Michael Winterbottom has long been an important custodian of British culture. From decaying seaside resorts (I Want You) to the ‘Madchester’ rave scene of the 1980s and ’90s (24 Hour Party People), his films have documented important moments in this country’s cultural history.
That’s not changed for latest project On The Road, which details life as a touring band in 2017 – namely indie world-beaters Wolf Alice. This isn’t a straight up tour doc though. Sure, there’s gig footage, backstage banter and intimate clips of the gang getting off their mash post-show. But there’s a made-up element too. Nestled in this charming docudrama are two fictional members of the band’s crew, played by Leah Harvey and James McArdle, whose budding romance blossoms over the course of the film. It’s an original twist on a classic format, but one that works well under Winterbottom’s seasoned guidance.
We caught up with the director to find out how he turned a bunch of indie rebels into budding filmstars.
Out of all the bands in the world, why did you pick Wolf Alice to make a film about?
“‘Cos they’re the best band in the world! There were lots of little coincidences too. I like Angela Carter and they’re named after an Angela Carter short story. Theo used to live next door to me and he was in the same class at school as my daughter. Their manager used to work with the band Ash who were the starting point for this idea. Then we met them and they were really up for it.”
So you knew Theo quite well?
“It was only briefly and quite a while ago. But because of that I heard a little bit more about the band than I might have otherwise.”
Were they aware of your work?
“I think they pretended to be but they probably weren’t, their manager probably told them to just nod [laughs].”
How did they react to being filmed all of the time?
“From our point of view, we were just trying to keep out of their way. I like doing observational films, even when it’s with actors in fictional situations. I like to try and let the actors get on with it as much as possible. The idea was that you see the whole experience of living on the bus from their point of view. So we tended to stay with them. If Estelle was going into the dressing room with the band then we’d go with her. So there was always someone in between us and them really, either Joe or Estelle. We certainly didn’t ask the band to do anything. Everything that they do in the film is happening spontaneously and we just filmed it.”
On The Road is about 80% documentary and 20% fictional plot. Was it always that split?
“It wasn’t clear how it would work out. At the beginning, I thought maybe we’d always be in the dressing room or on the bus and then as they walk on stage we could fade to black and pick them up after again. There could have been no music in the film. But then having filmed 16 gigs over the three weeks, it felt like that would have been crazily perverse.”
24 Hour Party People is probably your most famous film. Is there anything about Wolf Alice that reminds you of those iconic Factory Records bands like Joy Division and Happy Mondays?
“They have that same organic quality. They formed when they were really young, they know each other really well and they have an intense intimacy. I think that’s probably true of those Factory bands and certainly true of Wolf Alice. On the other hand, that time was very chaotic and messy, whereas Wolf Alice are very experienced and hard-working and not at all messy.”
If you could pick any band to be in from all of history who would it be?
“Last week I went to Paris to meet Marianne Faithful and she was talking about her time in the ’60s. I’d say that that was a pretty lively period. I’m not sure which particular band but I think that there was a sense at that point with bands like the Stones that it was something new and fresh. There was that moment where everything was new and there was a whole liberation. You had to be as extreme as possible. So I think that era would have definitely been the most exciting time to be in a band.”
*This is an edited version of a video interview which you can watch in full above
On The Road hits UK cinemas October 6