Michael Winterbottom: ‘The film is about political violence. That theme is acutely relevant with what’s going on in Gaza’

The director’s films have often stirred discontent. With his latest political thriller, Shoshana, set in 1930s Tel Aviv, he knows he must be ready for pushback

Michael Winterbottom, among the most prolific film-makers of his generation, has no fears about stirring up disagreement. His 2004 film 9 Songs teased the certification authorities with its depictions of unsimulated intercourse. The Road to Guantánamo investigated the story of British Muslims detained in that US facility. He recently got heckled for casting Kenneth Branagh as Boris Johnson. Winterbottom’s latest potential brush with controversy involves events that took place three-quarters of a century ago. History is always at our elbow.

The tense, elegantly shot Shoshana focuses on the relationship between Shoshana Borochov, a celebrated Zionist activist in the years before the formation of Israel, and Thomas Wilkin, a British police officer charged with subverting the militants. It takes in the activities of the Zionist paramilitary cell run by Avraham “Yair” Stern. There is much violence. Any film set in that region is likely to court discontent, but, in development for many years, Shoshana could hardly have arrived at a more sensitive time.

“We started researching this 15 years ago,” Winterbottom, a genial, handsome fellow, explains. “But we probably first tried to make it 10 or 12 years ago. Then, again, five years ago. It turned out to be easier to get it made now than 10 years ago.”

There is an irony in there somewhere. With Israel’s assault on Gaza continuing, discussion about the nature and purpose of contemporary Zionism has become increasingly heated. The director must know he may be stirring up trouble. This is a film set largely among differing adherents of the Zionist philosophy in Palestine of the 1930s and 1940s. Shoshana was a member of comparatively moderate Haganah resistance. Stern is associated with the more bellicose Lehi. The Arab population barely register in this story.


Is Winterbottom prepared for pushback?

“The film is set in the 1930s. It’s a real story. It’s a true story,” he says cautiously. “Tom and Shoshana are real people. So is Avraham Stern. When you make a film about real events you have to be as accurate as you can. You have to find truth. Obviously, that time and place has echoes for now in lots of different ways. But I am not making a film set in the 1930s to say something about now.”

I wonder if he had any nervy conversations with distributors about delaying the project.

“I think some people have been nervous,” he says. “The film premiered in Toronto in September. At that point the parallels were between left and right. Tel Aviv in the 1930s was a very egalitarian, left-wing kind of place. There were a small number of people like Avraham Stern – who was on the right – who were seen by many in Tel Aviv as being fascist. When we showed it at the premiere that debate between left and right in the film had an echo in the protests in Israel against the government. Whenever you show it there is going to be a connection between what’s happening now. Not just in Gaza and Israel.”

He does not, however, deny that the current conflict will be in viewers’ minds.

“Obviously to come out now, during this current escalation of violence, is difficult,” he says. “The film is about to be released in Israel. I understand why people are unsure about it. But the film is about political violence and its impact on society. That theme is acutely relevant now, with what’s going on in Gaza.”

Winterbottom is unfashionably level-headed in his engagement with the issues of the day. Unprompted, he manoeuvres one answer around to a plea for give and take in conversation. For (God forbid) listening to those with whom you disagree.

“There is a sense of there not being much middle ground,” he says. “There is not much ability to disagree with people and still engage with them. ‘If you don’t agree with me you’re an enemy.’ So the theme of the film is more interesting now, more relevant now.”

You saw a bit of that bold division in the run-up to the screening of the Sky series This England. Cowritten and codirected by Winterbottom, the show cast Branagh as Johnson in a story of the UK’s fitful efforts to manage the Covid outbreak. If social media was to be believed (you got a bit of this with the BBC’s Jimmy Savile drama months later) any depiction of the prime minister was guaranteed to be a celebration. This England allowed Johnson some sympathy, but it was no sort of whitewash.

“Someone said to me, ‘Do you want to do something on Covid and Boris?’” Winterbottom says. “It was in the first lockdown. It was very early on. I thought it might be interesting to do the research. And it was. We talked to lots of people who worked in Number 10. We also talked to scientists, to doctors, to care-home workers, to people who had Covid. My idea was to do a tapestry, a diary.”

There was plenty of helpful gloss on government strategy.

“It reminds you that Boris wasn’t really paying any attention to Covid until the beginning of March,” he says. “There was a couple of weeks when it was obvious that by locking down you would reduce the number of people who were going to die. And delays were made. But I didn’t want to make it into an attack.”

