Michael Winterbottom is England’s answer to Steven Soderbergh. Born less than two years apart, these two prolific directors have hopped from one genre to another—and from the independent scene to Hollywood and back—for decades.
After working in TV, Winterbottom moved into features with 1995’s Butterfly Kiss, about a pair of lesbian serial killers. Since then, he’s captured the Manchester music scene (24 Hour Party People), adapted Jim Thompson (The Killer Inside Me) and Thomas Hardy (twice!), and shot one of the most sexually explicit mainstream films ever released in the United States (9 Songs), bringing a piercing intelligence and a sly sense of humor to each.
His latest, The Trip to Spain, continues the shenanigans first chronicled in 2010’s The Trip and 2014’s The Trip to Italy: Actor/comedians Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon travel to fancy restaurants, ostensibly for review purposes, but really so they can do dueling Michael Caine impressions and wax humorously on the foibles of middle-aged manhood. Winterbottom took time out from his vacation (in Italy, in fact) to have a chat.
Each Trip film seems to get a little more melancholy in its humor. Is that intentional, or does it just reflect where you guys are?
Well, there’s always been some level of melancholy. But yeah, these guys, they’re 50 now, and, you know, 50’s not that young, so maybe it gets a little more melancholy. It’s also the landscape. The landscape in Spain is amazing, but it’s quite severe.
Speaking of darkness, this movie has jokes about “tentative Nazis” and the Spanish Inquisition, but maybe the riskiest bit is when Rob and Steve do David Bowie impersonations. Too soon?
I think if it had been satirical or hostile, we wouldn’t have done that. Because of course we’re all huge fans of Bowie, and it was meant to be respectful. So I hope no one is offended at our Bowie impressions!
Do movies like the Trip films serve as a respite of sorts between other projects that might be darker or more political?
I suppose I do a bit more of the comedy-type stuff these days, somewhat because it's a bit easier to get them made. And even within The Trip to Spain, which is really just a conversation, you can talk about Islam, the Spanish Civil War, the importance of family, whatever.... It's a holiday from the world, but one in which you can reflect on the world.
You're so good at mixing fiction and documentary that it's hard to tell how much of the restaurant stuff is real and how much is staged.
It varies. Sometimes we're able to shoot while the restaurant is fully open and working, and sometimes, just from the nature of it, we have to set things up and the other customers know we're working. But I prefer to do it with the kitchen running, and us just trying to stay small.
All three of these movies started out as six-episode TV shows, but only the first of those series is available in the US. Can you call Netflix or something to get the other two released here?
I only recently became aware that that's the case. I'm sure there are ways you can find the full six-hour versions on the internet if you're really keen on it.
If you were to make a fourth Trip, what would be some leading candidates for your next destination?
We don't have any plans to do it as of yet, but if we did, my theory right now would be either Scandinavia or Greece, depending on my mood at the time. I do like the idea of heading up into the Arctic Circle and leaving Steve and Rob in some frozen wasteland somewhere.