Dave Calhoun: Hello everybody. Hello, good evening, welcome to the NFT and to this special preview screening of Michael Winterbottom’s A Cock and Bull Story. My name’s Dave Calhoun, I’m the film editor of Time Out and after the screening I’m going to be doing a Q&A — we’re going to ask a few questions of Michael Winterbottom and then throw the Q&A open to the audience, so hopefully everyone will have a chance to ask anything they want to ask — which just leaves me to thank Redbus, the distributor of this film, for allowing this special preview, and to say enjoy the film. I’ll see you afterwards, thank you.
[ screening ]
DC: Hello, good evening everybody. As I said before I’m Dave Calhoun, I’m from Time Out magazine and it gives me great pleasure to welcome — straight out of a cab — Michael Winterbottom… [applause] We’re both very keen to get as many questions from the audience as possible. We’ve got about half an hour, 40 minutes, I think, so I’m going to kick off and then ask for questions from you lot. So, Michael, first this… everything… most things I’ve read about this film over the past few months, as it emerged, is that this is the adaptation of the unfilmable novel and for you, was that an attraction for making it?
Michael Winterbottom: Maybe it was a bit of an attraction. But also, the real starting point was that… when we did 24 Hour Party People , which was also with Steve Coogan, me and Frank Cottrell-Boyce who wrote that film were talking about Tristram Shandy as one kind of model for how we wanted to do 24 Hour Party People. Because with the idea of like the narrator there’s… you know, the stupid behaviour, the sort of… that kind of sense of… kind of fondness for people doing very stupid things. And so since doing 24 Hour Party People, I’ve wanted to do another film with Steve and in the end it just seemed like maybe the simplest thing would be to go back to something we’d already talked about and see whether we could make that work.
DC: As much as… on paper it’s an adaptation of a novel, but in some ways it’s as much an adaptation as Spike Jonze’s Adaptation. was an adaptation of Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief. I mean it takes… you’ve partly shown an adaptation of the novel and you play on the themes and the mood of the actual novel itself, but then you… it moves into a… very much being as well a satire on — if satire’s the right word — on filmmaking.
MW: I don’t think it’s a satire. I think it’s an affectionate look. I mean it could be… we could have been a lot more critical…
DC: Well, a comic look at filmmaking… was that as much an attraction for you as taking the novel as an inspiration?
MW: Well, when we started, the idea we didn’t… when we started working on the script the idea was just to do a film of the book. But then after messing around for a few months we found we had basically 30 pages, and although the book’s very long, the sort of kind of core things that seemed to me to be interesting for the film were all at the beginning of the book about the birth and so on.
So really we kept going back to a kind of short section of the book that we were working with. And one of the reasons for that is that a lot of the book is about the problems of writing. He’s endlessly complaining about how difficult it is to write the story of your life when so much is happening all the time that you kind of constantly have more and more to write. It doesn’t matter how much you write, at the end of the day you’ve still got more to write than you had at the beginning of the day. So it just seemed like, well okay, to be in the spirit of that, you know, would be to try and show the making of the film.
DC: So Steve Coogan and to — maybe a lesser extent — Rob Brydon … I mean they’re not only the lead actors and the characters in this film… I mean they’re integral to it, especially with Steve Coogan, I mean, his own… you play on his own… his public perception and his own personal life as well. I was just wondering at what stage Steve Coogan got involved in the project and how much you then adapted the film around him.
MW: Well, from the very beginning, the idea was how Steve played that part and once we started working on the script was… it was to have Rob playing that part. So, as I say, one of the motivations was in order to work with Steve again… so that he was like there at kind of like from before the beginning of the script really. So obviously… I mean I know Steve, so it was possible to kind of… that made it easier — and I had worked with Steve before — but also then we talked to Steve as well. So some of the ideas, even before we started writing the script were his ideas about things that might be useful for him to sort of latch onto as a character.
DC: Let’s start taking questions from the audience please. There’s one over there.
