x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 25 November 2017

'Three’s enough' says Trip to Spain director Michael Winterbottom

We talk to director Michael Winterbottom about The Trip to Spain

Director Michael Winterbottom attends The Trip To Spain Premiere during the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival at BMCC Tribeca PAC in New York City. Monica Schipper / Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival
Director Michael Winterbottom attends The Trip To Spain Premiere during the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival at BMCC Tribeca PAC in New York City. Monica Schipper / Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival

Ever wondered how great directors devise the ideas for their films? Perhaps locked away in a room alone reading the classics or visiting disaster zones or war-torn trouble spots? Not so for The Trip to Spain director Michael Winterbottom. In a delicious piece of self-referential post-modernism, the original idea for this film about two men having lunch, often, came from having lunch.

“We’d [the director and co-stars Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon] been wanting to make a new film together for a while,” he says. “Ever since we worked together on [2005 movie] A Cock and Bull Story. We kept meeting for lunch to talk about ideas, and we just couldn’t come up with any good ideas, so we just thought – why not film lunch?”

It sounds simple, but there is method to his madness.

“The thing with comedy, especially film comedy, is the more plot you put into it, the less funny it is,” he says. “There’s always this tension between the bits that are story and the bits that are funny. With a sitcom, you accept that there isn’t a plot, but film comedies sometimes try and tell these complicated stories as well as be funny. Sometimes that works, but often there’s a bit of a clash. We have the advantage of there being no story. Nothing happens, so it’s easier to be funny.”

Winterbottom perhaps does himself a disservice by saying “nothing happens”. Admittedly the plot – two middle-aged men travel round Spain telling jokes and doing celebrity impressions over lunch – probably won’t win any awards, but the off-the-cuff humour and constant baiting from the two leads is hugely entertaining. So how much of that humour is actually off-the-cuff?

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“We have a rough outline,” Winterbottom says. “We meet up for lunch maybe about five times over about a year before shooting, and just chat about general themes and where we’re going, then I come up with about a 50-page outline. With all three films, there’s always an element of culture to it, so all the Cervantes and Orwell stuff is in the outline, and areas where we think there could be some humour, but almost always the funniest bits are the bits that are developed spontaneously.”

It sounds like a dream job – travelling round England, Italy and now Spain for part three, eating expensive food with two of the funniest men in show business, and the director admits his lot could be worse.

“Work’s always work, but they’re very good company,” he says. “It’s hard to find two people you can be with constantly for a month and not want to kill them, but with Steve and Rob it is actually very enjoyable.”

Coogan, it would seem, is particularly enjoyable company – The Trip to Spain is the sixth movie Winterbottom has directed him in since the pair first came together for 2002’s 24 Hour Party People, and it is worth noting that some of Coogan’s most critically acclaimed work has been when Winterbottom is in the director’s chair.

“I’m a big fan of Steve and I enjoy working with Steve,” he says. “When I did 24 Hour Party People, it was set in Manchester, which Steve knew really well. It was about [music mogul] Tony Wilson, who Steve knew, and it was about Manchester music, which Steve knew. That was a lucky starting point, and you find with Steve, and with Rob too, that even though you might have a really solid script like we did with 24..., the starting point is really when you get on set – they generate a lot of their own material, and you end up getting a lot of brand new material on set that you end up squeezing into the film. It makes my job easy.”

With a professional relationship spanning more than 15 years, Coogan and Winterbottom have been through a lot. The Coogan we see in The Trip to Spain seems closer to the comedian’s best-known creation, Alan Partridge, than ever before – his oft-raised Oscar nominations for Philomena are his real-life persona’s equivalent of Partridge’s prized Rover 800. How close is the on-screen Coogan to his off-screen equivalent?

“Steve in The Trip is close to real-life Steve,” Winterbottom admits. “A lot of the humour comes from making fun of themselves rather than making fun of others. Steve is rightly very proud of Philomena, and he does see himself as a serious writer and intellectual, but he’s also aware that he can bang on about it, and it’s that sense of self-awareness that generates a lot of the humour.

“If he’s becoming more like Alan Partridge, I guess maybe it’s because he’s getting close to the age Alan Partridge is now – he was in his 20s when he started playing him.”

Sadly for The Trip fans, Winterbottom reveals this may be the last we see of Coogan and Brydon’s lunch exploits, despite rumours of a forthcoming Irish episode.

“Three’s enough, I think,” he says. “I don’t think we’ll do anymore. We had talked about Ireland at one point. It’s really just a case of: ‘Where do you fancy going?’ But no, I don’t think we’ll do any more.”

So if The Trip is over, where next? Winterbottom is a diverse director, having helmed harrowing war stories (Welcome to Sarajevo, 1997) and adaptations of classics (Jude, 1996) to hard-hitting documentaries (In This World, 2002), as well as comedies such as The Trip. If he had just one more film to make, what genre would he turn to?

“I think I’d go back to a war movie,” he says. “I’ve been meeting a lot of journalists who’ve covered wars recently and having some really interesting conversations. I’d want to look at their experiences in Syria, not just about the war, but how journalism works these days.” Somewhat weightier subject matter than The Trip, but for now, lunch is served.

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