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Drastic and immediate cuts in carbon emissions, as advocated by most of the green lobby, are an expe

There is a disturbing tendency among many in the climate debate today to deride as "deniers" anyone who does not advocate making huge and immediate carbon cuts. The framing began nearly a decade ago with discussions about the science of climate change. People who questioned the link between carbon emissions and warming were branded "deniers".

The semantic similarity to Holocaust denial was made overt when several prominent environmental campaigners suggested a need for Nuremberg-style trials for their opponents. Such rhetoric was deeply unfortunate. However, one could at least argue that the resulting fiery debate achieved one positive thing: it played a role in rousing most climate scientists to join together to underscore the message that global warming is largely man-made.

We have long since moved on from any mainstream disagreements about the science of global warming. Now, the crucial conversation is about the economics of our response. Today, the labels "denier" and "sceptic" are hurled at anyone who does not fervently argue for drastic, immediate carbon cuts. There is no possible justification, given that so many climate economists - the specialists in this field - recommend very different policies from those being advocated by the zealous carbon cut lobbyists.

In my book, first published in Danish in 1998, and then in English as The Skeptical Environmentalist in 2001, I wrote that man-made global warming exists. I could not have been clearer; the introduction to the section on climate change states: "This chapter accepts the reality of man-made global warming." My position has not changed. Thus, when I am labelled a "long-time climate sceptic" or "climate change denier" by
bloggers and activists, it is not based on any suggestion I have ever declared that the science of global warming is wrong. Rather, it is the campaigners' heated response to my pointing out that drastic carbon cuts don't make sense and that smarter policy responses should be considered.

It is understandable that emotions run high in such a defining discussion. I can appreciate, even in those who disagree with me, a moral intent to do good for humanity. But I cannot see how responding to empirical economics with slander will ever be helpful. Much worse than that, I believe that ignoring - or, indeed, denying - basic economic reality is a shoddy way of helping the planet.

In July, the G8 agreed to make carbon emission cuts to limit global warming to no more than 2°C above pre-industrial levels. This would be the most costly public policy humanity has ever enacted.

The Copenhagen Consensus Centre recently asked top climate economists to explore the benefits and costs of different responses to global warming, to prompt a discussion about the solutions that would have the biggest impact on climate for the lowest cost. We convened a second stellar group of top economists, including three Nobel laureates, to examine independently all of the research and rank the proposals in order of desirability.

One research author, the prominent climate economist Professor Richard Tol, who has been a contributing, lead, principal and convening author for the IPCC, strikingly showed that grand promises of drastic, immediate carbon cuts are a hugely expensive way of doing very little good. Reducing emissions by 80 per cent by mid-century (to achieve the 2°C goal) would avert much of the expected damage of global warming; based on conventional estimates, it would avoid climate damages of about £1.9trn a year by 2100. However, the cost of this would be a reduction in growth - particularly damaging to the world's poor - to the tune of around £25trn a year. Moreover, the costs would come much sooner than the benefits. Every pound spent on this grand plan would achieve twopence worth of good.

Put starkly: drastic carbon cuts would hurt much more than climate change. Cutting carbon is extremely expensive, especially in the short term, because the alternatives to fossil fuels are few and costly. Without feasible alternatives, we just hurt growth, which would be especially damaging for countries such as Brazil, China and India, dependent on fossil fuels to lift millions out of poverty.

It is important to emphasise that Tol's figures are based on projections from all the major economic energy models of the Stanford Energy Modelling Forum. Around half of the models found it impossible to achieve the target of keeping temperature rises lower than 2°C with carbon cuts. The £25trn price tag is optimistic because it comes only from the models that project the target is even possible.

The cost assumes that politicians everywhere in the world would, throughout the entire century, make the most effective, efficient choices possible to reduce carbon emissions. Dump that far-fetched assumption and the cost could be ten or even 100 times higher.