Audience member: Is the director in the film based on you and if so, why did you choose Jeremy Northam for the role?… [laughter]
MW: I got a lot of criticism because I’d chosen someone who was way too good-looking to be a director. But he had the advantage that he was… he lived at… in a… we filmed a lot in Norfolk and he lived in a little village near where we were filming so that was… I think from his point of view, that was the most attractive thing about the film was that he could just walk to work, virtually. And you know… because I didn’t really give him much direction about it, but when he was on set I kind of thought he was being too incoherent and too grumpy. But everyone said that actually it was quite a close impersonation so I don’t… I don’t know.
DC: Let’s have another question please. Over there.
Audience member: What made you choose to use music from other films?
MW: Well, the music… normally when you make a film, you can’t really use music that’s been used in films before even if you really love it, because it sort of seems like you’re cheating. But in this case because we were making a film about making a film, we decided that all the music in the film would have to have been in another film before. So in fact we were able to borrow kind of favourite pieces from other films. So, partly the choice of music was because the Fellini films were brilliant films and partly because the music also was great. It seems like a connection to 8 1/2. I think 8 1/2 is a much more serious film, Fellini has much more serious pretensions to making a film about filming whereas ours was more of a joke really.
And one of the nice things about the book is that the book doesn’t take itself very seriously, so you can afford to try and be in that spirit… the whole time of trying not to get too serious about things. The very first screening we had was in a village hall, in the village where Shandy wrote most of the… where Laurence Sterne wrote most of the book. And it was a mixture of the people who lived in the village and Tristram Shandy experts from around the world who kind of … it was like a symposium.
And I think, you know, if it had been like an Austen… a group of Austen experts or Dickens experts they would have been like horrified by what we’d done, but because they all loved Tristram Shandy, they all loved the idea that it wasn’t just the book and it was messing around, it was like in the same spirit. So it was kind of… I think, you know, the book attracts people who like to kind of not take things too seriously.
DC: Another question please? Take another question? Over there.
Audience member: How much, if any was improvised?
MW: Well, as I said before, the starting point was we talked to Steve and then to Rob before… as we were working on the script, so to some extent the script was taking things that they’d improvised in those meetings… but that was still in the script form. The shape of the film was actually pretty much as it was written. There wasn’t that much sense of like messing around and being free to come up with completely new stuff.
The sequence at the beginning and at the end are completely improvised and for the rest of it, in the modern sections, people are obviously free to do whatever they want to do but it was… sort of stuck to a kind of version of the script, it wasn’t miles away. And the story order and the kind of structure of the story and the characters were all pretty much as they were in the screenplay.
I mean one of the problems was we only had six weeks to film, so we didn’t really have as much time as I would normally like to mess around and, you know, try things out. So it was a little bit like each day you had to get through a certain number of pages and then if you had any spare time you could see if there was anything else that you wanted to do.
It’s… one of the nice things about working on films where there’s no script at all is it means you don’t have anything you have to do that day so you can just mess around the whole day, and no one can say that you’re behind or you haven’t shot what you were supposed to shoot because there is no script to shoot.
DC: There was another question up there.
Audience member: How much more did you shoot that didn’t get into the final cut… did you lose many sequences?
MW: Well, again, as I said it was quite a short shoot but we have got like an hour and a half’s worth of material for extras on a DVD, which was… some stuff we kind of shot for that purpose because, you know, the book is very digressive and it does have lots of sort of detours. So it seemed like actually, in a way, a DVD version, which had sort of footnotes, in a way, as it says in the film — it’s all in the film — that to do other connected things but not necessarily part of the story would sort of be in keeping and in some ways that would be a more kind of Shandian version of the film.
So there’s about an hour and a half of extra material like that but, as I said, the script was actually kind of pretty close to how it was. It wasn’t as though there were whole areas of story that we intended to be in the film and then disappeared. It actually… it was not that far away from the film as it is now. I mean, obviously there’s like… detail was improvised so like things, you know, sort of… but the kind of shape was pretty much what’s there.
DC: I was re-reading a review that a colleague of mine wrote in Time Out of the film this week, in which he said that when you were in the planning stage — I’m not sure what stage that was — of the film, that first you considered making it for TV and you considered making it as a soap or a sitcom. I was wondering, is that true? And if so, how would that… how did you perceive that?
