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Interview: Michael Winterbottom

31st October 2012

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Director Michael Winterbottom is famous for making films stretching from 24 Hour Party People to The Road to Guantanamo. Now he’s back with EVERYDAY – a prison-set drama filmed in real-time over five years and starring Life on Mars’s John Simm.

Your new film is EVERYDAY. What's it about?

The starting point was to try and deal with time passing in a story. A lot of films deal with stories that take place over a long period of time: I've just done a film now with Steve Coogan about Paul Raymond which goes from 1958 to 1992. But you tend to do it with very conventional techniques. You're still making it over a period of seven or eight weeks, you're still packing it in, so it's all done with wigs and make-up. So with children especially you end up having different children playing the same role. It's very unsatisfactory. This is a film about how the relationship between children and their dad can survive a long separation, how that effects the relationship with their mum, and the relationship between the mum and the dad. And rather than do it in six weeks and try and fake it all, we did it over the same length of time that the story is supposed to take place [five years].

Had you ever heard of anything like that being done before?

There are documentaries that have been shot over a long period of time, but fiction films? No, not really. It's so easy to get bogged down in the idea that this is how you make a film - you spend two years working on the script, do four months preparation, do two months shooting. I think it's good to get away from that way of thinking. The way you make a film affects the film you're making, so if you can have a fresh approach to the way you're making it, that's good. You have to tailor the way you make the film to suit your story.

Why did you decide not to reveal the nature of Ian's crime?

It's weird - a couple of articles I've read recently suggested that this film was initially commissioned to be about prisons, which is the exact opposite of the truth. The starting point of this was about separation and about time passing, and how separation affected all the relationships of those involved. So I didn't want it to be about ‘Did he deserve to be in there?' So we did a lot of research with the Home Office and the prison service, about what crime he could have done to be in there for that period of time. But I didn't really want that to be the story. I wanted it to be about the family.

Was it tempting at all to introduce a political element, about the rights and wrongs of the prison system?

No, I never wanted it to be about prison in that sense. I did make it about prison in the sense that the key element of prison is separation. You're taken out of your normal life, and whoever else is in your normal life has you removed from them. So it's about prison in a broader sense. I've been in prisons before. Whenever you hear or read that prison sentences should be longer, I think those people should spend a little bit of time in prison and think how long that feels. If you spend one day in prison, it can feel like a long time. The idea that six months or a year is not a long time - you imagine being wrenched out of your life, and the huge impact that would have.

Ian is moved to at least three different prisons during his term. Is that what really happens to prisoners?

Yeah, prisoners do get moved around quite a bit. What happens is the first prison you go to tends to be where you were arrested. The first prison was in London. And then later in his sentence he gets moved back to Norwich, which is nearer his home. That's a category B prison. And then, if you're well-behaved there, you might get moved to a category C prison. And something then happens which means he has to be moved again. So we deal with the journeys the family have to make to see Ian, and how difficult that process is for them. Although in truth, they could have been a lot longer than they were. We wanted to keep them quite close, and make the journeys quite short, so we didn't have to travel too far ourselves!

Landscape plays a very important role in this, doesn't it?

Any situation that has a difficult subject matter like this tends to focus on urban deprivation. Clearly that isn't always the case - not everyone in prison comes from that background. I liked the idea that it was a rural story. The landscape punctuates the rhythm of the film, because prison is so confined, but also all of our story takes place in quite confined spaces - in the house or in school, or prison. And the space there, where we were filming, sort of serves as a counterpoint to all of the confinement. And I like Norfolk as well - I have a place up there and I've filmed up there before. And I liked the idea of it being in the film to emphasise Ian's loss of that space and freedom.

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