Q&A: Michael Winterbottom


Michael WInterbottom's adaptation of "The Killer Inside Me," penned for the big screen by John Curran and based on a novel by sometime Stanley Kubrick scriptwriter Jim Thompson brings up more than two decades for the filmmaker in the director's chair. His vision of a West Texas deputy sheriff slowly unmasked as a psychotic killer ruffled feathers when it unspooled in Sundance last month because of its graphic depictions of murder and violence, particularly towards women. Winterbottom, a festival circuit doyen with Golden and Silver Bear awards from Berlin already on his shelves, talks to The Hollywood Reporter's U.K. bureau chief Stuart Kemp about adapting a work with Kubrick's shadow over it, working with Casey Affleck, Jessica Alba, Kate Hudson and Bill Pullman, and the bloody question of screen violence.

The Hollywood Reporter: How did you come to this project?

Michael Winterbottom: I read the book. We had been working a little bit on a gangster film set in Manchester [England]. About that time, I read [Jim] Thompson's book and thought it would be perfect to do it [the book] as it is [on film]. We [Winterbottom and producer partner Andrew Eaton] looked into who had the rights and found out two U.S. producers Chris Hanley and Brad Schlei had them. We got in touch and they said they had been trying to make it for 12 years or so so we met with them, I said I was interested in directing a film version and we put it together with them.

THR: First time you've shot a film in America? How did you find the experience?

Winterbottom: It was good. There was a lot of hanging around waiting for the money to come through because it was such an independent film. We shot in Oklahoma, right in middle America. The actual shoot was good because it is such a good cast. It was quite a simple shoot and no different to shooting in the U.K. or even Afghanistan for that matter.

THR: The casting for "The Killer Inside Me" has been described as brilliant in several notices. How involved were you in choosing your leading men and women?

Winterbottom: We worked with a U.S. casting director. They [the U.S. producers] sent me John's [Curran] script and I just slightly amended it to bring it back to the original novel because I wanted to make a film as close to the source book as possible. The first person we cast was Casey [Affleck] as Lou Ford, and everyone else was cast around that afterwards.

THR: You've directed everything from literary adaptations to science fiction, comedy to family drama. Why film noir?

Winterbottom: It was really just by chance rather than design. To be honest, I made "Butterfly Kiss" about a female serial killer, so it wasn't that new to me. In both cases the killers and their relationships were both similarly crazy in some shape or form while being in love with the things they wanted to destroy.

THR: Stanley Kubrick, for whom Jim Thompson wrote "The Killing" and "Paths of Glory," famously described the novel as "probably the most chilling and believable first-person story of a criminally warped mind I have ever encountered." Was it intimidating as a filmmaker approaching something with a Kubrick connection?

Winterbottom: It's a good recommendation and a very sensible idea by the publishers to put Kubrick's quote on the cover [of the novel]. It wasn't like we tried to remake a Kubrick film. It's not really that connected to Kubrick. I don't think Jim Thompson had an altogether comfortable relationship with Kubrick, for what it's worth.

THR: There has already been a film made of the novel. Is it correct you didn't watch it before you made yours and if so why not?

Winterbottom:  I didn't realize there had been a film until I met with [producer Chris] Hanley and when I found out, I deliberately didn't watch it. I still haven't watched it. I wanted the film to be very literal to the book and I didn't want to remake any film.

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THR: Your movie has had press plaudits in the U.K. Did you bring any "Britishness" to the very American material?

Winterbottom: Not consciously. You make the film how you see it and the aim was to try and make the film as faithful to the book as possible.

THR: How was working with Casey Affleck, Jessica Alba, Kate Hudson and Bill Pullman?

Winterbottom: Everyone [in the cast] knew it was a low budget indie film shooting in Oklahoma with no frills. They were all great. Casey [Affleck] is in almost every shot and certainly every scene so he was there all day, every day and the others came in for a couple of days at a time and did their scenes. So each day was Casey plus one, but it was easy from my point of view [as director] because I just got to concentrate on the performances.

THR: "The Killer Inside Me" had its world premiere at Sundance and ruffled a few feathers over its shocking violence. How do you see it?

Winterbottom: [Novelist] Jim Thompson is writing a noir so you know there is going to be murder and violence. I found the book very violent and very shocking when I read it, especially when you think it was written in 1952. There is an area of film noir where it can be quite tender and you feel for the killer. But here the violence is shocking and Lou Ford is killing the people closest to him and who love him. It makes you think about what's wrong with the world and made you think about the shocking violence. I think it's more moral to show violence as shocking and horrifying than it being made to appear pleasurable.

THR: You've been quoted in the past that as a filmmaker you don't feel you should be restricted in the same way authors enjoy freedom to express their stories when it comes to sex ["9 Songs"]. Does the same go for violence?

Winterbottom: It's a different situation with "9 Songs". That [project] was a frustration with the way you had to handle sex in films at the time. In this case ["Killer Inside"] it wasn't about finding a book that had violence I could portray. For me this is fiction and is a film of a book told by a guy who is the killer. It's in no way naturalistic (like "9 Songs').

THR: You've enjoyed a lot of success with your previous movies in Berlin. Is it a festival you always feel confident about taking your films to?

Winterbottom: It's a great festival, one of the three big ones. It's really always a great audience made up of people who love cinema.

THR: Are there any other movies in the Berlinale you'll be hoping to see?

Winterbottom: Our film is right at the end so we're probably only going to be able to get there the day before so maybe one of two things.

THR: Future projects?

Winterbottom: We're trying to do this thing "Promised Land" with Jim Sturgess in it this year. It's about two British police chasing two Jewish underground operatives and one from each gets assassinated. We're hoping to shoot in Israel in the summer.