MW: Well, I think the starting point was about ten years ago and it was like well maybe we could do it as a sort of video diary. You know because obviously… which is in a sense the kind of form the book takes and then when we kind of came back to at it at one point we thought ‘yeah, it would be a brilliant sitcom because it’s sort of like there’s so much material in the book that you could go on forever, and you just take a little piece and it would just be… so you could do like 100 episodes out of it, which is then… well it was strange when we started doing the script when it got 30 pages in total.
So it was like… so there was like kind of weird change of mind really halfway through. And we did actually — when we were thinking about doing a sitcom — we did send it to Rob Brydon … said to Rob would he like to be the main part but Rob could never be bothered to read the book so that sort of gradually disappeared. When we kind of finally decided to start work on the script, then it was to make it as a film and with Steve as the main part. So we just… we had to just kind of be as tactful as possible about the change of personnel.
DC: Can we take another question please. Down there.
MW: Well, it’s like it’s work isn’t it? It’s like most people spend most of their life at work and so do I, you know, it’s not that different. If you think about it in a sort of historical context… if you look sort of 40 years ago in Hollywood people were probably making two or three films a year, 40 years ago in Europe, you know, people like Godard were making a couple of films a year.
The very first thing I ever directed was a documentary on Ingmar Bergman, and he directed like 60 films and wrote the scripts for them and had his main career in the theatre. And so it’s like… so it’s not hard to make one… a film a year, apart from getting the finance… and that’s really kind of where people spend a lot of time messing around… is trying to get people to give you money to make the films. And so one of the things we do — I have a partner Andrew Eaton who’s the producer — is that we try and make them as cheaply as possible and that makes it a little bit easier to get the money… but that’s our only strategy really.
DC: I mean the received wisdom now is that it is a particularly difficult time to make feature films in this country. What do you say… I mean do you think that’s… do you think it’s an attitudinal thing on filmmakers’ parts perhaps? Or what do think the main obstacles are?
MW: Well, it’s a mixture of things. I mean, obviously if you’re making an expensive film then it is harder to get the money for the… out of Britain it’s just what the… that’s the case… so in the end that’s what… I guess that’s why people go to America. But also I think there is probably… I think financiers don’t like the idea of you making a lot of films. I think just in terms of like the economics of filmmaking, they prefer the idea of one every two years than two a year, which was obviously different, you know. 30-40 years ago people were regularly doing two a year.
So I think it’s like a structural change and, you know, it’s like it doesn’t mean to say… you can avoid it but it does mean people… financiers are always complaining about the number of films I make. But you can avoid it but it’s certainly not something they like to encourage, they seem to prefer the idea that you do one film, you know, every two years but, you know, we just have to keep changing financiers so they don’t notice too much. [laughter]
DC: Why is that? Is it because they’re worried about another of your films infringing on what they see as the…
MW: I think it’s partly just that they don’t have that much money, I mean… is the truth. So, if their only commission… a lot of… most financiers in this country will probably only commission six or seven films a year. They don’t want to commission two from one person… they want to commission, you know… they have a number of directors they probably want to work with so they like to space it out so that they can then work with other people the next year, which is understandable.
You know, maybe there’s a slight sense of… I think it’s just a slight sense of… that you should spend longer on a film. But actually in reality what happens is that people just spend longer not working on a film waiting for the money to come through, that’s the only difference.
DC: Let’s take another question please… at the end of the row there.
Audience member: Once a comic becomes successful they then have to move away from what they’re known for to continue. I that why your films are so different? Is it a deliberate move away from being pigeonholed?
MW: Well, I think in the film is the idea… Steve wanted to get away from Alan Partridge to a certain extent and I think that’s just natural. I think it’s not necessarily to do with comedians that you don’t want to be constantly doing the same thing over and over again. And I mean… so in that sense there’s a connection. I don’t want to constantly make the same film over and over again.
But it’s not… so I think gradually like… obviously there are some films that sort of… it’s like to me this is kind of quite similar to 24 Hour Party People in lots of ways, even though the subject matter is very different. And so it is like you, I think, over a period of time you then do probably go back and do similar projects but the idea of like just having finished one film, to try and make a very similar film straight away… it just doesn’t seem that attractive, you know, just from the point of view of work.
