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Michael Winterbottom: "That's how people are"
By David D'Arcy
March 13, 2006 - 7:57 AM PST

"If you like the book, you would like the idea of someone messing around with it."

Take a great work of literature and try to adapt it for the screen. You have a risk, more likely a certainty, that the film won't come close to measuring up to the original. If you bet on this expectation, you'll rarely lose. Name anything by Henry James or Ernest Hemingway or even recent fiction by Elmore Leonard, and you'll find the same problem.

Yet Tristram Shandy; A Cock and Bull Story by Michael Winterbottom, a loose adaptation of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Esq. by Laurence Sterne (1713-68), breaks the mold, not because it's rigorous, although it is in its own way, but because it takes such freedoms with the original. Out of that approach comes a film of wit with a lightness that doesn't cheapen Laurence Sterne's novel. It opens the book up, and, one might hope, brings readers back to it.

The novel is about Tristram Shandy telling his life story and within that story is the story of Tristram's father, Walter, planning the life of his son. From this spare décor - more spare than the Masterpiece Theater opulence now branded like Burberry for the British period drama - the camera pulls back from what looks like a countercultural adaptation to Michael Winterbottom's adaptation, a backstage comedy about the making of a film about the novel.

As the director, the Winterbottom stand-in, Jeremy Northam juggles two petty egos, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, two actors playing themselves and their roles, who steal the show that they have helped Winterbottom and Frank Cottrell Boyce write. Coogan's ego-needs tend toward women, especially a radiant assistant (Naomie Harris) who gets aroused when the films of Fassbinder are mentioned. I did note that this was a loose adaptation. Brydon favors the undermining of anything that would give credibility to Coogan's talent or stature, and he's determined to achieve that. Think of it as an edgier version of Bob Hope and Bing Crosby in "The Road to the 18th Century," and then add an ensemble of Brit film insiders telling in-jokes inside a country house near the set.

Just in case anyone is lost, and plenty of them probably are, Stephen Fry, as Parson Yorick, a stand-in for Sterne, reels you back in. He says matter-of-factly, "The theme of Tristram Shandy is quite simple. Life is chaotic, life is amorphous, and, no matter how hard you try, you can't actually put it into any kind of shape. Tristram is trying to write his life story, but it escapes him, because life is too full, too rich, to be captured by art. Tristram's father, Walter, tries to plan every aspect of Tristram's birth and childhood, but his plans go awry." That pretty much says it all.

It turns out that Tristram Shandy, the unfilmable novel, is not so unfilmable after all. Film can accommodate most of what this novel throws at you - the first-person voice, the voice commenting on that voice, the time shifts, the abrupt changes of subject and speaker. It helps that the mix of all these techniques is a device that we take for granted. Yet film struggles to get below the surface. Capturing the spirit of a novel does that, and getting below the surface often demands abandoning a literal rendering. Winterbottom's film is anything but that.

But make up your own mind. Read the book after you see the film.

Had anyone else tried to make a film of Tristram Shandy?

I don't think so, but I'm not sure.

You've adapted two other novels, right?

We did Jude, based on Jude the Obscure. And we took the story of The Mayor of Casterbridge and turned it into a film called The Claim, but it wasn't a straight adaptation. We were just using the story. For me, the thing about Tristram Shandy is that the book itself messes around with the story. The book tells you that it's Tristram Shandy trying to write his life story, but in fact it tells you everything but that. It deliberately keeps taking you away on any number of digressions. So, in a sense, it makes it quite easy to adapt, if you take it that that's the spirit of the book - whatever purports to be the real story is not the story you tell - then it's quite easy to find ways of telling it.

Does it also free you from having to tell everything in the book?

Yeah, completely. When Laurence Sterne wrote the book, he was in his 40s, he was a vicar in a village in Yorkshire, and he wrote two volumes of the book, and by the end of the first two volumes, Tristram Shandy hasn't even been born. He tried to get them published, but no one would publish them, so he paid to get them published himself. When it came out, it was a huge success. The very nature of what he's doing is that he says he's telling the story, but he deliberately avoids telling the story, and he goes out on endless digressions. It's in the very nature of how he writes that, in order to make a screenplay of it, you don't want to do a literal version of the book.

What was nice is that when we finished the film, we had a lot of help from a trust that runs a museum in the house where he lived, in this village. We showed the film in the village hall on a digital projector. A lot of people from the village came, but also Tristram Shandy experts from England and from Europe and Canada. They all loved it, because I think that if you liked the book, you wouldn't want a literal adaptation. It goes against the spirit of the book. The spirit of the book is to mess around and have fun, be anarchic, deliberately confound expectations. So whereas perhaps Dickens experts or Austen experts or Hardy experts would want it to be the book, the Sterne experts would also be very happy to find things that weren't in the book.

