If you scan Michael Winterbottom’s filmography, it’s clear he’s no slouch. He’s racked up 45 film and TV credits in his 32-year career thus far, dabbling in broad and varied genres, often with an experimental angle. He’s tackled the classic literary adap (Jude), an era-spanning musical biopic (24 Hour Party People), sci-fi (Code 46), docudrama (The Road To Guantanamo) and head-scratching meta-fiction (A Cock And Bull Story).
Steve Coogan is a regular collaborator; together the pair have made four films, and four series of The Trip (edited down and released internationally as films). Winterbottom’s films are often grounded in reality on one level or another, from the thinly fictionalised versions of Coogan and Brydon’s travelling dining companions, to In This World’s non-professional cast of Afghan refugees, to 9 Songs’ unsimulated sex.
His most recent project is not a film at all, but is still seeking a certain truth. During the first Covid lockdown in spring 2020, Winterbottom used the lull to interview an incredible array of British directors, including Danny Boyle, Steve McQueen, Edgar Wright, Lynne Ramsay, Ben Wheatley and Mike Leigh; the Q&As are collected in his new book, Dark Matter: Independent Filmmaking In The 21st Century.
Winterbottom had been planning a hiatus to take stock. “Coincidentally, the six-month break [from working] started about two weeks before lockdown,” he laughs of the timing. Turns out one of the few upsides to the world grounding to halt at the mercy of a pandemic is that a lot of people are grounded and available for a chat. “I think that probably was one of the benefits of lockdown,” considers Winterbottom when we chat in August 2021. For a filmmaker with a reputation as something of a firebrand, he’s surprisingly softly spoken. “Most people got back really quickly and said yes. I’m sure part of that was because obviously everyone was stuck at home, so they couldn’t think of a good excuse why they didn’t have time to do it.”
Winterbottom was initially motivated by a “selfish desire” to step back and think about the way he was working. “I wanted to talk to other directors, to get a sense of how they’re working. That kind of connected to one of the problems. Maybe other people are different, but for me, I hardly ever see another director. I don’t really talk to other directors. You know producers, you know writers, you know actors and crews and so on. But you don’t really have much of a social network of other directors.”
Looking at his list of interviewees, Winterbottom was struck by how few British independent films a number of them had made: many had instead pivoted to the US, studio films and/or television. It’s become a well-trodden path. While he acknowledges many of the directors he speaks to are happy with their lot, he laments that we haven’t had, say, any more independent British films from Lynne Ramsay since Morvern Callar; Steve McQueen hasn’t made a British film (excluding TV anthology Small Axe) since Hunger in 2008.
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