The final table at the 2009 World Series of Poker. Photo: Getty Images
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Las Vegas: the last honest place on earth

Poker is pure social Darwinism – a revelation of character as well as capacity. And where better to play it than Las Vegas, a city that is brutally upfront about its desire to separate you from your money?

I once knew a girl who had grown up in a small town on the North Island of New Zealand. The town was populated by descendants of Scottish Protestants, who had established a place of sober, hard-working respectability. On Friday and Saturday nights, the young people would go to a barn outside the town limits, where there would be music and dancing and the young men would get drunk and fight each other. None of this spilled over back into the town: no one would say anything about the bruises on the butcher boy’s face; and if a couple had found an intimacy at a dance, that wouldn’t alter the formality of their relations during the rest of the week.

This is how Protestant countries work. Civic spaces are designed for polite, hard-working respectability, and young people let off steam and the sinners do their sinning in self-contained places outside town limits. The US is a very Protestant country, and Las Vegas is its barn.
Actually it’s two barns, a couple of miles away from each other. The original one, Fremont Street, Downtown, is a ramshackle place. Apart from the slickly remodelled Golden Nugget, the one-time Glitter Gulch is a couple of shabby blocks of casinos and bars and souvenir shops covered by a canopy and blasted at night with music and air-conditioning and lights (“The Fabulous Fremont Street Experience!”), surrounded by slums and bail bondsmen storefronts. The other, the Strip, is the gaudy place of postcards and movies and the “Welcome to Las Vegas” sign, where high-rise casino-resorts stretch out along Las Vegas Boulevard.
 
It all began with a 1930s gambling roadhouse. The Club Pair-O-Dice was built up in the 1940s and 1950s with oil and Mafia money, and properly established itself after the Cuban Revolution of 1959 shut down America’s playground. The mountains behind, and the intolerable heat, remind any summer visitor who is foolish enough to stray too far from air-conditioning that this is a place in the middle of the desert without any reason to be, except for cupidity, profit, pleasure and need.
 
In July, I’d driven in from LA in the company of two old friends. We followed Interstate 15 through the Mojave Desert shimmer of heat, truck stops and Joshua trees and the occasional sun-blasted forsaken town. Both of my companions are Londoners who have been living in Los Angeles for about 15 years. One has made it big in Hollywood as a writer and producer of network television shows. The other is a professor of the history of science at California State University.
 
The Money and I had planned this trip some months ago. The Professor had joined us at short notice, leaving his wife and two small children behind. The Professor’s wife had been unresisting, maybe even encouraging. Because this is America, it is understood that men need to get together, to drive through the desert, that men need to drink cocktails and argue about politics in the Bellagio bar. But I wasn’t here to let off steam. I’d come to Vegas for a meeting of the board of the UK Poker Federation, and to take part in the World Series of Poker (WSOP).
 
The WSOP began in 1970 as a publicity stunt, as so many things in Vegas do. The Downtown casino owner Benny Binion invited the six best players in the world – most of them Texan – to compete against each other in cash games in several variants of poker, after which they voted on who had played the best. Most voted for themselves but after the second-place votes were tallied, Johnny Moss was declared the champion. The following year, seven players returned for a freeze-out tournament, in which players put up $5,000, received the same number of chips and the player who had all the chips at the end was the winner. This was again Johnny Moss.
 
The game that was played was Texas Hold ’em (“the Cadillac of poker games”). Each player is dealt two hole cards, followed by a round 
of betting, after which the “flop” of three communal cards is dealt, followed by a fourth card, the “turn”, and then the final communal card, the “river”, with a round of betting after the reveal of each communal card. The player makes the best five-card hand available out of any combination of his or her hidden hole cards and the five communal cards of the “board”. It’s a game of discipline and nerve and courage, which has become by far the most commonly played variant of poker. As the cliché goes, the tournament version is “hours and hours of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror”.
 