The Copenhagen Consensus on Climate's expert panel considered Tol's research - along with other proposals for responses to global warming - and concluded that drastic carbon cuts would be the poorest approach. The economic lessons are underpinned by real-world experience. In Rio de Janeiro in 1992, politicians from wealthy countries promised to cut emissions by 2000, but did no such thing. In Kyoto in 1997, leaders promised even stricter reductions by 2010, yet emissions have kept increasing unabated. It is little wonder that politicians are backing away from promising that they will be able to broker a new deal on carbon cuts in Copenhagen this December.

Despite the shambles of the Copenhagen negotiations, many carbon cut campaigners refuse to discuss alternative approaches. By dismissing critics as "deniers" and "sceptics", they commit the planet to the poorest policy choice - and one with very little chance of succeeding in controlling temperature rises. We could and should do better. The expert panel of Nobel laureate economists, working for the Copenhagen Consensus on Climate, revealed smarter solutions.

The panel recommended immediate research into climate engineering technology and a substantial increase in research and development of green energy alternatives. The two approaches complement each other. Climate engineering has the advantage of speed. There is a significant delay between carbon cuts and any temperature drop - even halving global emissions by mid-century would barely be measurable by the end of the century. And making green energy cheap and prevalent will also take a long time. After all, electrification of the global economy is still incomplete after more than a century of effort.

Climate engineering has a lot of potential as a way for us to buy more time - but it does not appear to be a long-term answer. We could gain time to ensure that we can shift sustainably and efficiently away from reliance on fossil fuels, which requires the investment in researching alternatives to these fuels.

Many of us fear climate engineering. But the groundbreaking research paper by Eric Bickel and Lee Lane at the University of Texas - one of the first studies of the costs and benefits of these technologies - offers compelling evidence that a tiny investment in climate engineering might be able to reduce as much of global warming's effects as trillions of pounds spent on carbon emission reductions.

The most attractive technology Bickel and Lane examine appears to be marine cloud whitening, where boats spray seawater drop-lets into clouds at sea to make them whiter and thus reflect more sunlight back into space, so reducing warming. This augments the natural process whereby sea salt from the ocean is whipped up and provides cloud condensation nuclei. Marine cloud whitening would not lead to permanent atmospheric changes, and could be used only when needed.

The researchers conclude, remarkably, that we might be able to cancel out this century's entire global warming with 1,900 unmanned ships spraying seawater mist into the air, at a total cost of about £6bn. When the benefits from averted warming are calculated, this is the equivalent of doing more than £2,000 worth of good with every pound spent.

President Barack Obama's science adviser, John Holdren, has said that climate engineering has "got to be looked at", and many prominent scientists agree. Concerns about the ramifications of this technology are a reason to research now to identify all of the limitations and risks. If it turns out that this is not a feasible or sensible approach, we need to have that information as soon as possible.

Marine cloud whitening would obviously not solve every aspect of global warming. But it would achieve more, much faster, than any plausible carbon cuts could ever do, and at a fraction of the price. If we are concerned with solving global warming, then we have a moral obligation to research what we could achieve with this technology.

But there is no point in using climate engineering to buy more time if we do not use it effectively. Since politicians started negotiating carbon agreements, we have wasted nearly 20 years without making any significant progress in reducing global warming. Focusing primarily on how much carbon to try to cut through taxes, rather than on how to achieve this technologically, puts the cart before the horse.

Global energy demand will double by 2050, according to research by the respected climate change economists Chris Green and Isabel Galiana from McGill University in Montreal. Use of fossil fuels remains vital for our development, prosperity and survival. Alternative sources of energy are unfortunately far from ready for widespread use. Green and Galiana show that, to reduce carbon emissions by three-quarters by 2100 while maintaining reasonable growth (a less ambitious goal than the G8's), non-fossil-fuel-based sources of energy will have to be an astonishing two and a half times greater in 2100 than the total level of global energy consumption in 2000.

