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The celestial jukebox

When the music streaming service Last.fm was sold to CBS in 2007, its geekish founders became poster

Richard Jones spent the long, hot summer of 2003 living in a tent on a rooftop in Whitechapel, east London. He’d get up with the sun, before it burned through the canvas, and would then go downstairs to sit in front of a computer for 18 hours. He didn’t mind the tent. Jones had just graduated from university and it felt like some kind of strange extension of student life. It helped that he was doing what he loved: spending the hot days building a website that was going to change the way we listen to music.

In some ways, Last.fm began like a love story. Martin Stiksel, 34, and Jones, 26, two of the website’s three founders, remember their first meeting. There was, they say, an immediate connection, a shared desire to liberate music. They were talking the same language, as if they’d known each other for years. And there was the beautiful element of chance, too. Stiksel and his friend Felix Miller, 32, had happened to read a newspaper article about Jones and the work he was doing for his computer science degree. They sent him an email, went to Southampton where he was studying, and talked. Soon after, Jones moved to London, set up the tent, and started work.

Within four years, Last.fm had turned the three romantics into multimillionaires thanks to its sale in 2007 to the American media giant CBS. The founders became the poster boys of the London tech scene, leading the streaming revolution. On 10 June, two years on from that defining moment, they announced their imminent departure from Last.fm on their blog: “This is the latest stage in a long journey for us founders, which began in a living room in east London . . . and took us to the headquarters of one of the biggest media companies in the world.”

The journey began with music, naturally. If there is one thing that unites the three it is not technology, or entrepreneurship, but a devotion to music. When I met them in April at Last.fm’s offices in Shoreditch, Stiksel, sleekly dressed in black, talked about how he still buys CDs and how Miller obsessively collects vinyl. There is a love of the physical object of music that still consumes them, the touch and the smell. They have a music room in the office, with a drum kit and guitars. Jones says he plays the didgeridoo, but badly.

The musical evangelism was there even before that first meeting. Back in 2000, Stiksel, a DJ, and Miller were running an online label in Germany for unsigned bands. All their friends were making music but had no way of getting it heard.

So they built a website, uploaded their friends’ work, and soon found themselves inundated with new music. Jones, meanwhile, was creating his own musical universe at university in Southampton. When friends asked him who his favourite group were, he wanted to give a numerical answer. “I was always curious to know exactly how many times I played everything.” So Jones invented “Audioscrobbler” – a plug-in that could collect data on what you were listening to. He gave it to his friends, who installed it, they told their friends, and “before long I was seeing people sign up from all over the world who I didn’t know, and I couldn’t trace how they found out about it”.

Jones wasn’t just interested in the numbers. He wanted to make the act of listening sociable, to form a community. He is, in his own words, a “technocrat through and through”, someone who believes in the democratising power of technology to bring people together. Once the data started flooding in telling him what people were listening to he realised he could play with it. He began collaborative filtering, a system that uses the data of someone’s listening habits to predict what other artists they might like, and then make recommendations. He saw that once you knew what different people liked, you could link them together through their taste in music. And so, in 2003, Last.fm was born as a music-based social network. It even created an online radio station: you could type in an artist and it would play you a stream of music from similar-sounding bands. As newcomers often said, the service seemed to have an uncanny ability to read minds, to know what you’d like before you did.

It couldn’t have been a worse time for an internet start-up. The dotcom bubble had burst spectacularly a couple of years earlier and “the whole internet was in a big slump”, says Stiksel. Yet it didn’t worry them. “We came from a more music background,” Stiksel continues, “so we totally slept through the first internet bubble. We saw people running around Brick Lane with laptops doing presentations, but we didn’t quite know what they were doing.”

Nor did they care. From the start, the Last.fm founders had a degree of self-belief that guarded them against doubts, questions, slumps. Their first investor, Stefan Glänzer, a former DJ, music obsessive and entrepreneur, says they were of a different mould from most start-up types. “Felix once told me, ‘You know, Stefan, we are not serial entrepreneurs, we are convinced entre­preneurs. What we want to see is our idea, our vision of Last.fm finally happen, no matter how long it takes.’”

