Michael Winterbottom has had a remarkable diverse career in both film and television, crafting works from the opaque and artsy to droll and accessible. From slick, drug-fueled period pieces like 24 Hour Party People through improv-heavy films like The Trip to ripped-from-the-headlines dramas like A Mighty Heart or The Road to Guantanamo, Winterbottom has proved to be a deft filmmaker free to range through a number of disparate styles.
His latest feature film is The Face of an Angel, starring Kate Beckinsale and Daniel Brühl in this thinly veiled take on the Amanda Knox murder trial in Italy and the media firestorm that surrounded it. A delicate dance between the facts of the case and flights of dramatic fancy, Winterbottom’s film shifts in both tone and focus throughout, leaving an end result that’s provocative and in some ways quite satisfying.
Dork Shelf spoke to Winterbottom by phone about this balancing act, his own connection to the case, and how his film asks provocative questions about the nature of fiction and our collective obsession with crime dramas.
Dork Shelf: There’s a line of dialogue early in the film that says “you can’t tell the truth unless you make it a fiction.” Does that speak to the works of film that you’ve been working on the last several decades?
Michael Winterbottom: That line actually came from something Barbie, the real journalist that Kate’s character is based on, said. She was meaning that interpretation’s everywhere. There were things she wanted to put in her book, but she couldn’t because of legal reasons or whatever. For me it comes with a more general meaning. I don’t know whether it’s true or not, but in fiction you can give a different perspective. It can give you a more intimate look on a story, it can show you people in their private lives [and] intimate moments. [Fiction] can show you people behaving badly, in a way that documentaries find hard to do.
DS: It’s perhaps no surprise that you’re making a film essentially about filmmaking, about truth telling, in Italy, the land of Fellini, where when we stop believing in God we believe in a secular mythmaking. Is that an aspect that drew you to the project?
MW: What drew me to it I guess is the media coverage of the story. Why did [the Knox] story provoke so much coverage? That connects to the sort of things you’re talking about. What type of story do we get told about these murders, these trials? What aspects of that story fascinate us?
I think a lot of the films I’ve made before deal with real stories, but in a slightly fictionalized way, or in the border, really, between fact and fiction. [It’s] that kind of area where you’re aware of [that] this is based on things that happened really, but you’re also aware that this has been seen from one particular perspective, from a fictional perspective. Crossing from certain types of approach is an area that I like and enjoy and am interested in working in.
Italian secular stories can be as you said. These are things that various people said to us while we were researching the script for the film. Obviously you’ve got [the main character] Thomas’s perspective and that’s interesting, but he’s not intended to be seen as the correct version. Eduardo, because he’s that weird character, it doesn’t mean [his version is] not true, or Simone, the journalist, is somehow less reliable than Thomas the filmmaker.
I hope in watching it, that there’s various versions of the story, versions of what draws you to that story without being talked about. That bait in a way is part of what, as you watch it, you can’t think about yourself.
There’s no correct version, these are just kinds of things to think about.
DS: Yet at some point in time, it comes down to real events – whether or not real events within the context of your narrative, like diegetic real events or real events in the sense that this is obviously based on the Amanda Knox incident. Could you talk about your own connection with the real case and how that helped inform just the way you wanted to tell the story, the sort of Rashomon element of it that you just elucidated?
MW: The person who was killed, was murdered, was Meredith Kercher, but the case became the “Amanda Knox” case. Apart from the fact that Meredith disappeared, it’s also Raphael and the other guy as well, so there’s two people accused of it who’ve disappeared as well as the victim.
I think that connects to one area of the film, one aspect of the film, which is the way the media treats these stories, it tries to find a soap opera around these things. As Kate’s character says, it’s perfectly legitimate to be put on trial for murder, but for justice to be done, you have to have people reporting what goes on it court, court has to be open. But at the same time, I think the way in which the media feels that we want to read the story, it’s just gossip, speculation, exactly how many knives, exactly what happened, things that we can never know.
That Rashomon element, that is the story. One of the first things we did was after I met Barbie [is she] introduced me to all of the other journalists who covered the case. Half thought [Knox] was guilty, half thought she was innocent, they still argue about it. So clearly you’re not going to know, you’re never going to be able to say I now know this is the truth, this is what happened. Even the court case, it’s more about what do I think, what do I feel about this person, do I feel this person is the sort of person who would do it or not? That’s all speculation, it’s all stories about what might have happened rather than focusing on one thing that we know, this really simple truth that we know, which is that a girl lost her life. A family lost their daughter, their sister. So what we know is true and is really important and really emotional, is the one thing that disappears from all of the coverage of it.
DS: Would you be watching 24 hour news news and thinking this is bullshit, why are we obsessed with this white girl who got murdered in Italy and this other white girl who is being charged with it?
MW: It’s not that it’s bullshit – I think lots a people spent lots of time reading or watching that kind of story, but it was by chance that I read Barbie’s book.
