Sixty-year-old Michael Winterbottom could be described as a prolific British filmmaker. He has over 30 films to his credit, dramas such as Welcome to Sarajevo to comedies including The trip series starring Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon.
Yet he would disagree with this description. He thinks he – and his compatriots – should have won more. More films made in Britain, set in Britain, reflecting British life. These unmade films are the titular ‘dark matter’ of his collection of interviews with 15 British filmmakers, all made in 2020 over Skype or Zoom due to Covid-19 restrictions.
The result is a must-read for anyone interested in how movies are made and not made. It’s not about camera angles and storyboarding, although there are a few, but rather the upstream process: the machinations that determine whether a movie idea gets a green or a red light.
Perhaps because of the always-in-pajamas feeling of talking via laptops, the directors are remarkably outspoken. There’s gossip, like James Marsh about what happened when, doing The king, he ordered William Hurt to open a door and enter a room. Hurt said his character wouldn’t like the kind of handle on the door, and that was just the start of his concerns.
However, this is not the main plot of Black matter. Nor “more British films, please”, although Winterbottom might disagree. The real story, the one affecting filmmakers everywhere, is about money and those who control it, which now includes streaming services such as Netflix. Make a successful independent film in Britain or Australia, and Hollywood is calling. Edgar Wright (baby driver) sees “a generation of filmmakers lost to the sausage machine.”
Directors interviewed include Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire), Lynne Ramsay (We need to talk about Kevin), Steve McQueen (12 years of slavery), Stephen Daldry (Billy Elliot), Joanna Hogg (Memory), Mike Leigh (secrets and lies) and Ken Loach (I, Daniel Blake).
Everyone has something interesting to say, but it’s Leigh who best sums up the point the author wants to make. People who have money have become “normative”. “They want to commission a movie rather than just give you money to make a movie.”
The result of this “Hollywood mentality” is that “movies of all shapes and sizes totally suffer from the fact that before anyone comes out to shoot anything, everyone – all kinds of wankers and wankers and followers of camp and other monsters – all made the movie. and made it disappear, and no one fired a bloody shot”.
British Film Institute, 208pp, $34.99
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on January 22, 2022 under the title “Dark Matter: Independent Filmmaking in the 21st Century, Michael Winterbottom”.
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