DC: Let’s take another one over there.
Audience member: We’re all the impressions written into the script?
MW: No, I think all the impressions were Rob’s, and Steve was always like ‘oh, God, stop him doing those impressions.’ You know, he really hated it, especially the Al Pacino… ‘don’t let him do that! Don’t let him do that!’ And then what happened was that… I think we did the… I think how it was, we did the EPK interview, the sort of interview with Rob, sort of before we shot the dream sequence and he mentioned Roger Moore when we were doing that, just like in passing, so then on the day we just thought ‘well, why don’t you try to doing the Roger Moore when you’re doing the dream sequence, because that would really annoy Steve in all sorts of ways.’ [laughter]
And weirdly now, actually, Steve’s… I think Steve’s sort of gradually come to terms with it all so they now… when they do… unfortunately you haven’t got Steve and Rob tonight because they do lots of impressions the whole time now when they’re doing Q&As so they sort of… they’ve relaxed into it… they are now just basically doing Ronnie Corbett impressions the whole time. [laughter]
DC: Another question please. Up there.
Audience member: I was impressed at how many British comic actors there were in the film. Once you had three or four cast, was there a momentum that gathered and everyone else wanted to do it.
MW: Yeah, I think there is a bit of that. It’s like a sort of sheep mentality that… and because we had Steve and Rob — and also I think it helped having done 24 Hour Party People as well because it’s… although… Steve kind of felt that that had done him good in terms of doing other films — and so I think probably other comedians kind of thought ‘oh, well maybe it’s not such a bad idea.’ And it wasn’t… we’d worked with quite a few of them before, like Rob was in 24 Hour Party People as well, and Stephen Fry we knew from working on the project that he directed. And people like Shirley Henderson and Ian Hart we’d worked with before and who are great actors.
So it was kind of a mixture of people we knew and then one or two other people were just joining in because they sort of thought it would be a good idea. And a lot of those comedians do know each other… so like Mark Williams and David Walliams both know Steve and Rob quite well. So it’s also… just basically it’s fun… ‘it’s going to be a day or two’s work and what’s the problem, you know, as long as we are free.’ Because we weren’t paying them very much money so we had… basically it was like if they were free they’d come up and do it sort of thing.
Audience member: Would you say it improved the film, having all these famous faces?
MW: Well, again it’s one of the advantages of doing a film about filming is that it’s like, if you recognise the actors, that’s fine because they are… it’s all sort of… it’s that world… so it’s a bit easier than if you’re… we’re just doing a film at the moment about three British people who ended up at Guantanamo where… if it was lots of famous faces kept knocking around it would be a bit distracting. So…
DC: Let’s take another question. Over there. Yep .
Audience member: How did you decide which actors would keep their own name and which wouldn’t?
MW: Well, it could only really be the actors who would take the actor’s names so… you know there were people who would be actors in the film, so I think we just did whatever seemed easiest. So it was like Steve and Rob — it was very easy — I’m not sure… I’m trying to think who else has their own name in the film besides Steve and Rob. Is that what you mean about whether people were actually using their real names?
Audience member: You could have had Steve Coogan playing an actor…
MW: No, sure, but then it… we had this conversation when we… before we started because at one stage like the director and producer’s names were the names of me and Andrew as well, so it was like a bit sort of chicken and egg. But in the end Steve is Steve. It’s like it would be a bit perverse to call Steve ‘Martin’ or something; it would be kind of confusing, for no purpose.
The only ones we really used — I think probably the only ones we used were Steve and Rob — but it’s like, for the actors, because they’re playing the actors in the film and they are actors, it’s kind of easy to use the name, whereas if someone’s playing the director, it wouldn’t make sense to use his name because it’s an actor playing a director rather than a director playing a director. So I think that was the kind of logic of it. [laughter]
Audience member: I can’t remember the actress’s name… long, dark hair…
MW: Shirley? I think Shirley is called Shirley in it and Gillian Anderson is called Gillian Anderson. There is a logic to it. [laughter]
Audience member: When I saw Mark Williams…
MW: Yeah, he wasn’t called Mark Williams in the film though.
Audience member: Exactly. I didn’t know whether it was Mark Williams’ exact name or someone called Mark Williams playing someone, you know.