The film seems to have taken that stop-and-start interrupted discontinuity as the spirit of the book. But making a film itself is a structural set of digressions, with the hurry-up-and-wait syndrome in place, as actors and director wait until the lighting and everything else is in place. Idleness begets storytelling (which doesn't have to be focused on any particular subject) and storytelling begets discussion of the stories told. It's part of The Arabian Nights as much as it is part of Tristram Shandy.

Yeah - well, the last scene of the film is pretty much the last scene of the book. In the book you read for hundreds of pages and then he asks, "What is this all about? - it's a cock and bull story." And it stops, and that's it. I think generally in films I try to avoid stories that have a journey, and they have an arc, and characters learn something, and they have a traditional dramatic shape, because that seems to be so the opposite of life. In life, it's all random, everything happens when you least expect, things stop and start. People on the whole don't learn. Life isn't about starting out innocent and ending up wise, learning these lessons. You spend a lot of time repeating the same mistakes over and over again. The enjoyable thing about the book is that it forgives all those flaws, all those idiocies. It forgives them. So I hope that the film has the same tone of warmth and affection - that no matter how stupidly Steve behaves, that's how people are. But you don't have to condemn them for it.

Can you think of a contemporary novel that gives a comparable perspective, that is the Tristram Shandy of its time?

When Sterne is writing, it's the early stages of novel-writing, and novel-writing then is very much playing with how to write the story. You've got lots of first-person narration, you've got Fielding, you've got all sorts of epistolary novels. In a way, that was the mainstream of the novel at the time. It wasn't a self-conscious literary device. People were saying, We've got the form to tell stories, what are the ways of doing it? But I think of something like Dave Eggers's book, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. There are a lot of the same devices there. And he equally has a very warm story of family affection.

Why did you decide to make your film about the making of a movie?

Because so much of the book is about writing the book. It's pretty deadly to watch a film where a lot of people are spending a lot of time writing. The reason he used that in the book is so he can mess around with what he's actually writing, so that he talks a lot about the problems of writing so he can play with the narration. It seemed to me that it was the best parallel, the best equivalent. And also, there was this modern section, where you have a character called Steve Coogan and a character called Rob Brydon, and you're with the people in the cast and crew. I have to say that, although I've done period films, I find them quite tricky. It's not my most comfortable genre. I liked the fact that there was the possibility of the modern section as well. For me it was a big relief - it was a relief for Steve and Rob, too - to shoot the period stuff first, and then step outside it.

How did you shoot? Did you shoot this in sequence? Does the fragmented process of making any film lend itself to the spirit of the book?

I do try to shoot in sequence as much as possible. If you keep it simple, it generally does help. It is fragmented. In the perfect world of acting, you obviously want to know exactly what's in the next scene, you want to know what your emotional moment is, what the transition is from this scene to the next. That works in a crafted kind of story, but personally I prefer more the idea that actors just respond to that moment, so when we filmed, we'd film in one take - the whole scene - and then we'd do it again, and again. Each time they do it, they can try different things, they can say different things, they can react in different ways. It's not continuity that they have to repeat. And I like the fact that they don't have to this scene one way instead of another way. This way it's fresh. It corresponds more to how people behave. People don't behave in a continuous way. People change. One moment you're dealing with one thing. The next moment you're dealing with another. So you don't have to be consistent.

Did you require the cast to read the novel?

We sent the book to Steve and Rob, but we had no expectations that they would read it, and they didn't read it.

Did that matter?

I kind of think that it's not relevant either way. Would they be better if they'd read it? I think definitely not. I do think Naomie Harris read the book. So I didn't have a thing that I said, you mustn't read the book. But I don't think it's relevant. It's not about doing homework. It's more about working with Steve and Rob about how to find things to do in the film, as opposed to "Is this in the book?" or "What was the character's motivation?" We couldn't deal with the characters this way. The book is a game or a play. It doesn't really give you background material.

Did you rehearse at all? Was there any point to rehearsing?

I'm not a big fan of rehearsing. Steve and Rob were cast in this before we started writing, so we talked to them about stuff when we were writing. They would suggest things, and then we would go away and write bits and pieces. They were discussions rather than rehearsals. Steve would suggest a detail that we would then spend time on, like the heel of a shoe, and then we would come back to him with what we'd written.

This is hardly the prototype for screen adaptations of novels. Often the example that's given of the best adaptation of a novel, obviously along more conventional lines, is Great Expectations, which David Lean made in 1946. Clearly, Tristram Shandy is a very different kind of book and film. But if you did have an ideal example of an adaptation, what would it be?

Good question. [hesitates] The Big Sleep is a pretty good film. I don't think that when you watch a film you really think about that. I'm sure that there are quite a lot, but not because they're your favorite novels. In the end, you watch the film and you enjoy the film, whether it's based on a book or not. It doesn't really matter - great book, great film - because I don't think there's that much connection in the end. I think you can make great films out of great books, but not because they are great books. It just happens by chance. I don't think you choose a great book because it's going to make a great film. It's two separate things.

What about the notion that the lesser the book, the better the chance you have to make it into a good film?

