We interview Spike Island director Mat Whitecross about his career path from tea-maker to filmmaker, working with Winterbottom, and his top tips for aspiring directors (are you stubborn enough?).
Published 21 June 2013
Words by Avalon Lyndon
"There’s like 15 different projects I’m working on at the moment, but 14 of them might never happen. It’s kind of heartbreaking, but you know that’s the potential strike rate."
Like his mentor and collaborator Michael Winterbottom, Mat Whitecross is one of those rare filmmakers who pairs a head full of ideas with a distinctly pragmatic approach. With a back catalogue ranging from hard-hitting political documentaries (Road to Guantánamo, The Shock Doctrine, Moving to Mars) to thoughtful, stylised features (Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll, Ashes, Spike Island), via episodes of Spooks, high-budget commercials and music videos for some of Britain’s biggest bands, you could never accuse Whitecross of playing it safe.
But he never imagined he would get to this point. "I didn’t know how you became a director. It was always a bit of a pipe dream. It was a bit like wanting to be in a rock group or to be President."
Whitecross’ big break came as a result of two happy coincidences. While studying English at University College London, he agreed to make a music video for his housemates’ band. The track was called Bigger Stronger and the group went on to become international hit-makers Coldplay, who he continued to collaborate with for Paradise, Every Teardrop is a Waterfall and Christmas Lights among others.
His second stroke of luck came after leaving university. Struggling to break into the film industry, Whitecross took the typical route of ringing around production companies asking if they were in need of a tea-maker. A pass-the-parcel of production contacts ended up with a particularly fortuitous phone call; rumour had it there was a running job going at Michael Winterbottom and Andrew Eaton’s production company, Revolution Films. Within a few days, Whitecross found himself there as a runner.
"We can’t make you a director overnight," Winterbottom explained when he arrived, "but can you edit? Can you shoot?" He asked Whitecross to cut one of the 24 Hour Party People trailers and even had him on set as second unit camera. "Me and the other runner were up there in Manchester just filming gangsters waving guns about. That was my first proper job."
"I didn't know how you became a director. It was always a bit of a pipe dream."
"The great thing about Michael and Andrew’s philosophy is that it is very much a community of filmmakers, even if you’re the runner. I was very lucky, because I think that in a lot of other, possibly bigger companies, I’d have got frustrated. Inevitably, there’s a lot of tea-making, and there’s a lot of answering phones, and there’s a lot of late-night faxing at that stage." Inspired by the fact that both Winterbottom and Eaton started out as runners, Whitecross decided to show them a short he’d made – which Winterbottom liked.
Soon after, on a drunken night in a pub, he outlined a documentary he wanted to film based on the story of the Tipton Three, a trio of Britons who were falsely imprisoned in Guantánamo for two years. Winterbottom suggested they take on the project together, and despite a sore head in the morning, he kept his word. The result was the controversial docu-drama The Road to Guantánamo, which earned the pair a BAFTA nomination and the Silver Bear at Berlinale. They collaborated again for The Shock Doctrine, before Whitecross made his solo documentary debut with refugee narrative Moving to Mars.
On building trust with his documentary subjects, Whitecross admits, "It’s hard, especially with people who’ve been lied to. With Guantánamo, it was tricky. Basically, we rented a house in Oxford and I lived with the Tipton Three for almost a month. It’s a tricky ethical problem that you don’t have in dramas as much, because everyone kind of knows what they’re signing up for."
A move into features found Whitecross taking the helm on Andy Serkis-starring Ian Dury biopic Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll, which used a hallucinogenic mishmash of genres and visual styles to reflect the hectic life and times of the legendary Blockheads front man.
Ashes saw Whitecross looking closer to home with the story of an ex-gangster, played by Ray Winstone, battling with Alzheimer’s, the disease which claimed Whitecross’ own father’s life. His latest offering, Spike Island, is a coming-of-age story following a group of Madchester-era kids on a journey to the seminal Stone Roses gig of the same name.
"You need stamina and stubbornness to become a successful filmmaker. You need to keep on pushing."
For Whitecross, the lines between documentary and drama are never completely defined. "A lot of the tools that you might associate with the way that documentaries are shot would actually be very useful in drama and vice versa." In Moving to Mars, for example, Whitecross begins the quiet, meditative documentary with a sci-fi style shot, rushing from the surface of Mars right down through the roof of one of his Burmese subjects’ huts.
He believes that documentaries should try to entertain the audience as well as being informative. "It shouldn’t necessarily be hard work. You’re always trying to come up with a persuasive argument for why someone should watch what you’re making when there’s so much to compete with. Why should you watch Moving to Mars rather than Transformers?"
Keeping an audience entertained isn’t the only hard part; getting a film made in the first place can be an intensely difficult process. "The bizarre thing, that I couldn’t possibly have predicted going into film, is that most people are not really interested in making films – or that’s how it seems to me. It almost feels like an accidental by-product of working in the industry." He remembers reading about David Lynch’s struggles to get his own projects off the ground during the pre-production of Ashes: "You think, bloody hell, in my book he’s one of the few bona fide geniuses around, and even he can’t get a film made!"
It doesn’t seem to be a problem for Winterbottom, who averages a film a year at least. As Whitecross notes, "Michael’s completely unafraid of making films. The danger of most filmmaking is that it’s very expensive and you need to please a lot of people. You end up pre-planning everything and you get into a room and even if it doesn’t work, you’re kind of stuck with it." Winterbottom’s impulsiveness frees him from this trap. "From what I’ve observed, there’s a keenness to try and make things as real and as spontaneous as possible."
So how do you cope with the pitfalls and struggles of the industry – and what do you need to become a successful filmmaker? "Mainly stubbornness," says Whitecross. "Stamina and stubbornness. You need to keep on pushing."
Top tips for aspiring directors:
1. Get involved in local TV
Smaller operations give you more of a chance to show your skills. Whitecross worked for a local station in Oxford. He mentioned he was interested in film and politics. "And they said, 'Right, you’re the political editor. Here’s a camera.'"
2. Know a little bit about everything
Know enough about each other department, so you can advise your crew on exactly what you’re looking for. "I know enough that I can at least ask people coherently and intelligently what I want."
3. Kick-start your career with a twin-track approach
Better your chances of making it in the industry by looking for runner work in a production company – as an editor, camera operator, whatever – while also going out and making your own films. "That way you have some kind of foothold on both sides."
4. Pitch your ideas using mood trailers
"Scripts are an odd blueprint for something so visual." Bring together archive material, stills, give a flavour of the music and tone you’re going for. You can put together a wish list for cast, but be careful as the financiers might hold you to it.
5. Build up a team around you
"Try to keep the same team, project to project. Especially when it comes to the acting. It’s such a difficult process, to learn on set together, and often it doesn’t necessarily work out. You’ve got to be a kind of therapist as well, whether it’s with actors or bands, because they’re putting themselves out there. They’re going out and emoting and acting, so they want to feel that they can trust the process and they’re not making idiots of themselves."
Spike Island is in cinemas now.