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A picaresque jaunt with Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon one minute, an Indian Tess of the D’Urbervilles the next … director Michael Winterbottom is fast, prolific and versatile.
by Alexander Bisley
Mark Chilvers/Rex Features
ex without love is an empty experience. But as empty experiences go, it’s one of the best.” In Michael Winterbottom’s new comedy, The Trip, Annie Hall’s zinger resonates memorably via a Steve Coogan impression. The British film director, on a bad line from London, confirms he’s a Woody Allen fan. Winterbottom’s ex-wife, Sabrina Broadbent, followed their 13-year marriage with Descent, a novel about the decline of a woman’s relationship with her workaholic film-maker husband. That’s rather Manhattan, isn’t it? I suggest. “Possibly,” says Winterbottom, laughing genially. This affable bloke is known for working swiftly and his words arrive in a muffled rat-a-tat-tat. Starting with 1995’s lesbian serial killer anti-thriller Butterfly Kiss, he has made 19 films in 17 years, and is lauded for his versatility: from literary western (The Claim, 2000) to polemical documentary (The Shock Doctrine, 2009), via lively Madchester music biopic (24 Hour
Party People, 2002), Britain’s most sexually explicit non-porno ever filmed (9 Songs, 2004) and a Colin Firth domestic weepie (Genova, 2008). Frequent Winterbottom collaborator Coogan told Slate: “He always does something bold and different. He’s not lazy. He’s not interested in repeating himself. He likes to take a risk creatively, and I suppose I’ve got a very good relationship with him. He takes me slightly outside my comfort zone, which I strangely like. I like sort of discomfort.” he Trip, screening at this year’s New Zealand International Film Festival, follows Coogan and fellow actor and comedian Rob Brydon (as his plusone) through a week touring the north of England reviewing restaurants for the Observer. With Coogan and Brydon playing exaggerated versions of themselves, the awkward, semi-auto biographical comedy brings Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm to mind. Curb wasn’t an influence, though: “I like Curb Your Enthusiasm, but not
really, to be honest,” says Winterbottom. He counters that most stand-up involves a comedian riffing on a biographically influenced persona, adding that The Trip’s genesis was while making Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story (2005). “One day, it was raining, so we couldn’t shoot the 18th-century section,” says Winter bottom. It was particularly enjoyable improvising with Coogan and Brydon as they played versions of themselves as 18th-century noblemen, musing on topics such as Brydon’s discoloured teeth. “Every one was very relaxed, free to talk about what they wanted to talk about, mess around.” He designed The Trip’s picaresque structure to further unleash the duo’s digressive spirits and let them “range over any areas they want, free to ramble”. Coogan and Brydon take to the freedom with gusto. More William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge (“their friendship, their creativity, their drug-taking”) than Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy
Listener July 16 2011
Michael Winterbottom and his movies – from top, Butterfly Kiss, 24 Hour Party People, 9 Songs, The Killer Inside Me.
follow-up, A Sentimental Journey, they travel around the charming Lake District, interspersing impressions of Al Pacino and Michael Caine with recitals of Romantic poetry, including Dejection: An Ode and The Pains of Sleep. Over dinner, Coogan sends up his art-house ambitions. “I don’t work with mainstream Hollywood directors. I work with auteurs.” Later that night, Ben Stiller appears to him in a dream, reeling off job offers, including a project with both Scotts – Ridley and Tony: “They want to do a thing with you. It’s in the future; it’s 500 years in the past.” Coogan, star of the terrific, underappreciated Saxondale TV series, is frustrated by the popularity of Brydon’s “Small Man Trapped in a Box” routine. This culminates when an elderly staffer won’t let Coogan into Wordsworth’s Dove Cottage near closing time but relents when Brydon shows up and signs an autograph for her grandson. “Old people – not all of them, a lot of them – seek out aggravation,” Coogan vents with precise comic timing.
July 16 2011 listener
He peppers the bromantic couple’s haute Although an art-house favourite, Winter cuisine dining with calls to his agent and bottom is open to Hollywood projects. He American girlfriend, Mischa (played by turned down producer Harvey Weinstein’s Margo Stilley). “I wanted to show Mischa US$1.5m offer to direct Good Will Hunting the north, show her a part of me,” he (not buying the protagonist’s genius), but says. Mischa has called time out on their worked successfully with him on Welcome relationship, but still worries Coogan will to Sarajevo (1997), which fictionalised the be sleeping with waitresses. “I’m with a memoir of Michael Nicholson, an ITN telshort Welshman who does impressions,” evision journalist who smuggled a child he ripostes. away from the besieged city. Blackburn-born Winterbottom sides Winterbottom’s most moving film, A with Coogan in his continued debate Mighty Heart (2007), is about another jourwith Brydon concerning the north’s full- nalist: the Karachi-set docudrama vividly spectrum superiority to Wales. “I’m from portrays the January 2002 kidnapping the north. I haven’t lived there for a long and murder of reporter Daniel Pearl by time, though.” Islamist terrorists. WinHe didn’t sample the terbottom made it because He didn’t sample he has an ongoing interest gastronomy on offer while the gastronomy making The Trip, such as in the challenges journalthe duck-fat lollipops ists face. “Committed, on offer. “The garnished with peanuts on-the-ground journalists crew and I had Coogan and Brydon eat like Daniel Pearl are essena sandwich at the Michelin-starred tial for us to know what’s elsewhere L’Enclume. “I don’t eat happening in places like afterwards.” nuts,” he says. “We were Pakistan and Libya.” shooting quickly. The With In This World crew and I had a sandwich elsewhere (2002) and The Road to Guantanamo (2006), the film completes a trio afterwards.” investigating the Afghanistan-Pakistan interbottom is buoyant about region. the comic duo, particularly I ask Winterbottom if he regrets the Coogan, with whom he’s devel- prolonged revolting ultra-violence in last oping a biopic of the late porn baron Paul year’s controversial neo-noir film The Raymond. “Steve’s a very subtle comedian. Killer Inside Me, in which Casey Affleck He’s constantly thinking about, improving graphically pummels Jessica Alba’s face to “stewed hamburger meat”. “No,” he says, and improvising comic ideas.” Better than working with Tim Robbins sincerely standing his ground. “It’s about on Code 46? “No comment,” says Win- how horrible it is, how wasteful it is, how terbottom, chuckling heartily. Reportedly disgusting it is.” – in conflict with Winterbottom’s mateThe director of Jude (1996) has just rially minimalist, down-to-earth ethos – returned from India, where he is adaptduring shooting of the 2003 science- ing Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles fiction thriller in the Dubai dessert, Rob- (“I love Hardy”) as the contemporary bins’s orders included a bodyguard and Trishna. Slumdog Millionaire’s Freida Pinto fresh sushi. Co-star Samantha Morton plays Trishna; the similarly charismatic said at the time: “My relationship with Riz Ahmed (The Road to Guantanamo, Four Tim Robbins was pretty bad. Tim’s so dif- Lions) plays the male lead, Jay. ferent from the way we all are. I don’t The affection with which Winterbottom think he’d done his research into how talks about Ahmed, Brydon and Coogan Michael shoots and so he was unhappy is reflected in The Trip’s entertaining rumicreatively.” nation on middle age. Turning 50 this year was a “philosophical starting point”, he says, The Trip laughing. As our interview ends, it’s morning in London and this most prolific of British directors is off, no doubt with more filmmaking to get stuck into. ❚
NEW Z EALAND INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL, various locations and dates, from July 14. See www.nzff. co.nz for details.