Michael Winterbottom is a genius. He’s a filmmaker who fearlessly follows his own instincts, who has in the past few years jumped headfirst into brave narrative techniques and who has tackled tough subjects and refused to give easy answers. For some Winterbottom is the guy who made 24 Hour Party People and A Mighty Heart, but his filmography really comes alive in the smaller pictures, with Road to Guantanamo or the heart breaking In This World or the brilliant Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story. His latest film is The Killer Inside Me, an adaptation of Jim Thompson’s gold standard noir classic. The film premiered at Sundance where it raised a ruckus from audiences, who berated Winterbottom at Q&As about the shocking violence visited upon women – especially Jessica Alba, who is savagely beaten in a scene that ranks among the most graphic of its type in history.
I missed Winterbottom at Sundance, but maybe it was for the best – with a couple of months between him and the surprise reception of the film, the director had more time to really internalize the situation and give it some thought. A couple of weeks ago we sat outside at a chic West Hollywood hotel, had a couple of drinks, and talked about misogyny.
There are some minor spoilers for those not familiar with Thompson’s book.
Is Jim Thompson’s book a misogynistic text?
I don’t think so. I didn’t read it like that. I thought it was a great book. Obviously in the book, as in the film, there are two very violent scenes towards women. There are obviously other violent scenes in the film as well, where he kills people who aren’t women. But I think you can’t make the leap from ‘There is violence against women, which is a bad thing’ and say ‘Therefore the film is misogynistic.’ I don’t think there’s any way you can watch the film and think it’s encouraging you to be violent against women. Lou is seen as kind of a weak guy, and the violence comes out of his weakness and his insecurity and his desire to destroy himself in a way. He’s not a hero, he’s not a nice guy, he doesn’t look glamorous, he doesn’t look exciting. The scenes show that the violence is horrible. I think if those scenes had made it look fun or exciting or easy, you could say the film was encouraging that.
The violence is ugly and unpleasant and it makes you feel unpleasant… and that seems to be the point of it. Is it tough as a filmmaker when you’re getting the response you want, but people are mad about the response you’re evoking?
Obviously it’s supposed to be shocking. The book was written in 1952 and it’s still quite shocking – it’s shockingly sexually explicit as well as violent. If you’re telling a story where someone kills two women who love him, and who in a way he loves as well, you want it to be shocking. You want people to ask ‘Why is he doing this?’ You want it to be so horrible that people say, ‘Why is he beating them up?’ You want that kind of shock. For me when I read the book afterwards it seemed that there was a lot of tenderness in the book, and it was about the destruction of love, about the destruction of tenderness, about the destruction of intimacy. It was about someone who felt, because of his childhood experiences, felt like he didn’t deserve to be happy. Obviously you want people to be shocked in the first place but then to think about it in that way, ideally. It’s frustrating when people are shocked by it and who think that just because there is violence against women that the film is misogynistic.
But you have to be somewhat used to these sorts of reactions where people can’t see the forest for the trees. A movie like Nine Songs ends up getting clouded by the sex on display.
It’s a little bit different with Nine Songs; part of the reason for doing Nine Songs was the frustration that you can’t show people making love on film. That was one of the starting points. Like with books you couldn’t describe sex and then fifty years ago everybody in English speaking countries got the ability to write about sex, but film got caught in a thing where you couldn’t show it. It’s different in the case of The Killer Inside Me because it wasn’t about ‘Oh this is a violent story and it would be interesting to make a violent movie.’ That wasn’t at all what attracted me to it. I thought it was a great book and I wanted to make a film of the book. Just to get back on the subject of misogyny – I’ve been doing some press in England and they keep saying that the violence is more explicit towards women than it is towards men and is thus more hostile to women. It seems to me that this is wrong in two ways: two of the most important characters in the story, for Lou, because they love him and offer him the opportunity to make him happy – in Thompson’s story you only see characters from Lou’s point of view and so they only exist insofar as they affect Lou – Thompson deliberately created these two characters who offered him everything, even after they realized who he is and what he is, in order to show how pointless and how destructive his violence is. The reason why Thompson makes the violence so brutal and the reason the film makes the violence so brutal is that it’s really important to see in this context how horrible it is. They loved him, and in a certain way he loved them. And then the idea that when he kills the bum it’s so casual, but in a way if the women had been killed… I hope people are moved by what happens to the women, and we can’t show that in a casual way, with a jaunty little bash to the head. That would be far worse and far more likely to be glamorizing or making entertainment out of the violence.
