Michael Winterbottom interview
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Your new film is EVERYDAY. What's it about?
The starting point was to try and deal with time passing in a story. So when I went to Tessa Ross [Channel 4's Controller of Film and Drama] to try and persuade her to give us the money that was the initial premise. A lot of films deal with stories that take place over a long period of time: I've just done a film now with Steve Coogan about Paul Raymond which goes from 1958 to 1992. But you tend to do it with very conventional techniques. You're still making it over a period of seven or eight weeks, you're still packing it in, so it's all done with wigs and make-up. So with children especially you end up having different children playing the same role. It's very unsatisfactory. This is a film about how the relationship between children and their dad can survive a long separation, how that effects the relationship with their mum, and the relationship between the mum and the dad. And rather than do it in six weeks and try and fake it all, we did it over the same length of time that the story is supposed to take place [five years].
Had you ever heard of anything like that being done before?
There are documentaries that have been shot over a long period of time, but fiction films? No, not really. It's so easy to get bogged down in the idea that this is how you make a film - you spend two years working on the script, do four months preparation, do two months shooting. I think it's good to get away from that way of thinking. The way you make a film affects the film you're making, so if you can have a fresh approach to the way you're making it, that's good. You have to tailor the way you make the film to suit your story.
When you start off making a film like this, that is almost entirely improvised and filmed over a period of years, do you have an idea of where the plot will go and what will happen, or do you let it evolve organically?
The original idea for this was that the couple are apart for five years, and at the end they're still together. It's a love story. But that's always provisional. The initial idea was also that there would be a little boy who would start to grow up to be like his dad. And that became four children, two boys and two girls. And after a couple of years, we realised how long a couple of years feels. And we felt that, to be fair to the situation, after that long, there should be someone else, another guy, who figures in Karen's life. So at that point it wasn't absolutely clear how it would go. We liked to make John as nervous as possible about which way it might be going. We kept him as much in the dark as possible. Filming it over five years made you aware of how long five years is, and if you are apart for all of that time, it must be incredibly difficult to go all of that time without having some sort of relationship, whether it's sexual or whatever, but just a relationship to fill that gap.
The prison scenes are shot in real prisons, most of the film is shot in the house where the children live. Do you think it's important to film at real locations?
I always like to film in the right place and at the right time. If you're filming a breakfast scene, it's always easier to film at breakfast time, if you're filming a pub scene it's always easier to film at night. Lots of films don't do that. But I think people behave differently under different circumstances. Obviously when you're improvising it's more important, and when you have kids it's even more important again. So with the children, although they're acting, the more it's natural and organic and they're responding naturally, the better. So it made sense to film in their house, it made sense to film in their school. The children were great. Very quickly they worked out the mood of the scene, and responded accordingly. Say Sean was crying, he'd do it once, maybe spontaneously, but then he'd know that he'd have to do it again for the next take. So it was a weird mixture of them being natural, but still being aware of the framework of the fiction that they were trying to be natural in.
How did you find them?
Melissa Parmenter, the producer, and Wendy Brazington, went and looked at various schools in the area [North Norfolk]. So they toured lots of schools, and I then met a shortlist of about ten people. And we weren't looking for four children, we were looking for one or two, but they came as four. And we were lucky that the parents were happy - they've been great all the way through. For the parents to commit their children for five years, and their house, was a big commitment. And the school committed to it as well. The reverse of that is that, when I've worked with children before, sometimes you feel that plucking a child for several weeks, taking them to a film set, making them little stars for a few weeks, you're not necessarily having a very good psychological impact on them. Whereas in this case, it's been five years, filming a few times a year, in their own home and their own school. I think the fact that this was a long-term project has been a better arrangement.
When you've got Shirley and John on set, in the house, with the kids, do you need to make sure the parents aren't right there where the kids can see them?
Yeah. It helps. In practical terms, if we were filming downstairs the parents would tend to be upstairs, if we were shooting upstairs they would be downstairs. They were brilliant, they became very aware that they didn't want to be in there ‘interfering'.
Logistically, was it difficult getting everyone together a few times a year to film?
