Michael Winterbottom
The cinematic renaissance man.

6 November 2013

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Michael Winterbottom has made an enormous amount of films, in an enormous number of styles and genres, from the Cinema Extreme of 9 Songs, to the filthy kitchen sink of Everyday, to the unclassifiable brilliance of The Trip, Trishna, Welcome to Sarajevo, Cock and Bull Story, and 24 Hour Party People.  According to film theory, he is not an auteur.  In reality, he’s a cinematic renaissance man.

It was Steve Coogan who brought the idea of playing Paul Raymond to you.  Why was Raymond a man you’d like to explore, why also was Steve Coogan the right guy to play him?

Michael Winterbottom:  I’ve worked with Steve several times before and I really enjoy working with him.  I think the first time we worked together was 11 or 12 years ago and in all that time since then, we’ve always been talking about what else we could do together.  I think that Paul Raymond shared some aspects with Steve biographically: they were both brought up in the north of England, Catholic school boys, went to grammar school, came down to the south and made their kind of fortune in the world of entertainment, and both perhaps were kind of a well-known and controversial in some ways.  In the beginning you think, ‘That’s quite an interesting idea,’ and you spend a couple of years researching, meeting people, meeting members of the family, and we watched all the archive material because Paul Raymond was quite into PR, so there was a lot of him projecting a kind of image of himself.  But really, it was probably two or three years before it became clear that we were actually going to make the film.

This is the fourth time you’d worked with Steve Coogan— The Trip, Cock and Bull Story, and 24 Hour Party People—why do you get on so well as director/actor?

When you’re working in any context it’s really nice to work with people you know, so a lot of the production, people in the office, the production staff, are the same.  It can be really hard with actors sometimes to work with them over and over again because you have to have exactly the right part for an actor.  You can’t just think, ‘I like this actor, I’ll stick him in any part, or her in any part.’  I guess with Steve it’s always been the way the films have kind of been molded around him, that he’s been the central character, so we’ve been able to pick projects where it feels like Steve’s the right person.  He’s really easy to work with.  He’s always trying out new stuff, he’s very relaxed, he’s good at improvising.  With Steve and with a lot of comedians, they’re very good at generating their own material.  They’re not just dependent on the script, they’re used to developing characters, writing their own material, doing stand up.  So it’s kind of fun.

Do you enjoy making films about real people, or is it constraining?

Yeah, I think you should feel a responsibility.  We try to be as respectful of the real situation, the real characters, as far as possible.  But for me, it’s also quite liberating because if you’re creating a complete fiction, there’s a lot of pressure that every aspect of the fiction should make sense, should all be coherent.  The characters have to go on some sort of a journey, there has to have a kind of a clear structure to the story.  There’s an economy to film, it all has to make sense, it all has to be quite neat.  And what I like about real stories is that you can use it as an excuse, the fact that, actually, the story takes place over fifty years, and he has this relationship, and has another relationship, and he has this relationship with his daughter, and so on and so on.  This allows you to have kind of a messier narrative.  I think there’s something other than that classic three act kind of film, that classic structure, with the character arc, and the journey.  It doesn’t really correspond to their lives.  When I watch those kinds of stories I feel that that isn’t how I experience life.  So what I like about factual stories, it gives you a bit of freedom actually, because the truth of real people, the truth of events, it gives you some freedom from the traditional kind of fictional shape of the film.

Is this a sign that Steve Coogan wants to move away from comedy?

He does want to do stuff that’s not comedy.  He’s just done a film with Stephen Frears directing, with Judi Dench, which I understand is not a comedy at all, it’s a completely straight role.  I think that Steve’s a really good actor, and like a lot of comedians, his acting’s a bit underrated, really.  It’s very hard to portray a version of yourself in a film.  I work with a lot of actors who are famous as good serious actors but I think Steve is at least as good as anybody.  He’s a sensitive performer, I think.

What made you cast Imogen Poot as the daughter, Debbie?

It’s always difficult to talk about casting because in the end you just meet people and try to choose who are best for the roles.  It’s a very subjective judgment and often you’re just sort of guessing and you have to hope it works out well.  And when you’re doing a real story, there’s always the slight element of how different or how similar are they physically to the person they’re playing, how similar or different are they in age.  But particularly with Debbie, I wanted someone who you could engage with and there were a lot of things that Debbie did that were perhaps self-destructive.  I wanted someone who the audience would still feel for, you’d still feel that the relationship between the father and the daughter, even if a lot of things they did you don’t agree with, you still feel that there’s a bond between them and therefore when that’s broken, you feel for them.  You try to find a group that will make sense together and I thought Steve and Imogen would work together, and I thought the contrast with, say, Andrea, would be great.

