The Hands of Bresson

Sundry observations on the art of cinema and world film culture

Notes on Michael Winterbottom; plus, a new book

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A few weeks ago, I was contacted by the fine folks at Shooting People, the world’s largest social network for independent filmmakers. They’d heard that the University Press of Mississippi was about to publish my new book, Michael Winterbottom: Interviews (part of their “Conversations with Filmmakers” series) and wanted to know if they could distribute copies to the top-ten prize winners of their monthly film competition, which was being judged by SP patron Winterbottom. (Full disclosure: Shooting People’s creative director is a business acquaintance of mine, and a friend.) They also asked if I might like to post a few entries on the director to their house blog, which I readily agreed to, though I wasn’t really sure what angle to take for an audience of creative practitioners who might or might not be cinephiles. What eventually came through in the writing was a weave of first-person anecdote, observations on the British director’s style and approach, and indications of why his methodology would be important for burgeoning indie filmmakers to take note of, if not emulate. Below are the three mini-essays I generated, ordered by the date they were posted.

“Michael Winterbottom’s Shooting Style”

I’ve always wondered why more filmmakers don’t adopt the working methods of Michael Winterbottom, a gifted and versatile artist whose incredibly prolific output seems to baffle as many people as it impresses. Never mind the question of how Winterbottom observers like myself can keep up the pace. (He had three films on the festival circuit this year, and at least one more is in pre-production. And it isn’t December yet!) How does Winterbottom manage to produce at this rate? Why do the films always seem substantial and considered, even when hastily shot? The rush of energy, the motive force, the invigorating sense of reality whoosing past in his cinema are an objective correlative of the man’s own restless personality, surely. But his ability to move adroitly from one project to the next has as much to do with scale and methodology as it does personal drive and talent. As Winterbottom has so often said, the idea is “to keep things simple.” He often shoots with a tiny crew, using radio mics and available light so the actors are free to roam, oblivious to where the camera (often handheld) is positioned or whether they’re in close-up. And though he has shot on studio sets, he prefers to be on location, out in the streets—“in this world,” as it were.

Film is not a single-artist medium, and Winterbottom has always acknowledged how important it is for him to work closely with a team of collaborators who share a basic set of principles. He came from Thames Television, after all, where he met many of his future actors, writers, and technicians. He also learned to shoot quickly on minuscule budgets. By the time he founded Revolution Films with producer Andrew Eaton and began making films for theatrical release (1995’s Butterfly Kiss was the first), the seeds of that lean and nimble approach (i.e. make a virtue of limited resources) had already taken root. Further refinements were to follow: four years on, Winterbottom was shooting Wonderland around London on handheld 16mm cameras, at night without additional lights. His one foray into big-budget filmmaking, on 2000’sThe Claim, soured him on mainstream studio work. The more money in play, he discovered, the more restrictions there were on what he was able to accomplish, and the further the film would drift from a certain strain of realism that’s always been important to him. (Part of the reason he would later turn down lucrative offers from Scott Rudin and Harvey Weinstein.) What the commitment to smaller-scale production has allowed him to do is pursue projects he is passionate about, and make them the way he wants, with an almost handmade aesthetic. Look at the bonus material on the DVD for In This World, a docu-fiction film about two Afghan refugees that won the Golden Bear at the 2002 Berlinale: there’s Winterbottom, alone with cinematographer Marcel Zyskind, shooting the principal actors at a petrol station somewhere in rural Iran. No one else seems to know they’re on a film set, or that art is happening.

Independent filmmakers are accustomed to working within their means, of course. But it doesn’t all have to do with money. Will higher production values make a story more interesting? No. Will a grittier, stripped-down approach make an underdeveloped character more charismatic? Of course not. More important to determine, a propos of Winterbottom’s example, is what a story actually requires. The last time we spoke, for a feature I was writing on his then-unfinished adaptation of Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me last year, I had a chance to ask him about this conundrum. What he said made a lot of sense: “If you’re trying to make a film that’s very organized and which will make clear to the audience exactly what the audience response should be at any given moment, then you can shoot in a more organized way. But I like the idea that when you start a film there’s a certain amount of freedom, that the actors have a certain amount of freedom, that the camera can respond to what’s happening in terms of the action rather than it all being pre-organized. If you work in that way, in a more improvised manner, then the film respects that, it will have elements of that within it, so the film itself will be open and looser. And that’s a choice you have to make. It depends on what type of cinema you like to make, what type of cinema you like to watch.”