Not too bad. Obviously those were issues, but it never became impossible. We had to work around people's dates, and there were times when we couldn't make it. But luckily, with the kids being based there, they were available the whole time. My dates were pretty easy - if you're doing a film a year, you're only filming for seven or eight weeks, so all the rest you can manage, so it was really just about Shirley and John's dates.
What about the logistics of filming in prison. I imagine there are all sorts of bureaucratic hoops to jump through?
Yeah. Firstly I should say that we were very happy with the co-operation we got, both from the Home Office initially, and then later on from the individual prisons. Obviously it's difficult - there are issues about privacy - you can only show prisoners who have agreed to be shown. We tried wherever possible to use prisoners and their families for the visiting scenes, although that's not the case with every one of them. And just getting in and out of prison takes quite a long time.
Did you find it difficult to snap back into EVERYDAY mode a few times a year when you'd been working on other projects?
On the whole I found it, as an ongoing project, really enjoyable. It obviously helps that Shirley and John are people I know and really respect. And that somehow meant that, on the detail level, it was easier to slot back into, because I wasn't thinking "Oh shit, I've got to go and work with those people again." In fact, the structure made it less stressful, because you didn't have that knowledge that you had a certain amount of time, and you had to get everything done, in a sort of now-or-never way. We could just come back and shoot stuff the next time.
As you say, you enjoy working with John and Shirley. Did you have them in mind when you conceived this project?
Yes. I've worked with Shirley a lot, I've worked with John, they're both great actors, and I thought they'd work really well together. Whenever I can work with john and Shirley, I will do. In a way this was a bit of an echo of Wonderland, which was the first film I worked with John and Shirley on. That was a family in one weekend in London, this was the same sort of family relationships, but spread over a long period of time.
Why did you decide not to reveal the nature of Ian's crime?
It's weird - a couple of articles I've read recently suggested that this film was initially commissioned to be about prisons, which is the exact opposite of the truth. The starting point of this was about separation and about time passing, and how separation affected all the relationships of those involved. So I didn't want it to be about ‘Did he deserve to be in there?' So we did a lot of research with the home office and the prison service, about what crime he could have done to be in there for that period of time. But I didn't really want that to be the story. I wanted it to be about the family.
Was it tempting at all to introduce a political element, about the rights and wrongs of the prison system?
No, I never wanted it to be about prison in that sense. I did make it about prison in the sense that the key element of prison is separation. You're taken out of your normal life, and whoever else is in your normal life has you removed from them. So it's about prison in a broader sense. I've been in prisons before. Whenever you hear or read that prison sentences should be longer, I think those people should spend a little bit of time in prison and think how long that feels. If you spend one day in prison, it can feel like a long time. The idea that six months or a year is not a long time - you imagine being wrenched out of your life, and the huge impact that would have.
Ian is moved to at least three different prisons during his term. Is that what really happens to prisoners?
Yeah, prisoners do get moved around quite a bit. What happens is the first prison you go to tends to be where you were arrested. The first prison was in London. And then later in his sentence he gets moved back to Norwich, which is nearer his home. That's a category B prison. And then, if you're well-behaved there, you might get moved to a category C prison. And something then happens which means he has to be moved again. So we deal with the journeys the family have to make to see Ian, and how difficult that process is for them. Although in truth, they could have been a lot longer than they were. We wanted to keep them quite close, and make the journeys quite short, so we didn't have to travel too far ourselves!
Landscape plays a very important role in this, doesn't it?
Any situation that has a difficult subject matter like this tends to focus on urban deprivation. Clearly that isn't always the case - not everyone in prison comes from that background. I liked the idea that it was a rural story. The landscape punctuates the rhythm of the film, because prison is so confined, but also all of our story takes place in quite confined spaces - in the house or in school, or prison. And the space there, where we were filming, sort of serves as a counterpoint to all of the confinement. And I like Norfolk as well - I have a place up there and I've filmed up there before. And I liked the idea of it being in the film to emphasise Ian's loss of that space and freedom.
EVERYDAY will be on Channel 4 in week 46.