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Cover of book: Dark Matter: Independent Filmmaking in  the 21st Century

Michael Winterbottom
Dark Matter: Independent Filmmaking in the 21st Century

You could describe 60-year-old Michael Winterbottom as a prolific British filmmaker. He has more than 30 movies to his name, from dramas such as Welcome to Sarajevo to comedies including The Trip series starring Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon.

Yet he would disagree with that description. He thinks he – and his compatriots – should have made more. More films made in Britain, set in Britain, reflecting British life. These unmade movies are the titular “dark matter” of his collection of interviews with 15 British filmmakers, all done in 2020 over Skype or Zoom due to Covid-19 restrictions.

The result is a must-read for anyone interested in how films are made, and not made. It’s not about camera angles and script-doctoring, though there’s a bit of that, but rather the process beforehand: the machinations that determine whether a movie idea gets a green or red light.

Perhaps because of the still-in-pyjamas feel of talking via laptops, the directors are remarkably candid. There’s gossip, such as James Marsh on what happened when, making The King, he directed William Hurt to open a door and enter a room. Hurt said his character would not like the kind of handle on the door, and that was just the start of his concerns.

Yet this is not the main plot line of Dark Matter. Nor is “more British films, please”, though Winterbottom might disagree. The real story, one that affects filmmakers everywhere, is about money and those who control it, which now includes streaming services such as Netflix. Make a successful independent film in Britain or Australia, and Hollywood comes calling. Edgar Wright (Baby Driver) sees “a generation of filmmakers lost to the sausage machine”.

The directors interviewed include Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire), Lynne Ramsay (We Need to Talk About Kevin), Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave), Stephen Daldry (Billy Elliot), Joanna Hogg (The Souvenir), Mike Leigh (Secrets and Lies) and Ken Loach (I, Daniel Blake).

Each has something interesting to say, but it’s Leigh who best sums up the point the author wants to make. The people with the money have become “prescriptive”. “They want to commission a film rather than just give you money to make a film.”

The result of this “Hollywood mentality” is that “films of all shapes and sizes suffer totally from the fact that before anyone goes out to shoot anything everybody – all kinds of wankers and tossers and camp followers and other monsters – have all made the film and argued it out of existence, and nobody’s shot a bloody frame”.

Stephen Romei

British Film Institute, 208pp, $34.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jan 22, 2022 as "Dark Matter: Independent Filmmaking in the 21st Century, Michael Winterbottom ".

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Reviewer: Stephen Romei

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