If we continue on our current path, technological development will not be anywhere near significant enough to make non-carbon-based energy sources competitive with fossil fuels on price and effectiveness. Green and Galiana examine the state of non-carbon-based energy today - nuclear, wind, solar, geothermal, etc - and find that, taken together, alternative energy sources would get us less than halfway towards a path of stable carbon emissions by 2050, and only a tiny fraction of the way towards stabilisation by 2100. The technology will not be ready in terms of scalability or stability. In many cases, there is still a need for the most basic research and development. We are not even close to getting this revolution started.

Current technology is so inefficient that we would have to blanket most countries with wind turbines to power everybody's needs, and even then we would have the problem of storage when the wind doesn't blow.

Many environmental campaigners lauded China's ambition to create "green cities", powered by huge wind farms. But China plans to build dozens of new coal-fired power plants for these cities, too: otherwise, there will be blackouts every time there is not enough wind. The vast majority of Chinese cities will still rely on electricity from coal.

If governments try to cut carbon through taxes and trading schemes without effective replacements, we will make virtually no difference to climate change in the future, while in the shorter term there will be significant damage to economic growth.

Public funds on research and development also need to increase dramatically. We cannot rely on private enterprise alone. As with medical research, early innovations will not reap significant financial rewards, so there is no strong incentive for private investment today. While many of us assume that green research and development must have increased dramatically over the past decade, the actual numbers from the International Energy Agency show that not only has this spending not risen, but it has actually declined significantly since the early 1980s.

Policymakers should abandon fraught carbon reduction negotiations and instead make agreements to invest in research and development to get this technology to the level it needs to be. Provided that this spending doesn't go into subsidising existing, inefficient technology, but is instead put towards promoting innovation, this would have a far greater chance of tackling climate change - and a far greater chance of political success.

The biggest carbon emitters of the 21st century, including India and China, are understandably unwilling to sign up to tough, costly emission targets. They would be much more likely to embrace a cheaper, smarter and more beneficial path of innovation. Ultimately, we will not succeed politically or economically in tackling climate change by making fossil fuels so expensive that nobody will use them. However, if we forge onwards with dramatically increased research and development, towards the middle of the century we could make green energy so cheap that everyone will use it.

Discussions about solving the planet's problems will always be emotional. But they should also be reasoned. The most reasonable response to global warming is to change our course and focus on an approach that would actually work.

Bjørn Lomborg is the director of the think tank the Copenhagen Consensus Centre at Copenhagen Business School and the author of "Cool It: the Skeptical Environmentalist's Guide to Global Warming"

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This article first appeared in the 23 November 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Green Heroes and Villains

LAURA HYND FOR NEW STATESMAN
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Rebel with a realist cause

Michael Winterbottom, Britain’s busiest film-maker, discusses cinema, social mobility and how we are returning to the 19th century.

In the early 1960s, Lindsay Anderson was enjoying the power and esteem that he had always thought the English would be too philistine to grant him. His Free Cinema movement, launched in February 1956 with a series of modest, hand-held documentaries and a strident manifesto, had mutated into “kitchen-sink realism”, a series of popular feature films that included Tony Richardson’s Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, Karel Reisz’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and his own This Sporting Life. Anderson seemed dangerously close to becoming the  leading spokesman of mainstream British cinema. But then, as he recalled, “Realism gave way to the myth of Swinging London. The Americans, God bless them, put up a lot of money and the British made a lot of bad films.”

When, bored and broke, the Americans went home, taking many of his colleagues along with them, Anderson stayed behind. He made if . . ., which won the 1969 Palme d’Or at Cannes, and a sequel, O Lucky Man!, and then – nothing. For most of the 1970s, British cinema was virtually an oxymoron. But when the industry came back to life at the start of the next decade, with GandhiChariots of Fire and the formation of Channel 4 Films, he refused to celebrate or capitalise, preferring to tut and clutch his brow.

