Hawking in 1991. Photo: Rex/Tom Pilston/The Independent
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Stephen Hawking’s life is a triumph of intellect over adversity

Stephen Hawking received his "death sentence" more than 50 years ago. The Astronomer Royal pays tribute to him.

Soon after I enrolled as a graduate student at the University of Cambridge in 1964, I encountered a fellow student, two years ahead of me in his studies; he was unsteady on his feet and spoke with great difficulty. This was Stephen Hawking. I learned that he had a degenerative disease – amyotrophic lateral sclerosis – and might not live long enough even to finish his PhD degree. But, amazingly, he has lived on for 50 years longer. Mere survival would have been a medical marvel, but of course he hasn’t merely survived. He has become the most famous scientist in the world – acclaimed for his brilliant researches, for his bestselling books about space, time and the cosmos and, above all, for his astonishing triumph over adversity.

The Theory of Everything, the film currently in cinemas, portrays the human story behind this struggle. And it surpasses most biopics in representing the main characters so well that they themselves are happy with the portrayal.

Astronomers are used to large numbers. But few numbers could be as large as the odds I’d have given back in 1963, when Stephen received his “death sentence”, against ever celebrating this uniquely inspiring crescendo of achievement, sustained now for more than 50 years.

Stephen went to school in St Albans and then to university at Oxford. He was, by all accounts, a “laid-back” undergraduate, but his brilliance nonetheless earned him a first-class degree, and an “entry ticket” to a research career in Cambridge. Within a few years of the onset of his disease he was wheelchair-bound and his speech became an indistinct croak that only those who knew him could interpret. But in other respects fortune had favoured him. He married a college friend, Jane Wilde, who provided a supportive home life for him and their three children.

His scientific work went from strength to strength: he quickly came up with a succession of insights into the nature of black holes (then a very new idea) and how our universe began. In 1974 he was elected to the Royal Society, Britain’s main scientific academy, at the exceptionally early age of 32.

He was by then so frail that most of us suspected he could scale no further heights. But, for Stephen, this was still just the beginning. He worked in the same building as I did. I would often push his wheelchair into his office, and he would ask me to open an abstruse book on quantum theory – the science of atoms, not a subject that had hitherto much interested him. He would sit hunched motionless for hours; he couldn’t even turn the pages without help. I wondered what was going through his mind, and if his powers were failing. But within a year he came up with his best ever idea, encapsulated in an equation that he says he wants on his gravestone.

The great advances in science generally involve discovering a link between phenomena that seemed hitherto conceptually unconnected: for instance, Isaac Newton realised that the force making an apple fall was the same as the force that held the moon and planets in their orbits. Stephen’s “eureka moment” revealed a profound and unexpected link between gravity and quantum theory which predicted that black holes would not be completely black, but would radiate in a characteristic way. This radiation is significant only for black holes much less massive than stars – and none of these has been found. However, “Hawking radiation” became a hugely influential concept in mathematical physics; indeed, one of the main achievements of string theory has been to firm up and build on his idea. It is remarkable that it is still the focus of theoretical interest, a topic of debate and controversy even 40 years after discovery. He has not been awarded the Nobel Prize because his idea is not confirmed by experiment. But in 2012 he was one of the first winners of the Milner Prize, worth $3m, intended to recognise theoretical work.

Cambridge has been Stephen’s base throughout his career and he became a familiar figure in the city, navigating his wheelchair around the streets. By the end of the 1970s he had advanced to one of the most distinguished posts at the university – the Lucasian Professorship of Mathematics, once held by Newton. Stephen held the chair with distinction for 30 years but reached the retiring age in 2009, and since then has held a special research professorship. He has continued to seek new links between the very large (the cosmos) and the very small (atoms and quantum theory) and to gain deeper insights into the very beginning of our universe, addressing such questions as: “Was our Big Bang the only one?” He always had an amazing ability to figure things out in his head but generally he worked with colleagues who would write a formula on a blackboard; he would stare at it, and say what should come next.