“A Cock and Bull Story”

The first time I met Michael Winterbottom was on the phone in 2000, about a month before the U.S. release of his Gold Rush–era Western The Claim. My editor at The Boston Globe, where I was a new freelance arts journalist, asked me to interview the up-and-coming British director for a Sunday feature, telling me “he’s young, smart, talented, and definitely worth watching.” How prescient those words turned out to be! I didn’t know Winterbottom, really, but I was curious and eager to explore his work. So off I went to a movie-rental outpost in Cambridge, MA, that specialized in independent world cinema. These were the twilight days for VHS, with the latest blockbusters arriving on digital format almost daily, but video stores were still the best place to find art-house cinema outside of a movie theater. (Though it seems unthinkable today, Amazon was still in its infancy a decade ago, selling mostly books.) After an hour of ferreting around, I carted home four films: Butterfly KissJudeWelcome to Sarajevo, and Wonderland.

Watching these features in succession, a vague impression of Winterbottom’s directorial persona began to materialize, then slowly came into focus. I noticed how he borrowed elements of ’70s-era Ken Loach and Mike Leigh, especially in terms of the drab, everyday English locales he favored and in his preference for character-driven narratives. But he also had an iconoclastic, adventurous spirit. Butterfly Kiss, the gritty, not-so-chipper story of a serial-killing lesbian couple on the lam along England’s A1 highway, was shot in multiplex-defying black and white. Jude, an adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s downbeat novel of class aspiration, eschewed all the usual period-film conventions, like frilly costumes and high Victorian diction. It was anti-Merchant-Ivory, and all the better for it. Sarajevo, the real-life story of a British war reporter’s efforts to adopt an orphaned Bosnian child, tackled an urgent, up-to-the-minute subject without hand-wringing sentiment or gonzo bravado. And inWonderland, a visually stylized ensemble film shot throughout London (and still my personal favorite), Winterbottom scaled everything down, working with a bare-bones crew and using handheld cameras for the first time to capture the topsy-turvy experience of a working-class family over a long weekend. No film looked the same. Nor did it seem apparent what overarching theme might link these visceral dramas, which dealt in various ways with marginal character types. Winterbottom, I decided, was a change-up artist like Robert Wise or William Wyler, a confident craftsman working outside the confines of the studio, in the streets, where the action was.

Now that I’d gotten a handle on the filmmaker, my only dilemma concerned the instruction I’d received at the last minute from my enthusiastic, but slightly intimidating senior colleague at the Globe: I was to wait until the end of the interview and then quiz Winterbottom about a rumored dalliance with one of his A-list actresses. Reporters are supposed to ask nosy questions, I realized, but I’d always considered myself a serious-minded writer, and I didn’t have the stomach for such intrusive nonsense, nor, to be honest, much interest in the man’s private life. Besides, salacious tidbits were the specialty of tabloids like The Daily Mirror and theNew York Post, not a family paper with a storied history. So naturally I agreed, having no intention whatsoever to query the man about anything but his art and how he goes about making it.

As a result of having immersed myself in his oeuvre, our conversation turned out well. Winterbottom was sharp and articulate, eagerly discussing how reading about the waves of immigration to California in the 1870s had inspired him to put his actors (Stephen Dillane, Milla Jovovich) and crew through the paces and essentially reenact those experiences in the frigid climes of Alberta, Canada, for The Claim. I was intrigued by his fidelity to cinematic realism, which would become increasingly evident in subsequent films, especially those (like In This World or The Road to Guantánamo) that merge documentary techniques with scripted elements, or that allow for improvised dialogue within elaborately self-reflexive contexts (24 Hour Party People,Tristram Shandy). Remarking on how nimble and versatile I found him to be, working in different genres and visual styles, I asked how he connected the dots between his disparate theatrical films. (Winterbottom had previously toiled at Thames Television, helming Roddy Doyle’s four-part miniseries Family in 1994, an early achievement sadly still unavailable for home viewing in any format.) What he told me has, I think, remained a consistent feature of his outlook in the years since: “Is the story interesting? Do I want to work on this for a year, is the effort inevitably required to make the film going to feel like it’s worthwhile? I’m not trying to impose any other pattern than that.” And why should he? For a cinema allied with the everyday, as his tends to be, truth is found in the journey.