In November 1985, the month when his former protégé Stephen Frears first startled a general British audience with My Beautiful Laundrette, which updated kitchen-sink realism with new causes (multiculturalism, gay rights) and villains (Thatcher, the National Front), Anderson was making gentle progress on a backward-looking endeavour – a television documentary about Free Cinema, to form part of an initiative he despised called British Film Year. A born dawdler, equally petrified of success and failure, he was having trouble with the stills and inserts. “I finally get the operation organised,” he wrote in his diary, “by insisting that the attractively cherubic Michael Winterbottom be my assistant.”

When I spoke to Winterbottom last year, he told me, “Lindsay Anderson was a director I really admired and I wondered why he had made so few films. Then I met him. There was a lot of messing around” –bickering, procrastination, mischief. And perfectionism: “Even on the Free Cinema documentary, he ended up reshooting ­everything.” Winterbottom wanted to emulate Anderson’s work – the intransigence, the looseness – but he realised that in order to follow those examples and still have a career, he needed to make peace with prevailing industrial conditions and devise a plausible, even hard-nosed working method.

Three decades later, he is constantly in work. Alongside Frears, he is Britain’s busiest film-maker. At any given moment, he occupies two or more points in a process that goes something like: development, financing, casting, filming, editing, festival circuit, domestic release. But where Frears has graduated to working with Hollywood studios, Winterbottom relies on independent financing and employs a no-fuss, often hand-held, digital shooting style. David Thompson, the former head of BBC Films who is now an independent producer, told me, “Michael pioneered a way of working that we tried and failed to get other directors to adopt: if you can’t get the crew in a minivan, then you’ve got too many people.”

The results so far have included 24-Hour Party People, a comedy about the Manchester music scene that captured Winterbottom’s own philosophy of productive chaos, and 9 Songs, in which a climatologist recalls a relationship through nights at rock concerts and uncensored days in bed. Winterbottom’s most recent film, The Emperor’s New Clothes, a documentary about inequality, presented by Russell Brand, was his 28th. And that doesn’t include The Trip, the BBC2 comedy series starring the comedians Steve Coogan – a Winterbottom regular – and Rob Brydon, which was released outside Britain as a pair of films, The Trip and The Trip to Italy: to date, his only sequel.

***

Working alongside the producer Andrew Eaton, Winterbottom has established an atmosphere of rigour and determined focus that allows him to take risks. Eaton, who has known Winterbottom for more than 30 years, told me that “no other director comes to set with such a strong sense of what he’s trying to get combined with a complete openness to what could happen in the day”. When Winterbottom was making the family drama Wonderland in the late 1990s, he took his skeleton crew into London bars that were open for business. Punters became extras. “The people in a place are so much part of the environment,” Winterbottom said. “We were trying to get a different texture, to let the characters interact with the real world.”

Winterbottom and I were having breakfast in a London hotel restaurant. When I arrived, he had just finished a television interview about The Face of an Angel, a rumination on the Amanda Knox trial starring Daniel Brühl and Cara Delevingne, which opened in 2014 to baffled reviews. Winterbottom, who turns 55 in March, still looks like a cherub, but a cherub going grey at the sideburns. He is affable, even happy-go-lucky, but also remote – withdrawn. His gaze carries a slight air of wistfulness, as if he is distracted by some opportunity five yards beyond your shoulder. And though he talks very quickly, he is a specialist in prevarication and reversal. Assertions are parried, questions dodged. But when he’s comfortable, he’s fluent.

Winterbottom continued to tell me about the thinking behind Wonderland, which many consider his greatest film. He compared it to Notting Hill, which was being shot further west around the same time. “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.”

Yet Wonderland is never dowdy. Shots of, say, an average night at the Slug and Lettuce or the bingo hall, or yet another frustrating afternoon at Selhurst Park, are offset by the lithe, buzzing images (a 16mm negative blown up to 35mm), the restlessly inquisitive editing and Michael Nyman’s soaring symphonic score. The result far exceeds anything made during the kitchen-sink period in the breadth of its humanism and the range of its social portraiture, and deserves to be recognised as one of the great achievements of British cinema.

