The Interview: Mat Whitecross

Published on 06 February 2013

[D]irector Mat Whitecross began his film career working alongside  filmmaker Michael Winterbottom, co-directing two of the most politically zeitgeist documentaries from the first decade of the 21st century: The Road To Guantanmo (2006) and The Shock Doctrine (2009) followed by the documentary Moving to Mars (2009) his first solo direction. Following this small but powerful list, feature films were next to emerge, the Ian Drury biopic  Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll (2010) signalled clearly a director with vision, style and precision. Two further feature films Ashes and Spike Island (2013) have been made and so far Mat has directed some of the UK’s most celebrated actors, from Toby Jones to Naomi Harris to Jim Sturgess and Ray Winstone.

The place in which a director sits is a bold one, it is their position to define the words and world the given story must reside within; it is via the director that we understand what we see on screen. This unique and complex place is one that Matt occupies with ease, but here he tells us how he simply got lucky.

HOW DID THIS ALL BEGIN FOR YOU?

Through blind luck. The first job I ever got was working for Michael Winterbottom and Andrew Eaton at Revolution Films. I’d loved their films growing up, and never dreamed in a million years I’d get to meet them, much less actually work with them. The first thing Michael ever said to me was ‘What do you want to do?’ And within a few months of arriving at the company they’d already got me shooting and editing for them. That was my film school.

YOU’VE MADE A FEW VERY SERIOUS POLITICAL DOCUMENTARIES THAT FOCUS ON FOREIGN POLICY, MIGRATION AND THE FEELING OF DISPLACEMENT SPURRED ON BY NEO-LIBERAL CAPITALIST SOCIETIES. WHY DID YOU FOCUS ON THESE AREAS?

My parents were political refugees, imprisoned in Argentina during the country’s Dirty War. They’re proper lefties – we spent my childhood discussing those issues round the dinner table. And their friends in Oxford where I grew up were the diaspora of South Americans that came to the UK – all of whom had fled torturers and prison. So those subjects felt real to me at a young age, and I became aware of the complicity of the West in many of those tragedies. I don’t know how much a film can change attitudes, and there’s a danger in documentary of simply preaching to the converted. The people who you’d really love to watch a film and provoke debate with, aren’t necessarily the same people who end up seeing it. But I’m always amazed at the way even small films manage to permeate their way into the unlikeliest of places.

A LOT OF VISUAL ARTISTS, PARTICULARLY FILMMAKERS, WILL SAY THEY FELT A NEED TO PURSUE THEIR ART, HOW TRUE IS THIS OF YOU?

I definitely couldn’t do anything else, mainly because I have absolutely no transferable skills. I can type quite fast; that’s about it. I remember when I left uni, temping for a while, and being fired or walking out of practically every gig they found for me. I think in another life I would have enjoyed being a musician – but I’ve loved and wanted to make films since I was really young. I never imagined I’d get to do it for a living.

DO YOU SEE YOURSELF AS AN ARTIST, AND DO YOU APPROACH ASPECTS OF YOUR WORK WITH A FEELING OF RESPONSIBILITY TO MAKE STATEMENTS ABOUT THE WORLD?

Not really. I feel completely irresponsible in that sense, certainly in terms of making statements. But there’s a massive weight of responsibility involved in dealing with certain subject matter – and particularly with real people. On Moving to Mars, we followed two  families all the way from the border of Burma on their journey to Sheffield, and it was very difficult ethically to justify not helping them out when they were struggling during the shoot. Similarly, when you’re making a film about someone like Ian Dury, there’s a responsibility to be true to his life and to his family. But it’s all just telling stories – I think the statement comes from that if anything, not from some burning desire to impose my values or thoughts on the world.

WHAT AND WHO INSPIRES YOUR WORK?

Anything and everything. I’ve been incredibly influenced by my parents – by the way they lived their lives, and by their values. Often by music, books and photography. Mostly by things that have happened to me, and by my friends.

WHO ARE YOUR FILMMAKING INFLUENCES AND DO THEY CHANGE FROM ONE FILM PROJECT TO ANOTHER?

