The Film Interview: Michael Winterbottom

The director talks about adapting Naomi Klein -- and the morality of on-screen violence.

Michael Winterbottom is the director of Welcome to Sarajevo, 24 Hour Party People and The Road to Guantanamo. He spoke to the NS about his documentary adaptation of Naomi Klein's book The Shock Doctrine - and responded to criticism of his most recent fiction film, The Killer Inside Me

The Shock Doctrine argues that since the 1970s, the US and its allies have used global crises ranging from the Pinochet coup in Chile to Hurricane Katrina to impose their extreme version of free market economics. What did you hope to do with a film that couldn't be done in the book?

I thought that it was a great book and one that covers a huge area, so it was interesting from my point of view to make an archive documentary.

Naomi's book spreads over 30 years and across different continents, so it was a mammoth job. But one of the things that appealed about The Shock Doctrine was that there was a relatively small group of characters who you could follow over the course of those years.

One of these "characters" is the economist Milton Friedman. Early on, Klein describes his contention that free market economics go hand in hand with democracy as a "fairytale". That suggests the film is really about competing versions of history.

Naomi's argument is against what she perceives as the dominant narrative, the dominant idea. The events she picks out span my adult life. For me it was about making people see them in a different light -- especially the war in Iraq and how it has connections to Chile in the 1970s.

Milton Friedman seemed extreme at the time of Thatcher's election, but the last Labour government seemed to be living under the same ideology as Thatcher. It is important to show alternatives.

Do alternative narratives appeal to you as a film-maker?

People want a story. So you're not really questioning a narrative when you make a film, you're trying to find one.

Your other film currently on release is The Killer Inside Me, an adaptation of Jim Thompson's novel about a murderer in small-town Texas. What do you make of the criticism that its depiction of violence, particularly when directed at the female characters, is too extreme?

Obviously everyone is entitled to their opinion on a film. It's easy to make the criticism that the film is in some way promoting or supporting violence, but it's just wrong.

I don't think anyone will go and see that film and think Lou Ford [the murderer] is a man to copy. It's a film about his weakness and his violence -- and these are horrible. It is a violent world, men do these things to women and I think you should be allowed to make films about that as long as they are honest.

Even if people criticise me, it would be far worse to make a film that casually shows violence or says it's OK. I think those things are immoral. If you show violence as brutal then it's moral.

Were you making a conscious attempt to reclaim violence from its casual portrayal in many mainstream films?

The starting point was to make a film of Jim Thompson's book. I think it's a great portrait of a weak, crazy, horrible killer. And to be honest, it's not as though the violence is visually that explicit compared to a lot of films. But it's about someone killing people who love him, so it's the emotional content that people are reacting to.

Feminist critics such as Natasha Walter objected to what they perceived as the suggestion that women in those sort of relationships somehow like being abused.

I don't think that is the case. In the case of Amy [Lou's girlfriend], within the story -- and we are taking a story, not making a film about domestic violence -- it's true that Amy does forgive Lou. There's a letter where Amy says she worries about what was done but still loves him. Everyone knows that in violent relationships, people do endure it for long amounts of time.

But the story is told by Lou himself. All the other characters, men and women, are only seen from Lou's point of view and only insofar as they affect Lou. It is a first-person film and Lou is the only person you really get inside the head of. All the other characters are one-dimensional.

What is the common thread running through your films, from fiction to the more politically engaged documentaries?

I just try and make films that I'm interested in. We have a rough idea, we develop them and make them. The only thing for me is whether the idea is interesting: am I going to spend three or four years trying to make it?

The Shock Doctrine is released on DVD on 19 July by Dogwoof. The Killer Inside Me is in cinemas now

Special subscription offer: Get 12 issues for £12 plus a free copy of Andy Beckett's "When the Lights Went Out".

Daniel Trilling is the Editor of New Humanist magazine. He was formerly an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

BBC
Show Hide image

Would the BBC's Nazi drama SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago?

This alternate history is freighted with meaning now we're facing the wurst-case scenario. 

Would SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago? Though the clever-after-the-fact Nostradamus types out there might disagree, I can’t believe that it would. When it comes to the Second World War, after all, the present has helpfully stepped in where memory is just beginning to leave off. The EU, in the process of fragmenting, is now more than ever powerless to act in the matter of rogue states, even among its own membership. In case you hadn’t noticed, Hungary, for instance, is already operating as a kind of proto-fascist state, led by Viktor Orbán, a man whom Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, jokingly likes to call “the dictator” – and where it goes, doubtless others will soon follow.

The series (Sundays, 9pm), adapted from Len Deighton’s novel, is set in 1941 in a Britain under Nazi occupation; Winston Churchill has been executed and the resistance is struggling to hold on to its last strongholds in the countryside. Sam Riley plays Douglas Archer, a detective at Scotland Yard, now under the control of the SS, and a character who appears in almost every scene. Riley has, for an actor, a somewhat unexpressive face, beautiful but unreadable. Here, however, his downturned mouth and impassive cheekbones are perfect: Archer, after all, operates (by which I mean, barely operates) in a world in which no one wants to give their true feelings away, whether to their landlady, their lover, or their boss, newly arrived from Himmler’s office and as Protestant as all hell (he hasn’t used the word “degenerate” yet, but he will, he will).

Archer is, of course, an ambiguous figure, neither (at present) a member of the resistance nor (we gather) a fully committed collaborator. He is – or so he tells himself – merely doing his job, biding his time until those braver or more foolhardy do something to restore the old order. Widowed, he has a small boy to bring up. Yet how long he can inhabit this dubious middle ground remains to be seen. Oskar Huth (Lars Eidinger), the new boss, is keen to finish off the resistance; the resistance, in turn, is determined to persuade Archer to join its cause.

It’s hard to find fault with the series; for the next month, I am going to look forward to Sunday nights mightily. I would, I suppose, have hoped for a slightly more charismatic actress than Kate Bosworth to play Barbara Barga, the American journalist who may or may not be involved with the British resistance. But everything else seems pretty perfect to me. London looks suitably dirty and its inhabitants’ meals suitably exiguous. Happiness is an extra egg for tea, smoking is practically a profession, and
the likes of Archer wear thick, white vests.

Swastikas adorn everything from the Palace of Westminster to Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace is half ruined, a memorial to what the Germans regard as Churchill’s folly, and the CGI is good enough for the sight of all these things to induce your heart to ache briefly. Nazi brutality is depicted here as almost quotidian – and doubtless it once was to some. Huth’s determination to have four new telephone lines installed in his office within the hour is at one end of this horrible ordinariness. At the other is the box in which Archer’s mutinous secretary Sylvia (Maeve Dermody) furiously stubs out her fag, full to the brim with yellow stars.

When I first heard about The Kettering Incident (Tuesdays, 12.20am; repeated Wednesdays, 10pm) I thought someone must have found out about that thing that happened one time I was driving north on the M1 with a more-than-usually terrible hangover. Turns out it’s a new Australian drama, which comes to us on Sky Atlantic. Anna (Elizabeth Debicki), a doctor working in London, pitches up back in Tasmania many years after her teenage friend Gillian disappeared into its Kettering forest, having seen a load of mysterious bright lights. Was Gillian abducted by aliens or was she, as some local people believe, murdered by Anna? To be honest, she could be working as a roadie for Kylie, for all I care. This ponderous, derivative show is what happens when a writer sacrifices character on the altar of plot. The more the plot thickens, the more jaw-achingly tedious it becomes.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit