|Michael Winterbottom directs Wes Bentley in The Claim (2000).|
It’s hard to imagine Michael Winterbottom ever being bored. Since 2002 he’s leapfrogged from one project to the next, releasing at least one film a year, each as different in story as it is in style. This year he has released two: First was the comedy Tristam Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, where Winterbottom teamed with Steve Coogan to adapt what’s known as the “unfilmable novel.” Now it’s his most political film to date, the DV docudrama The Road to Guantanamo, which won him the Sliver Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival.
A jaw-dropping reenactment of three young British Muslims’ journey to Pakistan for a weeding, Guantanamo follows the trio—known as the “Tipton Three” in reference to their hometown—as they’re mistaken for terrorists by the Northern Alliance and sent to Guantanamo Bay for a hellish two-year imprisonment, having never been charged for a crime. Winterbottom (who brought in longtime collaborator Mat Whitecross to co-direct) recreates the journey through interviews with the “Tipton Three,” news footage and filmed reenactments with actors.
Similar to his 2003 film In This World, about two Afghan refugees’ journey to freedom, Winterbottom casts actors with little, if no, experience and shot on DV so his small crew could film in places like Karachi, Kandahar, Kabul and Konduz without drawing attention.
MM sat down with Winterbottom at the Regency Hotel in New York City to discuss politics, moviemaking and the digital revolution.
Jason Guerrasio (MM): When was the first time you heard about the “Tipton Three”?
Michael Winterbottom (MW): I’m pretty sure there was coverage from the beginning, so I was aware of them. When they were released there were a few articles about their story so we contacted their lawyer and met them about two, three weeks after they were released.
MM: Did you know right away it could make for a good movie?
MW: I read a newspaper article about what happened to them and yeah it seemed like it would be a good film to make. When we met them they had just been released and they were very quiet and they stuck together and would walk out of the room to discuss things and come back in, so they didn’t talk very much. But we said ‘If you want to tell your story then we’d be interested in trying to make it happen.’ I think it was over a period of three or four months before they decided that they wanted to do it.
MM: What was the interest to have Mat Whitecross co-direct with you?
MW: While I was working on another film he spent a month living with them and interviewing them. Because he was there from the beginning and went right through to the editing process, we edited the film together, it just seemed natural that we both be credited as directors.
MM: What were you looking for when casting the actors who’d portray the “Tipton Three”?
MW: First we were looking for people of the right age because Ruhal and Asif were 18, Shafiq was a couple years older. We were also looking for people in that age from the same area Ruhal, Asif and Shafiq lived, so they had the right British accents and they had to have the right ethnicity. What was nice was the actors spent time with the real guys in the first part of filming—and they still see each other.
MM: Like in many of your films, acting experience wasn’t a necessity.
MW: What we tried to do was not dramatize it, so we tried to minimize the acting. In the original transcripts most of what they talked about was the bad food, sitting on a bus and the smelly toilets, that sort of stuff. So in the film we travel on the same journey so that we can see what it looks like. When they talk about Karachi, you can see what Karachi looks like. When they talk about the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan you can see that. They talk about Kabul you can see Kabul. We also use some archive footage as well so it can allow people to visualize what it must have been like.
So it wasn’t about how good they were as actors but more about were they willing enough to go through all that. When we originally started I said to them ‘When we get to Guantanamo, we’ll just keep you in the cells. We’ll keep you there 24 hours a day to give you that authenticity.’ Of course after being in there for a half hour they were tearing at the walls trying to get out and things like the shackling it would really bite into them so after we did it once the actors were like “Okay, we need padding.” (laughs)
MM: Was it difficult to get permission to shoot at certain places?
MW: In Pakistan we didn’t get permission so we had a little hustle on the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan, because they’re a bit sensitive about the war.
MM: Can that get dangerous?
MW: There’s always the possibility of something going horribly wrong obviously. But when we were trying to film in Pakistan, people were not very happy about that—which was different from In This World. When we did In This World we found people generally didn’t have a problem with us shooting. I don’t know whether people have become more suspicious of western media since then, but they’re more guarded about people filming in their towns.
MM: Was there a concern that the U.S. government would interfere with the production if they found out what you were making?
MW: Not really. At one point we did write to them about how much access we could get if we came to Guantanamo and that became a dead end. What happens at Guantanamo is not something that’s outrageous. What you see in the film, the things that happen to them in the film, those are things that are absolutely clearly part of the routine interrogating process in Guantanamo. Those things you see in the film like shackling, set positions and so on, all those thing are not torture and there are lots of stories from other detainees of far worse things that happen.
MM: Is there one part of the world where you’d like to see the film play?
MW: When we showed it at Berlin one of the good things about winning a prize is that it was bought by lots of places, which is great. It’s good for it to be shown any place, but to be honest the most important place is not really Iran or Pakistan, the most important place is here. The only place where you can actually have any real effect on if Guantanamo is going to close or not is in America.
When we made the film the British government never made any critical comment about Guantanamo and since then the two chief law members in the cabinet both say it’s illegal and should be closed, so there’s been quiet a shift in British perspective.
The very idea of Guantanamo is clearly wrong. How was it that America had this prison that was deliberately put in Cuba in order to avoid American law? How come people were put there with no possibility of trial? And why aren’t they prisoners of war? You can’t have it both ways, you can’t be at war and the people you capture during the war are neither criminals nor prisoners of war.
MM: You’ve always had a knack for getting the most out of DV. Was the decision to shoot on DV because it’s easy, or does it help in getting the movie out quicker to audiences?
MW: It’s a mixture of things. When you’re shooting in a place where you’re not controlling things and you’re just running around—like with this film and In This World—it’s a huge advantage. It’s not like people don’t see you—they see you with a little camera, walking through the streets. But when you’re walking about with a big 35mm camera, you’re going to be stopped more often. So the advantage is you don’t have to close down an area and fill it with extras and there’s a freedom to improvise and you can shoot forever.