Michael Winterbottom: ‘Studying English at Oxford University was a mistake’ – The Guardian

I grew up in a small bungalow on a big housing estate on the edge of Blackburn. My mum was a teacher; my dad was a draftsman in a factory that made television sets. Everything about my childhood was ordinary.
Blackburn’s Unit Four cinema was a scruffy place. In my teens, I went to its fortnightly foreign-language film screenings religiously. I was always desperate to escape, and these films briefly transported me all over the world.
During a childhood swimming lesson, Mum noticed I was lying on the bottom of the pool. A teacher pulled me out of the water. I don’t remember anything, but after that, Mum obsessed about me never venturing deep. I still don’t find swimming in the sea relaxing.
Constant pacing is an awful habit of mine, so my family says. I regularly march around the house while dragging my fingers through my hair and talking to myself.
I left school at 17 and travelled abroad for the first time – I went to pick grapes in the south of France. One night I went to a concert with a German colleague who rode a massive motorbike. Driving us back, I realised he was off his face at 100mph. I clung on for dear life, and haven’t been on a motorbike since.
Steve Coogan makes directing far too easy. We’ve worked together a lot. Naturally, he’s constantly doing things that are both funny and interesting. You can just point a camera at him and leave him to it. I’ve never had more fun than working together on 24 Hour Party People.
Studying English at Oxford University was a mistake. I loved reading, but I wasn’t committed to the rigour of it. Halfway through my studies, I came across a cinema workshop in the city. There and then, I knew what I wanted to do.
I suffer from a particular type of vertigo. I’m fine on planes, or whenever someone else is in charge. But if I’m in control? Even short ladders make me feel vulnerable.
Don’t make a short film, make a long one. That’s the advice I give to young filmmakers. Go out there and shoot something yourself. Not lots of 10 minute things, but a proper one. The only way to learn is to do it.
Generally speaking, I’m risk averse, my mum was over-protective of me as a child. I was the same with my kids in the playground. Caution was bred into me, and it’s far too late to change.
If you get a chance to eat, then you should eat: you never know when the next meal is coming in my business.
People say I have a temper. I certainly do shout a lot. It’s not out of anger, just a way of trying to get attention.
Political extremism pushes people to the edge, and violence sees opposing sides become further polarised. My new film, Shoshana, explores this in Palestine under British colonial rule, but it’s still true in the region today, and around the world. In the past 10 years, those divides have deepened.
The film industry wasn’t accessible when I started out, and it’s still not today. Back then it was a union closed shop. Your career hinged on knowing people. Of course, that remains helpful. Now the best way to start is to go out and start shooting yourself, or to work a lot for free. Either way, that requires big money.
I’m entirely unsurprising as a man. Everything about me is, I think, rather obvious and straightforward.
Shoshana + Michael Winterbottom Q&A plays as part of the UK Jewish Film Festival 2023 which takes place in London cinemas from 9-19 November, with a national tour taking place from 9-30 November and a selection of films available online from 20-27 November

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