I do think journalism is a really important aspect of our lives and one that people should get how important it is. If you think about it, what do you know about Africa? What do you know about Asia? What do you know about what’s going on in the world? Well, 95% of what we know is because of journalism, people writing what they see. It’s usually important jobs, talking about what’s important in the world and then reporting accurately and honestly about that.
On the other hand, you’ve got the spectacle. We went up to Perugia the first day of the [actual Knox] trial – You got the spectacle of the journalists running around, and the big scoop is just the colour of the skirt, or did she have a new haircut. So there’s both of those aspects to journalism [and] that’s why I think it’s quite an interesting area to look at. There’s unfortunately quite a rather big gap between the aspirations and ideals of journalists and the pathetic nature of the everyday reality of it.
DS: Do you see your film having a journalistic component? Is it essentially an op-ed about journalism?
No, it’s not an op-ed at all. The reason we have a filmmaker in there, in the story, is to clarify that of course if you make a film about a case like this, a story like this, then you are not in the same situation as a journalist writing about this. There have probably been 10 books written about this, probably five documentaries. Beside the new journalists, you have these other versions, these other types of commentary and engagement with the story. We are yet another version of that.
That’s why I’m not pretending we’re separate and we’re doing a more, something completely different from what the journalists are doing. [Yet] as a filmmaker, you have specific things for filmmaking. Journalists have to sell the story every day, and try and keep that story running every day. Because they’re online, because there’s space there, because of 24 hour news, journalists love to turn the story into soap opera. I hope when people watch them that at the end of it all, they feel that we’re trying to genuinely engage with the fact that in the middle of all of this knowledge there’s a truth that’s quite easy to grasp which is that there’s a father who’s lost a daughter, a girl who’s lost her sister. That is the simple, important truth that almost never gets reported.
DS: Perhaps most provocatively you turn Dante’s writings into works of journalism.
MW: He’s a pure example of someone writing about the love for someone who is missing, the love for someone who, in this case, is dead. Beatrice was dead halfway through La Vita Nuova. He went down to hell, he’s slagging off all of the people he doesn’t like in a very ad hominem way, just basically anyone who crossed him got a good old drubbing in The Divine Comedy.
DS: Paul Viragh is credited with the script – could talk about your working relationship with him and at what stage he came into the project?
MW: I met Barbie and then went with her to Perugia and met some of the other people involved in the case, some of the journalists and did a rough outline of what interested me in the story. I then started working with Paul. So Paul and I then worked together, and I think from the beginning of that writing process, to starting the filming, was about 3 years. It was not something we worked on every day, but it was a long time between kind of like figuring out what we were doing and finally making it.
DS: Could you talk about working with the cast?
MW: An executive producer, Andrew Eaton, had just produced Rush starring Daniel, so he suggested we get [him] – Not just because he is a great actor, which I knew, but because he’s a really great person, great to work with. So I went off to Brussels where I met him, and I thought he was perfect for the part. He talked about publicity and all of the kind of problems Thomas would have, so I needed him for the role, and that was great and deliberately gave him a lot of scope. I told him we’d believe all that, that it would be difficult and he understood that aspect of it but at the same time, finally, you’d want him to get out of the hole and get out and home safely. So Daniel properly did all of that.
For Cara (Delevingne), I’d met lots of people but hadn’t found exactly what I wanted and it was suggested that this girl would be what we wanted and she came in and as soon as I met her, I thought she was perfect for the part and she was fantastic to work with, to direct. She’s in reality exactly how she appears to be from the puppet image of her so it was fantastic. She enjoys life and is open and spontaneous which is great for that part.
With Kate, obviously, that part is based loosely on the journalist who wrote the book. One of the things I like about all of the journalists that I met is that they’re close with their questioning. They’re competitive, they’re sparky. Without being rude, sometimes it’s hard to find actors that really make you believe they are intelligent with a certain kind of intelligence that journalists have. What’s great about Kate is that she is really bright, she’s very quick, and you completely buy her as someone who gets the right story and for me.
Kate’s character is the one, and Thomas’s is very similar – they have very good jobs, they have children but separate apartments, but as a woman, she wanted to just get on with it. She’s [a] gown up and has to juggle the career and her children and make the best she can out of it, but Thomas as a man is in a decline.
DS: The music is quite baroque – Was a conscious choice, to make something a little bit more explicit and romantic in terms of the score when you were slightly more austere in terms of the filmmaking?
MW: I think I do that quite a lot, so it’s deliberate in the sense that yes, it’s something that I do in lots of different contexts.
The reason why I use music emotionally and perhaps more explicitly, more foregrounded than you might expect, is because I don’t really like the actors or the characters to express overtly what’s going on emotionally in their head. It’s quite unnatural to do that, maybe more unnatural in England than in America, so I think generally I don’t like that theatrical version of people talking about that sort of stuff to other people. I kind of think that what’s supposed to be happening with dialogue is to be observing people as they normally behave and then maybe because of that, due to counterpoint that, I’ve set more rich and emotional music.
DS: Finally, as per The Trip, do you have your own Michael Caine impersonation?
MW: Definitely not! [Laughs]