It's true in the sense that, if you feel freer in relation to the book, maybe that's good. Because if you're putting stuff into the film because it's in the book, that's not a good enough reason. There's a million things that go into making a film - whether you get it from a book, or from your head, or from a magazine article. The source material is just one part.

The main story is Tristram trying to tell the story of his life, and the main story within that is Walter, his father, trying to plan his childhood. Now that's the core of the book, and then we had a difference of opinion, the writer and myself, about the direction the film should take, because I thought it should have a modern side to it, and he didn't. He was very keen to have a lot more of Uncle Toby and Widow Wadman. A lot of the talk about the script in the film came from discussions we had. So we extracted the script from scenes in the book. The elements in the script that are taken from the book are very close to the book, and that leaves you with questions about how to arrange the material.

Very early on, it was clear that, although there are masses of material in the book, [much of] it wasn't going to go into the film, so it became very very much about characters trying to get to the birth, or trying to get to each other, and that became the heart for us. And then it became how to extend ideas that were in the book, themes that were in the book, into the modern sections. So the idea was that Steve was playing Steve in the film, and Tristram and Walter, but they were all variations on the same character. So you could play around with some of the same emotions and ideas there as well.

Young people, as you know, don't read much, and they don't read 18th century classics, so this might just become the Tristram Shandy of their generation. How do you feel about that? Does it give you a greater sense of responsibility?

I don't think that many people were aware of Tristram Shandy anyway, so...

So it's better than nothing?

One thing that I've said is that we worked quite closely with the Shandy Trust, and their curator read the script, and talked to us about the book and so on, and those who have read the book, and know the book, whose lives are entangled with the book, seem genuinely happy about the version we made and about our approach to it. It's not the kind of book where, if it's changed from the original, it's confusing or distorting. It's more that, if you like the book, you would like the idea of someone messing around with it, and I think we're open that we're messing around with it. We're not saying this is the book. We're messing around with the book.

Did Sterne write multiple versions of the novel?

He wrote two volumes and then he extended beyond it. He became a celebrity. He became famous and very successful. I don't know whether he plannd to write other volumes or how many volumes he planned. He probably didn't have a shape to the novel. He just kind of kept writing. Then, since he was a vicar, he made sermons, and he issued the sermons under the title, "The Sermons of Yorick," so he was playing around with the idea of him being a character in the book. He played with exactly he same things that we were playing with, really.

What did you find out about the book from Sterne specialists, or about the specialists themselves?

Obviously the book is so open to experiments in structure and form that this project is very much about things that have happened between now and then. And when you go to the village where he wrote the book, and you go to his house, there is an amazing continuity. The houses are still the houses that people live in, the place is very much the place it was when Sterne was writing. The concerns of the novel - planning the birth of your baby, planning for his education, of course these are the same things that people are worried about now. The people whom we met were all big enthusiasts.

I think Sterne was about 45 when he wrote the book. He became rich from it and he spent a lot of time in London. Sterne died of TB about six years or seven after that, so he had a short period of fame. He fell in love with a younger woman. He really lived the celebrity life, transformed from this parson. He had his portrait commissioned. It was very much like what life is like for Steve now, enjoying the benefits of celebrity.

And there is always the element of self-parody with Sterne, looking at this life for the joke that it is.

It's a joke because he's trying to be funny. I'm not sure that Sterne ever intended to write the whole book. He only wrote two volumes, and then carried on. So there's a lack of pattern in the whole book, very deliberate, but partly a consequence of how it was written.

There's a Dogme look to your film, a lot of continuous shooting, continuous performance. Is the Dogme movement important to you?

No. I think the idea of Dogme is. I was on the jury in Cannes when the first two Dogme films came out. I think the idea of Dogme was a good publicity stunt, but it's kind of bullshit for filmmakers. If you have to have rules and you have to make films the same way, that's bullshit. But obviously they knew that as well. They did it as a publicity stunt. So I admire them for the way they handled that sort of stuff, and generated a lot of interest around it. And Breaking the Waves was a great film, but it was pre-Dogme.

I like to work in similar ways. I like hand-held, I like to work with available light, if possible. I like to shoot whole scenes. There obviously are a lot of connections. To me, when you're making a film, it's hard enough that you have to make the best version of that film. The idea that you have a book of rules that requires you to do something is obviously bullshit. If you're making a film, the simpler you make it, the better, the more fun it is. If you can make it with two people in the crew, that's nice. If you have a bigger crew, that's just more stuff going on. I always try to make it as simple as possible.

After seeing the film in Toronto, a studio executive who also liked it asked me if the film was too smart to make any money. I told him I hoped not.

I'd rather make a film that I like and people don't watch, than a film that I don't like and other people do watch.

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"If you like the book, you would like the idea of someone messing around with it."

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David D'Arcy
Besides reviewing art and film for National Public Radio, David D'Arcy has also written for the Art Newspaper, the Economist and other publications.

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