“On the Shoulders of Giants”

Any true creative mind looks to the past for inspiration. Isaac Newton famously noted that it was only by “standing on the shoulders of giants” like Descartes that he was able to see further than his scientific predecessors. Among literary practitioners, Harold Bloom has written about the “anxiety of influence”—that sense of needing to measure up to the canonical masters that can drive creativity (and also hinder it). For filmmakers, too, history can be thrillingly present and motivating. Think of Martin Scorsese and his great archive of lost classics; no one is more knowledgable or enthusiastic about world cinema history, and his meticulously crafted films seem to be in constant dialogue with that tradition. Or consider po-mo remix specialist Quentin Tarantino, who repurposes his favorite set-ups and conceits from obscure cult, underground, and chop-socky films, occasionally manufacturing something not merely hip and entertaining, but utterly singular, linguistically and otherwise. Both are patterning work after their personal idols, conscious of how their shot-making resonates with the past.

Michael Winterbottom is a wholly different film artist in this regard. The influences are more diffuse, for one. His introduction to New German Cinema at an Oxford film club apparently left a deep impression (is every Winterbottom film a Wenders-inspired road movie, or does it just seem that way?), yet there are very few direct references to other films in his oeuvre. (Only two come to mind: the townsfolk-hauling-a-house-over-a-frozen-mountain sequence in The Claim that echoes the infamous centerpiece of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo, and an extended shot of Perla Haney-Jardine catching glimpses of her dead mother as she scrambles through the strange, forbidding streets of an ancient Italian city in Genova, a neatly constructed homage of sorts to Nicholas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now.) Winterbottom doesn’t seem burdened with assessing his place in the canon, though. Nor does he seem preoccupied with what’s come before, as the quintessentially cinephilic directors mentioned above surely are. He simply forges ahead, making one film after the other, adapting his approach as needed.

That isn’t to say Winterbottom didn’t have models or mentors. Two filmmakers had a very important role in shaping his overall sensibility and approach to craft. The first was Lindsay Anderson (If…, O Lucky Man!), the boldly independent artistic talent (he directed for the theater as well) under whom Winterbottom apprenticed for a short while at the BBC (“fetching cups of tea,” as he’s often joked). Anderson’s most idiosyncratic films had an anarchic energy—they were free in the best sense, and felt vital to young Winterbottom as he set out on the path of his future career. But Anderson had a disputatious side as well. Critic David Thomson (The New Biographical Dictionary of Film) summed it up perfectly when he wrote, “The contradictoriness in Anderson’s personality was vigorous enough to prevent him from a filmmaking career that had any continuity… and his rather prickly talent [was never] fully expressed.” Winterbottom observed this first-hand, helping out on some of Anderson’s documentary projects in the mid 80s. And on some level, it made him realize that what he didn’t want to do was engage in the kinds of private battles that had exhausted this man’s energies and gotten in the way of his ability to make films.

By contrast, Winterbottom discovered an entirely new and invigorating ideal in the example of Swedish director Ingmar Bergman, about whom he made two hour-long television documentaries. He spent months watching the entire body of work—some 55 films—and interviewing the iconic filmmaker and his principal collaborators. Here was a man who had changed the face of cinema making small, intimate dramas with close friends and scant resources. Winterbottom admired the collaborative spirit Bergman brought from the theater, and was awed by his tireless work ethic and longevity: “You tend to associate Bergman with those chamber pieces like The Seventh Seal,” he told an interviewer in 1997, “and then you realize that those really began in the sixties, and he’d already been making films for twenty years.” I think the encounter was formative and helped determine Winterbottom’s future course. He didn’t look to Bergman’s cinema style so much as his way of working, and modeled his own activities thusly, seeking partners like producer Andrew Eaton, writer Frank Cottrell Boyce, and many others who would help him make movies on his own terms, as quickly and cheaply as possible. It was a way of turning the anxiety of influence on its head, and creating something closer to a template for modern independent filmmaking.


Written by eyemaster

November 24, 2010 at 6:10 pm

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