In 1987 Stephen contracted pneumonia. He had to undergo a tracheotomy, which removed even the limited powers of speech he then possessed. It had been more than ten years since he could write, or use a keyboard. Without speech, the only way he could communicate was by directing his eye towards one of the letters of the alphabet on a big board in front of him.

But he was saved by technology. He still had the use of one hand; and a computer, controlled by a single lever, allowed him to spell out sentences. These were then declaimed by a speech synthesiser with the androidal American accent that has since become his trademark. His lectures were, of course, pre-prepared, but conversation remained a struggle. Each word involved several presses of the lever, so a single sentence took several minutes. He has learned to economise with words. His comments are aphoristic or oracular, but often infused with wit. In recent years he has become too weak to control this machine effectively, even with facial muscles or eye movements, and his communication – to his immense frustration – has become still slower. Let’s hope that his new Intel predictive software speeds things up, though he will not modify his “trademark” voice.

At the time of his tracheotomy operation, he had a rough draft of a book that he hoped would describe his ideas to a wide readership and earn something for his two eldest children, Robert and Lucy, who were then of college age. On recovering from pneumonia, he resumed work with the help of an editor. When the US edition of A Brief History of Time appeared, the printers had made errors (one picture was upside down), and the publishers tried to recall the stock. To their amazement, all copies had already been sold. It was the first inkling that the book was destined to have huge success – four years on bestseller lists around the world.

Stephen became an international celebrity. His later ideas appear, beautifully illustrated, in other books such as The Universe in a Nutshell and The Grand Design. These were not bought by quite as many people as his first book, but they are more clearly written, and probably more people got to the end of them. He has featured in numerous television programmes; his lectures have filled the Royal Albert Hall in London, and similar venues in the United States and Japan. (In principle, machine translation could now give him an advantage over the rest of us by converting his speech into Japanese, Korean, or other languages.) He lectured at Bill Clinton’s White House; he was back there again more recently when President Obama presented him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, a very rare honour for any foreigner. He has featured in Star Trek and The Simpsons, as well as in numerous TV advertisements. Even before the present film, his life and work had featured in movies. In an excellent TV docudrama, he was played by Benedict Cumberbatch. (And in 2012 Cumberbatch spoke his words in a three-part documentary, The Grand Design, made for the Discovery Channel.)

The Theory of Everything conveys with sensitivity how the pressure of his celebrity, and the need for round-the-clock care by a team of nurses, strained his marriage to breaking point. Jane’s book on which the film is based chronicles the 25 years during which, with amazing dedication, she underpinned his family life and his career.

This is where the film ends. But it leaves us only halfway through Stephen’s adult life. After the split with Jane, he married Elaine Mason, who had been one of his nurses, and whose former husband had designed his speech synthesiser. However, this partnership broke up after a few years. He has been sustained, then and thereafter, by a team of helpers and personal assistants, as well as his family. His daughter, Lucy, has written books for children with her father listed as co-author.

His 60th-birthday celebrations in January 2002 were a memorable occasion for all of us. Hundreds of leading scientists came from all over the world to honour and celebrate Stephen’s discoveries, and to spend a week discussing the latest theories on space, time and the cosmos. But the celebrations weren’t just scientific – that wouldn’t have been Stephen’s style. There were parties and dinners each evening. He was surrounded by his children and grandchildren. A Marilyn Monroe lookalike cut a huge birthday cake; a troupe of cancan dancers performed; there was music and singing. And when the week’s events were all over, he celebrated with a trip in a hot-air balloon.

Stephen continued, even in his sixties, to write technical papers and to speak at premier international conferences – doubly remarkable in a subject such as maths, where even most healthy researchers peak at an early age. He reminded us that he was not another Einstein; nonetheless few, if any, have done more to deepen our knowledge of gravity, space and time.

He remains an inveterate traveller despite attempts to curb this as his respiration weakens. All his trips involve an entourage of assistants and nurses. His fame, and the allure of his public appearances, have given him the resources for nursing care, even private jets, and protected him against the “Does he take sugar?” type of indignity that the disabled often suffer.

