Michael Winterbottom: ‘Studying English at Oxford University was a mistake’

The director, 62, tells Michael Segalov about vertigo, risk aversion, shouting to get attention and how Steve Coogan makes things easy

By Michael Segalov
I grew up in a small bungalow on a big housing estate on the edge of Blackburn. My mum was a teacher; my dad was a draftsman in a factory that made television sets. Everything about my childhood was ordinary.

Blackburn’s Unit Four cinema was a scruffy place. In my teens, I went to its fortnightly foreign-language film screenings religiously. I was always desperate to escape, and these films briefly transported me all over the world.

During a childhood swimming lesson, Mum noticed I was lying on the bottom of the pool. A teacher pulled me out of the water. I don’t remember anything, but after that, Mum obsessed about me never venturing deep. I still don’t find swimming in the sea relaxing.

Constant pacing is an awful habit of mine, so my family says. I regularly march around the house while dragging my fingers through my hair and talking to myself.

I left school at 17 and travelled abroad for the first time – I went to pick grapes in the south of France. One night I went to a concert with a German colleague who rode a massive motorbike. Driving us back, I realised he was off his face at 100mph. I clung on for dear life, and haven’t been on a motorbike since.

Steve Coogan makes directing far too easy. We’ve worked together a lot. Naturally, he’s constantly doing things that are both funny and interesting. You can just point a camera at him and leave him to it. I’ve never had more fun than working together on 24 Hour Party People.

Studying English at Oxford University was a mistake. I loved reading, but I wasn’t committed to the rigour of it. Halfway through my studies, I came across a cinema workshop in the city. There and then, I knew what I wanted to do.

I suffer from a particular type of vertigo. I’m fine on planes, or whenever someone else is in charge. But if I’m in control? Even short ladders make me feel vulnerable.

Don’t make a short film, make a long one. That’s the advice I give to young filmmakers. Go out there and shoot something yourself. Not lots of 10 minute things, but a proper one. The only way to learn is to do it.

Generally speaking, I’m risk averse, my mum was over-protective of me as a child. I was the same with my kids in the playground. Caution was bred into me, and it’s far too late to change.

If you get a chance to eat, then you should eat: you never know when the next meal is coming in my business.

People say I have a temper. I certainly do shout a lot. It’s not out of anger, just a way of trying to get attention.

Political extremism pushes people to the edge, and violence sees opposing sides become further polarised. My new film, Shoshana, explores this in Palestine under British colonial rule, but it’s still true in the region today, and around the world. In the past 10 years, those divides have deepened.

The film industry wasn’t accessible when I started out, and it’s still not today. Back then it was a union closed shop. Your career hinged on knowing people. Of course, that remains helpful. Now the best way to start is to go out and start shooting yourself, or to work a lot for free. Either way, that requires big money.

I’m entirely unsurprising as a man. Everything about me is, I think, rather obvious and straightforward.

Shoshana + Michael Winterbottom Q&A plays as part of the UK Jewish Film Festival 2023 which takes place in London cinemas from 9-19 November, with a national tour taking place from 9-30 November and a selection of films available online from 20-27 November


Source: Michael Winterbottom: ‘Studying English at Oxford University was a mistake’

A poet of pain, ecstasy and epiphany, Terence Davies is a colossal loss to British cinema

Thank goodness Davies experienced his late-career appreciation – he was a director of high seriousness and singularity and a man of vulnerability and true good humour

By Peter Bradshaw

Terence Davies was the great British movie artist of working class Catholic experience and gay identity, a passionate believer and practitioner of cinema. And was also a wonderfully stylish and self-assured presence in person, with a gorgeously resonant voice that might have belonged to a stage matinee idol.

I raised a glass of rose with a beaming Davies and Mark Cousins at the 2008 Cannes film festival after the triumphant premiere of Of Time and the City, Davies’s wonderful, personal docu-collage about his home city of Liverpool, a place he resurrected on screen with love and without cliche.

And from that moment, he had the satisfaction of knowing that the years of relative neglect that he had been suffering as a film-maker were over, and that he was a presence again in world cinema.

He was one of the great personal and autobiographical film-makers – with Of Time and the City, of course, but also his fervent evocation of childhood in The Long Day Closes (1992), his unflinchingly passionate and painful masterpiece Distant Voices, Still Lives (1983) and his early, mysterious trilogy Children (1976), Madonna and Child (1980) and Death and Transfiguration (1983) – superb films which, in literary terms, might be compared with Beckett or BS Johnson.

