Weeds grow outside the gate of an abandoned General Motors automotive assembly plant in Moraine, Ohio. Photograph: Getty Images
Show Hide image

How the Midwest was won

The US car industry went into a tailspin in 2008 just as Barack Obama was preparing to take office. His prompt action to save it — and Mitt Romney’s callous counter-proposals — may just win him this year’s election.

For 11 years, Stacie Steward commuted a hundred miles by car from Saginaw, Michigan, to the Sterling Heights Assembly plant outside Detroit. She is an electrician, in charge of maintaining 40 of the 700 robots at the plant, robots that make the 3,000 welds needed to construct the Dodge Avenger saloons that roll out of the three-million-square-foot plant and wait, gleaming in the hazy autumn sunshine, for trucks to take them away.

Right now, Sterling Heights is operational 22 or 23 hours every day, with only a couple of hours’ downtime for maintenance. When it’s running, a new car emerges every 60 seconds, like clockwork. I stand at the entrance with Steward and watch them come out. Tick, tock. A new blue car. Tick, tock. A new red car. But for several weeks in 2008 to 2009, just as Barack Obama was taking over from George W Bush on a tidal wave of hope and change, the whole industry, Sterling Heights included, shut down completely. “It was a dark time everywhere,” she told me. “There was no traffic on the roads.” She remembers a picket where staff from local grocery stores and bars joined the auto workers. “They were all getting laid off, too.”

In 2007, the US car industry had directly employed more than a million people; but in 2008 alone it shed a tenth of those and was on the brink of catastrophe. Opinion is split on the main reason for this. Some say powerful unions led to unsustainable workforce practices: at the beginning of 2008, workers for American car manufacturers earned considerably more than their counterparts at foreign-owned car firms – up to 20 per cent more – and enjoyed better benefits. Others say that the Big Three US car firms (Chrysler, Ford and General Motors) suffered from outdated strategy, concentrating on big SUVs and pick-up trucks when consumers were turning towards more fuel-efficient models. Whatever the reason, when the credit crisis rolled around, the auto industry in Michigan and Ohio was already struggling.

“When the economy started taking the tank in 2007 our hours got cut; the number of cars getting built got cut,” says Steward, whose plant is owned by Chrysler. “I got laid off. My unemployment from the state ran out twice. I went through two times when I was like: ‘Oh my God, I’m not going to get any money at all.’ When I saw Obama on TV say that he was going to give the loans [to GM and Chrysler], it was like – it was like heaven. Heaven.”

In the closing days of the Bush administration, December 2008, just days before Obama took office, it became clear that General Motors and Chrysler were unable to cope, and they were given $17.4bn between them in emergency loans to stave off bankruptcy, using money from the federal $700bn bank bailout fund.

This alone wasn’t enough. When Obama moved in to the White House, he assembled a presidential task force, led by the financier and “car tsar”, Steven Rattner, and the treasury secretary, Tim Geithner. On 18 February, GM and Chrysler requested bridging loans: $16.6bn for General Motors and $5bn for Chrysler. They received them, but by April both were entering bankruptcy procedures. The task force stepped in and forced a restructuring of both companies – some loans, a rearrangement of assets, a deal for Chrysler that sold a 20 per cent stake in the firm to the Italian car manufacturer Fiat as well as 68 per cent to the union retirement medical fund, and a government stake of 61 per cent in GM.

Today, both are back from the brink and the future is bright. The US treasury still holds 26 per cent of GM, but the company is negotiating for ways to buy back its independence from the taxpayer – and on 24 May 2011, Chrysler repaid the last of its loans, several years ahead of schedule. The company held a party to celebrate, at the Sterling Heights Assembly plant.

****

North-west Ohio is flat. Dead flat. The kind of flat where you can see for miles, but where the horizon is always close. Between the towns, the roads are arrow-straight. Out here, where it could be 30 miles to the nearest shop or the nearest school, a car is more than just a tool; it’s a necessity. A religion.

This is the middle of the Rust Belt. The name came about as the industrial era was waning in the latter half of the 20th century, when the steel and manufacturing industries were beginning to lose out for the first time to cheaper competitors overseas that were faster to adapt to circumstances and less enthralled with unionisation and workers’ rights. The cities built on steel started to decay.

Today, because of the government rescue, the Rust Belt is still the home of the American auto industry. To the north in Michigan, Detroit - Motor City - is its beating heart, and Ohio is its muscle.

