Michael Winterbottom on His New Drama About Syria, That Beatles Film and Why He Never Stops Working

Michael Winterbottom

The British filmmaker also discusses freedom of expression and how things are changing in the digital age.

Michael Winterbottom visited South Korea earlier in May for the Jeonju International Film Festival, the country's biggest indie fest that wrapped May 6 with record attendance of more than 98,300, according to organizers.

A retrospective of 10 films particularly spotlighted the prolific British filmmaker's documentary films and came in time for the 2017-18 South Korea-U.K. year of cultural exchange.

"It's an interesting time to come [to Korea], with the election and all the threats from Donald Trump to up from the North," said Winterbottom, who arrived in Jeonju a week before Moon Jae-in was elected as the successor of impeached former President Park Geun-hye. "Good luck," he added.

The Hollywood Reporter sat down with the 56-year-old who won the Golden Bear at the Berlin film festival in 2003 for In This World, a documentary-style drama tracing the journey of two Afghan refugees to London. Coming straight from the airport, he asked for some water and after just a few sips immediately started to discuss various topics.

Among other things, he told THR about freedom of expression, how things are changing in the digital age, why he can't stop working and his new project about Syria.

Your retrospective of 10 films here features mostly documentaries, but each is so different in subject matter and genre ...

Yes. Each film is different. It's different from writing, where it's more concrete. Where you're making a film about two refugees coming to Britain, for example [In This World], you have to understand the environment they're in, and you have to try to make it as real and simple [as possible in] a condensed version of their experience. Although it's different subjects — about refugees, about a band, about making love — the filmmaking is the same in that you're trying to record that experience.

Many of these films unfold like road movies ...

I like road movies; I like films that could be a sort of road movie [as well as] just comedies. I can shoot a Trip to Korea [like The Trip to Italy or The Trip].

Did you know that Jeonju is a UNESCO-designated gastronomy city?

Oh really? These films feature a lot of food, and I'm really here for the food (laughs).

You were supposedly working on an adaptation of The Longest Cocktail Party, about the Beatles and the breakup of Apple Corps, which Liam Gallagher's In1Productions was develop/producing. Is that happening?

I was working on script a few years ago, but they never had the rights to the Beatles music. This was two years ago, and as far as I know [from back then], the film might not be happening.

Speaking of music-inspired films, the festival is showing a director's-cut version of Nine Songs. What role does music play in the film?

I think music is very good at describing the feeling or emotion of being in love, and that films are very bad at doing that. Music is great at communicating. Nine Songs happens after a break-up, and the guy remembers the girl he was in love with and the concerts they went to together. Songs are better at being lyrical, but films want to be narrative and they want to usually have a happy ending. Songs capture a type of nostalgia, and happy endings with a love song are almost impossible.

About 10 minutes were cut when Nine Songs was released in South Korean theaters ...

The starting point for making the film is, well, we're trying to make it as simple as possible. I wanted [Nine Songs] to be as accurate as possible. Before the film, I did Code 46, which was a love story, and it was very fake. We make a film and you want it to be shown the way you make it, so showing the uncut version is great.

This year, Jeonju is heavily spotlighting the issue of artistic freedom — an issue that the Korean film industry and the general public alike have grappled with since the country's former president became implicated in a wide-scale blacklisting scandal that censored thousands of local artists. What are your thoughts on censorship?

It's harder in the beginning. Film's the most conservative, restrictive medium because you need someone to give you money for your very vague idea, and that is where the censorship comes in. Even if they agree to give you the money, the interference that comes in later as you're making it, it's unimaginable for a writer to have that much interference from the publisher or the musician from the record company. That's why I do a lot of films without scripts, so you can't have the argument.

Speaking of non-scripted films, many of your works blur the boundaries between fact and fiction.

I like the sort of boundary between what is fiction and what is real. In order to understand people's characters, to understand what kind of person they are, you need to understand the world around them as much as possible. [In In This World] they're sort of like fictional characters and are acting in a way; it's better to insert those fictional characters into real worlds, to capture their reactions and make filmmaking as transparent as possible. There is a sense of what is fiction, genuinely from that world. There are more possibilities watching how they behave; instead of through a scripted dialogue. It's a more observational approach.

