Michael Winterbottom has devoted much of his filmmaking career to revisiting real-life events through works blurring the boundaries between documentary and drama to various degrees.
The filmmaker shed light on his approach in a recent Doha Film Institute (DFI) masterclass, going behind the scenes of Welcome To Sarajevo, 24 Hour Party People, In This World, The Road To Guantanamo, A Might Heart and Eleven Days In May.
“It’s a continuum, even if you’re filming a fantasy film in a studio on a green screen there is an element of document to that. You’re recording that moment of the act of performance,” he said when quizzed on his attitude towards documentary versus fiction.
“Equally, even in a documentary like Eleven Days… you’re trying to shape that story, so it a continuum,” he added, referring to the 2022 documentary commemorating 68 children killed in Israeli bombing raids over Gaza in May 2021.
Winterbottom elaborated on this idea through his Berlinale Golden Bear-winning docudrama In This World, following two young Afghan refugees on a perilous journey from Pakistan to London, and The Road To Guantanamo, about three British men who were detained by U.S. forces in Afghanistan in 2001.
“They both started from responding to events, we were aware of and thinking about, reading about and seeing in the media,” he said.
In This World had been prompted by hostility towards refugees in the press as well as the case of 38 Chinese people who had died in a container on route to the UK, he said.
“We went off and researched lots of people’s stories and the biggest group of people coming over at that time were Afghan refugees, so then we went to Peshawar in Pakistan where there one million refugees living in that one city,” he explained
Winterbottom and writer Tony Grisoni flew to Peshawar in September 2001, on the first flight into the city, following the 9/11 attacks.
“We went on the journey that we had been told was the most common journey. We met various people we included in the film later and then when we made the film we found two refugees and went off and shot the film,” he said
“In a way, it’s fiction but it’s a very observational film. We were basically there as travel agents. We organized the journey and they did what they wanted to do during the course of the filming.”
For The Road To Guantanamo, Winterbottom and co-director Mat Whitecross spent a month-and-a-half listening to the stories of the three men at the heart of the story in a safe house.
“That film crosscuts between the real person telling us their story and then actors, acting what they told us, so reconstruction and then within the film, there is a strand going back to a wedding in Pakistan,” said Winterbottom.
“I don’t know which one counts as documentary and which one counts as drama but they are different approaches to trying to tell a story,” he said.
Many of the real-life stories at the heart of Winterbottom’s films have been covered extensively by journalists at the time of their happening.
The director said his approach to recounting these events was different from that of journalists.
“The research varies depending on the film,” he said. “You can do a lot of research from books and online, but the biggest research element is to meet the people and get a sense of how they behaved and, of course, go to the places where the story happened,” he said.
“The details we need to recreate the story are not the details journalists ask, you need to understand how the story unfolds in a lot more detailed way,” he added. “It’s not research in an academic way. It’s about being in the place and meeting the right people.”
Winterbottom gave an example of this approach in his preparation for A Mighty Heart about the 2002 kidnapping of The Wall Street Journal correspondent Daniel Pearl in the Pakistani city of Karachi, starring Angelina Jolie as his wife Mariane Pearl.
Following Pearl’s abduction, Mariane Pearl was supported by a group of friends, journalists, diplomats and security officials in the couple’s home, which is a key backdrop in the film.
“Mariane wanted the film to be made. We talked to Mariane and we talked to the people in the house and then the actors could also go and talk to Mariane and the other people in the house,” he said.
“We had a script but it was also very improvised around what they told us. We were trying to observe the actors as they were trying to channel what they had been told.”
Winterbottom revealed that working on the Daniel Pearl story had also given him a different perspective on his travels around Pakistan for In This World.
“We backpacked across Pakistan. After making the Daniel Pearl film, I learned I shouldn’t have done some of the things that I did. We were travelling across Pakistan when he was kidnapped and killed,” he said.
The talk also touched on Winterbottom’s views on the state of the UK film industry and his 2021 book Dark Matter: Independent Filmmaking In The 21st Century, featuring interviews with leading UK directors Lynne Ramsay, Mike Leigh, Ken Loach, Asif Kapadia and Joanna Hogg about their filmmaking practice.
Winterbottom said his research and interviews for the book had led him to conclude that the UK needed to do more to support established directors alongside emerging talents.
“In the heyday of cinema, from 1945 to 1980, it was normal to make a film a year. These days, the average is one every three or four years,” he said.
He noted that around two-thirds of the directors he had interviewed for the book had made only a handful of films in the UK.
“There is this idea in the UK, that you make your first film, it will be pretty low budget, half a million. If you make something interesting, for the second one, you get a bit more money, a million and a half, and if you’re good, after that you go to America,” said Winterbottom.
“There are lots of funds for first-time filmmakers, more than half of films are made by first-time filmmakers. That’s crazy. What about funds for fourth, fifth-time directors?, he said, adding that UK film funds needed to rethink how they allocated support.
“There is a merit in people making a body of work and going back to make more films,” he said.
Winterbottom’s masterclass was talking as part of the DFI’s Qumra talent incubator event running from March 10 to 16, which he attended as one of its so-called Qumra Masters alongside director Ramsay, writer Christopher Hampton, producer David Parfitt and costume designer Jacqueline West.