While out promoting his new film Spike Island at this year’s London Film Festival, The Road to Guantanamo director Mat Whitecross was nice enough to sit down with us to discuss his new film as well as his relationship with director Michael Winterbottom.
You’ve been involved in a few areas of the industry: you’ve directed shorts, music videos, edited alongside Michael Winterbottom… has directing feature films always been the goal?
I always wanted to be a director. From the moment I found out that there was such as thing as a director of a film rather than these things just appearing fully formed, that’s what I wanted to do. But, growing up in Oxford, I didn’t know anyone in the industry, I didn’t know anyone who had the equipment, I didn’t know how you put something like that together, so it wasn’t until a few years later, with my dad’s camera, that I went off and started shooting stuff. You taught yourself that way. That was film school. Then, when I went to uni, I carried on making things on the fly and studied English.
My first job out of college was working for Michael Winterbottom as the runner. He was finishing off The Claim when I turned up - that was the last week of The Claim, just in the edit suite – and the first film I really worked on properly was 24 Hour Party People. It was amazing. He took me aside and was like, ‘look, what is it you want to do?’ I said I want to be a film director so he asked me what skills I had. I said that I can edit and I can shoot, and within about 6 months I was on the set just filming and editing. It was really amazing. So that became my second film school. But, it’s very hard to get in. It’s like the chicken and egg thing, catch-22. Who’s going to give you the cash when you don’t have the CV? And Michael offered me the chance to edit with him on 9 Songs, and then when we were finishing off 9 Songs I had read about the Tipton Three, who had just been released from Guantanamo, and I thought I wanted to make this film. I was talking to Michael about it one night over a drink, and we were all quite drink because we were supposed to be starting another film of his called Goal!, which then actually fell apart, and I was saying that this is the kind of film we should be making, and he said, ‘well, look, if you really want to make it, we’ll make it together.’ And I never really thought that it would amount to anything, but the next day we got in touch with the lawyers, and 6 months later the thing had started. So that was always were I wanted to get to, but it’s interesting because growing up I would have sawed off my left arm to be a runner on a film set. By the time you do a runner, after about 4 months of that, you’re so sick of it and all you want to do is finally be an editor, and that would be like your dream job, and then you edit on two films and you’re like, ‘God! I just want to be a director.’ So it’s always what I wanted to do, I just never imagined there’d be any way to achieve it.
Did the editing come before the Coldplay collaborations?
Yeah, it did. The thing about editing… it’s a bit like… (this isn’t to denigrate either editing or camera work), but actually, the basics of it, anyone can pick up in a day. It’s so simple. It’s the ideas behind it. Editing, pushing the buttons... you could train a monkey to do it, but actually having the ideas behind it…. So I always work with another editor, the same way Michael works, because actually making decisions about what you’re going to do and having an idea and a philosophy that informs the whole film, that’s the tricky bit.
So at uni they had an edit suite and I just took it over and started cutting things, and that’s how I learnt. But it wasn’t until I started working with Michael that I really ended up doing it as a profession.
Is he a good person to learn under because he’s such a dexterous individual with a wide range of work?
Yeah. It’s true. It was perfect for me. He brings you on board as a colleague, which is terrifying but also quite brave on his part. It not like he sat me down and said, ‘right, I’m taking a big risk, don’t screw it up’. He just rang up and said, ‘do you want to edit a film?’ In fact, he didn’t even ask me, he just said, ‘what are you doing next week?’ I was working on the Fernando Meirelles film The Constant Gardener when he said, ‘do you want to come in, I’ve just been shooting some stuff and I’m not really sure what to do with it… do you want to come and have a quick look?’ So I came in, and he’d shot some footage of a gig, so I cut it together and I said, ‘well, this is one way you could cut it together’, and he said, ‘oh, alright, that’s cool.’ Then he said, ‘well, we’re shooting another gig tomorrow, do you want to come?’ So I was head of the cameras and I edited that together, and then he said, ‘we’ve been filming some stuff with these two guys… do you want to put that together?’ After about three weeks I was like, ‘I suppose I’m kind of the editor!’ We never talked about it contractually or properly. I think on the one hand it’s kind of scary doing it that way, but there’s nothing patronising about it, he just kind of goes, ‘well, look, you’re an editor now, just get on with it’. He doesn’t have to coach you through it. In that sense it’s an amazing opportunity, but he doesn’t set it out like film school 101 or anything like that. It’s very much like. ‘OK, here’s the footage, I trust you, get on with it.’
We should probably ask a question about your new film! 24 Hour Party People, Manchester city etc.. Could you talk about why you wanted to make a film about this particular era?
What’s interesting is that 24 Hour Party People is a film about the Manchester music scene from the top, down, so you’re seeing it from the boss of Factory Records, you’re seeing it from the bands. What I liked about Chris Coghill’s take on this, and Fiona Neilson’s, because they came up with the idea of Spike Island together, was that they were looking at it from the fans’ viewpoint, from the bottom, up. These are the kids who are not part of the music industry, who’d do anything to be in the music industry but they don’t know how they can achieve it. I suppose it’s a little bit like what we were saying before about when I wanted to work in film and I didn’t know how to do it, so that’s partly what appealed to me. But it’s not just about the music. I think because it a rites-of-passage film: I’d grown up on things like Stand By Me and The Goonies, and all these films about kids growing up, and the banter and stuff, and something connected for me and I thought, ‘this is my chance to do something like that’.
I wasn’t around in Manchester in 1990; I was too young to have seen The Stone Roses the first time around, but actually, initially that was a problem for me… I don’t know the area inside out. I had a similar issue with Ian Dury when we were doing Sex & Drugs. I’m not a dyed-in-the-wool fan, am I the right person to do it? But, actually, it’s not so much about the music scene as it is about kids growing up, and I kind of felt like we’ve all been through that.