They’re changing constantly – every time you see a thought-provoking or entertaining film, it challenges you to raise your game. I try not to go back to films with the crew and specifically watch them to borrow shots and so on. But inevitably we all share the same visual memory banks, and it’s a great shorthand. Sometimes it can just be a starting point. On Ashes, the DP Chris Ross and I looked at a lot of abstract photography, as well as some Weegee and Gregory Crewdson and the films of David Lynch; but the shoot was so crazy we ended up having to make up the style as we went along. On Spike Island, the starting point for the look was the beautiful Roses album artwork by John Squire, and then we watched Do the Right Thing because of its intensely saturated colour palette, as well photography and paintings from India because of their vibrancy. And we never really had time to go back and watch it, but I’ve always loved Mean Streets, especially the way the red bar acts as the hub of the Italian American community, and in our story, the Dark Side pub functions in the same way. Michael’s style of filmmaking has always been inspirational. I’d never try to borrow from his films – it’s more to do with his ethos and the way he works with cast and crew.

WHAT SORT OF PROJECTS DO YOU LIKE TO WORK WITH AND WHICH ACTORS DO YOU FIND INTERESTING AT THE MOMENT?

I’m up for anything. You tend to get pigeon holed very quickly by other people and even by yourself at times. On the back of Sex&Drugs I got offered a lot of music films, and Ashes was a great antidote to that. Similarly, the Fleming TV show we’re doing out in Hungary at the moment feels a million miles away from Spike Island. I’m really hoping to get an adaptation of David Peace’s book GB84 up and running with Andrew Eaton and Revolution Films, as well as a few other dramas and documentaries. The important thing for me is to keep it feeling fresh. A lot of the directors I admire work in that way – Michael’s like that, Soderbergh, Scorsese and Greengrass too. If I was lucky enough to keep on bunny hopping between different types of filmmaking, I’d be very happy. I’d love to do a sci fi or a western or a film in South America. That’s why the music videos are so much fun. You get to try and a different style of filmmaking on each shoot.

I’ve had such a great experience so far with the actors I’ve worked with. I love directors who bring back the same team again and again in different roles – like Paul Thomas Anderson or Robert Altman. I’d work with Andy Serkis, Ray Winstone or Jim Sturgess again in a heartbeat. But it’s not always possible. With the best will in the world, Ray’s never going to pass as a 16-year-old Mancunian. And this time round, Lesley Manville and Antonia Thomas are coming onto Fleming from Spike Island. It’s good to try and keep the family together when possible.

YOUR WORK IS DEFINITELY STYLE BASED, AND WE’VE SEEN THE STYLISTIC ASPECT BECOME MORE EVIDENT IN RECENT PROJECTS – HOW IMPORTANT IS IT TO YOUR WORK?

I’m often surprised when I get sent scripts that the visual side of things isn’t really considered until very late in the day. It’s almost as if that’s embroidery to be added by the director and crew. But the visuals should be part of the DNA of the film from the outset. My favourite sequences in movies are often the ones without words – Madeleine’s transformation in the green neon in Vertigo, the changing of the light on a field in Thin Red Line, the look on Mark Wahlberg’s face at the drug dealer’s in Boogie Nights. I don’t know if that’s a style thing particularly, it just seems an essential part of the film to me. As budgets get cut, it’s harder to find time with your crew to discuss the language and grammar of what you’re making until you’re on set – and then it’s often too late. But it should never feel like you’re imposing a look on the film artificially – the style should emerge organically from the subject matter.

WHICH MOMENTS IN YOUR LIFE HAVE PARTICULARLY OUT FOR YOU SO FAR?

None that would have much meaning to anyone else I guess. But travelling with Michael and the team around the world on In This World and Road to Guantanamo was a huge thing for me. Having the privilege of seeing the families move from Thailand to Sheffield on Moving to Mars. Meeting friends I’ve kept for life at university. My dad’s struggle with Alzheimer’s. All the usual things that affect everyone else.

WHAT ARE YOU LOOKING FORWARD TO?

Some sleep! We’re shooting long days in Budapest at the moment, and then working till late in the edit once we’re back at the hotel. But it’s the first time I’ve ever really enjoyed being on a set. Normally I anguish over all the shots we’re missing and the compromises – but my resolution to myself on this shoot was to have some fun. Then again, it’s only week one! More than anything, going away with my girlfriend soon as I’m back home from the shoot. Being away is hard.

Ashes is available now on DVD