The Scottish actress Shirley Henderson said that working on Wonderland, the first of six collaborations, wasn’t like being on a film set, with “caravans” and co-stars. “You were just waiting on a pavement somewhere.” To help Henderson research her role as the working-class Londoner and single mother Debbie, one of three troubled sisters, Winterbottom sent her on what she called “errands”: going clubbing in character, or visiting the sort of hairdresser at which Debbie worked. Henderson added the details garnered on these field trips to a screenplay, written by Laurence Coriat, that was treated as far from sacrosanct. Speaking generally of her work with Winterbottom, she said: “You know the lines – and you might get to say them, you might not. He might run the scene another five minutes after your lines are finished.”

I asked Henderson how Winterbottom’s toss-the-script-aside approach compared with the process favoured by Mike Leigh, who directed her in Topsy-Turvy. With Leigh, she said, “You improvise for hours to find a honed scene that you shoot the next day. With Michael, it’s a quicker process. You don’t rehearse as such. You’re improvising on film. If he’s not got enough, he’ll just go again and again and again.” At breakfast, Winterbottom, who recoils from analysis, defined his ambitions with a shrug: “Try to keep it simple, get as close to the characters as possible, encourage actors to be spontaneous.”

Wonderland was Winterbottom’s sixth feature film and marked a breakthrough for him, in particular a turn away from the professionalism of Welcome to Sarajevo, his polished, starry account of TV journalists covering the Bosnian War, in favour of a realist aesthetic. He told me that he doesn’t see himself as part of any movement – “What, like Free Cinema? No, no” – but his desire to find an alternative to conventional dramatic narrative connects him to a loose group of artists and writers intent on bringing more “reality” into their work. Prominent among them are the authors David Shields, who mentions Winterbottom in his manifesto Reality Hunger, and Karl Ove Knausgaard, whose My Struggle series Winterbottom has been reading (“I’m very impressed”). But where Shields and Knausgaard have turned away from the novel in favour of more direct, less dissembling forms such as the memoir and the essay, Winterbottom’s desire to get as far away from artifice and as close as possible to hectic, complex, undramatic life has resulted not in a choice of one form that solves all the problems but a sensibility that he brings to a range of genres.

Winterbottom’s war against tidy artifice has taken various forms. Sometimes it is built in to a project’s conception: he made 9 Songs because he thought that his previous love story Code 46 had been timid in the way it presented sex. It has determined his approach to source material. When he was adapting Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles as Trishna, he combined the roles of the “spiritual” Alec and the “sensual” Angel because, he told an interviewer, “most people are a combination of both”. But with Jim Thompson’s novel The Killer Inside Me, he took the opposite approach: he found Thompson’s portrait of psychosis so complete, so convincing, that he treated the book “like the Bible”.

Winterbottom’s widely acknowledged formal innovations are a means to an end. I mentioned the editing in his 2008 film, Genova, which constantly prevents exchanges and encounters from settling down into a set piece. He dismissed the idea that he was consciously experimenting. “When you’re making a film, you’re worried about the specifics of what you’re trying to do and then building out from that,” he said. The starting point of Genova is the dynamic between the dad and the two daughters. “I have two daughters [from his 13-year relationship with the teacher and novelist Sabrina Broadbent] and one aspect of the film, like with Wonderland and London, was to portray a relationship that I would recognise. The aim was to not make it dramatic, because your relationships at home aren’t very dramatic.”

***

In his diary, Lindsay Anderson – who often quoted the ancient maxim “Character is destiny”– marvelled at Winterbottom’s ability to attend to things that mattered and ignore the things that didn’t. Where Anderson was an idealist and a perfectionist, Winterbottom was “wholly unsentimental” – “conscientious” in tracking down stills, his assigned task, but “quite happy to absent himself from crucial, if routine stages of finishing”.

