A troika of street performers stand like bored statues by the roadside. Across from their gazeless vigil, Thomas and Simone meet for the first time outside a Rome café. Simone is a journalist covering the appeal case of an American student convicted of murdering her housemate with the help of her ex-boyfriend and another man. The grisly crime, tinged with lurid sexual intrigue, has captivated the world‘s press, and Thomas wishes to direct a film about it. Before they part ways for the day, Simone offers him some advice. “If you’re going to make the film, make it a fiction,” she says. “You can’t tell the truth unless you make it a fiction.”
If the case being discussed in the above scene, which opens Michael Winterbottom’s latest film The Face of an Angel, sounds familiar, then it may be because it is almost identical in detail to the 2007 murder of Meredith Kercher in Perugia—a crime for which Amanda Knox was sentenced to 26 years in prison (before being exonerated and then convicted again.) Like his protagonist Thomas, Michael travelled to Italy during that time and met with a journalist, Barbie Latza Nadeau, on whose true-crime book Angel Face the film is nominally based and who originally said those words to him.
The reason Michael decided to follow Barbie’s advice, he explains, was two-fold: “With fiction you can include certain information that you can’t otherwise, because you have to prove it. But more than that, I felt that the important aspects of the story would get lost in all the details of the real case. If I made a film about the trial of Amanda Knox, then it becomes just that: a film about a trial. I wanted it to be about other things, about love and grief and Dante and family and storytelling.”
Despite the changes in specific details—Perugia becomes Siena, for example—the director asserts that he was still acutely aware of ethical considerations: “Even though we moved everything one step across, the film is as factually accurate as if it had been real. We don’t make up anything.”
The story’s appeal was not the murder itself, but the broader questions it raised about public and press interest in particular types of violent crime. “The idea was maybe we could look at why we all as consumers of the media want to hear about murder trials. There have been at least ten books written about this single case. Many TV documentaries. Endless amount of television and news coverage and articles. That obsession was a story in its own right. Why is a case like this so fascinating? Why has the media tacked on to this one specific story?”
There are salacious and compelling details in all sorts of crimes, but Michael felt that there was something about murder that attracts us. Murder stories, perhaps, fill a space left in society by shifting attitudes towards death. He elaborates: “It’s a weird paradox that we spend so much of our time watching crime and violence on TV, and yet in our own lives death has become almost invisible. All the ways in which people normally experienced death at an intimate, local level with friends and relatives, which was accepted as part of life, we’ve got rid of all that and turned it into drama.”
As he followed those covering the case, the filmmaker saw talented and driven journalists aware that they had to package the story in a way that would sell, to create a version of the trial that would appeal to their newspaper editors. The experience of this persuaded both Michael—and his cinematic proxy Thomas—to go in a different direction. Rather than dramatising Meredith‘s death or Amanda’s trial, The Face of an Angel instead follows Thomas’ creative journey as he debates with journalists and local residents, and struggles to persuade executives more interested in the film’s casting than its themes. Unbeknownst to Thomas, of course, the film that he wants to make is the one he is starring in. While Michael’s preemptive considerations were about the media, both he and Thomas ultimately arrive at the same place: a murdered girl. Where most of the coverage focussed on the young, attractive woman accused of murder, his focus shifts to the one who lost her life, whose family was irreparably damaged by the crime, regardless of who actually perpetrated it.
The Face of an Angel is far from the first of Michael’s films to take inspiration from real life. Out of the 24 features he has directed in his career, five are based on true stories. Even when not directly fact-based, however, his fictional work is similarly defined by an aspiration towards truthfulness. His film Everyday, about a family coping with the father’s prison sentence, was shot in real time over five years, while another effort, 9 Songs, became infamous for depicting a year-long relationship almost entirely through unsimulated sex scenes between its central couple. Michael’s aim is to make events on screen as natural as possible, using whatever techniques will help him do that. When I ask what’s the best sort of atmosphere to engender naturalistic performances, he replies immediately: a chaotic one. “I like people to feel relaxed, and I want to feel comfortable, but obviously I like a bit of chaos,” he says, finishing off his large glass of daytime wine.
Over the course of our fervent, breakneck conversation—he speaks at a rate swift enough to melt all but the hardiest of digital recorders—this comment is perhaps his most redundant. Of course Michael likes chaos. If his propensity for freewheeling impulsiveness wasn’t discernible from his charmingly erratic behaviour before and during our conversation, his wide, wild body of work would give the game away. Arguably the most exciting British filmmaker working today, Michael’s open mind and keen intellectual curiosity seeks restlessly for new ways to tell new stories, and lots of them, too: his 24 films were made over just nineteen years, and he always has a handful of others in varying stages of production.
Michael’s exploratory inclinations are buttressed by the frequent use of improvisation, which he employs for differing purposes, from the comic bickering in his popular series The Trip to recruiting non-professional actors to enact in real life the events of Afghan refugees for In This World. The director speaks with evident delight at the effect that mixing real and fictional elements has on a film. “I like the idea of taking characters and putting them in an environment that’s not controlled, where some people are actors and some aren’t. You know it’s a fiction, but you also know that there are other things going on. The characters aren’t on a set, they’re in the actual world. I remember seeing À Bout de Souffle for the first time, and as they’re walking down the Parisian streets you see someone look at the camera. I love that sort of stuff. It makes it real.”
Published in Oh Comely Issue Twenty-Four. Photograph by Toby Coulson.