Glänzer believes it was this conviction that saw them through the early days, giving them “enough energy to continue, continue, continue”. It also gave them the arrogance, according to Stiksel, to call their idea Last.fm. They wanted to say that “this is the last place for music, the ultimate place for music”.

One afternoon I met Glänzer at an opulent restaurant in London, and as he sipped jasmine tea he recalled how he had first heard about Last.fm through an online blogging community he ran in Germany. He noticed that hundreds of his users were talking about the site, so he arranged to meet Stiksel and Miller. “It was one of those rare meetings where you actually feel a lot of energy, a lot of understanding in the room . . .” He was captivated by their intensity. “But it wasn’t only passion – these guys had existed for the first two or three years on hardly any money, on hardly any budget. Just with the power and the will.”

The first cheque was written, Glänzer says now, on a handshake deal (he won’t disclose the amount). It helped them survive, and released Jones from his tent. Glänzer formalised his investment in October 2005 and quickly got hooked, spending five days a week in the office. Soon they were attracting interest from elsewhere. Index Ventures, a venture capital firm, invested $5m in March 2006.

With Index’s cash, they were able to invest in technical infrastructure, product development, staff. By 2007, Last.fm had 15 million users. Stiksel says that hardly a month went by without a major company knocking on their door, but the offers never felt quite right. When CBS approached, it was different. The Americans didn’t want to integrate Last.fm, or take over the management. In fact, they seemed happy for the founders to carry on exactly as before, and were attracted simply by Last.fm’s largely youthful following. CBS wanted, says Jones, to reach out to a different generation who were interacting with the media in unprecedented ways, digitally, online, on the move. On top of that, says Glänzer, “they added a pretty nice price tag”.

On 30 May 2007, CBS bought Last.fm for $280m (roughly £140m then). Stiksel, Miller and Jones received £19m windfalls; Glänzer and

Index reaped financial rewards, too. The British press reaction was histrionic, describing the three founders as being “among the most successful – and potentially wealthy – Web 2.0 pioneers in the world” and ambassadors for a “resurgent London tech scene”. Many users congratulated them on the site’s blog, genuinely pleased about their success.

Communicating relentlessly with users through the blog is what defines Last.fm, keeping them informed of progress, decisions, events. On the day of the CBS sale, Jones wrote a blog post reassuring users: “CBS understands the Last.fm vision.” It was all going to be all right, he said – the same, in fact, just with more clout, and more money. “We will continue to execute our world domination plans.”

But how could it have stayed the same? At first, the changes were cosmetic – a redesign of the site which enraged users who had become as protective of their profile pages as teenagers of posters hanging on their walls, says Stiksel. Then, in March 2009, Jones announced that users in all countries, apart from Germany, the US and UK, would be charged €3 a month to use the radio service. Users were outraged, not by the amount, but out of principle. As one replied: “IT’S NOT ABOUT THE DAMN MONEY . . . it’s bloody heartbreaking to watch such a beautiful, fresh, modern and clearly revolutionary concept like Last.fm go down the drain in such an ugly, distasteful way . . . You’re not freeing the music any more, you’re burying it.”

Jones defended the decision on the blog, saying it was impossible to support the radio service in every country by selling adverts. Or, as Stiksel puts it, “It’s just not realistic to sell advertising in Afghanistan.” Jones ruefully acknowledges the difficulty of their position. “We knew there was going to be a shit storm . . . We had slogans like ‘Free the music’ and we did play a little bit to that. ‘The social music revolution’ was our tag line for a long time. So I can understand why people are a bit pissed off.”

The move also revealed a commercial pressure. Just before Christmas 2008, Last.fm had

to make 20 people redundant. It happened the day after the office Christmas party, so the story goes, when the company had hired an entire bowling alley in east London for the staff. (Not the “happiest day”, says Jones.) Ask anyone in the music industry and there is a tacit agreement that ad-funded streaming services are not yet economically proven as viable businesses. It’s not just the recession – the model isn’t necessarily working. User numbers might rocket, but that doesn’t mean profits follow.

