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The Killer Inside Me - Michael Winterbottom interview

Michael Winterbottom directs The Killer Inside Me

Interview by Rob Carnevale

BRITISH director Michael Winterbottom talks to us about some of the controversy surrounding his latest movie, The Killer Inside Me, including its extreme violence.

He also talks about why he chose to remain faithful to Jim Thompson’s source material and why he has previously turned down the chance to direct American movies…

Q. So, was it the book that started this off?
Michael Winterbottom: Yes. I’d read Jim Thompson before but I came across The Killer Inside Me because we were trying to do a film in Manchester and we borrowed a little bit from a David Goodis novel and then we got caught out on copyright. So, we suddenly couldn’t make that film and someone said I should read The Killer Inside Me, so I did. Goodis was a ’50s pulp writer as well, so instead of just borrowing it and bringing it to modern England we decided to just shoot the whole book as is really.

Q. How did you go about getting your cast? We won’t be looking at Jessica Alba, for instance, in the same light again…
Michael Winterbottom: It was quite easy. The first decision was Lou Ford, because it’s Lou’s film and he’s in every scene. Everyone else is actually in it quite briefly… even the big characters like Jessica’s part. To be honest, I think Casey [Affleck] was the only person I met. I thought he’d be great for it from other things I’d seen him in. I then met him and he was really up for it as well. So, really from that first meeting it was agreed he was going to be Lou. After that, we did the casting mainly in America.

So, we met Jessica and she said she really wanted to play Joyce, which I thought was great. So, it was very easy on that level. Obviously, people came to me and they knew the book, or knew what it was about having read the script. So, they knew what they were getting themselves into. It wasn’t about having a big discussion to persuade someone to do it. Jessica was really clear about wanting to play Joyce and had a really strong idea about Joyce. She was incredibly easy to work with. We tried to shoot roughly in order of the events in the story. The only awkward thing with both Jessica and Kate [Hudson] was that every scene was either in bed having sex or being hit. There wasn’t much else [laughs] which was slightly embarrassing! But that’s the nature of the story.

Q. Has the reaction to the film, particularly its violence, come as a surprise?
Michael Winterbottom: I don’t know really. At the beginning, we said should the violence be shocking in the film? And the answer was “yes” because the violence is shocking in the book. It’s important in the story, and in the shape of the story, that you’re shocked by it. The point is that when he’s violent towards Joyce and Amy, they’re two people who love him in absolute way. So, there’s a sense that he’s destroying anyone who’s close to him. He really wants to destroy himself… he feels he doesn’t deserve to be loved, he doesn’t want to be loved, he doesn’t want to be happy – he just wants to be dead in the end.

So, it should be shocking because that’s the whole point of it: that it’s pointless and wasteful. At the same time, once you’ve made a film you’d rather people were shocked but liked it, rather than shocked and disgusted by it [laughs]. Literally, the first time we screened it was at Sundance and the first person to say anything was a woman who stood up, who had waited until the end of the film and the Q&A that followed, to say: “This is disgusting! You should be ashamed of yourself! The festival should be ashamed of itself! It’s disgusting showing the film here… it’s immoral.” She then stormed out. So, that sort of set a tone. And I wasn’t quite expecting that [laughs].

Q. But you do let the male character of Johnnie Pappas die off-screen…
Michael Winterbottom: But that’s what happens in the book as well. The thing is the killing of Joyce and Amy… they were people who loved him and they were people he kind of loved. So, they were the important characters to him. The relationship between him and Johnnie Pappas in the book is also kind of quite weird and emotional too… all the people he kills are close to him. The shape of the story is that it’s not about killing strangers, or killing people you hate, it’s about destroying people who become close to you. For me, anyway, the killing of Joyce and Amy are the two things that really stop you in your tracks. It’s where the heart of the book is. For me, afterwards I felt the book was quite tender. It felt like it was about how wasteful and pointless and fucked up it all is. And those are the most graphic moments when you get that.

Q. How were your actors during those scenes?
Michael Winterbottom: I’m sure they’d say something different now but for me, as a director, the person who was finding it the most difficult was Casey in that those days were difficult days for him. From my point of view, handling Casey was the most difficult on those days because obviously he was trying to be Lou Ford and, in turn, be someone who was being very violent. It was expressed in different ways but each day we had some violence, Casey had days where he found it hard to get into that place. In contrast, for me, dealing with Kate and Jessica was very straightforward and easy. I’m not saying they found it fun and it could be the other way around in their heads [smiles]. But it was a very practical conversation with Kate and Jessica and with Casey it was more complicated. It was more like dealing with Lou Ford than dealing with an actor playing Lou Ford.

The Killer Inside Me

Q. The previous adaptations you’ve done – Jude The Obscure and A Cock & Bull Story – kind of deconstruct the idea of adaptation. So, why did you stay so faithful to Jim Thompson’s novel?
Michael Winterbottom: Well, that was part of the attraction when I read it. I thought, well actually, Thompson writes… it’s a very tightly plotted story. It takes place in a coherent, claustrophobic world and his dialogue’s pretty great, so I thought what could be interesting is to stick very closely to the book and use the book as a guide, which is like you say the opposite of what I’ve done before… not so much with Jude but with A Cock & Bull Story. I then had to find out who had the rights to the books and it was two guys – two American producers – who had been trying to make it for about 10-15 years and had loads of different scripts and different directors and actors…

Q. There is a C-movie version from the ’70s….
Michael Winterbottom: I didn’t realise at that time. I met Chris Hanley, who is one of the producers, and he sent me John Curran’s script, which was pretty close to the book, but with some structural changes. So, really the only way to do it was to put the script back to being more like the book – so using his script but re-organising it back into the book. So, Chris Hanley told me there had been an earlier version but I was already talking to him about doing it. I didn’t want it to be a remake of that film and I felt that if I watched that film I’d either be deliberately avoiding some things in terms of feeling like I was repeating something… so I never got round to watching it.

Q. This is your first time filming in the US. How was it? And why have you turned down so many projects to work there before?
Michael Winterbottom: Well, it’s not actually about geography. Obviously, there are a lot of big American movies and we all spend most of our time watching those films. But it’s not even the case that the scripts sent over from America are so terrible and that’s why I don’t do them. It’s just that most of the films I make are films that I’ve come to work with and produce with people here. There’s always two or three projects we’re working on and it takes two or three years to get to the point where you want to make them. So, there’s always things we want to do here that are ours.

So, obviously anything we get sent from America is like: “Or do you want to do this?” Most people in America are doing exactly what we’re doing: they’re making great films in America. But then the stuff you get sent is stuff that’s being developed in a different way – it’s not being developed by a director and someone who really wants to make it; it’s being developed by a studio or the equivalent and they’re just trying to find a director to make it for them. So, those projects are certain sorts of projects. So, in truth, the reason we don’t do things that come from America is because we’d prefer to do things we’ve developed. It’s not an anti-American thing. We just want to do stories we want to do as a whole.

Q. What is next for you?
Michael Winterbottom: We’ve just done six half hour conversations between Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, which was just because I wanted to work with Steve and Rob again. And then we’re also doing a film over five years, so we’ve just shot a bit of that. It’s a working concept called Seven Days based on four kids… their dad is in prison, so it’s a series of prison visits over five years. We’re also trying to do a film in October set in Palestine in the ’30s [The Promised Land] with Jim Sturgess playing a British policeman, and Colin Firth chasing a right-wing Jewish terrorist. We’ll film that in Israel because it’s set in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

The Killer Inside Me is released in UK cinemas on Friday, June 4, 2010.