About 848,000 people here do jobs that are directly dependent on or tied to the auto industry. The Chevrolet plant in Lordstown produces the top-selling Cruze. A gigantic Chrysler plant in Toledo makes the Jeep Wrangler and Jeep Liberty; another factory there makes gearboxes for GM. The cities of Dayton, Kettering and Sandusky are home to GM parts-factories. Euclid, Ohio, makes seat covers. Vandalia, Ohio, has a door panel assembly factory. Chrysler makes steering columns and torque converters in Perrysburg, Ohio.

Defiance, Ohio, is a small town about an hour south of Toledo, three hours south of Detroit, with a population just shy of 17,000. On its outskirts is Defiance Casting Operations, a two-million-square-foot steel foundry that casts engine blocks and piston heads for GM. It directly employs 10 per cent of the town’s population. Downtown, in a branch of the private members’ club the Fraternal Order of Eagles, a poker tournament is in full swing.

One of the players at the tournament is Chris Mendez, an ex-marine who now works at the foundry. Does he feel like Obama saved his job? “There’s no doubt in my mind,” he says. “He saved all our jobs. [Before the bailout came,] over half the people at the plant were laid off. I was laid off. When they happened, when we had word that GM was going to be OK . . . it was great. I was overjoyed. I’ve got three kids; when I was laid off they were terrified. I’ll do everything I can to support him – and make sure he gets re-elected.”

Is the bailout his main reason for voting? “Yeah.” How does he feel about Mitt Romney? “I don’t like him. I think he’s for the rich. I think he’s anti-union and anti-labour.” Will the bail­out swing Ohio? “I really think it will.”

Outside the club, an old man with a walking stick, wearing a battered Stetson, is smoking a cigarette with hands that shake. Rick Kantout is a Vietnam veteran and retired GM employee, and when I bring up Romney his response is venomous. “I think he’s a son of a bitch.” He spits on the ground. “Romney and the Republicans aren’t for the middle class. They’re for their own self-interest.”

The White House may sit on Pennsylvania Avenue, but the state that makes most difference to winning it is Ohio. The ultimate bellwether, it may return only 18 votes in the electoral college, but only two presidents since 1896 have won the presidency without it. That’s why the candidates are making such a play for the hearts of its voters; both of the main campaigns have spent more money on advertising here than in any other state, and spent vast amounts of time on the stump here, too.

Romney supporters have been celebrating positive national polling in recent weeks. The first findings after the initial presidential debate on 3 October, by pollsters of the Pew Research Centre, showed Romney leading among likely voters for the first time by 4 points – an extraordinary 12-point swing from their previous poll in September. Gallup, too, found a (less dramatic) shift to Romney after the debate, showing him tied with the president on 47 per cent, and a Reuters/Ipsos poll showed the same. But in Ohio Obama has held his edge: a CNN poll released on 9 October put him still 4 points clear of Romney.

Why is this? The answer can be found in an op-ed article Romney wrote for the New York Times in November 2008, condemning the bailout. “If General Motors . . . and Chrysler get the bailout that their chief executives asked for yesterday, you can kiss the American automotive industry goodbye,” he declared, with devastating hubris.

The statement has been used against him endlessly. At the vice-presidential debate on 11 October, Joe Biden repeated Romney’s words twice in full. Romney has counterattacked on the campaign trail by pointing the finger at Chinese currency-lowpegging taking American jobs, but that argument is failing to fly here – unemployment in the state, at 7 per cent, is lower than the national average of 7.8 per cent, and that also is falling. One in every eight jobs in Ohio depends on the auto industry. As the local reporter Jack Palmer tells me, “Certainly, the Osama Bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive message” – one of Obama’s and Biden’s central campaign slogans – “could go a very long way.”

The Obama for America campaign has spent an astonishing $52.75m so far in Ohio, its highest spend on any state in the US. One omni­present advert runs footage of Romney defending his position on Detroit. “Yes, that’s exactly what I said,” he says, in footage taken from a television interview: “that headline you read... ‘Let Detroit go bankrupt’.” Over and over again, it repeats. The message is inescapable and, to people like Rick Kantout, irrevocably damning.

****

The United Auto Workers union has more than 390,000 working members and twice that many retirees, most of them here in Ohio and in Michigan. As it is restricted by law from using union funds to run political activities, it has a separately funded political wing, known as the CAP – the Community Action Programme.

