The British director on his attraction to unconventional – and unorthodox – characters and the difficulties in portraying a life
The Look of Love is Michael Winterbottom’s 21st feature in 19 years – depending on which accounts you believe. His portrayal of Paul Raymond, magazine publisher and property mogul, is a typically unique take on an unconventional and sometimes unknowable individual. After the film’s inclusion at Sundance London and its nationwide release, Jolyon Webber sat down to talk to the director about the film, his work ethic and adapting Thomas Hardy.
Jolyon Webber: Did you think of The Look of Love as a more straightforward biopic, compared to other biopics you’ve done before?
Michael Winterbottom: Compared to 24 Hour Party People, there are similarities in that they’re spread over quite a long period of time, they portray semi-public personas and they both go someway to differentiate between private image and public image. I guess the storytelling is a little more straightforward. We spent quite a lot of time thinking about how we could tell this story and when we were doing the research there were differing opinions about what Paul Raymond was like as a person. We were quite concerned about the audience having different perspectives on him and what he was like, what his motives were and so. For various reasons that didn’t really seem to work partly because the crux of the film became about the death of his daughter it seemed quite hard to work that kind of storytelling in.
Jolyon: How much does employing an actor like Steve Coogan, who is a very able impressionist, and, who has a relatively high-profile public persona change the way you approach portraying a character like Paul Raymond?
Michael: It wasn’t that I thought “Would Steve be good for this role?” Steve said, “I think this is a good role for me”. But yes, I think there is an overlap. With all actors and especially actors at the centre of films, they’re always portraying a version of themselves. In Steve’s case I think one of the reasons he thought the character would be good for him was there was enough similarities biographically – they’re both form a Catholic background, they’re both Grammar school boys, they both came down to the south and made their money in entertainment and they both have a public image that might be quite different to their private self. There’s enough of an overlap to make it work.
Jolyon: Although it’s not a controversial film, Raymond was certainly a controversial character. It’s not the first time you’ve gravitated to controversial subject matter. Is there an impulse in you as a filmmaker to want to work with these kinds of characters and scenarios?
Michael: Possibly, to a certain extent. Different films start for different reasons. You start of lot of projects and lot of them don’t get made so you need something to keep you guying through that, so if it’s something that might annoy people, sometimes that’s an attraction rather than something that puts you off.
Jolyon: You’re known for your prolific output. Are you hoping to maintain this pace for the rest of your career?
Michael: (Laughs) Yes, is the short answer. When you’re not making a film, you’re more restless, bad tempered and grumpy because when you’re not making a film you’re in the process of trying to get one made and that process is a difficult and frustrating one. Whereas if you are making a film you’re talking to writers and actors and cameramen and whilst that can be stressful, in some ways, it’s also very satisfying. There’s always an interesting dialogue or conversation you’re having with someone about the specifics of how you should tell a story. Whereas if you’re trying to get a film made then you tend just to be talking about raising money and wasting a lot of time and energy on stuff that doesn’t matter.
Jolyon: You always seem to be having something on the go though. I don’t know if that specific to you as a filmmaker or if it’s just a necessary part of the job?
Michael: Well, it can be a bit misleading. To be honest, we (Revolution Films) only really develop a few things, two or three ideas. Some professional companies have quite a small ratio of films they make compared to ones they develop. Whereas when we develop something, we try to make it. There’s always one you’re finishing, one you’re making, maybe one that’s a vague idea of has a script and you’re trying to make. So it’s not actually that many. From a personal point of view, I don’t want to spend 3 or 4 years on a project in terms of development and then not make it. Once we get to the point where I want to make it then we keep trying to make it until we can.
Jolyon: Finally, any plans to adapt any more Hardy? The Claim (based on The Mayor of Casterbridge) is one of my favourite adaptations of a novel.
Michael: No, I don’t think so but of you have any ideas do let me know! The Claim was actually quite a coincidental one because Andrew (Eaton) the producer and Frank (Cottrel-Boyce) the writer were talking about general ideas for a Western. Frank had the idea of adapting The Mayor of Casterbridge.I came up with the other two though, so I can’t blame anyone else for those… I think with any adaptation, especially with the 19th century novel, often the issue is that there’s obviously too much in a novel to get in to a film. And we’ve tried various different approaches to that problem. You either have to strip out quite a lot to get it down and really compress it… And the trouble with compressing it is that the melodrama – which is a part of Hardy’s work that I like – the melodrama just becomes exaggerated. There’s no perfect solution. I mean, I love Hardy but since we did the last one I haven’t read anything of his. Maybe I need to go and do that.