Winterbottom walks through Wonderland

The director of 'Jude' and 'I Want You' tells Jasper Rees why he likes to please himself

The producer Steve Woolley was once asked to compare the American and British film industries. He said it was like the difference between the Nasa programme and a couple of old women in the outer Hebrides knitting jumpers.

Michael Winterbottom - Butterfly Kiss, Jude, Welcome to Sarajevo - is knitting a lot of jumpers at the moment. I met him at Goldcrest's offices in Soho, London. In cutting room 206 the final touches were being put to Old New Borrowed Blue, a romantic comedy Winterbottom shot this summer about a French Romeo who comes to stay with his old pen-pal and her husband in Belfast. In room 209, the daily rushes of "Untitled Love Story", an ensemble piece about a weekend in the love-lives of three sisters, are being given the once-over. It's lunchtime, and Winterbottom still has nine hours of filming ahead. He has the pink flush in his cheeks of the perpetually hurried. When he talks, words tumble out, clattering into one another in a manner that suggests either impatience, or a hyperactive mind, or both.

But that is not why he is slightly late for the appointment, which has taken so long to fix that it almost felt as if I had been trying to get a movie off the ground, not an interview. He nipped out to film a brief snippet for a tribute to Alan Parker. You couldn't imagine two less similar British filmmakers: one a graduate of ads, blandished by Hollywood; the other a distinctly European graduate of television documentary and drama. They have both filmed works by Roddy Doyle. For the outstanding BBC series Family, Winterbottom even inherited many of Parker's crew from The Commitments. The younger director turned in a much more swirling, brutal account of Doyle's Dublin than the old lag did.

I had met Winterbottom before, in July, on the set of Old New Borrowed Blue. A Belfast kitchen had been synthetically reconstructed in the laboratory conditions of Pinewood. There's nothing so cumbersome about "Untitled Love Story". It is being shot throughout south London with a nimbleness unimaginable to the Hollywood space programme.

The roving crew is small enough to flit between locations in a couple of vans, and on set the only people in the room, apart from the actors, are Winterbottom, the cameraman, the sound man and the first Assistant Director. It is film-making pared down to a minimum. "The idea is it's all hand-held, there are no lights, it's 16mm film, we're in real places: in that sense it's like a documentary. It's like an improvised way of filming, very simple in preparation."

The film was originally called "Snarl-Up"; it may be changed to "Wonderland". They haven't decided which title more accurately encapsulates London. In the meantime, the latest film to have dropped off Winterbottom's conveyor belt is I Want You: it is set in a ghost town at the end of the line on the south coast where, Winterbottom says, "the sea acts as a barrier and a gateway."

The film follows a man who returns from prison after nine years to force himself back into the life of his hairdresser girlfriend. But while theirs is the central thread, the town as a whole is seen through the eyes, and heard through the ears, of Honda, a gawky, mute 14-year-old refugee from the former Yugoslavia who lives with his sister, a nymphomaniac club singer. Honda has the antisocial habit of eavesdropping on conversations with a listening device. A budding director? "Absolutely," says Winterbottom. "There is an aspect of voyeurism to being a director. Part of the long rehearsal period was the actors in character going off, doing what they would normally do, and me listening on radio mikes to them, recording them in a similar way to Honda. In the film you don't find out anything about the characters. The film is organised almost like a song, with the repeats, the echoes, the choruses. The idea was that the film could work that way; that you feel like you have been emotionally involved but you wouldn't be able to tell someone that much about who Martin or Helen are."

The star of the film, over and above a cosmopolitan cast, is the townscape itself, played by an amalgam of Dungeness and Hastings. It looks like Warsaw-on-Sea. Hardly surprising, as Winterbottom hired Krzystof Kieslowski's favourite cameraman, Slawomir Idziak, to peer at England through Honda's eyes. "He is Polish, so he likes to look at Britain a different way. When he agreed to do it we particularly watched The Double Life of Veronique. What he was doing there was using some of the same colours and distortion of images in the background to create a sense of someone who's got a very partial and limited connection with the real world."

This is a regular trope in Winterbottom's work: the familiar as viewed anew by the outsider. It isn't just a question of asking actors, as he does in almost every film, to bed down with an alien accent. The script of I Want You is by Irish writer Eoin McNamee. "Untitled Love Story", which takes a frank look at modern London, is written by Laurence Coriad, a French woman. And the whole point of Welcome to Sarajevo was to encourage outsiders to engage with actual tragedy in a not-so-distant land. For Old New Borrowed Blue, the tables were neatly turned on Winterbottom: Northern Irish scriptwriter John Forte says he was "very keen on having a non-Irish director to bring something extra to it."

Winterbottom is himself a native of Blackburn. His father worked in a factory; his mother was a teacher. "When I left school", he says, "I was desperate to get out. But I think that's not to do with the place: when you're growing you feel like you want to do things and escape where you're from."

His reading of Jude The Obscure, about an autodidact whose dream of academic fulfilment turns to ashes, seems to have powered his exit to Balliol College, Oxford (known as Bibliol, Christminster in Hardy's novel). "Certainly as a teenager I felt an identification with Jude the outsider. There's a bit where Jude says, 'Maybe not my children but my children's children will be able to go.' Hardy was prophetic, and I felt I could try and go there now."

The subsequent opening of doors to Winterbottom has been such that, at 37, he is working on his eighth feature-length film. But however fascinating a director he is to a selective audience, the crossover hit is proving elusive. Welcome To Sarajevo should have made the breakthrough, but perhaps there was something in Miramax's squeamishness about leaving the place name in the title. For all its sinuous exploration of desire, I Want You won't be the one with which Winterbottom goes global; Old New Borrowed Blue, with Christopher Eccleston and Dervia Kirwan, sounds like his flightiest entertainment yet.

He turned down the chance to make a big budget adaptation of John Irving's The Cider House Rules. "I felt the script wasn't right and I would rather not make it on that basis than go ahead because it's going to be a big film and it will have lots of publicity." It is now being made by the director of My Life as a Dog. But he is still planning to make Kingdom Come, a wintry western about the gold rush, which has fallen through once before. This week his regular producer Andrew Eaton went to Los Angeles to check on Gary Oldman's availability.

"Obviously when you make a film you hope people are going to go and watch it and enjoy it," says Winterbottom. "But that's not a priority when I look at a script. I'd rather make a film that appeals to me. The one that doesn't appeal to me but appeals to someone else - you can't make a film on that basis."

'I Want You' (18) is out now.

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