There are few filmmakers quite as difficult to second guess as Michael Winterbottom. The resourceful, creative director is never one to abide by convention, and his latest is emblematic of this notion – as he returns to the documentary format with On the Road, a tour feature following around British indie outfit Wolf Alice.
Though the film is receiving its UK release this October, we sat down with Winterbottom back in February in Berlin where the film was showing – and he explained to us where this idea originated form.
“The original idea came years before, but Wolf Alice were the only band we asked,” he said. “We spoke to people in the music business and realised that some of the bigger, older bands are just jetting in and jetting out. We wanted it to be a tour bus film, that world and that kind of music.”
“It came after we spoke to a band called Ash years ago, they told us about touring and it sounded crazy but interesting, and the manager of Wolf Alice used to manage Ash, and I used to live next door to the bassist, so there were lots of little things that made us sure they’d be a good band to follow. Also, and the most important thing was, they’d be on tour a lot, almost constantly for a year when we filmed it and they were going to America after it. We wanted to see what it was like if living that life endlessly.”
“The start of the idea was to capture the experience of being on tour, being on a bus and travelling, that sort of circus world. Doing a fake band doing fake gigs would have been awful, but on the other hand if you wanted to capture that experience, part of it is a private thing, what it’s like inside your head being you, getting to meet people, tensions you might have, arguments you might have, sex you might have,” he continued.
“Your personal world is completely wrapped up in that world, so maybe in a different kind of content you might thing you can get that private experience in a documentary, I didn’t believe we’d be able to find those intimate moments, so the idea wasn’t to have a fiction seperate to the band, but more to give a perspective on the tour that allowed for intimate, quiet moments, as well as the public ones.”
One documentary which came up in discussion was Dig! – an immensely entertaining endeavour that focused on the tour of bands The Brian Jonestown Massacre and The Dandy Warhols. It was compelling and didn’t for one moment require the audience’s investment in the music itself – and we asked Winterbottom how he navigated his way around this challenge – to ensure the film could maintain the audience’s attention even if they hadn’t heard of the band being depicted.
“For me it was an advantage,” he said. “Most documentaries are about established, famous bands, and so the idea this was a young band was good. You get to see a bunch of young people living out their dreams. Wolf Alice are at that point where they have big, enthusiastic crowds everywhere they play which gets the excitement and the adrenaline, and there’s fun and energy in that – but at the same time they didn’t have any cash, they were still like students, like their fans, there wasn’t a big separation that a bigger band would have. It wasn’t about being a star, it’s about doing what you want to do, and have a lot of fun doing it. The fact they aren’t famous, overall, was a benefit.”
Naturally we couldn’t leave without discussing The Trip – and while our interview predated the release of the third season, The Trip to Spain – we still got a rather definitive answer when posing the idea of a potential fourth series, while also asking whether he would be enticed by the idea of setting it in America – which had been mooted once before by the director, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon.
“Will this be the last one? I hope so. Spain was big enough, and we ended up in Morocco, we basically drove from London to the Sahara desert – America is too big.”
On the Road is released on October 6th. You can read our review of the film here.