In the World Series of 1972, eight players took part, this time putting up $10,000 as the entry fee. The winner was “Amarillo Slim” Preston, who had a genius for self-publicity that exceeded even Benny Binion’s; and with this, the Main Event, the Big One, took off in the American imagination.
The modern era of poker began in 2003 when the appropriately named Chris Moneymaker, an accountant from Tennessee, qualified for the Main Event on the internet site PokerStars for a $39 investment and beat 838 other competitors for the first prize of $2.5m. When I first played the Main Event, in 2006, there were 8,773 entrants, many thousands of whom were online qualifiers.
 
The lobbies and bars and streets of Vegas were filled with tribes of online players wearing their website-branded caps and T-shirts and hoodies. (We’re now in the postmodern era, ever since the US government, in one of its typical reflexes of puritanism and economic protectionism, shut down online poker in America in April last year.)
 
The WSOP events are no longer at Binion’s Horseshoe Casino. The casino chain Harrah’s (now Caesars Entertainment) bought the Horseshoe in 2004 just for the World Series brand and moved the event from Fremont Street to just off the Strip, in the Rio Casino’s convention centre. This was all part of Downtown’s dwindling. There is no economic or legal connection between the city of Las Vegas and the Strip, which is incorporated into Clark County rather than the city. Strip casinos are superbly well-engineered machines for separating people from their money. None of those proceeds goes to the city.
 
Five years ago, Las Vegas was the fastest-growing city in the United States, with an unemployment rate of 4.7 per cent. The unemployment rate now is above 12 per cent. The crime rate is high, and getting higher. This year, the projected figures are for 130 killings and 16,500 cases of violent crime, which is two and a half times the national average.
 
The biggest police anti-crime initiative that I saw when I was there in July was the clampdown on pedlars selling bottles of drinking water without a licence. They are a common street sight, almost as common as the Mexican families flicking cards advertising erotic services on Las Vegas Boulevard, and the tourists traipsing along the Strip in the desert heat are grateful. But as the Las Vegas Review-Journal reported of one family group that had been warned off by a security guard outside Planet Hollywood, “Dolores Smith, 20, acknowledges that the water she and her cousins are selling for $1 is un-fair to licensed businesses that overcharge.” This is an interesting and very Vegas usage of the word “unfair”.
 
The journalist Marc Cooper published a very good book about the city nearly ten years ago that was called The Last Honest Place in America. Its thesis was that Las Vegas is brutal but self-evident: it’s all about money. Anyone can wander into the high-end casino-resorts, and people do, streams and streams of them, looking for bars and nightclubs and adrenalin adventure, drinking luminous cocktails from giant glasses, girls in tiny skirts and high heels, boys trying to act like high rollers, the prostitutes waiting in the casino bars, with the looks they send out that manage to be both candid and modest, You’re a discerning and attractive gentleman. You and I maybe could . . . ? and the disabled people rolling slowly through the aisles between slot machines in wheelchairs and mobility scooters – because, as the recession deepens, the proportion of disabled people in Vegas has risen noticeably: Mammon has finally found its Lourdes. And, if you’ve got a dollar in your pocket, you’re entitled to play. But Cooper’s book was published when Vegas was indisputably the gambling capital of the world. It’s lost some of its swagger recently. It has become more expensive. Profits from the casinos of Macau now exceed those of Las Vegas, which need to protect their income stream from the likes of Dolores Smith.
Nonetheless, I still love Vegas, its calculated gaudiness, its relentlessness, the haven it has made for smokers and gamblers and pleasure-seekers. In other contexts, I might find it decadent rather than magnificent that a resort in the desert has more championship golf courses than anywhere else in the world. The water comes from the Hoover Dam and, I’m sure, is also diverted from helplessly thirsty towns in southern California. As the journalist and president of the International Federation of Poker, Anthony Holden, says, “I love its nerve and its boldness and that every year something new happens.”
 
The conversations with cab drivers here are better than any you’ll find anywhere else, such as when the ex-marine explained to me the difference between gay and straight couples travelling in the back of his cab: “They want to give each other blow jobs? The straight couples ask you first. The gays just do it.”
 