Is that sort of indicative of how audiences approach violence in films? They approach it as entertainment, and that when it confronts them they don’t know how to deal with it?
I don’t know quite why the reaction has been the way it has been. There is a lot of violence and killing in lots of stories of lots of movies. I can start sounding moralistic the other way – that films that show violence to be entertaining are terrible – and I don’t want to say that at all. There are films that have lots of killing, whether it be a war film or a crime film or a Western or whatever, where killing is part of the plot. Often violence is seen in a context of being entertainment, where people enjoy the ways violence is used. If you’re going to take a moral viewpoint, that would seem to be the wrong sort of violence. But I don’t think that if you watch a Tarantino film that it’s an evil thing if you see violence in an entertaining way. People are aware that it’s a film. I get sucked into sounding like some kind of horrible moralist, if I’m not careful.
But with The Killer Inside Me I think it’s odd that people feel so affronted by the violence. The violence should be shocking, but to feel like the film is encouraging violence – I don’t get that. Having watched it with a few audiences, in Berlin and New York and so on – since [the Sundance screening] it doesn’t seem to me that anyone is getting that sort of pleasure from this film. The idea that this film is making violence against women seem attractive or enjoyable doesn’t seem to be happening. They don’t like the violence and by extension they don’t like the film, which is a shame.
With the original book it’s Lou’s POV and it’s about being inside the mind of a sociopath. Is that part of what is impacting people, that they’re seeing everything from his persective?
You’re with Lou the whole time. As you say in the book it’s POV, in the movie we have him telling the story. You only meet characters when they’re with Lou, so no one exists outside of Lou. It’s quite a claustrophobic relationship with this guy who, as the film goes on, you become more and more aware is disturbed. Hopefully by the end people realize that his view of the world is very unreliable. Beside being mad in other ways, what he’s seeing isn’t reliable.
And in other ways it’s down to Casey’s performance. I think Casey is brilliant in the film and it doesn’t give you a comfortable moral position on Lou. He’s very convincing as Lou, which makes it more uncomfortable than if it was more obviously a performance. In the scenes which are most difficult it’s about the emotional content of the scenes. It’s not about the graphic nature of the violence, which really isn’t that graphic, especially in the second scene with Kate Hudson – it’s not really graphic at all. It’s about the weirdness of Lou’s behavior, it’s that you know Amy loves Lou and that Lou has feelings for Amy in some way. Once he knows he’s going to kill her he gets really happy being with her, and it’s the perversity of the emotions rather than the violence that makes people really uncomfortable.
The Killer Inside Me might be Thompson’s best work. What is it about Lou, horrible as he is, that keeps drawing readers back over 50 years?
For me it’s more about the pattern of the book than Lou as a character. I think Thompson is a great writer, and he’s a great storyteller. But in a way with a noir novel you know it’s a fictional novel, it’s very extreme. But there’s something about it that rings true. When you finish the book there’s something that connects Lou’s world and Thompson’s world with our world. There’s that self-destructive thing about Lou, the sense that the people Lou kills are those closest to him. That’s where the tenderness in the book comes from. Despite the fact that it’s told by Lou so you have no perspective on Lou, but despite that you feel like this is a guy who could be something totally different but for a series of experiences as a child. Now he’s in a place where he wants to leave the town but he can’t leave the town, he wants to leave his father’s house. He wants to destroy his father but feels inadequate in relation to him, he wants relations with women but can’t. It’s that sense that in a very extreme way Lou does what most people do – you do things stupid, you behave badly, and it comes from weakness.
The amazing thing about the second half of the film, even after what Lou has done, there’s a tension that comes from seeing Lou try to cover his tracks and failing. You don’t want to root for him, but you almost do. It’s that push and pull that makes the second half of the film work. How important is Casey in creating that?
