Michael Winterbottom

9 Songs

Interviewed by Adrian Hennigan

“Why is it that you avoid two people making love when you do a love story? It seems perverse ”

Michael Winterbottom is one of Britain's most diverse and prolific filmmakers. He's made road movies (Butterfly Kiss, In This World), Thomas Hardy adaptations (Jude, The Claim), biopics (Welcome To Sarajevo, 24 Hour Party People), and sci-fi (Code 46). He explored sexual jealousy in I Want You and With Or Without You, but goes back to basics for 9 Songs, the most sexually graphic movie to be passed by the UK censors. He talks dirty here...

You've said that Michel Houellebecq's novel Platform was an inspiration for 9 Songs, but did you have any movies as frames of reference?

The film wasn't really inspired by Platform. One thing that happened before we made 9 Songs is that we'd asked Michel Houellebecq about the possibility of making a film of Platform. He said that he wanted to direct it, so it wasn't possible. But then we moved on and thought, OK, let's do a movie about two people making love. One of the starting points of 9 Songs was: why do films NOT show sex? So many films are love stories, so why not show a love story through two people making love? Why is it that you avoid two people making love when you do a love story? It seems perverse. In that sense, you could say that what inspired me were all the films that avoid sex - including the films that I've made. Before we made this I made a film called Code 46, which was a love story, but we kind of skipped over the physical side of the relationship, even though it's two people meeting one night, making love and falling in love. So there was a kind of reaction against those films.

I think the only film that was really a starting point reference for the sex within it was Ai No Corrida [1976, directed by Nagisa Oshima], which I saw when I first went to university - the way of getting you to join the film club was by showing you Ai No Corrida, because it had lots of sex in it! And it's a great film. It tells the story through sex, but like a lot of films that deal with sex, it deals with sex in quite an extreme form - almost like a metaphor for power and society, and so on. The idea of 9 Songs was just to use two people making love as a love story; it's simply trying to capture something of the atmosphere of two people being in a love affair.

Did the actors have a script on the first day of shooting?

Not at all, there was no script. When we were casting I was really clear to say to everyone that the idea was to start with two people in a bed making love - in a way, the purest form of the film would be that all you ever saw was the making love. I said: "Don't do this film because you want to do 90 pages of dialogue and there's going to be five seconds of sex in the middle of it all." The idea was to try and capture - whilst they were together, intimate in bed - some sense of what that's like and what it's like to remember that - because this is all told through Matt's [Kieran O'Brien] memories. We hoped that if we filmed it intimately enough, and they were honest enough, the smallest little changes in mood and atmosphere would come through in the film. There was no script at all at any point.

At one point you were thinking of making it as a silent movie...

The idea was that they wouldn't really talk to each other, and that you didn't have a situation where they were telling each other interesting bits of information, or plot points, or what they were feeling about each other. But then, that's something I generally like to avoid in films - I think scenes where characters sit down and tell each other their history, or what's going on inside their head, are fake. I prefer to watch people, and hope that if you watch them closely enough, you might be able to imagine what's going on inside their heads.

What about the choice of live music. Were there any themes within that?

We just looked in the paper to see who was playing. A couple of bands said no but on the whole everyone was very relaxed. We were filming them from the point of view of Lisa and Matt going to the concert, so the idea was to capture the idea of being at the concert rather than necessarily the music. We went around with three small cameras and became invisible within the crowd. The idea was that there would be a contrast between the thousands of people in the crowd and the two of them alone in bed. When you go to concerts you're very intimate with each other, in a weird way, because you're sharing the music you're listening to. At the same time you've got all these other people sharing the music but you never ever talk to them; it's this weird little bubble you're in.

I think the first two concerts we did were Black Rebel Motorcycle Club and Super Furry Animals, and they were two great concerts. Once we'd done a few, people seemed much more relaxed about letting us come in. We had some great times. What was nice is that we'd do something that was quite quiet and intense in a way, quite... not claustrophobic, but there was a very small group of us making the film in this little flat. And it was nice then to just go and see this great band. It was great relaxation.

Do you feel you've broken one of the final taboos of cinema, especially after the film's uncut 18 certificate in the UK?

Certainly when we started making it, people said to us: "You're stupid, and one of the reasons you're stupid is that you won't be able to show it in cinemas, so why make it? You won't be able to sell it in Virgin or HMV, so why make it?" So from that point of view it's great that the BBFC has released it. Weirdly, it shows that filmmakers have been censoring themselves much more than the BBFC has been censoring them! It's been weird with censors - in Ireland, for instance, we got an 18 very easily, whereas in France there was a possibility at one stage of getting an X pornographic certificate.

Some critcs, of course, have called the film high grade porn...

It's not porn! You watch a porn movie and then you watch this, it's obviously not porn. We were on at the San Sebastian Film Festival, we won Best Cinematography. When we showed the film in market at Cannes - we were showing it because we needed to raise money to complete the film as we were funding it ourselves - the sales people were saying, "Well, you're not going to get any attention, you're just going to go out in the small market screenings." We had a small market screening and people were queuing to try and get into it, they had to put on extra screenings, and we had more press coverage than all the films in competition put together. Critics can say what they like, but they all want to go and see it!

There's a strong contrast between the claustrophic bedroom scenes and the wide open spaces of Antarctica...

I've wanted to do a film about the Antarctic for ages, and I thought this one might well be it. But when we started filming the two of them in bed together making love, it just felt that it would be too hard to... The initial idea was we'd have some story that Matt was having in the Antarctic, and that he would keep remembering the fragments of the love story inbetween that. But we couldn't decide if it was going to be The Thing [the Howard Hawks/John Carpenter horror pics], or some kind of scientific documentary. In the end, once we started making the film, I just felt, let's just focus on the love story and not have too much outside that. Consequently, I still want to make a film that's set in the Antarctic.

We met a lot of scientists who'd spent a lot of time down there. The British scientists - I think the French and the Americans have a lot bigger resources - when they go out in the field, they stay in these tiny little two man tents and there's maybe eight of them, and they're living very, very intimately in very basic weather, cooking their little food on the primary stove and all this b******* from the turn of the 19th/20th century. And at the same time they are thousands and thousands of miles from anywhere, so you have this weird combination of intimacy and overcrowding, and this vast empty wilderness around them. There's got to be a good story there, I think.

9 Songs is released in UK cinemas on Friday 11th March 2005.