Michael Winterbottom: why British independent cinema resembles an abandoned building site | Film industry

My motive for writing a book was selfish. I’d been making films for a quarter of a century and, at the start of last year, I wanted to step back and think about the way I was working.

A book was a useful excuse to speak to other British directors about their experiences. And, during the first lockdown, many of them had enough time on their hands to oblige. So, by Skype and Zoom, I spoke with 15 people: Paweł Pawlikowski, Danny Boyle, Joanna Hogg, Asif Kapadia, James Marsh, Andrew Haigh, Carol Morley, Edgar Wright, Steve McQueen, Lynne Ramsay, Stephen Daldry, Ben Wheatley, Peter Strickland, Mike Leigh and Ken Loach.

They are not intended to be a representative cross-section of directors working in Britain. They are simply people whose films I like and respect.

We spoke not about their films, but the process of trying to get them made. Every director’s experience turned out to be unique, but together they gave a series of snapshots of what is possible – and what is not – in British cinema.

As I started to think about the people I wanted to talk to, I began to think about how few films, or how few British films, they had actually made. Pawlikowski’s first film was The Stringer in 1998; he has made two films in Britain since, the last being My Summer of Love in 2004. Ramsay’s first feature was Ratcatcher in 1999; since then she has made only one other British independent film: Morvern Callar, 18 years ago. Kapadia’s first film was The Warrior in 2001; since then he has only made two fiction films based in the UK.

And so on. There are exceptions, of course. Boyle has made 11 films based in the UK. Leigh’s first film was Bleak Moments in 1971; since then he has made 12 more films in the UK. Loach’s first film was Poor Cow in 1967; he has since made another 21. It may, or may not, be coincidence that the two most prolific directors began their careers 30 years before the end of the 20th century.

For centuries, astronomers have tried to understand our universe by observing the stars shining in the night sky. But now we know – or think we know – that 85% of all the material in the universe is dark matter. This dark matter is impossible for us to see, but without it we believe many galaxies would fly apart. It shapes our universe.

It occurred to me there might be an interesting parallel in cinema. I know from my own experience that the films a director makes are only a percentage of the films that she or he has tried or wanted to make. At first, this seemed like it might be an interesting way of looking at the work of individual directors. But the more I thought about individual directors, the more it seemed that the dark matter of unmade films might help to explain the wider landscape of British independent cinema in the 21st century.

Many film-makers who have started making films in Britain have subsequently looked to the US – think of Andrea Arnold, Andrew Haigh, Christopher Nolan or Edgar Wright. Or they find it easier to work in television, commercials or theatre, or they decide to make studio films. For an individual director this may be a choice they are happy to make.

But it leaves British independent cinema sadly depleted. Think of the films that we have missed out on. If the environment allowed, or encouraged, British film-makers who have already been successful, as everyone in this book has been, to carry on making the films they want to make here in Britain, they wouldn’t need to be as productive as Bergman or Godard in order to transform British cinema.

Even if film-makers were making only one film every two years, we would now have 10 films made in Britain by Ramsay, instead of two; 10 British films by Jonathan Glazer, instead of two; 11 by Pawlikowski, instead of three; 10 by Daldry, instead of three; six by McQueen, instead of one. And so on.

Who knows what those films would have been? But surely British cinema would be richer if they had been made.

Maybe it is the volume of this dark matter – the number of the unmade films – that explains why, as you look at British independent cinema, it resembles an abandoned building site, with roads mapped out, foundations dug, random piles of bricks here and there, bags of cement and sand lying around unused, and only an occasional building standing … unoccupied, looking lonely in the surrounding chaotic landscape.

Doing the interviews for this book was helpful for me. I hope it is useful for anyone who wants to make films in this country. But also I hope that the people who administer the public money invested in British cinema might listen to, and think about, what these directors have to say.

‘Somewhere along the way, the joy is gone’

Asif Kapadia, director of Amy, Senna, The Warrior

IF: I get offered a lot of projects and I say “no” to all of them, and then occasionally something will come along and I’ll say: “I can do something with that.” Amy came off the back of Senna. My producer, James Gay-Rees, was at a dinner party with the head of Universal Music, who said: “I really love Senna, would you be interested in doing Amy?” I thought: “It’s too soon to make a film about her.”

I said to James: “We’re not going to start until they guarantee we have the music. Once we’ve got that in place I’ll think about it. But if there’s no music then there’s no movie.” And so they went off and said: “No, no, you’ll get everything.”

Then I just started talking to people, because I was very aware that there was no go-to person, everyone was arguing, everyone hated each other, people were really damaged and building up trust was really the big thing.