It was partly a product of breeding. Where Anderson, scarred by boarding school, loved to defy those with power (having a private income helped), Winterbottom attended the local grammar school in Blackburn and grew up in kitchen-sink territory; a scene in John Schlesinger’s 1962 film A Kind of Loving was shot at the factory where his father worked. When he was a teenager, his favourite book was Jude the Obscure, Hardy’s novel about a farm labourer who dreams of going to Biblioll College, Christminster. Winterbottom made it to the real-world version – Balliol College, Oxford – where, in a desultory, distracted way, he studied English. (In 2012 he returned to Oxford to become the first Humanitas Visiting Professor in Film and Television.)

Winterbottom likes to say that he’s simply attracted to good stories and interested in the same things as “everybody else”, but The Emperor’s New Clothes, which came out in April last year, emerged from his personal history. A product of grammar schools and grants, he considers himself a beneficiary of the “social mobility and access” that burgeoned after the Second World War. (He campaigned for Jack Straw in Blackburn in 1979.) “The idea that to be ‘modern’, you need an unregulated free market that helps the rich get richer is bullshit,” he said, adding that its widespread acceptance has been “one of the triumphs of that ideology”. He continued, “We had a phase of about fifty years where what was ‘modern’ was the idea that things will get fairer – there will be a narrowing of the gap, maybe not in a radical way, but at least a general trend in that direction.

“It’s fairly hard to believe that we used to collectively own the water, gas, coal, trains, telephone. People were being taxed at 98 per cent on unearned income, 83 per cent on earned income. Instead, we’ve returned to the 19th-century idea that if you’re born poor, you’re going to stay poor.”

After his English degree, he completed a one-year course in film-making in Bristol. Then he needed a job.

“There was no way I would have been able to hang around and do ‘internships’,” he told me. “I became a trainee assistant film editor at Thames Television” – which is how he came to work for Anderson and where he was given his first professional directing job, on a pair of documentaries about the Swedish director Ingmar Bergman, from whom he learned that if you establish fruitful partnerships and retain a clear sense of what you’re trying to achieve, film-making is “not that hard”. (Bergman may have been “just as complicated psychologically” as Anderson, “but when it came to the work, he was disciplined”.)

In 1993, after the Bergman documentaries and then a run of commissions in television drama, including the opening episodes of Jimmy McGovern’s ITV series Cracker, Winterbottom was itching to make his first feature film. Frank Cottrell Boyce, a friend from Oxford, had written a script entitled Delirious, about car thieves in Liverpool, but it was failing to attract a backer, so they moved on to a new idea: another crime thriller set in Lancashire, but with a difference – it could be done cheaply, with money cobbled together from public funding bodies. “All our anger and frustration about not making the other one went into it,” Winterbottom recalled. “We did it for nothing. It was a very stressful phase. And that was Butterfly Kiss” – in which a pair of chalk-and-cheese lesbians cause havoc on the M6.

In Icons in the Fire, an attack on “practically everyone in the British film industry”, in which Winterbottom is one of the few heads spared, the critic Alexander Walker recalled his surprise when the director followed up Butterfly Kiss with a “period drama”. But Jude – the first of Winterbottom’s three Hardy adaptations – was fast-moving and stark, not at all Merchant-Ivory. After Jude, there came, in swift succession, “Bosnia war reportage, period western, East End soap opera, Ulster social comedy, glam-rock clubland, overland asylum-seeking” – the films in question being Welcome to SarajevoThe ClaimWonderlandWith or Without You24-Hour Party People and In This World. (Walker forgot I Want You, which should probably be characterised as Hastings psychosexual noir – still, somehow, a genre of one.) “Bewildering,” Walker concluded: “at the same time, curiously courageous for a British director.”

***

Winterbottom has continued in this bewilderingly courageous way, combining speed with variety, adding to his genre hoard and keeping the operation small. While former collaborators such as Rachel Weisz and Kate Winslet have been starring in globetrotting thrillers and 3D blockbusters, or, in the case of Christopher Eccleston, David Tennant and Peter Capaldi, playing Doctor Who, Winterbottom has carried on telling intimate tales about what he calls “home, family, things like that”; among them Everyday, a drama about a struggling mother (played by Shirley Henderson) that was shot over five years. Where his near contemporary Danny Boyle went off to make Slumdog Millionaire, Winterbottom made Trishna, an Indian adaptation of Tess, described by its star, Freida Pinto, who was also the lead actress in Slumdog, as “a hardcore independent project”.