MW: But don’t you have that problem with any film? That it’s an actor playing someone else? [laughter]
Audience member: Did you intend to make it seem like a documentary about making a film?
MW: Well, I kind of hope it doesn’t feel like it’s a documentary. I mean it’s like there are other — no, I’m being serious — there are other elements, as I say on the DVD, there… because when the original… one of the versions of the screenplay had more kind of grey areas of what was like… having come out of one scene, it sort of went out again so you saw people who you might think were the real crew filming the people who were pretending to be the crew. So it was like… it was more of a blurring of the line between… is this actually the film now being made?
Some of those elements are on the DVD, but I kind of think within the film that — this film — it’s like I hope it kind of feels like this isn’t a documentary, but it is a sort of fiction of making a film. We weren’t trying… I mean I think it was… you know, it’s not… it’s quite close to the way we made it. It’s quite similar to the way we made it but it’s not our… the intention was not to show what it’s like to make a film, it was to try and be entertaining.
DC: Was there ever any suggestion that you’d appear in the film yourself?
MW: No, that’s my idea of hell. I’d never do that. I’d never inflict that on anyone.
Audience member: The film relies on a lot of knowledge — on the audience’s part — of TV and film and comedy… TV comedy and comics and then Steve Coogan’s career and life…
MW: But I think, in a way, if you didn’t know Steve Coogan, it might be more entertaining because you’d assume it was a fictional character and I think it’s like — it would be hard to have dreamt up a fictional Steve Coogan — so I think, probably it looks more impressive that we came up with a character like Steve Coogan. But I do think, actually, most… because most… I don’t think it relies on it that much… the reference is obviously to Alan Partridge, but I don’t think it relies on knowing that much about it, you know, to understand it. Certainly we showed it in Canada and America and it’s… everyone seemed to get it.
So I think, obviously any comedy is kind of culturally quite specific, but I don’t think it really requires that much knowledge of British TV comedy to enjoy it. And also I think… anyway things should be specific. I think things… you know it’s like if you sort of start thinking ‘well, we want this to show this internationally… so we’ll take out references that are very kind of specific to Britain’ that would be depressing, wouldn’t it? It would sort of just make it something that’s not interesting to any… in any context.
DC: Obviously, Steve Coogan was perfectly happy with the conceit of the film and his own involvement and the involvement of his own life in it. Was there ever any defensiveness on his part as to what you and your screenwriter wanted his character to do or something you wanted to happen to his character?
MW: I think there were one or two things that Steve was not so sure about which popped up in the script at various times and then came out. And I think there was… for instance, one of them was that the… at one point the girlfriend was referred… was what was called the wife. And he didn’t want that because he had a wife at the time… I think he’d just divorced but he didn’t want that confusion. I think that… so you know, in a way, he was quite happy because the idea was to have a fictionalised Steve Coogan.
It’s not exactly Steve’s life, you know, it’s not a documentary about Steve Coogan. So I think he liked just being clear that there were just some things about his character in the film that were not — at a biographical level — not correct about him as a person. So it just made it sort of clear that he was acting the role of Steve Coogan. And there was also various of his behaviour traits that he didn’t want to have in the film. [laughter]
DC: Up at the back there.
Audience member: Did you have problems with financing?
MW: Yeah, we had really big problems with financing, much worse than the problems with the film. We thought we… we were talking to one company for a long time about it and eventually they said yes, they’d do it… and with another company and then about two months before we were due to start filming they put… they said — or three months perhaps before — they said no, they weren’t going to do it. And then the second company said, like, in that case they wouldn’t do it either.
So we were sort of left sort of… six weeks before filming we were like… not really that much of the money and we decided that we would get it in the end so we would just carry on and it would happen. And then we were about three weeks into filming before we had any money at all so we were like… the whole first three weeks of filming and all the pre-production was paid… was like on credit cards and lots of stuff and it was like we were really touch-and-go and it was very lucky that a particular kind of tax financing thing came through in the third week or else…
We had like — by that stage — we had like 80 per cent of the money but the way it works in independent films is that no one will put any in until all the money’s in. So it’s like you might only be missing 20 per cent but you don’t get any of it until it’s all there because no one wants to come in first in case the other people don’t put their money in and they have to carry on paying for the rest of it.