Winterbottom made it into the business from a relatively humble background. Raised in Blackburn, in the northern English county of Lancashire, he moved from grammar school to the eye-wateringly prestigious Balliol College, in Oxford, and from there on to film school at Bristol. Class remains the biggest barrier for success in the arts. It is arguably as much a factor as race or gender. But Winterbottom is keen not to play the poor mouth.

“I would never say I had a difficult childhood or it was hard work,” he says. “I would never argue I did well to ‘escape’ Blackburn. We had an ordinary little bungalow on a big housing estate in Blackburn. My mother was an infant-school teacher. My dad worked in a factory. Because my mother was a teacher she got us to read early. In many ways I had an easy childhood.”

Would he, nonetheless, acknowledge that the British film industry has become little more accessible since he started out in the late 1980s? In some areas it may have got worse. There are more actors from “public schools” at the top of the tree than ever. Right?

“The easy thing to say is ‘yes’,” he says. “Acting is different. It is also about the stories being told. Over the last few years a lot of stories about posh people are being made. And that makes it easier for posh actors. It’s easy to always imagine there’s a golden age in the past. In the 1960s there were all these working-class actors and they all became massive stars? I don’t know whether that was a general thing. But, as far as making films goes, class is a big barrier. You’re right. But another big barrier is region. The problem with Britain is it’s very Londoncentric.”

Winterbottom began with a famous run in television. He directed the pilot of Jimmy McGovern’s classic crime show Cracker. (Lorcan Cranitch told me Winterbottom restored his confidence after a slow patch when he cast him as the awful DC Jimmy Beck.) He shot Episodes of Boon and Inspector Alleyn. He worked in Belfast with Ronan Bennett on Love Lies Bleeding and, in 1994, filmed Roddy Doyle’s Family in Dublin. Starring Seán McGinley and Ger Ryan, that show generated furious debate. Discussing its 25th anniversary in this paper, Hugh Linehan argued that “it features the single most shocking, exhilarating cathartic shot in the history of Irish TV.” He was talking about Ryan braining McGinley with a frying pan.

“I’d worked in Belfast just before that,” Winterbottom confirms. “And I worked in Donegal before that. So, bizarrely, with Family, it was the last in a little roll of Irish stuff. But that was the only one in Dublin. Look, one of the main memories was the casting. There was something like 100 parts in that. It was a massive cast. We used every actor. It wasn’t choosing actors. It was just, ‘Which character should they play?’ But they were all brilliant. I think Irish actors in Dublin at the time – I’m sure it’s the case now – were an incredibly talented pool.”

Did it take him a while to connect with the culture?

“The world that I grew up with in Lancashire is not that different from the world of Belfast or even of Dublin,” he says. “The Bible on that series was very much Roddy’s script. It was all to realise Roddy’s version of that world. Any credit can go to Roddy. Or blame. Ha ha!”

Winterbottom then launched into one of the most extraordinary careers of the era. The sheer number of films is dazzling. The consistency of quality is more startling still. His adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure with a rising Kate Winslet in 1996. The complex, troubling I Want You in 1998. Back to Belfast in 1999 for With or Without You. The great, busy London film Wonderland in, astonishingly, the same year. His 24 Hour Party People, a study of Tony Wilson and Factory Records, remains an endlessly rewatchable classic. And we’ve only got as far as 2001 (while leaving a few films out). The styles were varied. All genres were covered.

Along the way he established an extraordinarily fecund partnership with Steve Coogan. The actor was Wilson in 24 Hour Party People. He was himself and others in the terrific A Cock and Bull Story. Then the two launched into travels with Rob Brydon for the tremendous TV series The Trip (released as feature films in the US). Is there another WinterCoogan project on the horizon?

“I would love to work with him again,” Winterbottom says. “We are talking about stuff. So the short answer is ‘yes’. I hope so. It’s always good when you work with people you understand. But you have to have a story.”

Winterbottom has slowed down a tiny bit recently, at least as far as the big screen goes. Should we deduce that it is now harder to get films into production? Has streaming done for movies?

“As a director, trying to make a film, you don’t have a great sense of an overview of what’s happening,” he says. “It’s just a question of: can you get your film made? That then takes a year. At the end of that then it’s always: can you get the next one made?”

Shoshana is in cinemas from Friday, February 16th