And I love that you can play poker here all of the time, with many hundreds of games to choose from at any moment in the day. Every cash table, it seems, has at least one of the following: a cocky young man wearing enormous headphones, an implacable white-haired gentleman, an American Oriental who’s a dangerous opponent and a ferocious old lady with dyed red hair who bets aggressively, and whose ancient hands are covered with heavy jewellery and raised veins.
 
This is what I was here to do. In a fog of jet lag, I set about trying to raise my stake for the Main Event. I spent my days and nights in Vegas, as the Money and the Professor sampled cocktails and swimming pools and Vegas steaks, playing poker tournaments.
The Money, who has a slightly inflated opinion of my poker capacities because I managed to make it into the prize money in the 2007 Main Event, backed me in a couple of smaller WSOP tournaments. Staking arrangements are common in poker, with the player, as the phrase goes, selling off pieces of him or herself.
 
I had a meal with the Money and the Professor after I was knocked out of my first WSOP tournament this year after about six hours of play. Glumly, I apologised for the failure of his $1,500 investment and reported back on my exit hand (ace-ten, both diamonds, on an ace-king-jack flop with two diamonds: the subsequent two cards didn’t bring me my flush or my straight and I had to make the long walk out 
of the tournament room). We were eating at a very fancy steak joint at the Bellagio where, somewhat giddy with the food and the wine and Vegas, the Money ordered the best grappa in the house to finish off the meal. The waiter mildly observed, “That’s a dangerous thing to say in a place like this,” and fetched the order. 
 
I never did see the bill. They wished me luck on getting to the Main Event. All the top poker players in the world play the Main Event. Even some of the worst do, along with many visiting celebrities. Shane Warne and Teddy Sheringham play the Main Event. Even Jason Alexander (“George” from Seinfeld) plays the Main Event. I was having trouble accommodating myself to the likelihood that I might not be part of it.
 
Several days later, I was back at the Rio playing WSOP event number 59, a $1,000 buy-in. After the first 20 minutes or so, I was, as they say, in the zone. I knew where I was in pots; I knew which players I could bluff, which would find it unable to steer away from confrontations. It was clear who the good players at the table were and, therefore, which other players I needed to target, whose chips were up for grabs. I felt like I’d done five years before, the last time I’d played the Main Event, when I was at the top of my game and my form – when I proved, at least to myself, that I could function, even thrive, at this level and in this company.
 
Poker is a revelation of character, as well as capacity. As Al Alvarez reminds us, it is “social Darwinism in its purest, most brutal form: the weak go under and the fittest survive through calculation, insight, self-control, deception, plus an unwavering determination never to give a sucker an even break”. I was feeling so in control that I even had space in my heart to feel sorry for the gentleman at the other end of the table.
 
He was thickset with a kindly face and a white goatee that matched the colour of his dapper little cap. He was shaking, unmanned by nerves. 
I never found out how he had ended up in this tournament; maybe he was a wealthy tourist who had entered it on a whim, but he had neither the stomach for it nor the skill. Any time he forced himself to play a hand, the agony of the event was written on his face and body. He gave his chips away, some to me, some to the clever, taciturn Australian on my right, and when he had lost them all, when his tournament life was over, the relief of it returned him to some kind of version of himself.
 
There were over 4,500 entrants to this event. It would last for four days, with a first prize of $654,000. I wasn’t dreaming of this yet, nor even really of surviving long enough to get past 90 per cent of the field and into the money. At this stage the plan was to accumulate chips, with the thought of having enough to put me in some kind of decent position going into day two. I felt confident; I was on top of things.
 
And then my composure failed me. A new player arrived at our table, a glowering young man wearing enormous headphones and a baseball cap who sat down with towers of chips in front of him. I raised in middle position with pocket tens. He reraised in the dealer position. The flop came down jack high. I checked, he bet, I raised, and he reraised, putting me all in for the rest of my chips. I looked at him. He glowered back at me. I had put him on ace-king. Possibly he had a big pocket pair, higher than my tens. He might have had ace-jack. Or, he was playing position. The later you act in a betting round, the stronger your hand becomes. When you’re the last to act, you have leverage. If you have mountains of chips, you have greater leverage. 
 
