Known for his audacious treatment of tough and timely topics that skilfully blends documentary and narrative techniques in a variety of genres, ["Wonderland", "In This World", "Code 46", "Nine Songs"] Michael Winterbottom's latest "Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story" is a wild, rambunctious double take on Laurence Sterne's "The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman". Written by Martin Hardy, this is probably one of the funniest and liveliest adaptations of a historical novel ever made and the themes and form of the film [birth, the interweaving of life and art, storytelling digressions] mesh well with the literary original.
Using a film-within-a-film structure, the film smartly captures the ribald comedy of Sterne's endlessly discursive 18th Century novel, hereto considered unfilmable. An excellent cast headed by Steve Coogan ["24 Hour Party People"] as Sterne's comic hero, features Rob Brydon, Keeley Hawes, Shirley Henderson, Naomie Harris, Kelly MacDonald, Jeremy Northam and a hilarious cameo by Gillian Anderson as Widow Wadham.
Whether trading verbal barbs with his competitive co-star and vaguely look-alike Rob Brydon, or hung upside down in a giant artificial womb, Coogan is in top comedic form here in his triple roles as Tristram Shandy, his father Walter Shandy and himself. Witty repartee, outrageous set pieces and a frantic pace tempered by genuine moments of tenderness as the overwhelmed new father tries to meet his obligations on and off the set are enhanced by superb cinematography and editing.
Liza Bear spoke with Michael Winterbottom last Fall while he was in town for his screening at the New York Film Festival. The film opens next week.
indieWIRE: I noticed that you're working on "The Road to Guantanamo" -- sounds pretty intense.
Michael Winterbottom: Yep. It's a just a long journey about three friends, Muslims -- two are 19 and one 23 -- from a small town in England and how they ended up in Guantanamo. It's based on the real life accounts of three friends who were released about a year and a half ago. We met them in London at their lawyer's, Garreth Pierce -- he's a very famous human rights lawyer. Then we spent some months interviewing them. We had 600 pages of transcripts. In "Guantanamo" we're recreating parts of their experience using other people, but also retelling the story. So it's a mixture.
iW: Your first adaptation was Thomas Hardy's "Jude the Obscure" -- "Tristram Shandy" seems a lot more ballsy and challenging.
MW: I first read it when I was about 17....But filming it was Frank Cottrell Boyce's idea originally, a writer I've worked with a lot. While we were working on the screenplay for "24 Hour Party People", we talked a bit about "Tristram Shandy" being a similar shaggy dog story with no point to it, lots of digressions. Eventually I wanted to work with Steve [Coogan] again, so we thought we should do "Tristram Shandy" with Steve playing three roles.
iW: Switching fast between the parallel stories and the direct camera address, the comic timing really works.
MW: I did direct camera address in "24 Hour Party People" too. Steve [Coogan] is quite good at all that stuff. Having worked with him in "24 Hour Party People", it was easier to imagine what he could do and couldn't do.... Obviously we tried to make the screenplay as funny as the book. But in terms of directing, I just observed, hoping what [the actors] were doing would be funny. Left the comedy up to them.
iW: It's very much told from the expectant father's point of view.
MW: Yes. In spite of the cleverness and the digressions, at heart it's a very domestic story. It is about a father trying to organize everything for the arrival of his son and all the things that could go wrong, do go wrong...So, yeah, I liked focussing on that aspect of the story. It seemed the most recognizable for a modern audience. It's unusual in the 18th century to find a father so worried about childbirth, labor, education and so on. As for the filmmaking story -- it's not that I'm so interested in showing the filming process, it was more that since the book is so much about writing the book, we had to have some equivalent of that. Also it's a way of dealing with some of the same themes and characters and emotions in that section as well...
iW: The injury to the cock with the window sash...The material is really bawdy and Chaucerian.
MW: Exactly. In the book, nose and cock are interchangeable. He's worried about the size of his nose, he wants a big nose -- it's full of cheap humor. Initially it wasn't a very popular book. Laurence Sterne was a small village vicar in his forties when he wrote it. No publisher wanted it. He paid for it himself. It became a huge popular success, Sterne became rich and famous and made his way down to London.
iW: Did you try to steer clear of bad taste?
MW: Well, it's hard to know where that is, really. [laughter] In the end you just decide, I like this, this and this.
iW: Are you a recent father?
MW: No, no, I've got two quite old girls.
iW: Did you show the script to your wife or your partner?
MW: Uh, no, not really.
iW: The birthing process in the film is incredibly protracted.
MW: During the labor scene, the women are commonsense and practical, while the men talk nonsense in the other room, out of touch with what's happening with the women. The reason it's protracted in both the book and the film is because the narrator wants an excuse to tell other bits of the story.
iW: So it's part of the digressions.
MW: Yes, it's more about storytelling than about the story itself. But hopefully the film has a similar tone to the novel, which is that in spite of all its silliness, you like the people. If you didn't, you wouldn't bother with it. Hopefully you become engaged with Walter and recognize the stupidities as the sorts of things that you would do.
iW: I like the opening music -- ridiculously upbeat.
MW: All the music is from other film scores -- Schumann from Bergman's "Fanny and Alexander", Nyman from Draughtman's Contract. Then there's a lot of Nina Rota from Fellini. The Handel is from "Barry Lyndon".
iW: [Steve's love interests] both having the same name,[Jenny and Jennie] is pretty fresh.
MW: The idea is that when Steve steps off set, he's got as many diffent things as possible distracting him from what he says he really wants to do, which is to be with his girl-friend and baby.
iW: What does Steve Coogan represent for the British public?
MW: He had a very successful TV series called Alan Partridge, which is now on BBC America. He plays flawed characters. So here Steve played a version of himself.
iW: Whereas Jeremy Northam was unusually low-keyed as Mark the director in the film.
MW: He wasn't supposed to be, but everybody else on the set thought he was being quite like me, letting the actors wander around.
iW: So now for you it's back to the orange suits and the shackles?
MW: All of that. We're halfway through. We've filmed in Afghanistan and Pakistan and now we're going to Iran to recreate Afghanistan, and also to recreate Guantanamo in Iran.
iW: Any problems getting in and out of Afghanistan and Pakistan?
MW: Pakistan's always a bit of a hassle, security services and so on. Kabul was fun. A lot of foreign presence, lot of troops, but we found a British bar.