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Seymour Hersh-extended interview

A longer version of this week's NS interview

Is it always a journalist's duty to report the truth, even if it may damage innocents?
I'm a total First Amendment Jeffersonian. It's their job to keep it secret and my job to find it out and make it public. But once one gets some information, one doesn't run pell-mell into it. You spend some time making sure just what the downside is. At the New York Times in particular, I had the experience of telling the intelligence community: "I'm going to do this, and if you have people in harm's way, we're going to do this in a few days -- get them out." But most of the time it's not that dramatic.

You know, maybe six or seven times in 40 years I've had a story and I've communicated to the government what I'm doing, which we always do, and the president or the secretary of defence has called up my editor or publisher and said: "If you write this story, American national security will be damaged." And in every case except one where we delayed briefly, we wrote the story and, son-of-a-bitch, the Russians didn't launch paratroopers into the foothills of San Francisco the next day. At a certain point this claim about national security becomes something more. It's always political security.

Are there times when you have a scoop, or a piece of information, but let it go?
You're constantly not publishing everything you know. That's part of the game. You leverage what you know and sometimes you'll have a phrase that will indicate to someone on the inside that you really know more than you're writing. It's a self-protection measure. Sometimes if I'm into a sensitive story . . . it's hard to talk about this stuff -- but sometimes I'll indicate I know more.

For example, some kinds of intelligence are useless to us. Suppose one were to determine where the American attack submarines with nuclear arms are at any given time. How useless is that to a newspaperman? Some of the most secret secrets in the government are not very useful. But sometimes it is useful to tell people more than you actually write, to negotiate language with the other side -- that is, the government. Sometimes we don't do that. I'll add that this administration is actually more pleasant to deal with, because, unlike the Reagan-Bush years, they are not either taunting you or threatening you. The people I have dealt with here at a high level are almost rational. There's nothing quite as arrogant as somebody who thinks he's seen all the secrets.

Look, let's say you're a major player in a law firm billing $1m-$2m a year and you come down to $160,000 a year to work inside. What's it all about? It's all about: "My God, I really know what's going on. I've seen the top-secret stuff from the intercepts and the CIA. And then some punk reporter comes in and knows something he shouldn't know and I'm a person raged, not only because he knows it, but because that's what I'm in this job for -- I wanna know." I actually had people say to me during the Vietnam war when I was getting very critical -- I was just then working for a wire service (AP) -- I had people say to me: "If you only knew what I know, you would know how wrong you are." It's a cliché to say it, but it's true: they really do get it into their heads that they know more than you.

Do you ever worry that your phone is bugged?
Some people I only talk to in their home or their office, but I arrange the calls here. Even in the Nixon/Bush years, I could say this: there are certain people I would call on a Sunday morning at their home from my home. We'd have very good talks, and it's a very good time to work for me. I can't call people at their office. And as long as they were talking to me from their home on a Sunday morning about stuff, I would feel comfortable. If somebody suddenly stopped talking to me on a home phone . . . To bug me legally they'd have to get a warrant. Bush and Cheney did so many illegal things, but once you have something illegally you can't use it very much. If the 9/11 attacks taught us one thing, it's that the agencies collect lots of wonderful stuff they don't share with anybody.

You rely a lot on unnamed sources. Is that a dangerous technique, or an invaluable one?
Look at the serious press in the UK, France, America: every single day there are unnamed sources. I love the notion that somehow investigative reporters are held to a higher standard with unnamed sources.

My view is that I'm glad we don't have the British standard. In America we have this wonderful notion that you have to prove malicious intent. In England it is more difficult: you have to be just wrong -- it doesn't matter what your intent is. But I believe people in my profession should be held to an extremely high standard. I welcome the fact that people can sue me and go after me. I know American reporters who have described an unnamed senior CIA official and I knew . . . the name of the person they were not naming -- and the reason they didn't name him is that he had a certain bias which would have mitigated the story.

That happens all the time. It happened when I worked at the New York Times and I'm sure it happens elsewhere - people will have a source, but if they named him denouncing, let's say, the Bush administration, if you said who he was, he would be devalued. And by saying "a higher-level former senior intelligence official" you can cover that. I hate that. Therefore, the way in my own mind that I cope with that anomaly, that disgrace, if you will, is that I say I welcome people suing me.

I've been in a lot of litigation. I welcome that on the grounds that it is an appropriate measure. I think I've been in seven. We were in court once and the critical issue was that the judge was going to make me reveal my sources. I was going to have to say that we conceded the point and be found guilty of libel. The judge was a Reagan appointee in Chicago a couple of decades ago, and the Reagan appointee ruled that I didn't have to name sources. I went on camera and we went to the judge, and we gave an account of six people and gave a description of them, and the judge accepted that they were real -- that I was serious and I had sources. But if he hadn't, I think I would have had to concede the case.

How bad are British libel laws?
I had one case involving [Robert] Maxwell, a famous case in 1981 in England, after I wrote a book called The Samson Option. Basically, the British press had me accusing the former publisher of being an Israeli agent. I didn't quite say that -- he was an asset, he wasn't a spy; he just did what they asked him in one case. And we were sued to death and won a huge settlement. So my one experience with the law was fine.

Do you find the libel laws in the UK chilling?
There's no question -- D-notices are chilling. You guys have a very tough system. Every time someone goes up against it in England they end up in jail.

