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Tender & Wasteful: Michael Winterbottom On His New Film The Killer Inside Me
The Quietus , May 28th, 2010 11:27

Daniel A Nixon talks to director Michael Winterbottom about his latest film The Killer Inside Me as well as music, noir and Steve Coogan

Michael Winterbottom's films often raise eyebrows upon release. Whether it's filming the so-called unfilmable (A Cock and Bull Story from Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy), telling the story of Muslims, both British (The Road to Guantanamo) and Afghan (In This World), or replacing simulated sex with the real thing (9 Songs), he is never one to shy away from the most challenging of subject matter. His latest effort, The Killer Inside Me, is no different: it takes the blackest of noir novels by Jim Thompson, a book Stanley Kubrick once described as 'probably the most chilling and believable first person account of a criminally warped mind I have ever encountered', and shoots it head on, including all of its most graphic violence. In being so faithful to his source, Winterbottom has been repaid with a dark, complex but ultimately rewarding work and a quite stunning performance from Casey Affleck. But this release is not so much going to raise the audiences' eyebrows, as have their fingertips pressed up against them throughout its most abrasive scenes. The Quietus caught up with him to talk about adaptation, handling actors, genre jumping and Texas swing.

In terms of the book, the previous 'adaptations' you've done - Jude and A Cock and Bull Story in particular - experiment with and even deconstruct the idea of adaptation. Why with this film did you decide to stick so closely to the source material?

MW: To be honest, I'd read some Jim Thompson before, but it started when we were trying to make a film in manchester. It was a modern film, but we'd borrowed a little bit from a David Goodis novel, and then we got caught out on copyright. So we suddenly couldn't make that film, and someone said you should read The Killer Inside Me, so I did. Goodis is this 50s pulp writer as well, but this turned out to be the opposite: instead of just borrowing a bit and bringing it into a modern film, we thought why not just shoot the book as it is.

That was part of the attraction when I read it. I just thought Thompson writes these great tightly plotted stories, set in this very coherent, claustrophobic noir world and his dialogue's really great. There's no reason other than when I read it I thought, 'Actually what would be good would be to stick very closely to the book, and use the book as a guide.' And as you say, it's the opposite of what we've done before, but with this one it just seemed simpler. Then what happened is I found out who had the rights to the book, and they were two guys, American producers, who had been trying to make it for about 10 or 15 years, and had had loads of different versions of the scripts, different directors, different actors.

Because there is this '70s C-movie version, right?

MW: Yeah, which I didn't realise at the time. I'd met Chris Hanley, who is one of the producers, and he told me a bit about the history from that point of view, and he sent me and John Curran the script, which was pretty close to the book, but had undergone some structural changes, story, narrative changes. We then went to the script and put it back to be more like the book. So, yeah, Chris Hanley told me there was an early version, but by that stage we were talking to him about doing it, and I felt 'I've no desire to do a remake of that film, and if I watched that film I would be either deliberately avoiding some of the things it does, or feeling like I'm repeating some of the things it does,' and so I never got round to watching it.

The music in the film is an interesting juxtaposition, something of the sacred and the profane: grand opera and jangling country and western. How did you come about selecting the music? Paolo Sorrentino, for example, says he generally has a piece in mind while constructing a scene. What is your approach?

MW: It's the opposite to a certain extent. You can often think about what you might put on a film beforehand. For me, I love the idea of this piece of music and filming to this piece of music, but to be honest the one or two times I've tried to do that...when we did a film called The Claim, I'd worked with Michael Nyman before on a film called Wonderland - I love Michael and I love his music - but we talked a lot on The Claim about doing a kind of Portuguese based music score. We talked to Michael months before we filmed it and we taught Milla Jovovich how to sing in Portuguese, and we filmed a couple of songs, the theory being that the whole score would have this final basis. But as you can imagine, it just didn't happen at all [laughs]. About six months later we came back with an entirely different soundtrack, and it was like, ok, that's fine. So in truth, I find it's a question of playing about with music; tonally it's quite hard to... music is obviously very important to any film, it totally changes the tone of a scene. For me it's something you play with quite a lot in the edit.

In this case, the Texas swing elements, we listened to quite a lot of that beforehand, and it seemed to me that it had quite a nice quality that the book has as well. This sort of shiny, fun, entertaining surface but actually dealing often with the sort of stuff songs often deal with, like deaths and broken hearts, but with that bright surface. Obviously it's right for the period, right for the place, but seemed also to connect to the tone of the novel, and also Lou's public image - you know, easy going, deputy sheriff, slow witted guy. And then the book makes a big point about Lou still living in his dad's house, reads his dad's medical books, does his algebra problems, reads psychology books, and I thought his listening to [opera] music was a continuation of that idea, but slightly more appropriate to film. Sitting reading a book is not great to have on a film, so having music was a kind of equivalent for the film. I chose that music a) because it's beautiful...in a way what's weird about the story, what's great about the story is that side of Lou that's like his Dad; it's something that's true to him, he is really like his Dad, but it's also something that he wants to hide because he hates his Dad.

