Lights, camera, explicit action

Michael Winterbottom's latest film is filled with so much real sex that it may never make it past the censor. The maverick director explains his provocative intentions to James Brown
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The Independent Culture

"When I was at university, the film club always showed In the Realm of the Senses at the start of a new year to get people to join. It was full of explicit sex, yet you can buy it in HMV now. That's the benchmark," explains Michael Winterbottom. He is explaining what possessed him to make his startling new film, 9 Songs. It turns out that the motivation was an overwhelming pursuit of realism.

"When I was at university, the film club always showed In the Realm of the Senses at the start of a new year to get people to join. It was full of explicit sex, yet you can buy it in HMV now. That's the benchmark," explains Michael Winterbottom. He is explaining what possessed him to make his startling new film, 9 Songs. It turns out that the motivation was an overwhelming pursuit of realism.

"Most films with explicit sex only feature a tiny amount. In 9 Songs I didn't want people just to be titillated by a brief glimpse. It's a story of an affair and the action is mainly played out in bed; you see their relationship from the point of view of them making love."

The director, and his production partner at Revolution Films, Andrew Eaton, have made what could possibly be called, in artistic circles, A Short Film About Knobbing. 9 Songs, which will be shown to industry insiders for the first time this week at Cannes, is the first film I have watched with my mouth open since seeing Russ Meyer's Ultra-Vixens aged 17 on a school history trip to France. The surprise comes not from the amount of sex on show (lots), but the way it is shown: entirely realistic, a million miles from the mpegs you might get on www., say. Had he been inspired by any personal sexual desire to do this? "No." Did he at any point find it arousing? "No," he laughs again.

Michael Winterbottom picks his films with the consistency of a blind man shopping at a car-boot sale. He has, in his short but extremely productive time, made a Western version of a Thomas Hardy novel, a family drama set around a hairdressing salon, a war film, a musical biopic of Manchester, a real-life refugee road movie and a sci-fi film. His next movie is about a fading football star, but before that you can also add a minimalist sex film to the list.

With a cast of two, it is like nothing you've ever seen before. Although you might find the sex scenes graphic, it is certainly not pornographic. The nine songs of the title break up the action, as the starring couple make occasional forays from the bedroom to watch live bands: Primal Scream, Super Furry Animals, Franz Ferdinand, Von Bondies, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club and, to add some generational balance, Michael Nyman.

"We filmed them as if through the eyes of the characters," says Blackburn's best hope of an Oscar. "If we'd had lots of gear it would have affected the crowd, so we just used hand-held cameras and people got used to it."

9 Songs might as well have been named Getting Away With It - a title that would reflect not only the film's content but also its production process. Winterbottom spent last winter filming whenever and however he could. Between a bedroom in Islington and the mosh pit at Brixton Academy he has created an erotic video diary that will do for live music as an aphrodisiac what Last Tango in Paris did for butter sales, and all on a tiny budget.

The inspiration for the musical element of the film, he says, came "when we were filming the Joy Division scene in [his 2002 production] 24 Hour Party People," he remembers with a degree of satisfaction. "The writer Paul Morley said to me how amazing it was that we'd managed to recreate it to such an extent that it felt real again. I thought, why not do a real concert movie? With In This World I took two real refugees and made their road movie. I like making films as real as possible. The one exception is that in a love story, the sex can never be real. If you film actors eating a meal, the food is real; the audience know that. But when it comes to sex they know it's pretend. You'd never do that with food and so I started thinking we should make sex real."

Winterbottom answers many of my questions with a wry smile. Were the drugs in the film real? "No comment, but we were keeping it all real." How was the explicit sex explained to the actors' partners? "You'll have to ask them. It was their decision. It was a difficult thing to have to ask an actor to do, but it wasn't my job to advise on how they should handle their private lives." Did the bands (who all gave their permission to be filmed) know about the rest of the content? "I told them it was a love story of sorts." Is he a fan of porn? "I've seen it. I'm not that into it."