I suspected I was winning. I asked for time. My instincts told me to call. I folded.
 
Poker is perhaps unique in that you are betting on an event that has already happened: the deck of cards has been shuffled and dealt; as more cards are revealed, more information is available. In playing a game of incomplete information, part of the agony is when you never find out the answer to the question that has been posed. I suspected that I had the better hand against the heavy-set aggressive kid, but I would never know. Even if I were to have asked him, dragged him out from under his headphones, he would probably have lied. Crucially, poker is also a test of the processing power of the brain and the emotional discipline of the player in response to new information and fresh stimuli. I was still beating myself up over the previous hand when I overplayed the subsequent one, committed all my chips in a toing and froing of action with the Aussie; and when it was over, I had two pairs, he had three jacks and I was out of the tournament. I had felt where I was, I had known where I was, but I was still off-balance from the earlier skirmish, and committed a kind of suicide. It takes only a moment to switch from being on top of things to taking the shameful walk away to the exit door. It happens all the time. I didn’t like that it was happening to me.
 
The day before, while I was playing a tour­nament at Caesars Palace, television screens were showing the final table of the Big One for One Drop. This was the inaugural run of a dizzying, $1m buy-in tournament, the winner receiving over $18m, by far the richest prize in sport, with 11 per cent of the entry money, suitably for Vegas, going to a water charity, the One Drop Foundation. (This year’s Main Event will have a first prize of “only” $8.5m.) The Big One was set up by the founder of Cirque du Soleil, Guy Laliberté, who is a high-stakes cash player as well as a circus magnate. The 2012 Main Event had 6,598 runners, of whom I was not going to be one. With its entry fee still at the 1972 level of $10,000, it’s no longer known as the Big One. Laliberté’s event had 48 entrants, including Laliberté. It was rumoured that he had paid the buy-in for 15 other players. Nonetheless, the event attracted, or enticed, all the best players in the world, along with a few deep-pocketed businessmen. It is probably the closest poker now comes to a true world championship.
 
The British player Sam Trickett came second (with over $10m to console him) to the American Antonio Esfandiari, but he deserved to win. Fearless, poised, always aggressive, always putting the question to his opponents (and we should remember here the origin of the phrase “putting the question”, which was a euphem­ism for interrogation under torture), he played poker of the very highest standard, under extreme emotional duress, for 12-hour days. He made audacious bluffs (some got through, others didn’t), he lost chips, he gathered them again. I lost my composure in under eight hours; he maintained his throughout three days.
 
I can point to the luck that let me down in the various tournaments I played in Vegas. In my exit hand from the $1,500 event, I was only a slight underdog on the flop (approximately 44 per cent to 56 per cent). In one $240 event at Caesars Palace, when we were getting close to the money (with a first prize of $61,000), I was all in, committing all my chips before the flop, with ace-king of spades against my outplayed opponent’s king-nine of clubs. The chances of my winning the hand were slightly more than 72 per cent. My opponent made his flush on the flop.
 
But all poker players, at whatever level, are used to bad beat stories. Like dreams, the only reason you put up with other people telling you theirs is that it then gives you the right to bore them with yours.
 
One of the effects of all this is to remind me how tough it is to be a poker player. Not just the world-class types like Trickett, but any of the ones who can call themselves professionals. In my week in Vegas, I played five tournaments, with entry fees of $1,500, $1,000, $350, $240, and $200. My prize winnings were $732, of which I donated $20 for dealer tips. Add to the buy-in costs the expenses of living and travel that the pros need to find. And the runs of bad luck that they have to deal with. In the poker world, it’s called “variance”. I tried to explain this to the Money before the grappa finished us off. His intelligently Vegas response was to reach into his pocket for his billfold. As Jason Alexander tweeted after his Main Event elimination: “The poker agony is over. Going home. But thrilled for the chance. Next year!” 
 
David Flusfeder is the author of “A Film by Spencer Ludwig” (Fourth Estate, £11.99)

This article first appeared in the 20 August 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Back To Reality

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?