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6 Filmmaking Tips from Michael Winterbottom

Take a trip through some lessons in loose and lively filmmaking.
Michael Winterbottom The Killer Inside Me
By  · Published on August 9th, 2017

Take a trip through some lessons in loose and lively filmmaking.

One of the most prolific and versatile filmmakers working today is Michael Winterbottom, and he’s one of the few constantly busy directors who is also an auteur. He dabbles in different genres and tones, true stories and fantastical fictions, adaptations and original ideas, but his movies are always distinctly his. Even when they seem to be totally driven by on-screen talent as commanding of attention as Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, who’ve now starred in three hilarious installments of the Winterbottom-helmed The Trip franchise (the latest is The Trip to Spain, out this Friday).

Below are some tips gleaned from interviews with Winterbottom over the years, and they’re great lessons for any filmmaker who admires his ability to stay so independent and productive and creative in spite of being very inconsistently popular from project to project.

Work for Free

Nobody likes the idea of working for nothing, but if you do it right, working for free doesn’t mean you don’t get something in return. The payment comes in the form of experience or the doors it opens or opportunities it leads to. At least that’s what I think Winterbottom is getting at in his advice for young filmmakers, as shared with Ideas Tap in 2012:

“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.”

Michael Winterbottom directs Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon on the set of ‘Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story’

Truth vs. Fiction

“You can’t tell the truth unless you make it a fiction” — Simon Ford (Kate Beckinsale) in Winterbottom’s The Face of an Angel.

Winterbottom primarily works in dramatic cinema, but he does often blur lines of truth and fiction by dealing with real events and real people. For instance, The Road to Guantanamo can be labeled a documentary, but it also entails so much reenactment of such high production value that it’s a literal hybrid. He also likes to have celebrities play fictionalized versions of themselves (Coogan mainly) for whole movies where that’s typically just done for cameos.

In a Master Class Q&A at the 2012 Göteborg International Film Festival, he was asked about his regular interest in current events and real modern global issues, some of which are directly based on true stories (A Mighty Heart) and others entailing dramatic license (The Face of an Angel, which is inspired by the Amanda Knox story). Winterbottom discusses that interest and why filmmaking is the same whether you’re working with truth or fiction:

Don’t Censor Yourself

Winterbottom’s 9 Songs might be one of his worst-reviewed features (as well as one of his lowest-rated on IMDb), but it’s one of his most interesting. The bare-narrative film is about a long-distance couple and is comprised of their memories of attending concerts and making love. And both the live music shows and the sex are real. Due to the latter, obviously a lot of people called the movie pornographic and saw little chance of it being released. But it did show in theaters, and Winterbottom saw a point made in that. He told the BBC in 2005:

“[We] thought, OK, let’s do a movie about two people making love. One of the starting points of ‘9 Songs’ was: why do films NOT show sex? So many films are love stories, so why not show a love story through two people making love? Why is it that you avoid two people making love when you do a love story? It seems perverse…when we started making it, people said to us: “You’re stupid, and one of the reasons you’re stupid is that you won’t be able to show it in cinemas, so why make it? You won’t be able to sell it in Virgin or HMV, so why make it?” So from that point of view it’s great that the BBFC has released it. Weirdly, it shows that filmmakers have been censoring themselves much more than the BBFC has been censoring them!”

Should the idea carry over into other things besides sex acts? He played coy when also discussing the issue of lovemaking being censored to The Age the same year:

“It’s not as if actors don’t have to do intimate things on film,” he points out. “They might be in bed together they might be kissing they might be stroking each other’s bodies they might be naked. There’s a whole set of rules, and boundaries, about how to do it.

“So it’s very hard to get any feeling of honesty or feel like you’re capturing anything that could be equivalent to the intimacy involved in making love to someone you love. Obviously there are thousands of films and love stories that succeed in creating that impression, but I thought it was interesting to try to capture the intimacy of them really making love, rather than pretending to.”

He’s less forthcoming, however, about whether the scenes in which the couple snort lines of cocaine were real or simulated.

“I think ‘No comment’ is my response to that,” he says with a laugh. “I’ve got enough problems as it is.”

Michael Winterbottom directs ‘9 Songs’

Script vs. No Script

9 Songs had no script at all, and many of Winterbottom’s other movies have little to none. That’s something of a luxury for a filmmaker to have that level of freedom and be trusted by financiers to shoot without a firm plan. It’s also not for everyone, as many directors like more order and prep. But here’s what he told A.V. Club in 2011 on why a lack of a script is better:

“When you’re working with a script and you have three pages for that day, you have to shoot that. It can become sort of like a prison, because by the time you’ve shot what you need to shoot, you don’t really have time to think or shoot anything else. The great thing about not having a script is there’s nothing you have to shoot that day. When you start filming, you can shoot anything you want. There’s no pressure to shoot anything. Whatever interests you that day is what you’re shooting. That’s a big liberation that makes it more enjoyable and more relaxed. I think if you have that kind of framework it can make it a much more satisfying thing to work on and to watch as well.”

And it’s not just about not having pre-written dialogue. Here he concisely puts it to the New Statesman in 2016, talking of the difference between Notting Hill and Wonderland, that pre-planning in general results in a more artificial movie:

“As soon as you go in and control everything, you’re destroying the essence of what London is. If you want to catch what normal life is like, you have to work in quite a small way, a hand-held way, in real places.”

Michael Winterbottom directs Angelina Jolie for ‘A Mighty Heart’

Don’t Over-Direct the Actors

Winterbottom makes a lot of movies that involve improvisation, which certainly implies that he gives actors a lot of freedom. You’d still think, though, that he offers them a lot of notes on what’s working and what’s not, or whether he needs a different tone from them in a scene. According to what he says below in a film workshop appearance at Oxford in 2013 (all of which is worth watching), that’s not the case. Hear why he thinks directors should back off from being too instructional, whether there’s improv or not:

Serious vs. Funny

It’s no shocker that Winterbottom’s most popular efforts are his films in the Trip trilogy (put out as miniseries in the UK). They’re hilarious and don’t make you think too much about the problems going on in the world that the director often deals in, like war and terrorism and tragic love stories. But Winterbottom doesn’t see The Trip and its sequels as just a lighter alternative to his more serious stuff or a stark contrast to them. Last fall, he told El País:

“At times you have to focus on fun and happy stuff and at other times you have to look at the darker side of things. Then there are the gray areas in between. For instance, I like working with Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon because they tackle the serious side of life but in a funny way.”

Michael Winterbottom directs a scene for ‘The Road to Guantanamo’

What We’ve Learned

Winterbottom makes a lot of movies, so maybe he doesn’t have a lot of time for idle chatter, or even seemingly substantial chatter. That is to say, many of the tips above follow a theme of things speaking for themselves. Don’t worry about what classifications your films fall under, with regards to genre or ratings or whatever. Don’t worry about writing your idea out ahead of time before shooting. Don’t worry about having to explain what you want from the actors.

I leave you with one last bonus tip that goes along with that general idea of not having to expound on what you’re saying, particularly with the movies you make. From a 2010 Time Out London interview:

“I don’t like films that are made to teach you lessons. It’s a difficult area because you can start talking a lot of pretentious nonsense if you are not careful. I think you should make films and you shouldn’t talk about films afterwards.”

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.