- 15 Jun 10
Cult English indie director Michael Winterbottom caused a storm at Sundance with his latest movie, an uncompromisingly violent adaptation of Jim Thompson’s noir classic The Killer Inside Me. But the filmmaker remains nonplussed by the reaction. “Certain scenes should be shocking,” he says.
It started at Sundance and the post-premiere Q&A when one punter leapt to their feet shouting: “I don’t understand how Sundance could book this movie. How dare you? How dare Sundance?”
The ‘you’, in this particular instance is Michael Winterbottom, the prolific British talent behind films as diverse as The Claim, A Mighty Heart and Twenty-Four Hour Party People. The film is The Killer Inside Me, a slavishly faithful adaptation of Jim Thompson’s disturbing pulp classic.
“I just really loved the book,” shrugs the director. “As you say, it’s a very heightened melodramatic world. We didn’t really want to counter it. I thought that it would be interesting to make it as close to the book as possible rather than worry about the excesses or attempt to make it more innocent or natural. I don’t want this to sound like a negation of responsibility but the moment I decided I was going to make the film I knew it had to be a literal version of the book. It had to tell the same story. Once I made that decision a lot of the ideas were decided for me. It’s not like developing a screenplay or characters. It’s about telling a story as is.”
The story is, of course, not suited to delicate sensibilities. Like the daring source novel, Mr. Winterbottom’s film centres on Lou Ford, a 29-year-old deputy sheriff in a small Texas town. As we meet our anti-hero, Ford (played with remarkable duplicity by Casey Affleck) seems to be a regular, perhaps dim-witted guy with Good Old Boy manners. Beneath this facade, however, he is a whip-smart and depraved sociopath who acts out crazed sadomasochistic urges with both his official sweetheart (Kate Hudson) and Joyce, a less-respectable lady beyond the town limits (Jessica Alba).
When Lou and Joyce hatch a plan to swindle a local property magnate, we’re fairly sure it won’t end well, but even fans of the original book may be taken aback by the resulting violence.
“I was taken aback by the nature of the criticism levelled at those scenes,” says Mr. Winterbottom. “The idea that in order to represent murder onscreen it should be glamorous and endurable is illogical. I mean reading Thompson it’s very modern and it’s very shocking. It still has a massive visceral impact. So certain scenes should be shocking. This is a film about a man who is capable of killing someone he loves with his fists, who can switch between tenderness and unbelievable brutality. It should make you uncomfortable.”
Unsurprisingly, the film has already inspired a good deal of movie lore: Jessica Alba fainted at the screening; Kate Hudson couldn’t watch it at all. Sadly, none of these tall tales are true, though they do lend a dangerous mystique to the project.
“In Sundance in particular it was a little bit depressing that the only thing people talked about was the violence,” says the director. “We showed it at Tribeca recently and we showed it at Berlin before that and with each screening the conversation shifts a bit more onto the novel, a bit further away from the violence.”
You’d think Michael Winterbottom would be used to controversy. As the brains behind such incendiary efforts as 9 Songs, he frequently draws fire from conservative minded critics and cautious movie patrons. Does he, I wonder, ever get tired of the attention?
“Everything gets tiring after a while,” he laughs. “We knew when we made 9 Songs that people weren’t going to talk about the relationship without talking about the sex and we knew it would be similar with this film and the violence. But if you go into a project knowing that you lose the right to complain about it afterwards.”
When he isn’t on the receiving end of metaphorical rotting fruit, Mr. Winterbottom is carving out an extraordinary career. Having worked his way through kitchen sink drama (Butterfly Kiss), romance (I Want You), science fiction (Code 46), harrowing war tales (Welcome to Sarajevo, The Road to Guantanamo), and two Thomas Hardy adaptations (The Claim and Jude), it can be difficult to determine just where he’s coming from as a filmmaker. And yet, as regular Winterbottom watchers can attest, his use of pop songs to punctuate and accentuate the narrative and his easy naturalistic style make Brand Winterbottom relatively easy to spot.
“My films are very character based,” he tells me. “For me it doesn’t matter if it’s a western or a road movie; in my mind I think they’re similar stories. Maybe I’ll have to make a musical extravaganza just to muddy the waters.”
He has, to date, resisted the blandishments of Hollywood despite plenty of lucrative offers. Doesn’t the daily grind of independent financing ever get him down, I wonder?
“It really depends on the film,” he says. “I ended up making The Killer Inside Me because we were going to do a film about teenagers in Manchester that borrowed a little bit from a David Gaddis novel but the copyright issues got incredibly complicated. Sometimes you’re making a period drama and sometimes it’s a road movie about two refugees. It’s always different people and different amounts of money each time. Sometimes the things you expect will take years breeze through. The people who had the rights to the Thompson novel had been trying to get a movie off the ground for 13 years. Even though our initial financing fell through, we were done in less than two. What can I tell you? It keeps you on your toes.”
The Killer Inside Me opens June 4
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