Michael Winterbottom on “Code 46”; Typical Love Story In an Atypical World
by Wendy Mitchell
Usually, I’d be offended at being offered only 10 minutes of interview time with a filmmaker; but with Michael Winterbottom, I almost want to encourage him to stop talking and get back to work as soon as possible. Since his 1994 debut feature, “Butterfly Kiss,” Winterbottom has established himself as one of the more eclectic and prolific contemporary filmmakers. In the past five years he has given us a masterful slice of life of damaged Londoners (“Wonderland”), a Western (“The Claim”), the Manchester music history/comedy “24-Hour Party People,” and the verite Afghani refugee story “In This World.”
Now Winterbottom returns with his first science-fiction film, “Code 46,” which he made with longtime collaborators Andrew Eaton (producer) and Frank Cottrell Boyce (screenwriter). “Code 46” is set in the near future, when the world is divided into megacities and desert slums, and travelers need special papelles (like passports or visas) to travel between cities. William (Tim Robbins) is an investigator who suspects a worker named Maria (Samantha Morton) of forging papelles. They have a brief affair, hindered not only by his family back home, but also a violation of “Code 46,” the government’s law that prevents them from being lovers because of their genetic makeup. The film focuses on their emotional turmoil but Winterbottom also explores life in this futuristic society: viruses that allow for specific feelings, memory erasure procedures, cloning consequences, hybrid languages, and a depleted ozone layer that makes it dangerous to venture outside during daylight.
During our 10-minute chat, thanks to his rapid-fire talking, Winterbottom discussed his team’s script collaboration process, 21st-century architecture, the challenges of futuristic filmmaking, and more. We didn’t make it to my questions about Oedipal themes in “Code 46,” the importance of music in his films, the explicit sex in his forthcoming controversial feature “Nine Songs,” or what he’s working on now. No doubt we’ll find out soon enough. United Artists opens “Code 46” in select cities today.
indieWIRE: You’ve worked so much with [screenwriter] Frank Cottrell Boyce, how does your collaboration process work? Specifically with “Code 46” did he show you a script, did you come up with the idea together, what was the genesis?
Michael Winterbottom: The idea comes up between us really, Frank and I and also our producer, Andrew Eaton, who we’ve worked with the whole time. Having finished “24-Hour Party People,” we were thinking of things to do and gradually we came up with the idea to do a film set in the future. We talked about it for a couple of months. We talked about the idea of it and the world of it, and then Frank started writing the screenplay.
iW: Is there a lot of collaboration after he starts writing?
Winterbottom: Yes, there is. Particularly on “Code 46.” Because Andrew and I were off making “In This World,” about two refugees, we got this idea of people having no papers and trying to travel from one place to another and the problems that creates. And a lot of that world — refugee camps, people in deserts, people outside the system, without papers, excluded — those elements are part of the social fabric of “Code 46” as well.
iW: Are you a sci-fi fan, had you always wanted to make a sci-fi film?
Winterbottom: No, not really, I was a bit naïve and innocent. It was a lot of fun starting from scratch: What do we want this world to be like? How does this world work? That side of things was interesting. But from my point of view, “Code 46” wasn’t a reference back to many previous science-fiction films or novels. It was looking at the world as it is now and drawing on our experience from different places, especially drawing on the cultures of the places where we were filming. Part of deciding what this world would be like was going to look at locations. We went to Dubai, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, Hong Kong, India, and joined up bits of those cultures into the culture of “Code 46.”
iW: Most sci-fi films tend to get bogged down with gadgets or fancy sets, and this was more about human interaction and how society had changed — why was that your focus?
Winterbottom: I think that’s what interests me generally. If you make a film set now in London or in Pakistan or wherever, the thing that interests me is the relationships between individuals — individuals and society, individuals and their family, their girlfriend or boyfriend, it’s all the same idea. Even though “Code 46” is set in the future it’s still the same idea, the heart of it is the love story. It’s interesting to see the way in which the story of these two particular characters connects with the culture of the film. A lot of the aspects of the world of the film are amalgams of things that already exist… it wasn’t about creating or inventing anything, it was just “this bit is interesting,” “that bit is interesting” and putting them together. Shanghai is the main city but we put the desert of Dubai around the outside of Shanghai. You can juxtapose two elements that aren’t together in reality but you can see those connections in a slightly odd light.
iW: Why did Shanghai and Dubai represent the future for you?
Winterbottom: It’s partly the look. Pudong, the new part of Shanghai, has had this amazing explosion of building in the past 15 years. This whole city has basically been built in the space of 15 years, so that whole look was introduced. In Dubai, you have this amazing look of flat desert with nothing and then suddenly you have high rises. It’s an artificial, arbitrary kind of building… “Let’s build a high rise — not because we’re short on space, but because we like the look of it!”
But it was more using places for their culture. City versus desert. The controlling of a very hostile climate — trying to green the desert — was something that connected to elements of “Code 46.” Also in Dubai the local population is much smaller than the immigrant population, so it’s very multi-cultural. There’s the idea of a city being not so much part of a nation, you’re not from India or China or America, you live in the city or outside the city, you’re in the system or outside the system. You get that feeling in Dubai in a way. Also a lot of the migrant labor in Dubai is from the Indian subcontinent, and those laborers have a different set of rights than other people. You get that sense of a population being used for very functional reasons: people having to leave where they are from in order to make a living.
And the great thing about being in Shanghai, as well as it being a lot of fun, was being in this culture that was changing rapidly and being transformed. A lot of the people that we were working with were beneficiaries of the change, but there are other people who have suffered from the changes. The people we were working with are doing things that 10 or 15 years ago would have been impossible. You were working with a group of people in a society that’s in a sense very different from the society they were born into. That was interesting and useful and enjoyable from the point of view of making a film where you are imagining a new place and changes. You’re working with people who have already experienced those things themselves.
iW: Most sci-fi films have huge budgets to build futuristic sets… how did you compensate for not having a huge budget in the way you shot this film?
Winterbottom: In terms of crew, I always like to work with the smallest possible crew, because the fewer people you have the more fun it is and the free-er it is, the faster it is, and the more interesting it is. So for those reasons, and just for other reasons to do with character and fiction I prefer to take actors and put them in real settings and real locations and real situations rather than create artificial locations that serve the characters. It’s just much easier when you are walking down the street with your actors to do that in a real street that’s still open with people on it, rather than to close it off and bring in extras. Generally speaking, that would be my approach. So from the beginning, I thought we should do this on location, to go to Shanghai, to go to Dubai, to go to India, instead of just building a studio set. There is a financial side to it but really that’s just the way I enjoy working. In the case of this film, obviously because it’s in the future it’s not as easy to work like that. So a lot of elements were more controlled than normal. Like the interiors, a lot of those were done in London. The building where Maria works half of that is Shanghai and half of it is in London, and all the people in that building are extras. It’s a question of finding the simpler solution rather than the most complicated.
iW: We can’t connect with the circumstances that William and Maria are living in, so how did you try to ensure that the audience could get an emotional connection with these people?
Winterbottom: You can’t really ensure that. You can just try to make sure that the people in the film behave as honestly as possible and react to each other as honestly as possible and hope that people connect with that emotionally. I think we started with a story that’s very familiar — you meet someone, you fall in love with them, circumstances force you apart. It’s a very banal idea of a love affair, but we put it in the context that perhaps make you look at it again in a different way. You hope by picking good actors that people engage with those characters.