The CAP boss in north-west Ohio is Joe Eureste. A lifelong union man, he started working for General Motors four days after graduating from high school in 1972 and has been there ever since. He has a deep sense of mission. “When people get fat and happy, they say it doesn’t matter,” Eureste tells me. “But it does. We have to make sure we keep it to the forefront that [the collapse of the auto industry] could have happened, and could happen again. A lot of people are appreciative of having their jobs, getting rehired. Our job is to make sure they don’t forget it.

“We were going to lose eight jobs in the community to every GM job lost. That’s a lot of people.” He laughs, and then refers to Romney’s old firm. “You were going to have your Bain Capitalists come in and pluck the meat off the bones, and discard pensions; how could they restructure otherwise? So when the government stepped in they helped us all survive.

“I keep telling people: make sure you remember who was on your side and who helped you. Some people have short memories. Our job is to make sure we don’t.”

In the parking lots that surround the vast steel fortress of the Defiance foundry are acres of Chevrolets, Buicks, Lincolns and Oldsmobiles, Fords and Cadillacs. I can’t see a single imported car. A bumper sticker on a GM pick-up truck says: “Out of a job yet? Keep buying foreign.” Opposite the main exit to the plant, a billboard carries the local Obama campaign’s favoured slogan: “Osama Bin Laden is dead. General Motors is alive.”

Dwight Chatham is the just-retired president of UAW Local 211, the union’s chapter in Defiance, which has 5,000 members – more than a quarter of the town – of whom roughly 3,500 are retirees. When I meet him at a coffee shop halfway between downtown and the foundry, I ask what would have happened if GM and Chrysler had been allowed to go under. He chews thoughtfully on a toothpick. “A lot of people would be out of work. A lot of people. I truly believe that if Obama hadn’t stepped in, the Defiance plant would have closed.”

What would that have done to the community? “It would have been devastating. Devastating. This is the largest plant in the county; it funnels a lot of money back in, to schools, the town. If it had closed –” he pauses, and shakes his head – “devastating.”

The chair of the Defiance County Democratic Party, Charlie Gray, grew up in a union household. “My father was the first shop committee chairman at this plant,” he says. “My mother was a union organiser.” I ask Gray if he thinks the bailout will help the president win votes. “It’s helped the president a lot. [People] realise what the situation would have been like without it.”

David Jackson, associate professor of political science at Bowling Green State University, 20 minutes south of Toledo, tells me that the bailout is a powerful influence on votes in the industrial north of Ohio. “It will definitely energise the union base. The bailout could be a real factor for turnout.”

That is crucial, he says. “This is looking like a turnout election, like 2004. It’s all about who can get their base out. [The bailout] will certainly get out the base for the Democrats.”

That’s important when you consider the diverse political make-up of Ohio as a whole. “Take the state of Ohio and draw the letter C on it in reverse, starting in Toledo,” Jackson says. “Going east along the top through Cleveland . . . that’s the section of the state where union membership is the strongest, the north part. In the 2010 election – a landslide year for Republicans nationally – the governor [Ted Strickland, a Democrat] came closest to re-election in the north.

“Then, going down the eastern border with Pennsylvania and West Virginia [in the old coal-mining areas of the Appalachian Mountains], that is Democrat as well, though in 2008 Obama underperformed Bill Clinton in those areas – because those are the working-class white voters he’s had trouble with.” The middle is more rural: conservative heartland, agricultural areas and wealthier towns. It is this diversity that makes Ohio such an important political indicator.

“The question,” Jackson says, “is can the union turnout in industrial north Ohio compensate for the Appalachian white Democrats [in the south and east] not turning out? That’s the question. I certainly think Obama has to be looking at it. Maybe it’s time he got Bill Clinton out campaigning for him down there.”

Not every GM employee is enamoured with the bailout, nor is it the most important political issue for everyone in the north. Randy Peabody is a metalworker for GM of nearly 39 years’ standing, and a proud Republican for “moral reasons”. “I don’t support Obama,” he explains, “and I think the investors got a bad deal. The workers were given the farm; they did really, really well out of it. The auto industry . . . I think the government ought to stay out of it.”

There is no doubt that the United Auto Workers did extremely well from the bailout – or at least escaped most of the hardships that unionised labour usually suffers in a bankruptcy. Gold-plated pensions and benefits were protected for all those retiring, and workers at General Motors still enjoy wages 10 per cent higher on average than those at their foreign competitors.