Have you had any feedback from the family, the actual people?  How do they feel they’d been portrayed?

I’ve done a lot of films with people with real stories and this was probably one of the more problematic ones from that point of view.  There didn’t seem to be that many people who were really close to Paul Raymond, so it wasn’t as though you could get a huge number of opinions of people that really knew him well.  And all those things we got tended to be contradictory.  As you see in the film, the family has some delusions anyway, and there were divisions within the family, between Paul and Jean but then, in a way, their children kind of carried on those divisions, so that complicated things.  We met up with Howard at the very beginning of the process, maybe three, four years ago, and he was already trying to make a film, a different film, about his dad.  So we had a kind of a civil lunch, but he didn’t want to talk to us in any great detail because he was working with another film company.   With people like Carl Snitcher, the lawyer, who’s played by James Lance, I think James talked to Carl who gave us some bits and pieces and came and watched us film.  Fawn, the daughter, was a character in the film, so she came on set, and helped us with the access to Soho.  And the good thing was she said that she thought Steve was really going to be very accurate portraying her father.

What point in the film did you decide on the tone?

I suppose from the beginning there seemed to be a sort of an atmosphere.  Paul Raymond wanted to be an entertainer.  He started off with sort of a miming act, and then he wasn’t very good at it, so he was in the world of entertainment early on.  With the kind of nightclubs, and even the magazines, the idea is of glossy surface that’s attractive, that seems to be fun, and then the private life which is kept inside.  It felt to me that because it spans fifty years and has these ups and downs and brushes with the law, and making a huge amount of money, and all the things that happen to him, it’s a little bit like early novels, like Moll Flanders, where you have a character who’s amoral, who bounces up and down, has good things happen and bad things happen, and through that character’s adventures, you get a sense of the world they live in.   By watching Paul over the period, you see the way in which Soho changed, the way in which attitudes to sex changed, the way in which London changed.  And that was kind of the idea, this romp through forty years of Soho.  But the most important thing to anyone is the relationship to their family, and his relationship to his children, his relationship to his dad and his relationship to the women in his life, which was complicated, so there’s always going to be a kind of movement, backwards and forwards, from his private life to his public life.  There’s a kind of fluctuation between the public world and the private world, success and failure; it just felt that there should be a rhythm to the film.

What about the detail, the private and personal in the film, like taking drugs in the hospital, with no one around to witness?

We did a couple years doing research, talking to people, and we bought the rights to the book, and Paul Raymond was a very public figure.  The truth is, we don’t know that happened, but that was reported as happening, so it is a difficult area.  Obviously, there’s lots of stuff in everyone’s life that no one really knows apart from the people who are in the room, and in that case, clearly, the only people who would know whether that’s true or not are dead.  In the context of other things we were talking to lots of other people about their relationship, and about the way they behaved together, it felt that that was certainly plausible, and it was reported whilst he was alive and no one ever questioned whether it was true or not.  We got to meet and get to know the members of his family a little bit, and you want to respectful, try and be as honest as possible about the story.  But at the same time, you’re covering the life of several people over 40 or 50 years, and you’re trying to tell it in 90 minutes.  You’re having to try to find moments that condense aspects of their life into something that’s manageable in a very short period of time.

What about the locations?  This wasn’t a hugely budgeted film.  Were you grabbing shots where you could or did you shut Soho down?

We generally grabbed Soho when we could.  Part of the film is about the way in which Soho changed, and Paul Raymond was part of that change, but at the same time, I think the essence of Soho is still the same.  It’s still a mixture of film business, bars, clubs, a few seedier clubs, part of the sex industry, and so on.  So the good thing is, that kind of building is still there and we were able to film.  Paul Raymond was obviously a very iconic figure in Soho, so the fact that we were making a film about him, meant that they were very cooperative and very friendly and helped us.  All those interiors were quite easy.  I wanted to film in the real places in Soho.  I have to say the exteriors were just the opposite.  The exteriors were a nightmare.  Every time we went outside, as you can imagine in Soho, there were a lot of people who don’t want to be told that we’re a doing a little bit of filming, so could you please go to the other side of the road.  All around Walker’s court was quite tricky.  So Soho has its good sides and its bad sides for filming as well as anything else.

Did a lot people in Soho offer up stories?

Yes, but you have to remember that a lot of the story happened quite a long time ago.  It is a period film.  Paul Raymond died very recently but when we were researching people, they said that after the death of Debbie he became a bit of a recluse because he didn’t go to the office, he didn’t go out to clubs anymore.  He was about 65!  Most are not going out to clubs when we’re 65.  Most people are staying at home and watching television.  So it was kind of funny—people’s memories of twenty, thirty, forty years ago.