It's the scariest side of him.

MW: Yeh, he's been destroyed by his Dad, but it's almost like he's imitating his Dad, but he wants to have his revenge on his Dad. So that music is beautiful in itself, but also represents his Dad in the film.

One female journalist complained that the killings of Joyce and Amy are very violent - but you let Johnnie Pappas die off screen, when the book is more graphic in its description of his death...

MW: Well, the book does also sort of stop beforehand, but the killing of Joyce and Amy, they're the people who love him, they're the people he kind of loves - or has the potential to love - they're the important characters to him. But the connection between him and Johnnie Pappas in the book is also kind of weird and quite emotional as well. It's like all the people he kills are the ones who are close to him. The shape of the story is that it's not about killing strangers, it's not about killing people you hate, it's about destroying people who come close to you. For me, it's the killing of Joyce and the killing of Amy that are the two moments that really stop you in your tracks, and when you understand where the heart of the book is. Afterwards I felt the book was quite tender, it felt like it was about how wasteful, and pointless and fucked up it all is.

How were your actors with those scenes?

MW: It's wrong to say what they were thinking about the scenes, because I'm sure they would say something different now; whether that would be true or not would be another thing as well. But for me as a director, the person who I felt was finding it most difficult to go through was Casey. For Casey, those days were difficult days. He was trying to be someone who was being very violent, and it was expressed in different ways, but I think each day we had some violence, Casey found it hard to get into that place. Whereas, for me, dealing with Kate and Jessica was very straightforward. I wouldn't want to say that means they found it fine, because it could be the other way round in their heads, but it was a very practical conversation with Kate or Jessica. With Casey it was more complicated, it was more like dealing with Lou Ford, than an actor playing Lou Ford.

This is your first production in solely America, but you've said that it's just another movie that you're shooting abroad. I wanted to ask your opinions on Hollywood films, because you've been known to turn down a few Hollywood projects...

MW: Well, it's not about where it's from, it's not about geography. Obviously they are a lot of brilliant American movies, we all spend most of our time watching American films. It's not even like the scripts that get sent from America are that terrible and that's why I don't do them, it's just that most of the films I make are films that I conjure up with Andrew [Easton], the producer and other people here. There's always two or three projects we're working on, and it takes two or three years to get to the point where you want to make them and then another year to make them. The stuff you get sent from America has been developed in a different way, and has not been developed by a director and someone we want, but has been developed by a studio and they're just trying to find a director now to make it for them. Those projects are a certain sort of project. The truth is, the reason we don't do films from America is because all the films we do are things we've developed. It's not an anti-American thing, or even against the style of American films, just that we do the stories that we want to do, on the whole.

Most people have described this film as a noir. That's quite a long list of genres you've worked your way through now. Why is this? And what genre will you tackle next?

MW: Partly, the genre thing is because I don't really think of it in that way. Most of the films I do, you could say that's got a western background, or this is noir, or whatever, but on the whole, its the specifics of certain stories - like this is a story about two refugees or this is a story about a journalist, or this is a story about a family in London. Then the way we approach those is all pretty similar; it's about trying to find an amenable way of dealing with these characters or this situation. So whether it counts as a science fiction or a noir, it doesn't really make that much difference. In this case, it was slightly different again. As I was saying, we were trying to make the book, and so it was more generic in that sense. Obviously he is a genre writer and I also think he is a great writer, so yes, it is a noir, but not just a noir, whatever that means; it was something that was really strong. But we were adapting ourselves to what happens in this kind of story, not trying to second guess it. But most of the other films we've done have been more like 'would you really do this', so then it doesn't matter if technically it's in the future or in the past or in the west or in London.

Next, we've just done six half-hour conversations between Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, just because we wanted to work with them again. They're really good fun to work with. Then we're trying to do a film in October set in Palestine in the 30s, with Jim Sturgess - playing a British policeman - and Colin Firth chasing Avraham Stern who is a right wing, Jewish terrorist. So it's about them, Stern's trying to kill them and they're trying to kill Stern. We'll film that in Israel, it's set in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

You said you wanted to work with Steve and Rob again. Would you work with Frank Cottrell Boyce again?

MW: Probably not. I think he wants to write books more than film scripts.

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