Exclusive: Michael Winterbottom on The Killer Inside Me


British filmmaker Michael Winterbottom has established a reputation for his prolific output of diverse films ranging from the Tony Wilson biopic 24 Hour Party People starring Steve Coogan to the real-life Middle East political thriller A Mighty Heart with Angelina Jolie.

His adaptation of Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me is no exception, being a dark and violent noir film set in a small Texan town during the ’50s, starring Casey Affleck as Lou Ford, a young deputy assigned the task of running a pretty prostitute named Joyce Lakeland (Jessica Alba) out of town. Instead, he falls for her and they begin a turbulent affair. What people in town don’t know about Lou is that underneath his pleasant exterior is a violent and sadistic individual. Soon that aspect of Lou’s personality starts getting him into trouble not only with Joyce, but also his girlfriend Amy, played by Kate Hudson, and the local authorities who start suspecting that Lou hasn’t been straight with them.

It’s such a different movie that really stands out from Winterbottom’s already impressive filmography, being his first film fully shot in the United States as well as being far more moody and cinematic for a director who has often used a handheld guerilla approach to filmmaking.

ComingSoon.net has had many chances to talk with Winterbottom over the years, and we once again enjoyed sitting down with him at the Tribeca Film Festival where “Killer” was making its East Coast premiere after stirring things up at Sundance. We also talked briefly about his next project The Promised Land, which promises to be just as different, being a crime drama set in Palestine during the ’30s.

ComingSoon.net: I’m sure you’ve heard this but this is a very different movie from what we normally expect from you, as I don’t think we’ve seen you tackle any sort of noir or pulp. Did you just read the book and liked it and decided to make the movie?
Michael Winterbottom: Yeah, that was about it really. The first film I did was a film called “Butterfly Kiss” which was about two women in the north of England going around and various killings, so it was content that was not dissimilar in a way to this story. What happened to be honest was that I was trying to make a film in England and it was set now in Manchester, it was sort of a gangster film but I wanted to borrow a little bit from David Goodis, who is also kind of a ’50s noir writer. In time, that reference to Goodis got really complicated on the copyright and eventually, I just gave up on that. In that phase, I read “The Killer Inside Me” and thought, “Actually, it would be good to try to make this in a very direct way,” to try to make the book as faithfully as possible. I suppose I was sort of slightly predisposed and had been looking at that kind of idea as a story for a film because of the experience with the Goodis situation, but really, I just read the book and loved it and thought it would make a good film.

CS: That was fairly recently that you read the book?
Winterbottom: Yeah, the first time I read the book was two years ago. I’ve read other Thompson stuff before but not that one.

CS: So when you started looking for the rights, you found all these other people who had been trying to make it already.
Winterbottom: Well, we found out things bit by bit and perhaps, if we had known originally what we knew by the end, we would have given up in the first place. What happened was I kind of said, “Look, just find out who has the rights to the book” and met up with a guy called Chris Hanley, who had the rights for two American producers who had been trying to make it for about 14 years with a series of different writers, different directors and so on. I met Chris Hanley and said “I’d like to make it,” so he sort of said, “Yeah, that might work out” so we then worked with them and their producers on the film. It turned out that it was all a little more complicated in the end, so the situation got very complicated in terms of exactly what was going on.

CS: Did anyone ever have an actor attached to it?
Winterbottom: Yeah, I think they had a lot. I think they’d gone through… I heard… because we spent quite a lot of time looking around at locations outside, so I heard the story a lot of times. I think a variety of different people. Sean Penn, I’m not sure as an actor or as a director, Val Kilmer, I assume as an actor but maybe a director, a whole series of different people, across literally about 10 or 12 years. I think at one point, John Curran, who wrote the script, was thinking about directing it, Andrew Dominik I think was thinking about directing it, they had a lot of different goes at it. We were probably a little bit naïve and foolish thinking to start really, but it worked out.

CS: Did you end up using John’s script or did you start from scratch?
Winterbottom: I met up with Chris Hanley and I said to him, “I really want to make the film as close to the book as possible.” One thing I loved about the book, partly because we’d been doing the idea of a modern teenage story with a little bit borrowed from the ’50s noir before. I thought that actually, this is the opposite; you can actually almost film the book. The dialogue in the book’s great and a lot of the dialogue in the film in the end is taken pretty closely from the book. The structure and the storytelling is, too, because I think Thompson is a great storyteller. What he did was he sent me John Curran’s script, which had a lot of things that were very close to the book, but he had a different order to them. John had been more inventive with the narrative stuff, so I just put that back, so we worked from John’s script but putting it back towards the book really, so I do a little bit of work, making it more, in my mind… So the narrative flows in the same order as the book and really, it was a mixture between John’s original script that I was sent and then in various parts just going back to the book and borrowing straight from the book and putting it back into the script.

