By it’s very nature, documentary filmmaking is supposed to offer an impartial, unbiased account of its subject, presenting the facts and allowing the viewer to make their own mind up on the issue being explored. But for Michael Winterbottom and Russell Brand, whose collaboration in the inspiring, politically inclined feature The Emperor’s New Clothes – this comes with an agenda, not really following the unspoken rules of the genre. But then again, for the antagonists of this piece – the politicians, the bankers, the tax avoiders – playing by the rules is hardly a fair descriptive term of how they get by – giving the prolific filmmaker a healthy amount of leeway.
“This is not a campaign film, it’s a polemic, it’s saying that we should get up and doing something,” Winterbottom explained. “We can change it, you don’t need to be pessimistic about change, be optimistic about it. These are man made structures. It’s not like we’re coming up against nature, these are changes that have been imposed on us quite recently. The first election I voted in was ’79 when this was imposed, it’s within living memory. We once had a different system that imposed different values on us, and we shouldn’t allow this individualism and greed to remain.”
It was easy to feel optimistic. Not only down to the fact that our conversation with Winterbottom took place on the balcony of a fifth floor hotel room in Soho, on a glorious Spring day, but there’s a rousing spirit to his words, that things can change.
“I want this to be accessible, but the fundamental things are quite accessible. Economics and the political debate gets bogged down by things that seem tedious and boring and technical. But the basic issue is, do we want to have a fair society? How do we want our society to be?” he continued. “It’s grotesque, I think, that over the last 35 years we’ve gone along with a massive shift of wealth from ordinary people to the 1%. I hope this comes out in the film, but I’m optimistic that has run its course, and we are sick of that. I do feel there will be a change, because this is ridiculous. The transfer of wealth should be from the rich to everyone else, not from everyone else to the rich.”
The film – which Winterbottom directs as Brand presents, looks at the current disproportion of wealth in the UK and US, and how the rich get richer while everybody else suffers. It’s a campaign that Brand has been tirelessly dedicating his time to, and Winterbottom professes his admiration for the comic performer.
“Russell spends a massive amount of time getting involved in various campaigns and activities, and I admire him and respect what’s he’s doing. He’s different to Bono, for instance, because Bono does a massive amount of tax avoidance, which is wrong, but that’s not the case for Russell.”
“I didn’t know Russell that well before this, but ages ago, before he went to America, we worked together trying to make a film of My Booky Wook, which was a great book about his childhood. But I hadn’t really seen him since then, until I bumped into him about a year ago and asked if he’d still be interested in making a film.”
Thankfully, Brand obliged – as the pair explore matters which are completely baffling, and not in any remote way fair.
“The starting point for this was, just how did we allow the financial crisis, a crisis of unregulated markets and bankers, to be changed at the last election into being a public spending crisis? How did we get duped? We just gave them billions of pounds, cutting money from disabled people, students – how have we allowed that to happen? It’s still a baffling question. Collectively we were so easily duped.”
Given the one-sided approach to this (and rightly so), Winterbottom did explain that as such it’s disallowed the chance for this project to be aired on terrestrial TV, instead finding it’s home in cinemas across the nation, and on VOD.
“We wouldn’t be allowed to do this on TV,” he said. “It’s not neutral. BBC actually said they won’t even cover any news about our film because it’s not neutral, which is bizarre. So we couldn’t make this for any main channel here. So it’s in the cinema, but also available on VOD, so the idea is that it’s in the cinema but people can then watch it at home too.”
Though the one show that the BBC do, and have commissioned this talented and innovative director to make, is The Trip. A show that is so remarkably brilliant, we couldn’t help but quiz Winterbottom on, and whether we can expect a third series any time soon, but sadly, it was to no avail.
“Nothing is going on at all. Steve is busy in New York. So there’s no plan at all, but who knows? But there’s no plan for it right now.”
Before he finished by saying, “I’m taking a break.” As disappointing news that may be, it’s fair to say he bloody deserves one.
The Emperor’s New Clothes is released on April 24th, with a one-off special screenings taking place on April 21st, followed by a live Q&A.