He goes his own way

An independent's day at the Jerusalem Film Festival.

Michael Winter 88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Michael Winter 88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy)
You've heard of Michael Winterbottom, the British director who was here this week to receive the Achievement Award of the Jerusalem Film Festival, but you may not remember which films he's directed. Is Winterbottom, 47, the one who made A Mighty Heart, the movie based on the memoir by Mariane Pearl, the widow of Daniel Pearl, the Jewish Wall Street Journal correspondent who was murdered by Islamic terrorists in Pakistan, which starred Angelina Jolie in the lead? He is. Did he direct that controversial rock movie, Nine Songs, in which a young couple meets at a concert and proceeds to have a great deal of unsimulated sex (and also listen to those songs mentioned in the title)? He did. What about that documentary, The Road to Guantanamo, which won the Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival in 2006? Yes, that was his, too. And then there's Wonderland, the 1999 drama about three working-class sisters in London; In This World, the saga of two Afghanis who try to go to England in the aftermath of 9/11, which won the Golden Bear at Berlin; 24 Hour Party People, a feature film about the innovative Manchester movie scene from the 1970s to the '90s, with music by Joy Division and other artists; and Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, a filmed version of the unfilmable novel by Laurence Sterne, which one character describes as "a post-modern novel before there was modernism"; Welcome to Sarajevo, a feature film about a reporter in Bosnia in the '90s who is so appalled by the carnage by the Serbs that he helps an orphan to flee; and Code 46, a science fiction film that has been described as Brief Encounter in a dystopian future? Right. They are all by him. The man behind this varied body of work is low-key and soft-spoken, a filmmaker who uses his intelligence to make the films he wants to - 16 in the past 14 years - mainly outside the studio system. Often, they concern complex subjects that are difficult to make a movie about, but for Winterbottom, the problems come with the territory. Making A Mighty Heart presented several issues, most of which came from the fact that Winterbottom was filming the story of a recent tragedy and that many of those involved wanted to have input. "It's a little bit complicated when you do a story where most of the people are still around," he says, speaking with diplomacy about some of the criticism leveled against the movie by Judea Pearl, Daniel Pearl's father, who said, "Nowhere in the movie was the concept of good and evil, of right and wrong." "It was really Mariane's story," Winterbottom says, acknowledging that there were aspects of the film that did not have the emphasis Pearl's parents would have liked. He did work with them, to a certain extent, to portray the family's involvement as they wished it to be shown. "Their emotional connection to the subject was so strong. Obviously we spent a lot of time trying to make sure that everybody who was involved with the film was happy with it... I think that having a child is the most intimate relationship you can have... I understand that their [Pearl's parents'] sense was that the story was not theirs as much as it could have been." A Mighty Heart is one of three films he has made about the immediate aftermath of 9/11. When he was approached by Jolie's partner, Brad Pitt, to direct A Mighty Heart, his only reluctance was that he had worked so much in Pakistan in recent years and was looking forward to making his next film in relatively easy conditions in Italy (just for the record, Winterbottom is so unassuming that he can actually say Brad and Angelina so casually that you might think they were just another producer and actress). He chose to make The Road to Guantanamo Bay in 2006 because, "the media was endlessly showing these images of the detainees at Guantanamo Bay. They were very shocking. But then people got used to it and stopped being shocked." The film focuses on three detainees. Winterbottom hoped that their stories would help dispel "the mythology that these are the most dangerous people in the world. Pearl was captured and killed to terrorize people and the detainees in Guantanamo were used as an image that would frighten the world as well." And almost immediately after 9/11, just as America was beginning the war in Afghanistan, he headed off to make In This World in Pakistan, along the Afghan border, where he used a cast of non-professionals to look at the experience of residents of Afghanistan who were desperately trying to flee to Britain, the kind of people who might find themselves in Guantanamo not long after. You might think that after doing these films, Winterbottom would want to make a romantic comedy in Paris or something of the sort, but that's not the case. Instead, he came here about a month ago, researching material for a film about the British Mandate period, particularly the 1930s, because "1948 is the era most things focus on. I was very keen to go back because it's a very different situation, 1936," he said. "You've got the Arab revolt and you've got incredibly brutal actions by the British against the Arabs... We've done some archive research and you've got British newsreels saying they've done collective punishments, where they would round up all the men and select some of them and just shoot them, which was a punishment for collaborating with the rebels." While he continues to research this historical period, he is at work on two other projects. One is a documentary based on the book by Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine, about how countries stunned and crippled by disasters have been manipulated and exploited for profit. Another is a gangster story, based on a novel by cult-noir author David Goodis. This one will be set in Manchester and will feature a cast of black actors. Although it isn't a music film per se, Winterbottom may end up casting some black musicians. "There just isn't that big a pool of young, black actors," he explains. "But there are many great black musicians." Winterbottom, who grew up in a small town, joined a film club at the local library and began to become fascinated with film. "There was an old 16-mm. projector, where the projector made as much noise as the film. The new German cinema was popular then - Herzog, Fassbinder, Wenders... It was quite exotic to watch these films." Then, when he went to study film at Bristol University after a stint at Oxford, he began meeting directors and starting thinking seriously about a career in movies. He's never looked back - he hasn't had time to. "I make movies about whatever seems interesting," he says. "It doesn't matter why I'm interested or what I'm interested in. But there's an original idea, and then you spend a couple of years working on it." Reminded of a moment in Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story in which the moviemakers portrayed in the film ask each other why they want to spend a year of their life working on this film (their answer is, "Because it's funny"), he says, "We all have that moment. But it's how often you have that moment." At any given time, he's working on several projects, since he doesn't know which ones he'll be able to make in the end. And although Hollywood offers have come his way now and then, he's not interested, although A Mighty Heart was made with financing from a division of Paramount. Collaborating with the studio went smoothly, but in the long run he prefers to stay in the realm of independents. "You either make the film that you want to make, or you make the film that they want to make. I want to make the film that I want to make, in the way we want to make it, and therefore accept that you're outside of the mainstream studio system," he says.