CS: How did you end up with Casey? Was it hard finding an actor who could do this role?
Winterbottom: Like all these things, it’s kind of weird. I think probably in terms of with a lot of actors being worried about doing the film, yeah. I think from very early on, I thought Casey would be brilliant in the role, and when I met Casey, he really loved the book and the script. I can’t remember if he’d already read both when I first met him or one of the other, but he wanted to do the film, and I think that’s quite rare. I think Casey gets offered a lot of stuff that he doesn’t want to do. So it didn’t really take very long. We started looking and trying to cast I suppose in September and by October, I’d met Casey and once I’d met Casey, it was clear he should be the person to do the film.

CS: It’s a great role for him because he tends to play nice guys, and this is perfect for him to show the other side.
Winterbottom: Well, what I think he’s brilliant at, and why I thought he would be good and why I think he is good, is that the whole mood for it totally depends on the idea that what is going on inside his head is not what he’s doing on the surface. I think Casey is brilliant at–without being overly actorish about it–with conveying the sense of someone who has a lot of other things going on inside, so you’re curious what’s going on inside his head.

CS: I also wondered about casting Jessica and Kate, because obviously, that’s another thing people are shocked by because they’re playing victims in the movie – Jessica maybe becomes a victim, but they tend to play much stronger women and you wouldn’t expect them to do this. Did you find them, did they find you?
Winterbottom: We found them. We cast Casey first obviously because he’s so much the dominant character, but then partly because of Jim Thompson being a great writer and the script was good, but also because of Casey playing that part, we then found it very easy to cast the rest of the film. I think we had a great cast across all the parts, not only Jessica and Kate, but for their roles, it
it was great to meet a few people, but Jessica in America and met Kate in London actually. I really wanted them to play the part, I thought they’d be great in the parts, and they both were keen from the beginning for the material. I think in the case of Jessica, she read the script–I’m not sure if she read the book before I met her–but she had a really clear take on how she saw the choice. When you meet people to start with, it’s a little bit vague because the character is not that similar, so it wasn’t very obvious for meeting one for one or one for the another, it was just meeting people to think about how it could work out. Jessica was very clear that she wanted to play Joyce and totally became involved with how she saw the character, so it was a really decision to make. I think that they’re both great in the film.

CS: Did you find that after doing “Mighty Heart,” it helped your profile here with actors?
Winterbottom: I don’t think so, really, but I don’t know.

CS: You worked with Rachel Weisz before…
Winterbottom: And Kate Winslet. But no, I don’t know. In this case, obviously, you hope actors are vaguely interested in who the director is, but it’s generally more to do with the role and the film and the story so on, and I think this case, being Jim Thompson, that was one of the big things that attracted people to the story.

CS: I also liked seeing Ned Beatty, since he seems to be having a resurgence between being in your movie and “Toy Story 3” coming out the same week, which couldn’t be two more extremes, but we haven’t really seen him at all lately. How did you come up with him for the part? Just someone you thought of for the part and it worked out?
Winterbottom: (laughs) Well, yeah, obviously again, one of the great things about working in America is that you get a chance to meet actors you’ve seen in loads of films through the years, and I met lots of people for all the parts, and I really liked Ned and it was great that he could do it. He brings something from his history… he’s a lovely sweet guy as well, so it was great to have him do the part. It was with all the cast in a ways because Casey’s in every shot, every scene, because it’s totally told by him from his point of view, so everyone else, though their roles are good, they’re important roles and they’re on scenes themselves, they’re usually just two-handers, which is quite a strange film to make because you’re always using just Casey and one other person. The other person would keep changing but it would always be Casey and one other person. So I’d only worked with them for three or four days each, ’cause that’s the structure of the film.

CS: How was it shooting some of those tough, violent scenes between Casey and Jessica and Kate? Did you wait until the very end or did you want to get them done early in terms of getting Casey in the right head?
Winterbottom: No, we shot it all on vacation and because of the fact that the story is told from Casey’s point of view and other people are coming in and out, it meant we couldn’t really shoot it in story order. Normally, we like to shoot it in story order as much as possible, but the nature of the fact that the locations were different towns that we made into one town, and also if actors came in for a few days, they’d have to do their scenes and go, so what was really done with both Jessica and Kate is that we shot their sequences in rough story order for their sequence. In the case of Jessica, we started with them meeting and got to the point of the beating up. Unfortunately, Casey hurt his back during the course of the filming so we ended up delaying it…

CS: Not from the sex scenes I hope.
Winterbottom: (laughs) I’m not going to comment! (laughs) So we ended up having to… Jessica had to come back at the end. Jessica was relatively early on and Casey hurt his back and had three or four days off, so then Jessica had to then come back at the end… so I think they did the violence scenes very near the end.

