British director Michael Winterbottom has made 17 feature films in 15 years, including 24 Hour Party People, 9 Songs and Trishna. He’s shot all over the world, worked in every genre thinkable, and has operated on massive and tiny budgets. He tells Tom Seymour what he’s learned throughout his career...
You’ve made 17 feature films in 15 years. How have you managed to sustain such a momentum?
My basic motivation is it’s more fun making a movie than it is trying to raise finance for a film. I have my own company – Revolution Films – and if we have an idea we very quickly try and develop that into a script, and we immediately try and get money for it. There’s only a few of us, but it’s very different to working completely off your own back. When you make a film, your conversations are with actors and writers and cameramen. When you’re not making a film, you spend your time talking to financiers. I’d rather make a film.
Is there a teachable craft to raising finance for a film?
Raising finance, to a large degree, is pot-luck, but having a relationship with a producer is good. When you run a company timing can become incredibly problematic. If your company is full of people working on separate projects, you’re never sure what’s going to take off next.
We combat that by picking our best idea and then actively acting like the film is being made. Often enough, if people think you’re definitely making a film, that can encourage them to put some money towards it. Sometimes we’ve gone into pre-production and even production without having all the finance in place. You have to sustain it yourself and hope it all comes together. You have to be willing to commit to a project yourself if you’re asking other people to commit to the project.
Films like Trishna (pictured), Code 46, A Mighty Heart and 9 Songs are renowned for the quality of location shooting. Why is location shooting important to you?
You want to create a world that exists beyond your characters, so location is incredibly important. It’s not just about how the film looks; you’re creating the world in which your characters live. If that world doesn’t convince, you’re hobbling your characters. I make quite intimate stories, and to understand the character, you have to understand the way their society works.
I like the idea of putting fictional characters into worlds that exist. The guy that plays Trishna’s father; we used his house in the film. We used his jeep in the first act, we filmed his family going about their day. By using a real world very specifically, it allowed Freida Pinto to come in and understand who she is, and how she fits in that family.
How have you changed as a director since your first film, Butterfly Kiss?
I think I’ve gone on a trajectory where I can now make things that are as simple and small and easy as possible. I prefer to work with small crews, and I learned that pretty quickly. When we started out we worked with safe people – the same producers, the same crew – and it worked really well. When we worked on Jude we had a crew of about 100 people. You don’t know most of them, and most of them don’t know you. You’ve only got six or seven weeks, and each day costs a stack of money. That’s a very stressful way of working.
On Trishna we had 15 or 20 of us, and 15 of them were people I’ve known for years and worked with for several films. That makes it a lot easier; it’s more relaxed, and it doesn’t cost as much. We often work without a script, and that lets you shoot what you want to shoot.
What’s your advice to young filmmakers?
The first film I made was Butterfly Kiss. I worked on it for six months and didn’t get paid. That was the same for the writer and producer, but we did it to get our name out there, and a year later we were working on Jude.
We did 9 Songs with a crew of four or five people over a period of three or four months for a very low budget. We did In This World with a crew of eight or nine people and we travelled from Pakistan through to Britain over a period of two or three months. Once you’re there, it somehow works. There are always people enthusiastic enough to work on your film, and with the technology available these days, there’s little excuse.
Trishna is out on DVD now.
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