Asif Kapadia. Photograph: Vivien Killilea/Getty Images

I had a meeting with the head of the label, her dad and the second manager, all of whom are in the film in some way, and I was saying to them: “Look, I’ll do this, but you have to just leave me alone. You can’t interfere, you can’t tell us what to do, you can’t tell us who to talk to, just leave us alone for two years.” Then, fairly early on, I met her first manager [Nicky], who’s in the film, whom no one had really heard of at the time, and who really discovered her and who never made any money. And he and I connected. Without him I don’t think I could have made the film.

So we got it all set up, we had the permissions, we had the music, we had the publishing of the music. I was never asked to write a treatment. On every other film up until then, at some point they’d go: “OK, now can you write that up?”, and then they’d be like: “Well, can you change this?”, or: “What about that, what do you mean by this?” There’ll be a person who sits at a desk, who develops. We didn’t have any of that. That film, which started with a conversation, won an Oscar.

It is possible to make films without that development process. And I remember thinking at times: “This is too heavy, this is too dark, this is not going to go down well with audiences.” But it did really well and I thought: “This is the way I am going to work.”

MW: That development process is so rigid and formal, and you end up compromising just to get through it.

IF: I find it difficult when you have to go into a meeting and be told to sit in reception, and then you go in and you have to present your film to this person who’s been there for 15 minutes. It’s like: “Who are you? What are these notes? How is that actually helping to get something made?” With documentaries I was able to dodge that. I was able to make stuff and there were none of those people in the middle. With fiction you’re not allowed to say: “I don’t know, but I’ll figure that out.” You’re meant to know everything and it doesn’t always work for me.

And somehow, somewhere along the way, the joy is gone. Somewhere along the way, I’ll be honest, I fell out of love with development. I fell out love with the idea that this is how a film has to be made.

‘I thought I might actually go mad’

Carol Morley, director of Dreams of a Life, The Falling

CM: With The Alcohol Years, my producer and I went to a commissioner at Channel 4 who did late-night stuff. I think he had 10 grand to give to each project. He took the idea to a meeting but they turned it down because though they were looking for more personal projects, it didn’t fit with their brief. But then he went: “But fuck it, I’m giving you the money anyway.” People like that, who are prepared to take a risk, make a huge difference to a film coming into existence.

I was at [London art school] Saint Martins from 1990 to 1993 and I started to make The Alcohol Years in 98. It came out in 2000. You have to keep your hold of what you want to be and why you want to do it. And that’s what gets eroded as a film-maker, because there are so many elements that you can encounter.

MW: That area between having the idea and getting it made is such a difficult area and often so long. It is where a producer really helps. You’ve had the same producer on all of your films?

Carol Morley.
Carol Morley. Photograph: David M Benett/Dave Benett/WireImage

CM: Yes, Cairo Cannon. She’s from America originally, and she was in the theatre but we met at this evening class in experimental film at [London film and photography centre] Four Corners. I’d got my first Arts Council grant and I said: “Would you produce it?” She hadn’t produced anything before, but she had all the immediate qualities I felt a producer needs: a lot of tenacity, a lot of energy. So we set off learning together, really. We’ve also worked with other producers and learned from them along the way, because everybody’s got different experiences that are really helpful. And film is so collaborative.

MW: I loved your book 7 Miles Out – which covers some of the same territory as The Alcohol Years.

CM: What happened there was I was trying to make Dreams of a Life, but it wasn’t happening. That was heartbreaking, because nobody wanted it. That got turned down by the BFI three times, and Film4 three times.

So from the frustration of that I wrote 7 Miles Out. I was talking to my niece, who was a teenager, and I said: “Oh, my film’s not happening,” and she said: “If you write a book, it exists. In that form. Even if it isn’t published. If you’ve got a script and you don’t make it – the film doesn’t exist.” So that drove me to write 7 Miles Out because I thought I might actually go mad. I had to do something that, even if it would never get published, would be complete in itself. It came out of that period of frustration.

After The Alcohol Years, there was a story I’d read when I was 13 called Food Farm, in this women’s science-fiction anthology. I got in touch with the writer of it [Kit Reed], and we got the rights for it. But we were working with another production company and they said: “You don’t write, we need to hire a writer.” So it got taken away and the screenplay didn’t work as people wanted it. So that died. Now I would go: “I’m writing it and it will get made, fuck it.”

This is an edited extract from Dark Matter: Independent Filmmaking in the 21st Century, published by Bloomsbury on 7 October