CS: I would think it would be tough if he had to beat her up and then make love to her a day later.
Winterbottom: Yeah, no, we did it in the other order, so we had a chance to gradually see a progression… but of course the first scene is similar, because he hits her, so it’s not like it started off on a delicate loving note and then progressed to violence. In fact, that was one of the things that first attracted me to Thompson’s book is that he’s brilliant in spare storytelling that by Page 7, he’s already met Joyce Lakeland, been hit by her, hit her, had sex with her, fallen in love with her. It’s all five pages into the book and you’re there.

CS: The movie has been fairly divisive so far, to put it bluntly. Do you think people are just in denial that they don’t want to acknowledge that there are people like this who you would not expect to do things like that until later then you go, “I never expected that.” Why do you think the movie has been so divisive?
Winterbottom: I don’t know really. Murder and killing is obviously a part of the plot of a huge amount of fiction whether it’s plays or books, whatever, so I was a little bit surprised how shocked some people seemed to be about it when we first started showing it, especially given that it is based on a Jim Thompson’s novel. He’s a famous noir/pulp writer. You would think as you walked into the cinema, you’d have an idea that it could be quite a violent film. I don’t know why it is. When I read the book, one of the things I really loved about the book is that although it was written in ’52, it’s still very fresh. It has the ability to take you by surprise and shock you, and it shows you dark, ugly things, so of course one part of making the film is I wanted to keep that, I wanted that impact to be there. In particular, Thompson creates a situation where Lou Ford kills two people who love him and he kills them in a brutal way, so of course, I wanted those scenes to be horrifying, but at the same time for me when I read the book, it made me think afterwards about the tenderness of the book and the fact that all the people Lou killed were people that had this incredible love for him. You’re seeing the sort of pointlessness of violence and the wastefulness of Lou’s madness and the way Lou’s violence destroys people that actually love him rather than people hate him.

CS: I feel that the reaction is similar to “American Psycho,” because when I saw it, I probably had the same gut reaction and having been inured to it, you can watch it and go, “Yeah, there are people like that,” and once in a while, you have to see a movie where this pleasant leading man is actually not a nice guy you thought he was.
Winterbottom: Yeah, exactly, but I think also for me, with “Killer,” it isn’t sort of fictional. It’s a world that makes you think about your own world, as opposed to just being, “This is a picture of the real world” or “This is a snapshot of what Texas was really like in the 1950s.” The great coup about being the best portrayal of a killer’s mind but I think also it’s just a portrayal of how people work. It’s a very exaggerated, very dramatic kind of world, that is what noir is, as is a lot of fiction, it pushes things very extremely, it wants things to be extremely dramatic, so Lou Ford is a very extreme kind of character, but at the same time, everyone does things like treat people badly who are closer to them, who are self-destructive, you see that all around you. But obviously, newspaper stories have events very similar to the events of the film, but also in your own life in a much smaller way, in a more domestic way. You know what you’re doing is self-destructive or you’re being horrible to someone who is trying to be good to you, but everyone does that in small ways. It’s a very concentrated, violent and extreme form of how I think everyone is. That’s why we struggle so hard to find a way of enjoying life in a sense.

CS: Is this the first movie you made in America?
Winterbottom: (Nods) Yeah, it is.

CS: You’ve been all over Europe, the Middle East and everywhere else…
Winterbottom: Well, I’ve done a couple days here and there on films, yes, but never made a film here. This is the first time I made a film here.

CS: Had you been deliberately shying away from making films here or did you just never find the right material?
Winterbottom: Yeah, to be honest, we came close to it once or twice and for different reasons it didn’t work, didn’t do the films in the end. No, it’s not been a conscious policy, but it was great to be here. From my point of view, imagining if you’re a filmmaker, but say in England, there’s something very iconic about America and that period and that landscape, so it’s great to be able to set a story in that place really.

CS: Not all European filmmakers get it when they first make a film here, because they had a very specific image of what America is and then try to create something between that and reality.
Winterbottom: Right, right.