For In This World, we searched, we met a lot of people who made the journey [from the Middle East to refugee camps]. The most numerous people at the time were Afghan refugees, so we decided to make them Afghan refugees, and most of them came from Pakistani camps. There were 1 million Afghan refugees, and we picked two refugees to be in our film. We organized their journey but let them react to this journey as themselves. We organized the journey, but the reaction was real.

You say you like try to control people's reactions to a situation. How does having a camera around affect this, if at all?

We're mixing things we control and don't control, like characters and the world that exists. There are more films like that these days because people are constantly filming with phones and posting versions of what you see. People behave less differently now in presence of cameras because of this. When we were shooting Wonderland, which was back before 2000 in Soho's busy restaurant and bar areas, we found that if we had a light and boom mics, people were conscious. But with only camera on the shoulder and wireless mics and no light, then people were not really different and they just carried on. They're so used to cameras that it affects them less.

Every day was shot over five years, and you can observe the daily life of a family and the change they experience. Can you talk a bit about the decision to do that?

One reason for wanting to make it is, when you do a fiction film, then you cast a 5-year-old actor, 10-year-old actor, and it's very fake. It felt like it'd be nice to do a film about a father in prison and his relationship with his family, and have the story unfold over a genuine period of time, instead of just cheating.

You've been very productive, making about one film per year. How do you keep up that pace of work?

The actual production period is just six to eight weeks. When you're editing one film you could be researching for another. So if you get into the right rhythm [it's possible]. In the 1960s, people did two to three [films per year]. Ingmar Bergman made 55 films a year while he was also running a theater. But these days, people don't want you to make more than one per year. It has to do with marketing more than making films. But if you're doing a simple film, it's possible.

There is this British filmmaker whom I really like, Lynne Ramsay, who is around my age but has made four films. So she had 32 weeks of filming in her whole career, in 30 years. I'd rather be making a film than sitting at home.

You've also worked in Hollywood, such as when you did Mighty Hot. Is it any different working with Hollywood capital?

Yes, they're not all documentaries. Mighty Hot is kind of a documentary. Each film is different, a very specific and concrete thing collaborating with different people. Because money comes from America, it doesn't become more difficult; and money coming from U.K. doesn't make it easier. For Mighty Hot, Brad Pitt was producing and Angelina Jolie was acting, so it was actually very easy.

Back in 2001, the cast of 24 Hour Party People made headlines by throwing stuffed pigeons at each other on the beach at Cannes. What happened there?

We went to Cannes twice for the film, first to promote it, and we shot parts of it, and then we showed it there [at the Cannes Film Festival]. The film is about people partying, and some of the crew behaved badly. (Chuckles).

Filming and being filmed has become part of daily life for many. How does this affect you, if at all, as a professional filmmaker?

Not in a purely formal way, the play between fiction and nonfiction, between control and non-control, between structure and non-structure. … It's more like music or writing; there are professional journalists, but then you have bloggers. You don't have a formal response to that, but it changes the landscape and the way you're being read. There is music playing in the streets and bars, but few people are selling records. There are lots of films around, and if you're lucky, you will get more people to watch them and be able to make a living.

In South Korea, there is a smartphone film festival that invites amateur filmmakers to submit films created with smartphones. How do you feel about the proliferation of digital culture? Are you watching things on YouTube?

I'm working all the time, so I don't watch things as much for pleasure. It's a good thing. The proliferation is a good thing; it's sometimes difficult though. Right now I'm doing a film about journalists. Twenty years ago, I did a film on Sarajevo journalists, and now I'm working on a film about journalists covering Syria. Some are blogging, some are not being paid, some are being funded by NGOs or military groups. There are more people uploading photos and blogging, but I'm not sure if journalism has gotten better. There are things that are coming out of Syria, but you don't know what is fact or not fact. Twenty years ago, there was a trust that there was fact coming out.

How far along are you with this new project?

I'm just researching now and not sure whether it will happen. I've spent about nine months talking to people, mostly British or Americans coming from Syria.

Speaking of the media, one American singer recently canceled his tour to South Korea because of "possible threats" from North Korea. Were you not deterred from coming here by what you heard in the news?

There is a lot of publicity in Britain and in America, I'm sure, about what is going on. It's usually what Trump is saying. What gets reported from other countries is from a particular angle.

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