Director Michael Winterbottom first worked with Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon nearly a decade ago in 24 Hour Party People, in which Coogan starred and Brydon appeared in a bit role. A few films later, the prolific director cast the two to star opposite each other in Tristram Shandy: A Cock And Bull Story, a freewheeling meta adaptation of Laurence Sterne’s 18th-century novel that featured long stretches of improvised riffs between the two comedians. The filming sparked a desire among all three to work together more extensively in this improvised form, and they began talking about what would become The Trip, a six-episode series filmed for the BBC in which Coogan and Brydon play “themselves” as they eat their way across Europe. Winterbottom also cut a pared-down feature-length version, which is currently playing in theaters across the country. The A.V. Club recently spoke with the director about the new film, the freedom that comes from working without a script, and differences between working with actors and comedians.
The A.V. Club: What was the process of editing The Trip to feature-film length?
Michael Winterbottom: At the beginning when we first started making it, the idea was there might be a film and the series. So, the series was actually six lunches, structured around each meal. The idea was the film would be slightly more focused on the characters of Rob and Steve and the actual journey of the trip itself. We always had this idea that there might be two slightly different versions of the same thing.
AVC: So you had that narrative sense in mind for a feature during filming?
MW: Yeah, everything that’s in the film is in the series, but we took away that structure of the meal. In the show, every episode has the arrival, the start of the main course, the pudding, and so on. That was the framework of each episode, so we could get rid of that and the repetitions and focus on the journey of the characters in the films.
AVC: Did that journey begin with Tristram Shandy?
MW: Yeah, in a way. I worked with Steve and Rob in 24 Hour Party People before that, but it came from when they were playing versions of themselves [in Tristram] and the three of us having lunches together. I think they’re funny separately, but they’re particularly funny together. It came from this idea that it would be great to do something really simple where they can just sit and talk about stuff. Lunch seemed like a great place to do that.
AVC: The film has no writing credit. Was it completely improvised?
MW: I know Steve and Rob so well that I did a rough shaping of the characters and story and how it was going to be organized. From lunches with them in London, I’d put in ideas of what they might talk about and then we did a research trip together, which was also kind of a rehearsal. So, before we started filming there was probably a document of about 60 pages, but it was really just bits of conversations we’d had in the past put into rough order. There was enough information to organize the shoot and know this is where we are in this bit and this is who we meet in that bit. I also had a vague sense of topics they might be talking about, but all that framework was from conversations with Steve and Rob. Then on the day, they would totally improvise throughout the area, and we’d shoot for half an hour. Then we’d talk about the bits that were interesting, and we’d go again. They’d improvise again, and we’d try to find those areas that needed patches.
AVC: One of the most memorable bits is when they try to one-up each other with their Michael Caine impressions. Did that just spontaneously happen one day?
MW: They both have done impressions for a long time and do several of the same impressions. When I originally suggested the idea to them, we talked about that. I have to say, both of them were quite reluctant to do impressions overall. You have to encourage them to do impressions. In the film, it seems like Rob is always doing impressions and in reality he does impressions often, but I think in the context of the story, Rob was nervous that if he’s always doing impressions he’d look like an idiot, and Steve is genuinely quite reluctant to do impressions. So, they both needed encouragement to do them. I think this was partly because it’s just a sense they have and aren’t really that keen to wheel it out. But from our point of view watching it and filming it, we tried to drag it out of them as much as possible.
AVC: How did you encourage them?
MW: I just told them they had to. It was too boring just with Rob and Steve; they had to bring other characters into the scene now and then. From my experience working with comedians, there is that competitive aspect. With actors, for instance, they don’t want to look competitive even if they are, whereas comedians, I think, are openly happy to play on the idea that they all compete with each other to get the laughs. There’s something about comedy, I think, that encourages that. There’s this kind of schoolboy sense of wanting to top the other person that we play off of to show them competing for who’s smarter or cleverer.
AVC: Which is more challenging for you to work with, comedians or actors?