CS: We talked earlier about how this is different from some of your other movies, and you’ve definitely had throughlines between your movies such as the ones you did with Steve Coogan, then you have movies like “Shock Doctrine” and “Guantanamo” and “Mighty Heart,” which deal with real world issues. Do you have another thread to go off on next?
Winterbottom: Yeah, I mean the thing is that you eventually come back to areas that interest you, so you’re right, there are certain things that keep popping back up, like the case with Steve, because I like working with Steve. I just worked with Steve now, doing six conversational things. It’s just Steve and Rob Brydon, who was in “Tristram Shandy,” just the two of them talking rubbish, yeah. It’s like six half hours of TV, six lunches, six conversations, we might do a film that puts them all together in one film, I’m not sure. Because it’s enjoyable to work in the area Steve works in and it’s enjoyable to work with Steve, so of course, that means you can find some other thing to do with him if you want to.

But right now, we’re wanting to do a film set in Palestine in the 1930’s about British police chasing Jewish terrorist groups. There’s a guy called Avraham Stern, who was one of the leaders of the Jewish underground from when Britain was controlling Palestine, so it’s set in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem and it’s about police trying to capture Stern and Stern trying to kill the police. It’s based on a true story.

CS: Are you going to try to shoot that there?
Winterbottom: Yeah, yeah.

CS: Have you ever shot there before?
Winterbottom: No, I haven’t. We’ve been working on the story for that for a couple years, so last year, we went out to look at locations and we’ve cast the English police parts, that’s Jim Sturgess, Matthew MacFadyen and Colin Firth, so they’re the three main English guys, but we haven’t cast the Jewish parts yet.

CS: Is that based on a book? (There’s a MAJOR SPOILER for the movie in the following response.)
Winterbottom: No, we did quite a lot of research, it’s based on two policemen called (Thomas) Wilkin (played by Sturgess) and (Geoffrey) Morton (played by MacFadyen), real policemen, so we just did our own research on that, and as I say, they’re chasing this guy called Stern who is one of the leaders of the underground. They ended up catching Stern and killing him, and then two years later, one of the policemen was assassinated, so weirdly, we have at the end of the film, we have an interview, which we’ve already done with one of the people who assassinated Wilkin, who is still alive, two of them in fact, so we have them talking about how they assassinated Wilkin already, so it’s a great story.

CS: What happened with “Murder in Samarskand”?
Winterbottom: No, that was something we wanted to do with Steve but we cancelled that. We were trying to do it for years and David Hare wrote a screenplay and then we tried to do a different version of it and it was all very complicated. It was set in Uzbakistan, and it was a comedy about torture, and we decided it was too complicated. (laughs)

CS: Do you generally have something else in development at all times?
Winterbottom: Yeah, yeah, but yeah, but that’s not hard. Obviously, sometimes you sort of have more ideas of what you want to make than others, but because it takes such a long time to make a film, it’s not hard to keep enough ideas going that you always have one or two more. You can only do one film a year, if you’re lucky.

CS: Maybe that’s easy for you to say, but I’m not sure how someone can be working on a movie like “The Shock Doctrine” and this one at the same time.
Winterbottom: (laughs) The good thing is that it’s easiest to work on two different things. When you have two next to each other that are similar, that’s when it gets harder, so when we did “Road to Guantanamo,” after that, we were supposed to shoot “Genova” which was in Italy, but then “Mighty Heart” came suddenly, and we were like “Okay, we’ll do that,” so that was like going back to Pakistan and doing another story there, not similar but set in the same time with a lot of the same issues lurking around. Trying to do two films like that next to each other, it’s harder to get the enthusiasm in a way then if you’re going from Steve Coogan being stupid over lunch to Casey Affleck killing someone, that’s easier. (laughs)

CS: Do you ever go back to revisit any of your old movies either deliberately or accidentally?
Winterbottom: I try not to. There’s a natural response obviously because you spend a lot of time (on it) and when you get to the point where you finish it, you spent a lot of time watching it, and so it’s natural of course not to want to, so then to sort of revisit something from a long time past, weirdly the last couple years, there have been various technical reasons for looking at stuff, so I’ve watched one or two of them again from a while back, but on the whole, I don’t think many people are going home and sitting down and then pulling out their old films and watching them. (laughs)

CS: I was curious because one of these days, someone is going to want to do a retrospective or a box set and it’s going to be a very strange experience.
Winterbottom: Yeah, eclectic. Well, like the San Sebastian Film Festival did a retrospective a few years ago, but fortunately, I didn’t have to watch them, I just had to talk about them.

CS: So you don’t have to rewatch them to remind yourself about making them?
Winterbottom: No, not yet. For the moment I can just about remember them. (laughs)

The Killer Inside Me opens in New York and L.A. on Friday, June 18, as well as being available on Video on Demand.