The key word is transfiguration. For Davies, the act of memory and cinema transfigured the pain and shame of what he endured of abuse and bigotry in his own life. Without irony or affectation, he brought his early religious belief into parallel with these childhood experiences: these were his stations of the cross. Like Proust, he saw the awful link between art and pain as the agents of truth and the fixity of meaning.

His films – especially his earliest and most personal works – were not easy experiences, nor were they meant to be. His Distant Voices, Still Lives is unforgettable, perhaps because the adjectives in the title are so misleading. The voices are immediately present, the lives vividly in motion. The film’s austerity, beauty and artistry are a revelation. It is as gripping as any thriller and Davies finds a towering performance in the great actor Pete Postlethwaite as the terrifying dad who rules over his working class family with fear – but is secretly convulsed with fear himself and is capable of humour and gentleness. Davies’s attitude is complex, and in this film you can see another of his great themes: the urge to forgive and the terrible burden it places on you.

The Long Day Closes, from 1992, was another epiphanic study of childhood, a cine-poem of early experience and here Davies – like Fellini, Scorsese, Truffaut and Spielberg – evokes the moviegoing as a religious observance, but with pleasure where the shame and misery might otherwise go. His shot of sunlight drifting across a carpet is a thing of wonder: these are things that children look at and adults forget to see.

As the 90s wore on, Davies found it more difficult to get movies made, but his adaptation of John Kennedy Toole’s The Neon Bible in 1995 transferred his distinctive worldview to an American setting.

So too did his superb treatment of Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth in 2000, starring Gillian Anderson, a Wharton adaptation that easily stands comparison with Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence.

In his later career, Davies took on literary adaptations – conceding, perhaps, that these were more commercially acceptable and produced them at the highest pitch of intelligence and feeling. His version of Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea in 2011 was a very Daviesian account of loneliness and romantic love with Tom Hiddleston and Rachel Weisz; he brought the same intensity and severity to Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song in 2015. His last film, Benediction, was a fine study of the war poet Siegfried Sassoon, returning, to some degree, to his earlier themes of gay sexuality and the way secular passions are displaced into forms of worship.

He had lately been working on a tremendous sounding adaptation of Stefan Zweig’s The Post Office Girl – and we have to hope that this might yet be posthumously completed.

I should also record the rather extraordinary experience of recording an audio commentary with him and Matthew Guinness (son of Alec) of the Ealing movie Kind Hearts and Coronets. For him, communing with this classic was an almost ecstatic experience, a virtual seance of every creative contributor to the film, he seemed to know every line, every scene, every musical cue; his connoisseurship was compelling. He was a remarkable director.

Source: A poet of pain, ecstasy and epiphany, Terence Davies is a colossal loss to British cinema

‘Hope isn’t just wishful thinking’—an interview with Ken Loach

Director Ken Loach and writer Paul Laverty
Director Ken Loach and writer Paul Laverty

Director Ken Loach and writer Paul Laverty speak to Nick Grant about their new film ‘The Old Oak’

In their 15th film together director Ken Loach and writer Paul Laverty confront a subject that could hardly be more relevant. They thrust us into the dramatic bitterness felt by both an abandoned British community and weary refugees. Set in north east England, audiences watch a group of Syrians arriving in a derelict former mining area.

Right from the start we find a Newcastle United football-shirted bloke bellowing insults at a group getting off a coach. Trying to referee the situation is pub landlord TJ Ballantyne. Loach and Laverty don’t simplify the harsh realities of everyone caught in this situation. Tory and Labour ­governments and councils have taken jobs, education, training and pensions from old and young workers.

The refugees have lost out too—from family members to mental and physical health. Both are short of money and self-respect, loaded down by the most elementary of human needs. Dave Turner as TJ is utterly convincing as the worried, pragmatic manager of The Old Oak pub. He jostles the demands of regulars who carp on about the new arrivals with his wish to give the new arrivals a break.

TJ’s wife has divorced him and his estranged son has left him, so his dog is his only companion. He walks a fine personal and political line to survive. Loach told Socialist Worker that this character is key. “Everything around him shouts out despair,” he said. “From what’s happened to the community, the nature of work, the conscious cruelty to vulnerable people and the uses of hunger.
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Why I Hate … Richard Curtis

By Ali

If Arnold Schwarzenegger personifies American cinema – powerful, symbolic and domineering – then British cinema would have to be Hugh Grant – bumbling, unsure and frankly, a pain in the arse to watch. There’s one person more than any other to blame for this, and funnily enough, it’s not Hugh Grant himself. No, the person mainly responsible for the current image of British cinema is Richard Curtis, the softly spoken, bespectacled ginge behind some of our country’s most financially successful movies. However, that doesn’t mean they’re not the most deathly boring, stereotypical, chuckle-free movies you’ll see produced this side of the Atlantic. Frankly, I’d rather watch old people fucking.