Isn't there a risk that some high-level sources might be "playing" you?
Of course, that's a categorical risk. I'm doing something sensitive this morning, and there's no question some may have . . . But I consider myself a full-service agency. You can come to me with a secret and I take it to other people and learn things about what you know . . . You have something that they call "compartmented intelligence", above top-secret. You come to me with a secret, and then I write a story that includes things you didn't know. So when the government assesses what I wrote to see who could have leaked it, you're not ever considered to be someone who could have, because they know that you (because of you and your compartment) could not have known what was published by the other compartment. You can come to me with compartmented information and I can go to other people with compartmented information and make it very hard for them to come to a conclusion about who could have been leaking. It's foolproof.

How have you managed to remain an outsider for so long when, for example, Bob Woodward, another great journalist of your generation, has gone mainstream?
There's no way they would deal with me. Bob Woodward, I disagree with his point of view. He starts at the top and goes down. But if he hadn't written, for example, that first Bush book, we wouldn't have known much about Bush's thinking. I think Bob's books sometimes tell a lot more than he may think they do. I'm not saying anything I haven't said to him -- I just wouldn't do it the way he does it. The Obama White House can't abide me. Within a month, they were going behind my back to my editor: "What's your man Hersh doing?"

What do you make of Barack Obama?
Don't get me going on Obama. If he decided to be a one-term president, he could be marvellous, but it's not clear he's decided that.

Did he deserve the Nobel Peace Prize?
Well, no, of course not. It was partly an embarrassment to him and it says more about the people in Sweden [sic]. Let me just say this to you quite seriously. There are people -- for example, one of the defences of [John F] Kennedy was that [Ted] Sorensen and Arthur Schlesinger said publicly that he was for sure going to get out of Vietnam after the election in '64. He couldn't do it then because he was going to run against a Republican. They think that's wonderful. My analysis of that is that this was a president who said I'm more interested in my personal politics and the election than the lives of those that are going to die in the next year. And that's true if he really was going to get out -- he didn't have the courage to get out in '63. That's a political judgement. They're made all the time. Johnson kept on making it. He probably never liked that war but he kept on going.

So with Obama, the question is: will he stay in Afghanistan until he thinks it's the right time to get out politically? Or is he going to take a chance of not getting re-elected and find a way out quickly? It's not such a hard way out. There are people to talk to there. There's no evidence any of them are interested in bombing the World Trade Center.

Do you see shades of Vietnam in the current Afghan war?
No -- only in the sense that an American president is making political judgements about a war for his own personal re-election prospects. But it's a whole different scenario. Yes, in the sense that we could have gone to the North Vietnamese very early in that war. There was serious stuff going on, particularly very early stuff between the North and the Diem brothers, and we stopped that by getting them killed. Basically, there's so many ways it doesn't break down, so many ways it's a whole different culture.

On Iran, are we repeating the mistakes that were made on Iraq?
Some of the things are very disturbing. We are getting new leadership at the International Atomic Energy Agency. The next wave there is not going to be as rational. So the trend is going to get worse. There's no evidence yet that Iran has violated any of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty proceedings. By the way, your country is so deeply involved in all this crap. It's amazing to me, as someone who went to the Vietnam war and Iraq war, and now the Afghan war. There's simply no learning curve.

The great [writer] Harold Pinter gave a speech on 15 October 2002. He began by telling an old story about Cromwell. The citizens are all brought to the main square and he announces: "Right, kill all the women and rape all the men. His aide says to him, "Excuse me, general, isn't it the other way around?" And a voice in the crowd calls out: "Mr Cromwell knows what he's doing." And Pinter said, "The voice is the voice of Tony Blair: 'Mr Bush knows what he's doing.' " I keep on thinking that about Gordon Brown, too: it's the same voice. If we have to rape the men and kill the women, then by God we will!

Post-Bush, do you think there's still a risk of a military strike on Iran by Israel or the US?
Yes.

Where do you place yourself on the political spectrum?
I'm your standard left liberal, but I vote for Republicans, I've given money to them. I'm not a pacifist. I would have been tough on Osama Bin Laden after 9/11, but I'd have done it legally. I would have done what the Indians did in Mumbai, what the Spanish did in Madrid after the train incident -- treated it as a crime.

Are you disappointed Obama didn't release those "torture pictures"?
I know a lot about this stuff. Let me just talk about hypocrisy for a second. I do believe Obama when he says there were more terrible things done by individuals than we know, and the record is more complete than we know. Obama's position is that, at a time when we have 130,000 Americans in Afghanistan, putting the pictures out would just inflame people to take action against them. The New York Times has been editorialising against him, but when it had a reporter captured, it thought it was perfectly appropriate not to talk about it publicly for seven months, on the grounds that the paper was trying to protect his life.

So I would say here's the president -- about whom I have many reservations, believe me - saying: "I'm gonna not put these out, because I'm going to save American lives." And he's being criticised quite vividly by the New York Times, which had done the same thing for its reporter. I don't like it. So I give him his due on that one. I have to know what it is. It's horrible, but so what? We know the basic story. And so this is one of the examples when I don't write anything I know. Are you kidding me?!

What would you like to forget?
My Lai.

How would you like people to remember you?
I couldn't care less. I don't believe in life after death.

Are we doomed?
The trouble is that hope sprang anew in America last November. And I think the dashing of that hope is going to be much more lethal than even the cynicism under Bush and Cheney. If that hope is dashed, we'll really be in trouble around the world.

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Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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.”

***

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?