So everyone’s like… all the financiers are like ‘well, it’s your problem. If you want to do it it’s your problem, but we’re not going to give you any money at all until all the contracts are signed with everyone and we know we’re only going to do our percentage.’ So we were… so it was like really touch-and-go about whether we’d… by the third week it was just like every possible source of money had run out and it was like really on… we could quite easily have had to close it down and close our company down.
DC: Do you think you and your production company Revolution are more — I mean relatively more — willing to take risks and that’s probably why you’re so prolific?
MW: I think one of the good things is if you — because I always worked with Andrew who’s the producer — I think that if you’re working as a team it’s easier. You know, also… the other nice thing is a lot of the crew… we work together a lot on the production side… people work together a lot so it’s very easy. That side of it’s very easy.
And it’s like if the producer and the director say… you know… they want to do a project… because one of the problems if you’re trying to get a film made… the producer’s working on four or five possible films and the directors working on maybe two or three possible films, and so besides all the other problems you’ve got… you have the fact that they’ve got to coincide… that you both end up doing that one film that you’re working on together.
So with me and Andrew it’s slightly different, it’s like once we’ve decided that this is what we’re going to do next then we just work on the basis that that’s going to happen. And we just plough on and hope that by the time we get to the point of making it, that it will have come together. But we sort of like… we know that he’s… I know that he’s committed, he knows I’m committed. So it does solve some of the problems, yeah.
DC: I think we have to take two more questions and then I think we’re going to have to wrap up. There’s one at the back there in the white jumper.
Audience member: Hello, have you anything to say about the Guantanamo Bay film?
MW: Yeah, well it’s… we’re right in the middle of editing at the moment… we’re sort of rushing to try and get it finished. And it’s about three — it’s a true story of — three British people from Tipton, near Birmingham, who ended up in Guantanamo Bay. So it’s a sort of… it’s a very long road… it’s a kind of cross between a road movie, war movie and prison movie. It’s like… because the journey goes from England to Pakistan to Afghanistan to Cuba, back to England, back to Pakistan. So it’s quite a long journey but then it’s sort of just really just… it’s their account of what happened to them on their journey.
DC: Did you shoot in all those locations?
MW: We shot in England, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran. We built Guantanamo in Tehran. [laughter]
DC: I’ll take two more questions. One at the back and then you afterwards.
Audience member: Would you consider making a Hollywood blockbuster, considering you’re films are so varied?
MW: No… [laughter] I don’t think so.
Audience member: I’m sure it’s on the DVD but, since you’re here, in terms of process, are you restricted to rehearsing within the… your shooting time? Or do you have any rehearsal time outside of that?
DC: I’ll just… in case… you’re asking whether you’re able to rehearse outside of your shooting time or whether you’re…
MW: Well, before the shoot, as I say, so you start… we started talking to Steve and Rob, you know, as we were working on the script so there’s things like that happening from the beginning. But I find rehearsals are so… actually… so it’s nice to have preparation time and time to talk, you know, I’d include trying… you know, getting to know the actors and use that to try and make the script work for them or… but I actually kind of find the idea of a formal rehearsal quite embarrassing. Just like… it doesn’t… I just think, you know… people pretending… sitting in a room and reading out lines and pretending to do things is not what I like.
I prefer to just be on set and then, you know… and see how it goes. And then the idea… and so the improvisation that I do — or that the actors do when they do it — is more… is not so much like Mike Leigh style improvising for months and then kind of coming up with the result of that, but it’s more just feeling free to do whatever they want to do at that moment.
So it’s like if they decided in the middle of a take to do something different, it’s fine, you know. And we shoot with a handheld camera so they can go anywhere they want and they can say whatever they want and they can overlap and all sorts of stuff. So it’s more about letting them feel relaxed on set than it is about doing a lot of preparation before going on set. We try not to work more than eight hours a day as well to try and keep it relatively relaxed.
DC: I think we’re going to have to end there, so thank you very much, thank you to Michael Winterbottom. [applause]
MW: Thank you.