Last.fm was also starting to see the competition swell. Spotify, a Swedish streaming service launched in October last year, provoked an immediate flurry of excitement in the industry. There are others, too – We7 in the UK, and Pandora and imeem in the US. None, so far, offers quite the same service – the recommendations, the social network – but they all face a similar financial challenge: how to pay for the music they use. Stiksel claims Last.fm has always prided itself on playing fair: “You saw so many other platforms not giving a damn about copyright or licensing,” whereas his firm created a royalty program to which artists and independent labels could sign up and get paid, depending on how much their songs were heard. Stiksel says labels recognise that Last.fm is “essentially a force for good” because it encourages people to listen to new, independent music.

But the labels don’t necessarily agree. One of the majors, Warner, withdrew its music from Last.fm in June 2008 because, says a spokesperson, “the rates they were offering were below industry standards”. Stiksel says that Warner is “generally not active any more in the online space”, although it seemed happy to strike a deal with Spotify. Some of the independents are equally unenthusiastic about Last.fm. Simon Wheeler, director of strategy at Beggars Group, which encompasses a group of small labels including Rough Trade and XL, says he has had numerous conversations with Last.fm over the years. Before, he says, “you could talk to them as a young, developing, cool service that’s trying to do something right”. But they never had a licence for the labels’ music and still don’t. “We regularly have to send them take-down notices.”

Wheeler says he likes the service personally, but since the CBS takeover he has been running out of patience. The Last.fm guys used to play the card, he says, of being precarious, running on a shoestring. “Now that CBS owns Last.fm they’re not exactly short of money, so pleading poverty doesn’t wash with me, I’m afraid.” He suspects that CBS is exerting tighter controls over the company’s finances as profits fall (CBS’s February 2009 results showed a 52 per cent drop in income for the fourth quarter of 2008).

Many in the industry speculate that the Americans bitterly regret having bought the start-up for such a startling sum. It was back in the times of extraordinary deals, when Google bought YouTube for $1.65bn and eBay bought Skype for $2.6bn (both now seen as vastly overvalued: Skype has already recorded huge losses, and YouTube seems to be on the verge of losing $470m this year). They make Last.fm seem cheap, but there is no doubt that CBS took a gamble on the service’s potential profitability. Either way, the directives from on high – such as the description in a recent CBS press release of how the company had “taken substantial costs out of all our businesses, in order to help margins going forward” – cannot have helped relations with the founders. TechCrunch, a technology blog, speculated on the announcement of their departure that “the founders may well be tired of living under their corporate overlords”.

In their official leaving statement Stiksel, Miller and Jones express loyalty to CBS, as you would expect, saying how being a part of the company “continues to open up many opportunities for Last.fm”. But they save their emotion for their “incredible team” and, ultimately, their users. “A huge ‘Thank You!’ has to be said to all of you in front of your computers. With your contribution, enthusiasm and scrobbles you have helped to make Last.fm into what it is today: the best place for music online. Big up yourself for that, as we say here in east London.”

The founders leave Last.fm with as many as 37 million users from all over the world. So what now? “The answer in the short term,” says Jones on the blog, “is ‘a much-needed holiday’. Then we need to plan an epic farewell party, so stay tuned for invites.” In April, Stiksel had described the whole Last.fm operation, with its millions of users, as a “big party to keep going”. When I visited the offices then, it felt to me like something much less formal than a corporate American enterprise.

It wasn’t just the ping-pong and table football, or the multicoloured teddy bears that light up when something is going wrong on the site, or even the army of young, headphone-clad developers. It was something about the founders themselves – a fascination with music that goes far deeper than their interest in multinational business. Jones was at his most animated talking about the power of open source, the free sharing of information to advance technology. Stiksel was visibly excited as he imagined the future of music: the “virtual cloud” that will allow someone “in the deepest countryside, in the middle of the night”, with only a mobile phone for company, to discover a new band.

So, after the holiday, and the party, what really is next? Many will expect a new online venture, another start-up. But the founders deny having any firm plans. There is talk of opening a music venue. That would seem right, too, somehow. Back to fundamentals, to where it all began – a simple love of music.

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Iran

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?