The 43-year-old director discusses his film with a clarity and lack of pomposity that would throw Hollywood. He also looks like a member of Just William's gang The Outlaws, all rosy cheeks and snub nose, which helps. Indeed, he has the charm of a cheeky outlaw, something he drew upon when explaining his vision to the cast, Keiran O'Brien and Margo Stilley. O'Brien, who is currently starring in the BBC3 drama Burn It, admits he would do anything for him "so long as it was legal, and even then...".

Winterbottom was initially inspired by Michel Houellebecq's novel, Platform. "A great book, full of explicit sex and again I was thinking, how come books can do this but film, which is far greater disposed to show it, can't?"

He met Houellebecq with a view to converting his book to film, only to discover that the author was already planning to do so himself, and so Winterbottom decided to create a story of his own.

"I needed to find a man and a woman who were willing to be involved in the project," he says. "I didn't want to be forcing or encouraging anyone into this. Initially, we put adverts in newspapers and magazines - some of them were unwilling to print it. Of the first 60 we had, 59 were men and there was one woman. In all we received hundreds of replies but nothing came of it.

"I found Margo at a casting agency that specialises in extras and small parts. I knew Keiran from 24 Hour Party People, mentioned it and he just really understood it. After that I gave him some time to think about it; we had two or three conversations and he was up for it. Margo was the only woman we screen tested.

"At this point I didn't know if it would work - we had no script and no story. For Keiran it was a big risk as an actor and a person. We went to a local hotel for a day to see what would happen and those scenes actually ended up in the film. We just took things step by step. There was a crew of three, including myself. On that first day there wasn't a pressing need for them to have sex, it wasn't clear what was going to happen. In general you are asking actors to be quite intimate, anyway. From everyday acting to having sex isn't as big a leap as it might be for someone else. It certainly never felt like I was intruding because they were there for the film."

How does he think it will affect the actors' careers?

"They did well. They maintained an interest in it. Even with the content we had, shooting becomes boring. After a few days it was like being on any other set, there were times when it became mundane. We would talk through a scene, do a block of shooting and then go back over it. I hope it will do them good. I can't imagine the BBC having a negative attitude towards Keiran's role in Burn It. It would be ludicrous if the BBC vetted the actors work for moral suitability."

O'Brien is naturally guarded when asked for his feelings on the film's content and the impact it may have on his personal relationships. Both he and co-star Stilley reveal what most people consider private in their lives, so it is perhaps fair to allow him a degree of silence on the matter.

" 9 Songs is the fourth time I've worked with him [Winterbottom]," says O'Brien by way of explanation. "First time was Cracker, [then] 24 Hour Party People, this and Goal, the football film we're doing with Jimmy Nesbitt." In the background as he talks I can hear recorded crowd noise roar around Newcastle United's St James Park. "Sorry about that, they're recording reaction shots here. The thing with Mickey is it's almost all totally improvised. In For This World he didn't even know what the actors had said until he was in the edit suite and got a translator in. He tells you what he wants basically, and then it's up to you. He asked me to do something no one else has done before and would be incredibly hard to do. I trusted him implicitly."

After this film, O'Brien and Stilley's notoriety is assured. They will undoubtedly become "the ones from that film". 9 Songs' release date is yet to be confirmed; its reception at Cannes will determine that. Whether or not you will get to see the film in its current state, however, lies in the hands of the censors.

"The only films that really show sex are porn," says Winterbottom. "That's just a comment on film, isn't it? People assume it's porn if it's got sex in it. But why should sex only be shown in a pornographic context? We're certainly hoping for a certificate. The censors' argument is that it is pornography if it has no characters or story. Our film has both. I hope HMV see the bands in it, put the DVD in their music section with the appropriate rating and fans of the bands will buy it. We will have a small cinema release but that will mainly be to publicise the DVD."

Asked if he has considered whether the sexual nature of 9 Songs might compromise future work, he simply shrugs his shoulders and smiles. "I don't see myself as having a 'career' in that sense. I just make films I want to make. With 9 Songs I want to provoke people, I want to say, 'Why? What's wrong with showing sex?' Obviously, I hope it won't affect future films negatively, but I don't think it will. I haven't misled anyone. I describe it as a concert movie. I can't really call it a love story as I'm not sure Margo's character is in love."

Film clubs up and down the land will shortly have a new recruitment weapon in their hands.