The prolific 50-year-old English director, Michael Winterbottom, has made a string of strong and controversial feature films since the mid-nineties, ranging from political thrillers ( Welcome to Sarajevo, A Mighty Heart) to literary adaptations ( Jude, The Killer Inside Me) and art house erotica ( Nine Songs).
He has also made some very funny comedies, including 24 Hour Party People, Tristam Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, and now The Trip, all of which starred the acerbic comedian Steve Coogan.
In The Trip, Coogen and Welsh actor Rob Brydon play versions of themselves, two showbiz narcissists on a squabbling food-tasting tour of northern England, engaging in duelling Michael Caine impressions and other forms of one-upmanship.
The Trip started as a BBC television series before making its premiere as a film the Toronto International Film Festival. Which did you really want it to be?
We always had it in mind that The Trip could be both. The television series was about six meals and six episodes which provided the organization for the series. The film focuses more on the journey and the relationship between the two men. I had already cut a film version which I showed to the Toronto programmers, and they said they loved it.
The movie is a great showcase for a dining tour of the north of England. Was that partly what motivated BBC to commission it?
I don't think so. I guess the main reason they commissioned it was because Steve and Rob are big stars in the U.K. It was a one-page idea really. We'd take them on a trip and have a meal in each restaurant.
Did you actually shoot among diners, or did you just create that illusion?
It varied from place to place. Because these were top restaurant-hotels, the businesses were open. We sometimes had a little area to ourselves. In the smaller places, we took over the whole restaurant. But the waiters are all real, and so are the customers. It was organized to be as ordinary as possible."
You show these dishes being meticulously prepared in the kitchens and then the two comedians paying little attention to them. Were you expecting them to be more interested in the food?
I imagined Steve and Rob might become more aware of food during the trip, and have conversations about the art of food, or food as necessity or nutrition or pleasure. But, in truth, nothing about food interested them. They wanted to talk about their careers and their futures, and their obliviousness became a funny part of the texture of the film.
Did you prepare the more melancholy aspects of the story and the literary allusions, or did they evolve with your story?
We had about a 60-page document and we knew we had the framework of Steve ending up back at his flat. Most of what you see is the real Steve and Rob. The literary references were not a reason for the story, but provided a kind of comforting parallel. Our main concern was to keep things moving. We moved every day, first for six days where we visited each place once. Then we repeated the journey just concentrating on the places in between, and finally went around for another round of lunches two weeks later.
Was it difficult to convince comedians who are so skilled at improvising to repeat themselves?
Not really. Comedians are very good at giving you the illusion of a conversation, of telling the same stories about themselves that seem very natural and spontaneous, which are actually very tightly organized. Where they're a huge help is in generating their own material. Steve and Rob are very bright and they bounce off each other so well, they gave me a massive amount - hours and hours - of material. The problem was editing it. But from a directing point of view, it couldn't have been easier.