed, and earned Winterbottom a Best Director award at the Berlin International Film Festival. A year later, his historical drama A Mighty Heart (also set in Pakistan) starring Hollywood A-lister Angelina Jolie would go on to pick up a Golden Globe nomination and win the François Chalais Award at Cannes.
On previous occasions, Winterbottom has lambasted the fact that there are not enough cinemas outside the mainstream system to release his films to. Whilst The Trip to Italy and The Trip to Spain, starring Coogan and Rob Brydon as fictional and exaggerated versions of themselves, finds more and more mainstream attention, it’s still unlikely that we will see the Blackburn born director being approached by Disney to direct a new Star Wars sequel any time soon. The independent filmmaker’s inspiration comes directly from the German new wave movement, most obviously from Werner Herzog. The voyeuristic peak into a different culture but finding a recognisable or relatable feeling that connects the audience to its world that is apparent in Winterbottom’s work is very reminiscent of the German’s 1970’s and 80’s dramas, such as The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, Fitzcarraldo and Stroszek. He allegedly turned down a $1.5m contract to direct Good Will Hunting, so the chances of him jumping onto a blockbuster franchise are somewhat remote and he will be reliant on arthouse cinemas for the future, one hopes.
His movies tend to be divisive amongst audiences too. For every positive reaction there is an equal and negative reaction. As many people as you will find praising The Trip for being so hilariously dry and realistic, you will find an equal amount dismissive of its repetitiveness of jokes and impressions, and its comparative lack of narrative structure. Early indicators are that On The Road will also follow that same pattern. More than just a music documentary that follows a band on tour, or a meandering drama with no flow or character? There is no right or wrong answer. Like most of the work of this unique British filmmaker, the worst you could say is that it would be a Noble Failure. And that isn’t much of an insult at all.
Do you have a favourite film by Michael Winterbottom? Let us know in the comments!