Michael Winterbottom has had one of the most diverse and unpredictable careers of any director working. Across 22 films in 20 years, he’s tackled virtually every genre, with films set all over the world, working with everyone from A-list stars like Angelina Jolie, to non-professional actors. And this year, unexpectedly, he’s made his first sequel.
“The Trip To Italy” is a follow-up to 2011’s “The Trip,” and like the first film, sees Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon playing version of themselves, traveling around, bickering, trading impressions and eating amazing food. As the title suggests, the location has changed, but the film is just as enjoyable, and curiously moving, as its predecessor.
With “The Trip To Italy” now in theaters, and his next film, the Amanda Knox-inspired “The Face Of An Angel,” starring Daniel Bruhl and Kate Beckinsale, screening at TIFF in a couple of weeks, we sat down with Winterbottom to talk about the origins of, and process behind, his latest film.
Rob and Steve have said that you were the driving force behind the idea of making a sequel to “The Trip.” What was it that made you want to return to the well here?
I’m not sure that’s strictly true. It probably was on the first one, on the second one, it was a conversation we all had, because we were asked by the BBC, and by other distributors, “are you doing a second one?” Thinking about whether or not we should do a second one, I think for me, it was like ‘Well, it’d be fun to go to Italy, it’d be fun to try some lovely Italian restaurants, it’d be fun to travel up and down Italy and pretend I’m working, so that was the major factor of doing a second one.
What’s the process when it comes to planning? I know the actors are improvising around an outline, but is it quite loose, or quite detailed?
In the case of the first and the second films, there was about a fifty-page outline, but that outline, which included the details of what they might talk about in each restaurant, that outline is the end of a process which happens in phases. In the case of “The Trip To Italy,” we knew were going to do it in Italy. And then the question was what the organizing principle would be, and after a little while, I thought it should be that they were following in the footsteps of Byron and Shelley. So when we started researching, we were looking for restaurants connected to places where Byron and Shelley had been, because obviously you have to understand what the journey is they’re going on, the physical nature of the trip. So there’s that phase of it, and then talking to Steve and Rob, informally over lunches and drinks, and then we had a couple of days when we went out to Italy and went to one of the restaurants and talked some more, so from those conversations, and from knowing Steve and Rob… Like you said, we had the structure of the journey first of all, and then what happens on the journey in terms of other people — Rob’s going to meet someone, have a brief fling with them, Steve’s trying to get in touch with his family. And then you find the themes: following in the footsteps, tourism, poets. And you hope that’ll provoke the conversations in the restaurants. So by the end of that process, which was spread out over a year or so, then you have the outline that we start the film with.
It’s a curious project, because you’re serving two masters: you have the three-hour, six-part BBC TV version, and then the two-hour movie cut. Are you always approaching it with that in mind, or do you work on the different versions after you’ve shot?
Yeah, the second. In terms of filming, when we did the first one, we knew we had to do six episodes, cos the BBC had paid for it. We talked about the idea of a film, but we didn’t have to. The first one, more than the second one, is structured around the idea of the meals, the shape of the meal; the ordering, the first course, the second course, the coffee, the bill. The structure of each episode was very clear with that. So when we came to look at the film, it became more about the journey, and less about the meal. In case of Trip to Italy, even the episodic structure was a little bit more about the journey, and not quite so much about the food. But yeah, when we’re filming, we just film as much as we can, it’s not that structured, it’s improvised. Then once we’ve got all the material, first of all we cut down six half-hours, then we cut it into the film. There’s probably a lot more repetition in the series, but there’s quite a lot of stuff that’s quite specifically English, in its context, so we try to get rid of all that. So once that’s done, it becomes reasonably manageable.
I loved the way that the dynamic between Rob and Steve is quite different this time around: Steve’s sort of more settled with himself, whereas it’s Rob who’s sort of in crisis. And yet there’s more warmth between them than we’ve seen before. Did that develop organically from the actors, or was it a question of finding a new approach after three films together?
It was mainly the idea of finding some new areas to work in, so it was a clear decision on my part. Given that we’d spent so much time exploring the idea of Steve being reckless and ambitious and unsettled and unhappy, and Rob being very content in contrast. So we thought letting Rob be ambitious, and letting Steve hanker after family life, that that might provide a new area for them to take on.
I find it refreshing as well that you veer away from drama. Like how the photographer that Steve sleeps with in the first film returns, but it never pays off.
I think most people live fairly undramatic lives. The idea is just of them going away, just the two of them, reflecting on aspects of their lives and the way they live, and what they feel about the world. So in a way, getting Rob to have an affair seemed like quite a lot of drama to me! It was pushing it as far as I can go. But it’s quite nice to get away from narrative cinema.
This is done, and you’ve got “The Face Of An Angel” hitting at TIFF in a few weeks. Do you know what you’re working on next?
There’s various things, but I’m not sure what’s happening.
What’s happening with [Beatles movie] “The Longest Cocktail Party?”
It’s not to do with me anymore, and I think Andrew [Eaton, producing partner]’s no longer involved with it either. There was a problem with the music rights.
"The Trip To Italy" is in theaters now.