The Film Interview: Michael Winterbottom

The director talks about adapting Naomi Klein -- and the morality of on-screen violence.

Michael Winterbottom is the director of Welcome to Sarajevo, 24 Hour Party People and The Road to Guantanamo. He spoke to the NS about his documentary adaptation of Naomi Klein's book The Shock Doctrine - and responded to criticism of his most recent fiction film, The Killer Inside Me

The Shock Doctrine argues that since the 1970s, the US and its allies have used global crises ranging from the Pinochet coup in Chile to Hurricane Katrina to impose their extreme version of free market economics. What did you hope to do with a film that couldn't be done in the book?

I thought that it was a great book and one that covers a huge area, so it was interesting from my point of view to make an archive documentary.

Naomi's book spreads over 30 years and across different continents, so it was a mammoth job. But one of the things that appealed about The Shock Doctrine was that there was a relatively small group of characters who you could follow over the course of those years.

One of these "characters" is the economist Milton Friedman. Early on, Klein describes his contention that free market economics go hand in hand with democracy as a "fairytale". That suggests the film is really about competing versions of history.

Naomi's argument is against what she perceives as the dominant narrative, the dominant idea. The events she picks out span my adult life. For me it was about making people see them in a different light -- especially the war in Iraq and how it has connections to Chile in the 1970s.

Milton Friedman seemed extreme at the time of Thatcher's election, but the last Labour government seemed to be living under the same ideology as Thatcher. It is important to show alternatives.

Do alternative narratives appeal to you as a film-maker?

People want a story. So you're not really questioning a narrative when you make a film, you're trying to find one.

Your other film currently on release is The Killer Inside Me, an adaptation of Jim Thompson's novel about a murderer in small-town Texas. What do you make of the criticism that its depiction of violence, particularly when directed at the female characters, is too extreme?

Obviously everyone is entitled to their opinion on a film. It's easy to make the criticism that the film is in some way promoting or supporting violence, but it's just wrong.

I don't think anyone will go and see that film and think Lou Ford [the murderer] is a man to copy. It's a film about his weakness and his violence -- and these are horrible. It is a violent world, men do these things to women and I think you should be allowed to make films about that as long as they are honest.

Even if people criticise me, it would be far worse to make a film that casually shows violence or says it's OK. I think those things are immoral. If you show violence as brutal then it's moral.

Were you making a conscious attempt to reclaim violence from its casual portrayal in many mainstream films?

The starting point was to make a film of Jim Thompson's book. I think it's a great portrait of a weak, crazy, horrible killer. And to be honest, it's not as though the violence is visually that explicit compared to a lot of films. But it's about someone killing people who love him, so it's the emotional content that people are reacting to.

Feminist critics such as Natasha Walter objected to what they perceived as the suggestion that women in those sort of relationships somehow like being abused.

I don't think that is the case. In the case of Amy [Lou's girlfriend], within the story -- and we are taking a story, not making a film about domestic violence -- it's true that Amy does forgive Lou. There's a letter where Amy says she worries about what was done but still loves him. Everyone knows that in violent relationships, people do endure it for long amounts of time.

But the story is told by Lou himself. All the other characters, men and women, are only seen from Lou's point of view and only insofar as they affect Lou. It is a first-person film and Lou is the only person you really get inside the head of. All the other characters are one-dimensional.

What is the common thread running through your films, from fiction to the more politically engaged documentaries?

I just try and make films that I'm interested in. We have a rough idea, we develop them and make them. The only thing for me is whether the idea is interesting: am I going to spend three or four years trying to make it?

The Shock Doctrine is released on DVD on 19 July by Dogwoof. The Killer Inside Me is in cinemas now

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Daniel Trilling is the Editor of New Humanist magazine. He was formerly an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

Terry Notary's simian appearance as performance artist Oleg in The Square
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Ruben Östlund’s film The Square hammers home the point that we are all still animals

 Each thread and simian guest star shows how little distance there is between the civilised and the primitive.

Yasmina Reza’s play Art, about three friends whose closeness is threatened when one of them spends a fortune on an entirely white painting, offered audiences a series of packaged talking points (Does objective taste exist? What is art?) for their post-theatre meal. Ruben Östlund’s film The Square, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes last year, serves the same function. Before the first scene is over, the Stockholm curator Christian (Claes Bang), a vision of metropolitan spiffiness in his red-framed glasses, has already wondered whether an ordinary bag placed in a gallery would qualify as art. In his current exhibition is a room filled with piles of gravel. A visitor pokes his head in, decides there’s nothing worth investigating, then leaves. We’ve all done it.

Like the canvas in Reza’s play, there is a catalyst for disorder here: the blue neon square set into the gallery’s courtyard. It is conceived as “a sanctuary of trust and caring” but its arrival throws everyone’s behaviour into sharp relief. A woman screams for help as she is pursued by an unseen aggressor, prompting everyone around her to become more than usually engrossed in their phones. Charity workers ask commuters whether they would like to save a human life, only to be given the brush-off. Christian’s relationship with poverty is squeamish. He buys a sandwich for a homeless woman. “No onions,” she says. “Pick them out yourself,” he snaps, incredulous to find that beggars can also be choosers.

His downfall, which starts after he hatches a cockamamie scheme to retrieve his stolen wallet and phone by leafleting the housing estate where he believes the thieves are hiding, is the thread on which the film’s provocative episodes are hung. Each one, such as the gallery chef flying into a rage because no one wants to hear about his balsamic reduction, shows how little distance there is between the civilised and the primitive. A series of simian guest stars, real and pretend, make cameo appearances to hammer home the point that we are all still animals, no matter how many private views we attend. These include the performance artist Oleg (Terry Notary), whose confrontational appearance imitating an ape at a black-tie dinner – not just scene-stealing but film-stealing – exposes the instincts of the herd to conform, even if that means ignoring violence taking place at the next table.

That sequence crystallises ideas that in other parts of the film feel distinctly wishy-washy. Jibes about pretentious artists (a cameo from Dominic West) or crass advertising executives smack of the contrived bugbears of clickbait columnists – what next, jokes about quinoa served on slates? And a section of the film about a bad-taste campaign to promote the neon square will seem penetrating only to viewers who have never considered that ad agencies might stir up controversy for publicity purposes.

Östlund is sharper when he focuses on the discord beneath everyday social interactions, using sound and camerawork to disrupt supposedly simple scenes. He prefers when shooting a conversation, for instance, to linger too long on one participant, rather than cutting back and forth between them, so that we begin to interrogate and mistrust the face we’re looking at. Stand-offs between Christian and the journalist Anne (Elisabeth Moss), including an excruciating argument over a condom, show this technique at its most blissfully torturous.

He is a director who is never more comfortable than when he is making audiences squirm, as he did in Force Majeure, in which a man neglects his family but not his phone when fleeing danger. But the situation in The Square, which escalates to the point where Christian must ignore a child’s suffering in order to safeguard his own existence, would have greater moral force if the film showed any interest in its poorer characters as something other than lightning rods for middle-class complacency.

The Square is undeniably entertaining, though its lasting use may be to demonstrate that movies can have the same effect as popping a coin in the collecting tin. Having seen the film, you can rest easy knowing you’ve already given. You’ve done your guilt for this week.

The Square (15)
dir: Ruben Östlund

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game