Generally, his dealings with the US have been marked by resistance. On its release in 1997, Harvey Weinstein’s company Miramax distributed Welcome to Sarajevo – even screened it at the White House for Bill Clinton. But when Weinstein offered Winterbottom $1.5m to direct Good Will Hunting the director said the script wasn’t good enough. It took him months of conversations with the novelist John Irving to reach the same conclusion about another Miramax project, The Cider House Rules. (Each film won an Oscar for its screenplay.) Winterbottom didn’t make a film on American soil until 2009, when he went to Oklahoma to shoot The Killer Inside Me, a thriller whose violence against female characters prompted outrage and earned him a nomination for the Sexist Pig Award from the Alliance of Women Film Journalists. (He lost out to Mel Gibson.)

On two occasions – both before the sexist pig accusation – he had been approached by women bearing offers too good to refuse. In 2004 Angelina Jolie brought him A Mighty Heart, an adaptation of Mariane Pearl’s memoir about her husband, the murdered journalist Daniel Pearl. Then, a few years later, Naomi Klein approached him to make an archival documentary based on The Shock Doctrine, her book about disaster capitalism. (Klein later changed her mind about the format – she wanted something more topical and responsive – and the film was made without her input.) But on the whole, the ideas for Winterbottom’s films have emerged from Revolution Films, the production company he started with Andrew Eaton in 1994.

In 2001 Winterbottom and Eaton were developing a project about illegal immigrants but couldn’t decide on a starting point. Then the 9/11 attacks happened, and within a few weeks Winterbottom and the writer Tony Grisoni were wandering around a refugee camp in Peshawar, looking for young Afghan men willing to play a version of themselves and do the trip to London for real. (“I thought it was going to be in English,” David Thompson, one of the executive producers of the film that emerged from the trip, recalled. “I was somewhat surprised when it came back in Pashto.”)

The year 2003 marked the high point of Winterbottom’s acclaim. In February, barely a year after Winterbottom had touched down in Peshawar, In This World – the asylum film’s eventual title – was accepted to show at the Berlin International Film Festival, where it won three prizes, including the Golden Bear. When it was released in Britain, the critic Sukhdev Sandhu, who was born in 1970, called it the best British film of his lifetime. Soon afterwards, Winterbottom appeared in a Guardian critics’ poll of the best directors currently practising. The citation announced: “British cinema would be lost without him.”

Peter Bradshaw, the Guardian critic who wrote that citation, has been less impressed with the films he has made in the past decade. “It’s all very good letting narrative and all those traditional things go hang,” he said recently, “but it does make for a rather miscellaneous experience in the cinema.” He described the films’ “rough-and-ready quality”, which he identifies in all Winterbottom’s recent work except for The Killer Inside Me and The Trip, as “more lax than loose”, and added: “I often wonder whether he’s thinking about the next project.”

Eaton identifies misunderstanding in both criticisms. To the idea that Winterbottom’s work since around Wonderland has been lax or slapdash: “Do you have any idea how hard it is to make stuff as natural as that, to have that flow?” To those who say Winterbottom makes too many films: “If Michael was a plumber, and you asked him to do work on your house, he wouldn’t say, ‘Oh, I’m far too creatively exhausted, I couldn’t possibly do it.’ It’s just the next job.”

Thompson offered a more matter-of-fact reflection. “That’s just the way he works –he does these things in a white heat,” said. “He’s finished them before you realise he has shot them. It’s like writing a song. Some film-makers spend two years fiddling with a film. Michael would go crazy. And I don’t think the result would be any better.” (Bradshaw conceded that “part of his mojo is to keep moving – something we critics don’t understand”.)

