Sketches of Spain: Michael Winterbottom reunites with Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon for third ‘Trip’
“[Lunch] is a very social thing,” says Michael Winterbottom, the director of the Trip series that follows beloved British comedians Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon as they travel around picturesque regions of Europe, indulge in sumptuous meals, do jaw-dropping and hilariously accurate impressions of the likes of Michael Caine and Al Pacino, and most importantly, muse over life, love, art and personal insecurities. “[Lunch] is a place where you can talk about anything,” Winterbottom continues, joining me on an afternoon during the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival where The Trip to Spain made its initial bow.
The ceremonial, intimate aspect of lunch is the backbone of his Trip ventures, conceived both as an episodic series in the U.K. and as feature-length films, cut down from the series to its essentials. (Winterbottom confesses the dual editing is a tricky process.) In its early days when he first embraced the idea of the show, Winterbottom (who says he’s “quite into food”) thought to himself, “Great! I’ll get to go to all these restaurants.” And he enjoyed the experience of observing two of the U.K.’s most celebrated comedians have lunch and randomly ramble on about anything. But he asserts that both food and the striking landscapes take an immediate backseat when the actors (who play versions of themselves throughout) start bickering and talking about their personal lives.
Previously with titles like 24 Hour Party People, Jude, The Killer Inside Me and The Look of Love, Winterbottom has tackled biographies, crime tales, period dramas and documentaries with the same vigor. But the starting point for all has been more or less the same. For Winterbottom, who’s currently researching a film about Syria, the overall principle of taking on a project lies in the answer to "Am I interested in doing it?" “I start with the idea and then gradually work on it until we get the money [to do it]. The starting point can be quite specific, like ‘Here's a book, I kind of like this book,’ or it could be like ‘Let's do something about refugees.’”
The Trip to Spain, opening on August 11 from IFC Films, is the series’ third chapter within the diverse filmmaker’s filmography. The first Trip takes place around northern England and covers regions he is from and thus personally familiar with. In the second one, The Trip to Italy, the crew takes a road trip around Tuscany and the Amalfi Coast, among other places. And now, they make the leap to Spain, sampling some of the best food and scenery the beautiful European country has to offer, while Coogan and Brydon face certain (semi-fictionalized) turns their careers have taken. In this chapter, Coogan is still high on his success and consequent double Oscar nomination for Philomena (which he wrote and starred in). To his road buddy’s distaste, he often finds ways to drop this achievement into the conversation. And to our delight, that only enriches the enormously entertaining one-upmanship between the actors, perhaps the most essential recurring gag throughout the series. But while he still basks in the glory of his 2013 picture, certain things go off the rails in Coogan’s life. Leaving him behind, his agent departs for a different agency (an assistant will be taking on the duties) and his script is said to need the polish of an “up-and-coming writer.” (“But I’ve up and come,” Coogan protests.) Meanwhile, Brydon’s professional stock seems to rise in subtle ways. All that makes for a scrumptious metaphor, set against the backdrop of the tales of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.
Spain was an instinctive location in which to set the third film, as it was the next country Winterbottom had most frequently traveled around. So he already had some ideas about how to weave its culture into the story. “The whole Don Quixote and Sancho Panza thing seemed like a good starting point. Don Quixote is the person who goes around mistaking everything, mistaking windmills for giants, mistaking inns for castles. Steve has these idealistic ambitions, but he's aware of the gap between [ambitions] and the more basic human things—that gap between what you aspire to be and what you actually do. So [while planning an itinerary], you have vague ideas like that. [The Trip to Spain] was the one we did the most traveling around on routes that we ended up not using. We took quite a lot of different routes for research. It's a nice way of working. We probably could have gone to regions that gave us more really good restaurants than some of the regions we traveled through, but the journey [itself] is as much a part of it as the food, so it's a balance.”
The first time Winterbottom worked with Coogan was in 2002 on 24 Hour Party People, a vérité-style comedy and biography of the legendary Factory Records founder Tony Wilson. It was thanks to that project, which Brydon also had a part in, albeit small, that the two got to know each other. “When we were working on 24 Hour Party People, we thought about Tristram Shandy as a model for how to tell the story, as it's about a guy trying to tell the story of his life and Wilson was a little bit like that. So, trying to think of something else to do after, we said, ‘Okay, well, let's make Tristram Shandy.’ And that's when I spent more time with Rob. Steve and Rob [already] knew each other because Steve had given Rob his first break. Rob had sent in a tape to Steve's company and then made it into a TV series through Steve's company. But they weren't really friends. They knew each other, but they didn't see each other socially.”
