Michael Winterbottom’s checkered career has been inconsistent at best, misdirected at worst. The stylistic chameleon practically remakes himself for each film, from the handsome but chilly restraint of the Thomas Hardy adaptation Jude to the hysterical explosion of sexual obsession in I Want You. The result is a career of fascinating failures driven by moments of pure cinematic passion.
In Wonderland, Winterbottom has found a script worthy of his passion. Writer Laurence Coriat mines the British social realist territory of Mike Leigh and Ken Loach — the travails of working class Brits kicking around their grimy cities — but leaves out the politics for a portrait of characters over the course of a long weekend, grasping for love in a bustling but indifferent world.
The Claim takes shape from two sources. The plot is from Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge, a great and beautiful novel that seems reasonably available for adaptation to the frozen California Gold Rush era. The style is taken from Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller, that gorgeous 1971 revisionist western shot in the Northwest rain and snow.
Forty years ago the Best Song Oscar took a catastrophic turn—“You Light Up My Life” was the 1977 victor—and the category has never really been the same. Tepid pop songs and the occasional Disney original tend to scoop up the award, albeit with notable exceptions. But before that year, the list of Oscar Best Songs is littered with classics, none more haunting than 1968’s “The Windmills of Your Mind.” With its mournful melody and existentially despairing lyrics, the song is an inducement to sit in a hole and cover yourself with nice cold earth.
So there’s something perfect about the fact that two of Britain’s top comedic talents adopt “Windmills” as their traveling theme song in The Trip to Spain. The film’s predecessors, The Trip and The Trip to Italy, have neatly balanced big laughs with an unexpected current of melancholy.
I’m not sure what the competition is, but I will declare that The Trip to Italy contains the funniest scene ever set at the site of the Pompeii volcanic eruption. Pompeii— not generally associated with comedy— is one stop on the itinerary for Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, the British comedians hitting the road again after 2010’s The Trip. In that film, the two men played “Steve Coogan” and “Rob Brydon,” exaggerated versions of themselves; their journey took them into the north of England, where Coogan was supposed to file a newspaper story about the great restaurants they visited.
This time, Brydon invites Coogan on a similar voyage to Italy. Piling into a proper British Mini Cooper (and lacking musical accompaniment save for a single Alanis Morissette CD), they drive around scenic spots, eat good food and indulge in some extended one-upmanship.
I first “discovered” Steve Coogan through his film roles, first in The Wind in the Willows(aka Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, directed by and starring Monty Python’s Terry Jones) and then taking the lead in Michael Winterbottom’s24 Hour Party People. It was only later that I finally saw the creation that made him famous in Britain: Alan Partridge, the unctuous, self-absorbed wannabe TV personality flailing in the brilliant parody of a talk-show train wreck Knowing Me, Knowing You with Alan Partridge. (The title refers to the Abba song â€“ but of course â€“ and is pedantically worked into his every guest introduction. Ah-ha!). The series was one of the many he has created, written and starred in for the BBC but only recently finding their way to the U.S., thanks to BBC America and BBC DVD releases. (His latest show, Saxondale, is slated to run on BBC America in late 2008.)
I had the opportunity to interview Coogan when he came through Seattle to promote Hamlet 2 (opening August 22) for a small “A Moment With” piece for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and a “What’s In Your DVD Player?” feature for MSN Entertainment. I wound up with a generous 45 minutes with Coogan, a man very serious when it comes to the business of comedy. That meant that, after carving out those little slices of interview, I still had more than half an hour of enlightening conversation with Coogan about Hamlet 2, his work with Michael Winterbottom and the business of creating shows for British TV. Here it is.
You made two films with Michael Winterbottom, 24 Hour Party People and Tristram Shandy.There had to be a lot of challenges on those two films, where there were so many levels of engagement with the character, and then stepping back and commenting on the portrayals.
With Michael Winterbottom, in those films, there’s a very simple thing I do that I don’t do in other films and other work I do. In other films I do, especially comic films, there’s a lot of control and craft involved in what I’m doing, whereas in those movies with Michael, I trust him enough to, if you like, let go of the controls and see what happens. And I’m never quite sure what I’m doing and that’s quite liberating because I can trust him. So I just sort of forget about almost everything and go with whichever way the wind blows and whichever way he pushes me and just dive in and don’t think about it too much. It’s just an organic, instinctive thing, there’s not much of an intellectual process going on for me in those movies. When I’m talking to the camera, I’m just talking to someone about what’s happening to me. I don’t over think it, I trust him. It’s a very different way of working.
In addition, you write and produce so many of your own projects for television. Do the Winterbottom projects give you a chance to stretch yourself in other ways?
It does. It allows me to because I don’t have the responsibility for what I’m doing, which is quite liberating, as long as you trust the person you’re working with and trusting them to be responsible. It enables me to do things I wouldn’t normally do because it’s a way not, even though I’m proud of working with Michael, it’s not my voice, it’s not my vision, it’s his and I’m just there to facilitate that and to help render that, which is nice, whereas when I’m doing my own stuff it is my point of view, it’s from me.