Fair enough, he’s got a fairly good pedigree, and you can’t ignore the fantastic TV series like Blackadder and Spitting Image on his resume. There’s no resting on your laurels in this business however, and despite the sterling work he’s done on the telly, his recent movies are absolutely atrocious portrayals of Great Britain, painting the British as incompetent but lovable oafs; well-meaning fools that are constantly misunderstood and always fall frightfully in love with the wrong people. After watching a Richard Curtis movie, you may feel a sudden desire to introduce a shotgun to the roof of your mouth to try and shoot the memories out.

Four Weddings and a Funeral. Absolutely one of the most overrated British movies in history, which is also responsible for bringing Hugh Grant to the attention of bean-flicking housewives the world over. Hugh’s bungling character falls in love with a girl he shouldn’t, runs around like the posh, overpaid twat he is and swears a lot. There’s a character in it called Fuckface! Ahahahaha! See, look how edgy British cinema is now we’re in the nineties! Awful.

Notting Hill. Only a Richard Curtis film could have a movie set in Notting Hill – that’s the most diverse, multi-cultural area in the whole of London – and not have it feature a single black person. Instead, we’re introduced to Hugh Grant’s bungling bookstore owner, who – gasp – falls in love with someone he shouldn’t and pratfalls his way through 2+ hours of tedium in the desperate attempt to get a whiff of Julia Roberts. It’s an uncanny representation of British life today (if you’re white, rich and annoying).

Bridget Jones’s Diary. A mind-numbing movie that should have stayed a book, aimed solely at fat old spinsters that sit at home on a Friday night in their pyjamas, gorging on chocolate and sobbing tears of woe down their porky cheeks. It also features Hugh Grant, but – get this – this time, he’s the cad! What genius playing against type! If you like this movie, you are a woman or a homosexual, it’s been proved in labs. Scores high on the shit-o-meter for featuring Colin Firth, another black hole of talent.

Love Actually. Stars Hugh Grant, as a bungling… oh for fuck’s sake, aren’t you sick of this yet? All you need to know is that he falls for someone he shouldn’t (lower class this time – daring) and rather than have one irritating storyline to follow, there’s ten, with each character ten times more plummy and a hundred types more bland than the last. Another back-slapping luvvie-fest that’s about as accurate about British life as a Blackpool postcard.

It’s not enough that his films are dire, but the man himself is an absolute excitement vacuum who has about as much charisma as glass of water. Enjoy some of his trivia from IMDB: “When he was in college, his girlfriend left him for a man named Bernard. In each of his screenplays, there is a fairly unpopular character named Bernard.” Whoah, steady on Richard! He might even figure out you’re talking about him! “I didn’t decide to be a writer. I wanted to be an actor and I turned out to be very bland, so I would always get cast as a character from Twelfth Night called Fabian, who hides behind the hedge and doesn’t have any funny lines.” You know why they put you behind that hedge? Because just to look at you makes peoples’ teeth fall out of their mouths from sheer boredom. It’s a scientific fact that time goes twice as slow when Richard Curtis is in the room.

You can’t blame Americans for ridiculing us Brits when they see the kind of films that Curtis writes. Between him and Guy Ritchie, we’ve become known throughout the world as either floppy-haired halfwits or gun-toting cockney wideboys who’d slam your head in a car door if you so much as looked at us. Jesus, we’ve got enough problem shaking off our ancient snooty image as it is without Richard casting Hugh fucking Grant as prime minister in his movie. Compare Curtis’ movies with the work of someone like Shane Meadows and see just how big the gulf is between the two – one is making low budget, genuinely funny and true-to-life British movies, the other is living in a dream world, hiring his posh friends to appear in his multi-million pound endeavours before driving home in his Rolls, listening to Ronan Keating and thinking to himself how wonderful life is. “You won’t find many people who’ve had an easier ride in movies than I,” he says. No fucking disagreement here, pal.

And don’t even get me started on The Vicar of cunting Dibley.

Source: Why I Hate… Richard Curtis | Movie Feature