Michael Winterbottom's "Wonderland"
by Anthony Kaufman
(indieWIRE/ 7.28.00) — In Michael Winterbottom‘s wistful family portrait “Wonderland,” starring a cast of stellar U.K. thespians (Gina McKee, Molly Parker, John Simm, Shirley Henderson, Ian Hart), the British director does for South London what “Short Cuts” did for Los Angeles. Ten ordinary characters in search of an exit, looking for meaning and contentment against the backdrop of London’s everyday sights — the Southwark Bridge, the Elephant & Castle roundabout, the Brixton cop shop — banal places somehow made familiar, vibrant and beautiful.
A sense of community suffuses this South London universe, culminating in a fireworks show where the illumined faces of strangers provide a humanity not seen since the children of Francois Truffaut‘s “400 Blows” gleefully watched their puppet show. Referencing the French New Wave is not such a stretch for this grit-inspired flick; shot on the fly for just under $2 million with hand held cameras on 16mm film, it owes more to ‘cinema verite’ than British kitchen-sink realism.
Director Winterbottom expounds on his already eclectic career, from his adaptation of “Jude the Obscure,” to his acclaimed war drama “Welcome to the Sarajevo,” to his upcoming goldmine epic love story, starring Wes Bentley and Milla Jovovich, formerly titled “Kingdom Come.” (For a deeper look into that production, their website is not to be missed, www.kingdomcomemovie.com, which includes call sheets, rushes, continuity lists, virtual tours of the set, notes from the production team, editing stats, and now a voting area to choose the new title — “Sierra Nevada” is currently in the lead.)
Winner of Best Film at the British Independent Film Awards, “Wonderland” was originally owned by Universal when it premiered at the 1999 Cannes Film Festival; it eventually ended up in the laps of USA Films, who have been putting off the release for many months and are finally opening it today in New York and Los Angeles. From Cannes, Winterbottom spoke to indieWIRE’s Anthony Kaufman about the working class, shooting handheld, the lush Michael Nyman score, and happy endings.
indieWIRE: There’s a tradition of British films looking at the working class in the UK; what was your take on it with “Wonderland”?
Michael Winterbottom: The film isn’t about the material conditions. It’s not an essay on the plight of the working class. I don’t want these people to be explained so much by economic things; I wanted to go beyond that. The world of the movie is just like the world I live in, in London. Part of the attraction was just to get on film what it’s like living there at this moment. So I don’t see a picture of London in the film as being this alienating or alienated, bleak wasteland. I think for me, they’re all just struggling to find some connection with other people, struggling to not be lonely, to have someone in their life, to love someone, to be in touch with their parents or their children or whatever. That’s the same for everyone.
iW: How did that relate to you shooting 16 mm handheld? Did you ever consider shooting on video?
Winterbottom: We did think about video. I wanted it to be widescreen, which was one issue. But also, if you shoot on video and show it in the cinema, when you watch it in the cinema, it’s quite visible, it’s quite a heavy technique. I just thought it would be too much of a barrier between what’s happening in the film and you watching it. I didn’t want to advertise the technique as much as when you shoot on video. Obviously, the 16-millimeter is very soft, and we shot X-chrome sometimes, so that’s even softer, and because we had no lights and we’re shooting at night, it’s quite grainy. We were aware of that happening, and we did a lot of tests on it, but even so, I still feel it’s a softer thing than a video-to-film transfer.
iW: Was it mostly natural light?
Winterbottom: It was all available light. Sometimes, during the night interiors, they would change the light bulb and put a brighter light bulb in. But we didn’t have any lights with us.
iW: Were you thinking at all about Dogma 95?
Winterbottom: It wasn’t a question of following Dogma. The thing was, we have all of these characters’ stories, but I also wanted to try and make connections between them and the people around them, because part of the story is that there’s 7 million people and you’re this individual and you’re one of the small group and how that feels. So we wanted to capture moments of ordinary people in the film. In the beginning of the film, in the bar, we went to do some tests without lights, without boards, without microphones. We shot there and they didn’t pay any attention to us. As soon as we put a small light up, everyone was very aware.
So what we did was try to find exactly the right places for the story to happen, shoot at the right time for the story. Like in the bar we had to wait until everyone was drunk and it was closing time and shoot very quickly in and amongst what was happening and try to capture those moments. The cafe, where [Nadia] works in the film, is just this little cafe in Soho. We didn’t do any design to it. The other people that worked there were the real people who worked there, the people who are in the film are people who came in that day to have lunch. We tried to just be three people in the corner and not control the set.
iW: So I read your D.P. is from a documentary background?