One of the really clever things about the way that Thompson tells the story is that Lou always thinks he’s ahead of the game, and then you actually work out where the game is and you’re always working it out after it happened. In any film casting is hugely important. In this case Lou dominates the film, even the other characters are versions of what Lou thinks they are. So casting Lou is critical. For me one of the big issues was that because it’s a first person narration and who Lou is, you’re dealing with somebody whose public appearance is quite different from what’s going on inside his head. In a book you have easy access to what’s going on inside his head, but you don’t in a film, besides a bit of voice over. Casey was the only person I met for the part, and Casey is brilliant at conveying something going on inside of his head that he doesn’t have to express. He can have a surface which seems one thing but you can see right past it. He has the ability just by standing there to make you wonder what he’s thinking and what is going on. More than that he has the ability to be sympathetic. Obviously you have to find somebody who you believed the sheriff trusted and liked but at the same time somebody who you believe could commit the violence. That’s a big stretch. For me even more than that there’s the sense that there’s an interior world in his head.
You chose to keep this as a period piece. Does that impact the way you approach it? Do you come at it differently than you do films like Road to Guantanamo or A Mighty Heart?
Yeah. A little bit down to the period, which does effect how you shoot a lot, but also a little bit down to the book. When I read the book… normally what I do is quite improvised. If we use a script it may be an outline script, but in this case I wanted the film to be as literal an adaptation of the book as possible. Even leaving it in the period was about a desire to stick to the book. Beyond that I didn’t want the movie to be a pastiche 40s or 50s film; I didn’t want to try and make it look like we shot it in the 40s or 50s. At the same time because I wanted to make it feel like a film of the book being hand held and walking around didn’t fit. And it can be jarring in a period film as well. We tried to keep it very simple and very direct. Thompson’s prose is very direct. Let’s not go fake 50s, but at the same time let’s not go around like we’re discovering this. Let’s try to keep it on the characters and the story.
Is that hard? Is it hard to go from being improv to being so tight on the script?
Yeah! A little bit. As a working process it’s different. But also because we took the structure of how the book unfolds into the film, so what we had was a series of two handers – conversations between Casey and another person, so it was an oddly shaped film anyway. It’s rare that it’s more than two people. It’s really a dialogue film in the end, and a lot of the story unfolds through what they say, so you can’t wander off. You have to keep the focus on what they’re saying.
Is The Promised Land still next for you?
You keep being drawn back to the Middle East. Besides the fact that it’s one of the pressing issues of the modern day, what keeps drawing you back again and again?
They’re good stories. It’s set in the 1930s and it’s about two British police chasing Abraham Stern, who is one of the leaders of one of the underground groups in Israel… Palestine, as it was at the time. It’s a really exciting period. A lot of people don’t know how involved Britain was in the formation of Israel. It has parallels to what’s going on in Israel today but also to Afghanistan and Iraq in the sense that the British are there sort of policing it. Not really being political and sometimes favoring one side over the other – sometimes being seen as the Jewish people as favoring the Arabs, sometimes seen by the Arabs as favoring the Jewish people.
Then we discovered this story, this real story, about these guys in their 20s who were running anti-terrorist division for the British/Palestine police, chasing Stern. They captured him literally two days before the beginning of the Second World War. They were all released on the understanding that they would no longer fight the British, but Stern didn’t agree with that and wanted to keep on fighting the British. It became a cat and mouse chase between the police and Stern. In the end the two British police caught up with him and assassinated him, and one of the police was shot.
Do you relish that? At the beginning of this conversation you were a little defensive about the misogyny stuff -
I’ve just been having a lot of it lately!
But do you relish it? This is a movie that’s going to piss people off. People don’t like to look at the beginnings of Israel and see parallels to today. Do you want that pushback from the audience?
Sometimes. I think films should provoke. Films, books, plays, whatever, part of it is about making people think in different ways, and part of that is provoking people. In some cases – like in the case Nine Songs – that is part of the project, to make you think about it. In the case of The Promised Land it’s also a great story. In the case of The Killer Inside Me it wasn’t like that. I would say I was surprised by that reaction – it wasn’t part of the initial idea, that this will wind people up. The initial idea was ‘This is a great book.’ Then on my more calm days I think Jim Thompson had that reaction quite a lot, so maybe that’s a good sign.