The bits of Tristram Shandy Winterbottom enjoyed the most were when Coogan and Brydon where sitting around and talking about any subject. From that project spawned the idea of doing a road movie. And over the years, they built their relationship and friendship through the Trip movies. “[Steve and Rob] obviously got to know each other better. Their relationship in The Trip is a version of their real relationship,” Winterbottom reveals. “Rob is quite domestic and content. Steve is quite restless and ambitious and complicated. They are now more friends than they were at the beginning. Although, at the end [of each series], I think they go off and ditch each other for quite a long time. It's not as though they're best mates, obviously. The idea is that they have a bit of rivalry, so they won't be too friendly with each other. But I would say, even as you talk to the crew who made the film, rather than to Steve and Rob, they would say they're quite similar off-set to on-set.”
And of course, the duo’s personality traits and their faint competition show in their impersonation dueling, too. Winterbottom remembers how both actors used to be a bit on the defense about doing impressions at first. But it’s grown to be an organic part of the series in time. “It wasn't like I invented the idea of impressions. Rob does impressions a lot for fun. But he was nervous that he was just becoming a mad idiot, like I was forcing him to do them too much. But what normally happens is, Rob has to poke Steve. Rob starts, and then Steve will join in to show he's better. He doesn't usually start out.”
While he doesn’t adhere to a strict script for theTrip series, Winterbottom follows clear and fixed outlines that inform the structure and substance of each film. The outlines on average are about 60 pages and cover where they would go, what would happen, whom they would meet, and what would be going on in the actors’ careers and so on. And then there would be suggestions around each course of meal and what they would talk about while eating. “It gives them a starting point.” He continues, “The first The Trip was an exaggerated version of what we've been talking about, this sort of [Coogan’s] restlessness versus [Brydon’s] contentment. In the second one, we tried to change it around just to make Rob a bit more ‘He wants to have an adventure’ to be a bit more like Steve. [We made] Steve be a bit more like ‘He wants to get in touch with his family.’ Just to give them a different dynamic. This one, in my head anyway, might have gone back more to how the first one was. Steve's got his Oscar nominations, he's like ‘I’ll try to do more stuff and bigger stuff’ and he's got the whole thing of his relationship, and Rob is more like, he's got a new baby and definitely wants to be with his children at home.”
When asked about the challenges of combining fiction and vérité and working with a loose script on top of that, Winterbottom declares, “It's more fun without the script. What you're trying to do is get [the actors] to behave naturally, so you don't want to have a script, because you want them to sort of deliver that. Even if it's a scripted fictional film, you still want the world around them to be as real as possible. Then, obviously, you want them to respond to that world as much as possible, which means being free to respond to what's going on right now, rather than what's in the script. In general, improvisation is more fun. It's not to say better. In [some of my] other films, you're moved backwards and forwards between fiction and documentary, or between real events and imaginary events, or real characters and imaginary characters, and that's where a lot of the [interesting] stories are.” He insinuates that in today’s world our own lives have residue of similar divides, too. “I think these days with social media everyone's very aware of how you can strut [or manipulate] an image of yourself or what you're doing. Maybe that feeds into how people watch films as well.”
Despite its being a comedy with plenty of laugh-out-loud moments, Winterbottom admits to the Trip series’ overarching sadness and melancholic edge. To him, the idea of the first film was always about differentiating the lives of Brydon and Coogan, where the former would fall back into the comfortable bosom of his family and the latter would be facing a cold, empty flat by himself. In the second film, that became an even more conscious concern. “Doesn’t everyone have ambitions in both ways?” he wonders. “Part of you wants to have a nice domestic life, wants to be at home with your kids and your wife and so on. And you want to be comfortable and to relax and enjoy life. And then part of you wants to be out there to try to change things and be ambitious and push yourself and try new things. [So they] represent two aspects of an internal conflict [in most people] about how to live your life. Maybe as you get older, you feel that more and more. It’s inevitable. No one's always going to be happy.”