Thompson added, “Some of his films work better than others – he knows that.” In 1997, when he had made four films, ­Winterbottom reflected on the benefit that Ingmar Bergman derived from a hefty back-catalogue: “There’s actually enough volume that if he does a comedy that doesn’t succeed, it’s merely a blip in the overall work.”

***

A few days after I first interviewed Winterbottom, I went to the Revolution Films office in Clerkenwell, central London, to meet Melissa Parmenter, the composer who is now his regular producer (Eaton serves as an executive producer). Parmenter has a fondness for rhyme: “totes mahotes”, “okey-dokey”, “good plan, Stan”. Instead of “meltdown”, she says “granny panic”. She described Michael Nyman’s music for Wonderland, not inaccurately, as “an insane score – the best score ever”.

At first, Winterbottom and Parmenter, who live together and have a four-year-old son, seem an unlikely partnership. Where Winterbottom can be evasive, perhaps defensive, Parmenter is open and unguarded. She seems clearer about who Winterbottom is than he is. She is also more outwardly passionate. During my talk with Winterbottom, he used the word “love” twice – about Nyman’s music and Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs Miller. Parmenter, by contrast, said she “loves”, among other things, The Killer Inside MeGenova, “the melancholy bits of The Trip to Italy”, Nyman, and “the fact that Michael does what he wants”. But under the Noughties colloquialisms and granny-panic veneer, Parmenter is grounded and – to use a phrase that she might – on it, a total convert to Winterbottom’s heads-down ethos. She resembles her own description of Tracey Emin, whose 2004 film Top Spot she produced: “She looked like she had no idea what she was doing, but she knew totally what she was doing.”

“We make quite different films,” she told me. “It’s weird. What’s Michael’s most commercial film? But he doesn’t aim for that. He just makes what he wants to make.”

I asked Parmenter why he is so good at winning permission to do that. “Well, the idea of all his films is interesting. I mean, Road to Guantanamo: who wouldn’t want to see the story of the Tipton Three? It’s got to be made. Or 9 Songs – we’re going to show real sex. Filming Everyday over five years – that’s an amazing idea. We went to Tessa Ross at Channel 4 and said, ‘We’re going to film these people doing nothing.’ She said, ‘Here’s £1.1m. Bye!’ Obviously we reported back to them.”

It must help, I said, that there hadn’t been any disasters.

“That’s down to Michael. He’s so aware of all levels of the film-making process. He’s got his fingers in all the pies. It gets a bit much sometimes. [As Winterbottom told me, “When you’re a director, everything that happens is kind of your fault.”] But if you’re doing a small film, you can’t say, ‘Actors aren’t allowed trailers’ – if there’s a trailer even anywhere near, he goes mental – and then turn around and say, ‘I don’t want to know anything about the budget.’”

When I caught up with Winterbottom last summer, he expressed some frustration that The Emperor’s New Clothes – the documentary with Russell Brand – hadn’t been shown more widely, and that The Face of an Angel – the Amanda Knox drama– had been rounded on by British critics. Yet it was clear that his heart wasn’t really in it: both films were well on their way to becoming past obsessions. He’d been up at 6.30 that morning, doing rewrites for a new project, Russ and Roger Go Beyond, a comedy starring Will Ferrell, about the making of Russ Meyer’s camp musical Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. (I asked if Ferrell was someone he knew socially and he replied: “No, strangely not.”) Although the script originated in Hollywood and the production, based in Los Angeles, would almost certainly involve trailers, Winterbottom talked about Russ and Roger less as a necessary commercial compromise (“the money isn’t vastly better”) than as a much-needed break. He reminded me that “developing a film from scratch comes with a burden of effort”.

Still, it turned out that his heart wasn’t really in that one, either. Just before the end of the year, he quit. Someone muttered something about creative differences. Burdensome or not, it seems he prefers success – and failure – on his own terms: working under the Revolution banner with a small, familiar crew and room for improvisation with actors he calls friends. It is said he’s getting ready to shoot The Trip to Spain.

Leo Robson is the New Statesman’s lead fiction critic

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 28 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Should Labour split?