Winterbottom: Yeah, he hadn’t shot any fictional stuff before. In fact, originally, he did a lot of news war films, and he’d only been in documentaries for a couple of years. What I liked when we did tests in Soho was he would just be right there and completely unfazed about it, because that’s what he does all the time — because that’s his job all the time. We talked to other feature film cameramen, and I just sort of felt that it would become a mere stylistic thing. They were interested in the idea of 16 mm and grainy, and all this other stuff, but they weren’t really interested in this idea of just trying to watch and find something. And what Sean [Bobbitt] brought, because he’s a documentary guy, is that when the actors were doing different things each time, he was used to the idea of trying to capture the moment, and trying to find the bit that’s interesting. I felt that with the other people we talked to, it would just become a stylistic thing; I didn’t want it to be a stylistic thing. Sean was always trying to be at the right place at the right time, so that involves a camera movement. I think his handheld is amazingly steady. Nothing is like wobbly-cam, that wasn’t the point. We wanted to change the way we were working, rather than just to it as device.
iW: Some of the best moments in the film come from the documentary footage with those great scenes with the crowds, all those wonderful faces . . .
Winterbottom: I love those moments. That’s why we wanted the music, as well, to try to connect our characters to all those people. And all those people and all the characters, connected to some sort of internal life where there’s some dream they all have. I love it when they’re playing bingo and they’re so absorbed in their bingo or when they’re watching the fireworks and they’ve really forgotten themselves completely.
iW: Was the Michael Nyman music always intended to be so integral to the film?
Winterbottom: I love this music. Obviously, when you’re choosing Nyman, you know the territory you’re moving into. We were trying to make a film about the everyday and I was really interested in finding very everyday events, almost nothing dramatic, and still make a film that’s interesting about it. Because the nature of the way we were shooting, and the story itself, these are not people who reveal themselves. They don’t tell each other what they’re thinking. They don’t suddenly open up; we don’t have the big dramatic scene where everything’s resolved. I didn’t want to think that because it’s that sort of film, let’s not have any music, because it’s very documentary and very everyday. I wanted to try and say that their dreams and aspirations are just as rich and powerful as anything else. You can feel like you can have a great, big, score, rich and lyrical, and actually, it’s appropriate for them. So in the beginning of the film, I feel like it’s, Wow, there’s this film, and there’s this music and for a while, you play it in the gaps, in the between, as punctuations. And then gradually as it goes on, for me, at the end, with the baby or particularly, when she says, “Alice, like in Wonderland,” it’s like yes! There, [it fits] absolutely. (He laughs)
iW: It happens in the audience’s mind, too. You may not get the Alice reference in the beginning, but then in that scene, the lightbulb just pops on.
Winterbottom: That’s why we put the title in the end. Because once we would have done that in the beginning, they would have found the title really ironic, which wasn’t really the idea. Because irony suggests that it’s just about the real world being bad and “wonderland” is just an ironic comment on how horrible the world is. And I don’t see it like that. I think they’re still dreaming of some other place, where they are fulfilled, where they do have someone to love, so I wanted to wait until the end because it’s a little bit more open about how that connects to the different people you’re seeing rather than in the beginning, when you think it’s all shit.
iW: The ending really seems to come together on a very optimistic note. Was that your intention?
Winterbottom: I do see it quite optimistically. That was something that developed partly through the shooting. The script, you could interpret in lots of different ways. It was very open as to who those people were. The script probably had a slightly darker feel than the final film. And that was just something that developed, I think, the choice of the casting and who those people were. For instance, Molly and Eddie, once we had them, they were much warmer characters than they originally were. There was a possibility that Eddie’s fucking off was going to destroy that relationship and somehow, when we did it, it somehow didn’t feel right. You should feel that they should come together more. I do think it’s optimistic, but in the sense that they are all struggling. They’ve all still got possibilities. Obviously, the shape of the film is only one weekend, so there is no definitive answer at the end of the weekend. But I feel at the end of the film they’re all still battling away, which is a good thing. It’s like the music. By the end, for me, I feel that music is the right music — that it’s their music and that makes me feel more positively towards them. As you get to know them more, you get more into them; you understand them better and that is what, in a way, makes it feel more optimistic, because you feel like you’ve known these people.
iW: After making such an intimate film, how do you see yourself comfortably working on larger-budgeted films in the future?
Winterbottom: The film I want to do is next is a film called “Kingdom Come,” which is a Gold Rush love story film, with a $20 million budget. In a way, it’s not a studio film, but it’s still a half way. I don’t think I’d ever want to go beyond that, to be honest. I can’t see doing what you would call a mainstream studio picture.. . . [Smaller films] are the most enjoyable thing to work on. If you could work in the way that we did on “Wonderland” or a more conventional way, but on that same level of budget and still get distribution, that would be good. The problem is, if you make a small film and two critics don’t like it, it’s like what was the point of that? I just made a film for a year and only 10 people are going to see it.