BBC web pages‎ > ‎

Michael Winterbottom: A Profile

SUNDAY 30th March 2003
Gruelling journeys, hope and despair, fate in the hands of authority and the elements - it's all in a day's work for Michael Winterbottom, one of Britain's most eclectic and experimental directors.

In This World

His latest film, In This World, the tale of two Afghan refugees making their way from Pakistan to London, has impressed critics with its brutality, bleak borders and beauty. It even snatched the Berlin Film Festival's top prize, the Golden Bear, from the paws of such weightier contenders as The Hours.

Winterbottom is fascinated by human journeys, people's urge "to give up everything they ever had, family, language, culture, to try and build new lives elsewhere". His own cinematic journey started in the youth clubs of Blackburn, where the experiments of German directors Herzog and Wim Wenders inspired him to pick up a camera.

The early years

An Oxford graduate and later assistant editor at Thames Television, Winterbottom cut his directing teeth on two documentaries about Swedish film-maker Ingmar Bergman, early episodes of Cracker, and the later small-screen triumphs Family and Go Now.

His film debut, the 1995 Butterfly Kiss, the tale of two women trawling along Lancashire motorways with murderous intent, heralded Winterbottom's creative modus operandi. This involved "putting your actors in real environments with real people" and creating "a surreal mix of the fictional and what's really there".

A creative idealist

His contemporary take on human experience was stretched by Jude, his 1996 adaptation of Thomas Hardy's darkest tome. Even dealing with characters restricted by the mores of 1895, Winterbottom illustrated his belief that "to make a polite-mannered film would be a travesty".

A commercial hit still awaits him, but the director's CV now boasts such successes as the Michael Nicholson-inspired Welcome to Sarajevo, and Wonderland. Respected in the film industry for his prodigious output of the last few years, Winterbottom remains an unassuming character, whose huge energy defies his gangly frame.

He also remains a creative idealist who rejects the mainstream/high art division in cinema. He cites Ingmar Bergman, whose bleak but beautiful films represent middle of the road drama for many Swedish audiences.

Like Bergman, he may appear to look often on the bleak side of life but, like the great Swede, Michael Winterbottom is striving time and time again to cast an ordinary landscape in a stunning new light.