President Obama has been accused of fav­ouritism, even cronyism, with the UAW. In the bankruptcy of Delphi, a parts manufacturer for GM, UAW members were paid certain benefits while non-union workers – 41,000 of them – were not. Local car dealerships, too, were cut with brute speed during the bailout. But none of them would have stayed open if GM and Chrysler had been allowed to go bankrupt, and union workers have taken some hits: there is still a no-strike clause in force at Chrysler and GM plants. “I think if we had more time, we might have asked all the stakeholders to sacrifice a little bit more,” Steven Rattner, one of the architects of the bailout under Obama, confessed at an event in 2011.

“We didn’t ask any active worker to cut his or her pay. We didn’t ask them to sacrifice any of their pension, and we maybe could have asked them to do a little bit more.” He said that, nonetheless, he considered the bailout to have been very successful overall: “A happy ending.”

I am reminded of this while on hold to Solidarity House, the UAW’s regional headquarters in Detroit. The hold-music is a pop song by Kelly Clarkson. “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” she sings. 

****

The Renaissance Centre, on the shoreline that separates Detroit from Canada, is a vast 1970s edifice of seven enormous towers topped with a five-storey-high General Motors logo. Around its base, Motor City skulks like a shadow. At the base of the central tower is a showroom filled with gleaming new Cadillacs and Corvettes.

Greg Martin is GM’s director of global communications. “I can’t wait until this election is over,” he tells me. “We’re in a position no other company’s ever been in before, where we’re a central part in a political debate.” He shrugs helplessly. “We just want to be a great car company. We don’t want to be a political football.”

The year 2011 was the most profitable in GM’s history – $7.6bn in net income, $150.3bn revenue, after ten consecutive quarters of profitability. A stock-market flotation in 2010 generated $13.6bn for the US treasury and reduced government ownership from 60.8 per cent to 32 per cent. The company has just invested $47m in making improvements to the Defiance foundry. Chrysler’s balance sheet, too, is looking better. This year, the company had its best September since before the 2007 financial crisis, with sales up 12 per cent on September 2011. The Dodge Avenger – made at the plant in Sterling Heights – is up 89 per cent to a record high. Chrysler is spending $850m to expand the site to include a million-square-foot body shop and a new paint shop.

The day I meet Stacie Steward there, it is “Obama Tuesday”, when the workers wear campaign badges and talk about politics, showing their support for the president. This isn’t union-organised: just ordinary workers showing grass-roots support.

“I’d say the feeling in my plant is probably 80 to 85 per cent in support of Obama,” she says, “but you always run into those people that are hardcore Republicans. That’s fine, it’s a democracy. But like I tell everybody: ‘You be what you wanna be, but you gotta think about your job when you go into that ballot box. Think about who saved your job.’”

I ask what she thinks of Mitt Romney. “How could he say he’d have let Detroit go bankrupt? How could his heart be there? I think he’s an elitist, and his heart doesn’t know what middle class is. He’s out of touch. He’s not evil; he has a good Christian heart. But he just don’t un­derstand what it’s like to be a regular working Joe Blow that gotta go to work every day. He just don’t get it.”

David Jackson at Bowling Green State University is a betting man. “I put money on sports, horse races, so why not politics?” He says his money is still on the president despite Romney’s recent poll boost. “I think it’s going to be a 2- or 3-point nationwide Obama victory and a slightly larger electoral college victory.”

He is unequivocal about his home state. “Obama will carry Ohio. It’ll be an election based on turnout, and they [the unions and the Obama campaign] have a better turnout operation. That’s something that’s really changed over eight years: [John] Kerry had a terrible turnout operation [in 2004]. But Obama doesn’t mess around with this stuff, and this – this is a turnout election.”

As I get off the phone, the ad spot is running again on the TV. The sound is off but I know the words by heart now. Most of the population of Ohio does. “Yes, that’s exactly what I said,” Romney is saying. On the screen he even seems to sag, but the punchline is as inevitable as ever. I read his lips: “Let Detroit . . . go bankrupt.”

Nicky Woolf is reporting for the New Statesman from the US. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

This article first appeared in the 05 November 2012 issue of the New Statesman, What if Romney wins?

LAURA HYND FOR NEW STATESMAN
Show Hide image

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?