MW: [Laughs.] Well, working with Steve and Rob is great fun, I have to say. From my point of view as a director, it’s great to have people who can generate material, and Steve and Rob and a lot of comedians are used to generating their own material. They’re used to being part of the process of creating the character and creating the dialogue. When you’re filming, it’s great. You’re just observing what they do, and they’re constantly trying to come up with new stuff. You do one take in one area, and if you like it, they’ll get back to that area, but they’ll try out different ways to do it. It’s a real pleasure for a director to be able to work with people like that.
AVC: When you’re not working with a script, how does that change the way you work as director?
MW: I prefer it, actually, especially when working on low-budget independent films. When you’re working with a script and you have three pages for that day, you have to shoot that. It can become sort of like a prison, because by the time you’ve shot what you need to shoot, you don’t really have time to think or shoot anything else. The great thing about not having a script is there’s nothing you have to shoot that day. When you start filming, you can shoot anything you want. There’s no pressure to shoot anything. Whatever interests you that day is what you’re shooting. That’s a big liberation that makes it more enjoyable and more relaxed. I think if you have that kind of framework it can make it a much more satisfying thing to work on and to watch as well.
AVC: How did you come up with the idea to have Steve play a quasi-restaurant critic?
MW: I’ve known Steve for 10 years, but this is only the third film I’ve done with him. We spent more time in those 10 years talking about the films we’d want to make or how we could work together again. Over that period of time, we had lots of lunches where we’d talk about these films we wanted to make, and then they didn’t happen. It was partly just that we found those lunches very enjoyable, and we were frustrated that we couldn’t make all these films we were talking about. We thought, “Why don’t we just film lunch; lunch is easy.” Steve said to me that for research for this film we could tour around the North of England and eat at a lot of restaurants, and that sounded like fun. There was something about the simplicity of the idea of just Steve and Rob sitting around a table and talking that would be good. All the usual hassle and production complications of film you could get rid of. The first shot is just where I come from, and then we just went around to different places from there. Every day we went to a different restaurant, so in that sense it was like being on a road trip. In the film, Steve has this idea of the North and where he’s from that’s not exactly the way it was. I think it’s a romantic idea of wanting to show the best of where you’re from.
AVC: When you were editing the feature, were there parts you had to restructure for the rhythm of the comedy?
MW: No, because the process was quite quick. We made the six episodes, and I did a rough cut down of the film shape. We showed it to the Toronto Film Festival, and they told us they definitely wanted to show it. It was all too quick to change the rhythm, so really the rhythm of the comedy is exactly the same in both. We got rid of a lot of meals and tried to avoid things that were specific references to English culture that no one outside of England would get. We tried to take all those out, but I’m sure there are still some left in. We just focused on the story of the characters and the journey.
AVC: What surprised you the most throughout the shooting?
MW: I suppose I kind of knew this, but when I started, I half imagined that as the journey and the meals unfolded that Steve and Rob would become more interested in the food and wine. That one element of it might be a changing relationship to food and what gives them pleasure. That fact is that throughout the whole course of the project, they never cared less about the food. Unless I asked them to talk about the food, they’d barely taste it. The food was more, “This is what’s happening, but we don’t care about the food whatsoever.” It’s more than just the food, but the idea that they could be walking in a beautiful valley and still be talking about themselves or comedy. They would not be talking about the landscape, and that became quite funny in its own way that they became oblivious to what going on with the landscape. Someone’s Michelin-starred cuisine didn’t really interest them as much as themselves.
AVC: You have another film in the works with Steve, right?
MW: I hope so. We’re working on a story about [pornographer] Paul Raymond, who became one of the richest people in Britain. Matt Greenhalgh [Control] is writing the script, but when it happens depends on many factors.
AVC: Is it going to be more of a comedy or in the line of films like Boogie Nights?
MW: Well, I think Boogie Nights is pretty funny, but it’s in that area I guess. It has a kind of tragic story where he came from a very Catholic upbringing, but became famous for strip clubs and porn magazines and then made a fortune in property development. In his personal life, his daughter died of a drug overdose and there were other things that played into this idea that he made a fortune but lost in a personal way. It’s not an out-and-out comedy, but I think they’ll be areas that will be funny.
AVC: The fine line between comedy and tragedy?
MW: I think they can coexist quite easily, as Steve’s proved quite often [Laughs.]