There are few filmmakers working today quite as innovative as Michael Winterbottom. The director has never been one to shy away from controversy, with a inclination for realism that has spawned somewhat contentious offerings in the past.
The first endeavour that springs to mind is the sexually explicit 9 Songs, while recent feature Everyday predates the release of Richard Linklater’s Boyhood – while sharing a similar approach, shooting across a short period of time for consecutive years (five, in this case). Winterbottom’s latest carries on in a similar vein, with meta drama The Face of an Angel, a fictionalised retelling of the Amanda Knox trial for the murder of Meredith Kercher. Delicate territory, to say the least.
“I’ve always been drawn to stories that feel problematic to tell,” said Winterbottom when speaking to HeyUGuys at London Film Festival last year. “A story that is complicated to tell is more interested than a classic three-act structure about some guy who goes on some journey and we learn something at the end of it. That structure of storytelling I don’t find very believable or connected to and therefore I’m not interested in making it. When you can try and a find a different way of working, it makes it more enjoyable.”
Sipping calmly on a glass of white wine, this interview, despite still being work, appeared to be something of a respite for this prolific filmmaker, who explained his reasons for wanting to cover this story, and how he went about ensuring the court case itself became secondary to the crux of the narrative.
“From the very beginning the idea was always to move away from a whodunnit,” he said. “It starts off being about the press and how they treated it, and then a more abstract approach about love and grief and so on – it was never going to be about whether she did it or not, that was never the question the film was trying to ask, or answer.”
If anything, Winterbottom saw this project as a chance to pay tribute to Meredith Kercher, the victim of this savagery, and yet something of a forgotten figure with the media spotlight shining so brightly on the accused.
“It’s a difficult situation because there has been so much coverage of it already that in one way, you just want it to go away, but at the same time, it’s been in the public domain so many times that it feels good to make a film about her, rather than Amanda Knox,” he said.
“I do loads of stuff based on real stories, but you’ve got to be as fair as possible and as accurate as possible, and in this case particularly because at the heart of this story somebody was killed. They lost their life and all the possibilities they had in their life was taken away from them. So you hope to make it in a way that reflects that, to feel like a tribute to that aspect of the story. But you don’t know when you’re making it whether that’s how it will turn out.”
“We let the Kercher family know we were making it, but we all thought that the way they behaved was very dignified and they didn’t get involved with the press and media, but we still wanted to let them know we were doing it and we showed them the film, and they felt it was a way of remembering the daughter they lost, as she’s the heart of the story. But all the way through that process that wasn’t clear – until we finished it we didn’t know whether it would work or not.”
“We had a lot of issues we had to be careful of, so all the facts that are connected to the murder investigation and trial are absolutely as factually researched and accurate as they would have been in a documentary,” he explained. “We didn’t change anything in order to not be seen as manipulating the story. We were never, ever going to suggest that we knew what the answer was, in fact, from the very beginning the Thomas character would say ‘I don’t care, that’s not what interests me and it’s not what I want to make a film about, I want to make a film about something else’ – and that was my position to be honest. I’m not interested in whether she did it or not, there’s no obvious way of knowing what the truth is, and we’ll never know.”
Though critical of the media circus surrounding this case, with the film working as a accusatory, quite barbed take on the whole ordeal, Winterbottom is aware that he too has become part of that very circus himself.
“The reason I wanted to have the Thomas character, is because we’re criticising the media coverage of the trial but I didn’t want it to feel like we weren’t part of the media, I wanted it to be clear in the film that we’re aware that making a film about a trial we become a part of that media circus.”
Thomas – the documentarian and protagonist of the piece, is played by Daniel Bruhl, who spent the majority of his scenes opposite newcomer – and renowned fashion model, Cara Delevingne, who plays barmaid Melanie. Though relatively inexperienced in this field, Winterbottom knew she would be perfect for the part.
“I met a lot of people for the role, some good actresses, but I wanted someone who felt fresh and had some energy, someone who enjoyed life,” he said. “It’s a difficult role too as it’s symbolic, of Daniel’s daughter, or the girl who has been killed, she’s supposed to bring all the good things about life that have been taken away from people. So I met Cara and she’s incredibly fresh, lovely, charming and direct. She had just flown in from somewhere and came straight to meet me and she was full of energy and enthusiasm, and I wanted that. But you don’t know if somebody can convey that. It’s one thing to have it, but can you act that? But she was great and wonderful to work with. When we filmed there were always 50 teenage girls chasing after her, or were outside her hotel, and all the things people like about her is that she enjoys life. She’s very keen to be an actress and she’ll have a big career.”
Winterbottom evidently gave his actors freedom too, something he is renowned for, as an advocate of improvisation within his productions. For the director, the line between reality and fiction has become increasingly blurred of late.
“I do a lot of films that have a connection to real stories, either they are transparently about a real story or they’re a fictional version of a real story. But I think these days, with social media and reality TV, you have non-actors like those in Made in Chelsea acting out scripts and people posting their own night out on social media – everyone is aware that everything is constructive, so if you incorporate that into your film, in some way weird, it can make it feel more authentic and more real than if you pretend that it’s not happening.”
One of the prime examples of Winterbottom’s naturalistic, unscripted approach, is the popular TV series The Trip, starring Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon. With a remarkable second series taking place in Italy, Winterbottom was a little hesitant to confirm a third outing for the comic duo.
“At the moment, no. I think the problem is, in a way, is that they don’t have any more impressions to give,” he joked. “After the first series of The Trip people wanted a second one, and I felt we could do that, we could swap Steve and Rob a bit, and we could do more melancholy, focus on getting older, looking back on life. But in the end, the main attraction was that we could go to Italy for a long time and eat in a lot of restaurants – what could go wrong?”
It’s a special, ineffably poignant show though, and many fans will be desperate for a third series. Winterbottom admits he was never sure whether it would work or not.
“It was my idea and I persuaded Steve and Rob, but I remember in the run up to it, I thought, why am I doing this? I could be making a film, but I’m making a TV show about two guys eating lunch. Why? But it was so enjoyable to make, we had a very small crew on them, and Steve and Rob are very funny. On the first one, I kept thinking, oh shit, why did I ever suggest this? But they hit on a lot of stuff that was no in the original outline. Like singing the ABBA song, it just happened spontaneously and then we had to build it back in, so it wasn’t like “oh this will be brilliant” but doing it was fun because it was fresh. It could have been a terrible disaster but being with them, they are just really funny.”
The Face of an Angel is out in cinemas now. You can watch our interview with stars Sai Bennett and Genevieve Gaunt here.