Why has he become such a “cult figure”? The notion of an imprisoned mind roaming the cosmos plainly grabbed people’s imagination. If he had achieved equal distinction in (say) genetics, rather than cosmology, his triumph of intellect against adversity probably would not have had the same resonance with a worldwide public.

It was amazing enough that Stephen reached the age of 60; few of us then thought that he would survive to another milestone – his 70th birthday. But he did, and this was again marked by an international gathering of scientists, and also with some razzmatazz: Richard Branson, Daniel Craig and other celebrities attended. Yet plainly he was then weakening; he had to watch most of the events by video while in hospital on a respirator.

But once again he recovered, and was soon back at work. Within three months he was off on another transatlantic trip. This was not just to lecture: he was determined to visit an underground laboratory in Canada where landmark and delicate experiments had been done. He was undeterred by having to descend two miles down a mineshaft. On a later trip only a last-minute health setback prevented him from travelling onwards to the Galapagos. In April 2013, he gave lectures to huge audiences in California. And just four months ago he was the “star” attraction (along with Brian May) at Starmus, a “cosmos and music” festival in the Canary Islands.

Stephen is far from being the archetypal unworldly or nerdish scientist – his personality has remained remarkably unwarped by his frustrations and handicaps. As well as his inveterate scientific travels, he enjoys trips to the theatre or the opera. He has robust common sense, and forceful political opinions that he is ready to express. However, a downside of his celebrity is that his comments attract exaggerated attention even when he speaks about topics in which he has no special expertise – philosophy, for instance, or the dangers posed by aliens or intelligent machines.

Despite the pressures and difficulties, he is a determined campaigner for the disabled. He has also always been, at a personal level, sensitive to the misfortunes of others. He records that, in hospital soon after his illness was first diagnosed, he felt his depression lift when he compared his lot with that of a boy in the next bed who was dying of leukaemia. In later life, he went to great efforts to visit a terminally ill colleague. And he has been happy to align himself with other campaigns and causes. When he visited Israel, he insisted on going also to the West Bank. Newspapers in 2006 showed remarkable pictures of him in his wheelchair, surrounded by fascinated and curious crowds in Ramallah. And in 2013 he accepted the advice of Palestinian colleagues to decline an invitation to a major conference in Israel. But by the time the ensuing (and entirely predictable) controversy broke, he was in intensive care with a collapsed lung. Last month he hit headlines again with his claims that computers may become so powerful that it will be the end for humanity.

Even more astonishing are the photographs of him “floating” in the Nasa aircraft (the “Vomit Comet”) that allows passengers to experience weightlessness. He was manifestly overjoyed at escaping, albeit briefly, the clutches of the gravitational force he has studied for decades and that has so cruelly imprisoned his body. He says he would still like to be a “space tourist”. In London in the summer of 2012, he reached perhaps his largest ever audience when he played a star role in the opening ceremony for the Paralympics. He is probably, at least since the death of the actor Christopher Reeve, the best-known disabled person in the world – and, unlike Reeve, he achieved his fame while already disabled.

Tragedy struck Stephen Hawking when he was only 21. He was diagnosed with a deadly disease and his expectations dropped to zero. He has said that everything that has happened since then is a bonus. And what a triumph his life has been. His name will live in the annals of science; millions have had their cosmic horizons widened by his bestselling books; and even more, around the world, have been inspired by a unique example of achievement against all the odds – a manifestation of astonishing willpower and determination.

It is a great thing that some phases and facets of Stephen’s life have been so well portrayed in The Theory of Everything. Let’s hope that some time there will be another film that depicts his later life, and his scientific achievements.

This article is an updated and expanded version of a tribute to Stephen Hawking published in 2007

Martin Rees is a fellow of Trinity College and Emeritus Professor of Cosmology and Astrophysics at the University of Cambridge

This article first appeared in the 16 January 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Jihadis Among Us

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.

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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.”

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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.”

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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?