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Indie films don't often find themselves getting the sequel treatment, but Michael Winterbottom's 2010 comedy The Trip - which features British comedy stars Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon riffing a mile a minute on everything from food to Michael Caine to Braveheart - is no typical indie. Quite successful in the UK and in the states, the film was a striking melange of Coogan's dry British humor, Brydon's more broad-strokes comedy, Winterbottom's taste for colliding high and low culture, set against a backdrop, of all things, of a foodie tour of northern England.
The gang's all back for The Trip To Italy, which is currently out in theaters. It's another comedy that shares some atmospheric space with food and travel porn, yet also becomes something entirely unexpected: a somewhat melancholy portrait of two middle-aged men coming to terms with their mortality (in strikingly different manners) against the backdrop of some of the world's most beautiful sights. I had the pleasure of speaking with Winterbottom recently about the various tones, styles and tastes that the new film employs.
Tribeca Film: The film combines artistic references to both pop culture figures as well as artists from the Western canon, like Byron and Shelley. Tell me about your interest in that juxtaposition.
Michael Winterbottom: Steve and Rob are extremely interested in pop culture anyway, so by definition you're going to get something in that area. Steve and Rob have a vast knowledge of popular culture, so that's something that they're naturally going to talk about - they're performers in that world themselves. It's a natural part of their conversations. It is interesting how you have that on one hand and Byron and Shelley on the other. I think the gap between Steve and Rob as ordinary guys, whose references are popular, traveling in the footsteps of Romantic heroes, is interesting. It's also interesting to get into the personal lives of those heroes - Shelley's personal life was a big mess, so to think about their family issues centuries ago, the idea that your work is only one part of your life that gets remembered, was interesting. So you have a gap between them and Steve and Rob on one hand, but there are also some similarities.
The locations have their own moods.
Tribeca Film: I did think that comparison was striking - the messy lives of those poets contrasted with the messy personal issues Steve and Rob deal with in the film. How did you approach balancing the personal issues Steve and Rob face in the film against devoting screen time to just letting them riff?
MW: Well, before The Trip we did a film called Tristram Shandy: A Cock And Bull story, which was trying to be a funny adaptation of a novel about 18th century life. So I felt like in that film and in The Trip I was interested in exploring Steve's ambition, how he was trying to challenge himself artistically, as opposed to Rob's satisfaction with getting the easy laugh and whatnot. I thought we could try to have a different starting point for the new film, and it's switched a bit, so it becomes about how Rob is having personal issues with his marriage and artistic ambitions while Steve is trying to get back to his family. Rob, after three years, has become restless with life with a toddler and is looking for a bit of adventure. There's a role reversal for the starting point of the film. We knew that we would have a section where Steve's son showed up and he would have a meeting with his son, and we knew we'd have a section where Rob met a girl. It's pretty basic. And then beyond that it's just about filling it in with subjects for them to discuss. Some of it was very melancholy - Steve was wondering about, is there more to life or is this all there is, while Rob is trying to be more ambitious. And they both shared the idea of getting older.
Tribeca Film: It's funny, the idea of the film being somewhat melancholy - I thought it was striking, for a comedy, how melancholy, in fact, much of the photography was. The images are suffused with this very melancholy gray light. Most comedies are so brightly lit. How did you arrive at that look as a counterpoint to the comedic tone of the film?
It was a record of a journey, the photography.
MW: Well, the look of the first film was really determined by the landscape of the region of England it was set in. With this film, it was very much about what time of day we were shooting - we had a lot of scenes that played out as dusk, as the light changes, and that naturally gives you a certain mood. Steve and Rob actually talk about the mood of the area at one point, when they're on the coast. The locations have their own moods. Often, we would say, okay, based upon this location, this is the right time of day to shoot this scene. And then the photography would try to capture the natural atmosphere. It was a record of a journey, the photography.
Tribeca Film: Speaking of the atmosphere, the environment - often Italy, the Italian countryside is portrayed in such a jovial, bright fashion, and this portrait is different in some respects. What was it about Italy that made it an appealing subject?
MW: I like Italy. I thought traveling around Italy, eating lots of Italian food would be good. Of course, it's not a truly Italian film, it's about two English people, we weren't trying to truly engage with what Italy is like. You know, in the beginning Rob plays some music that is related to Italy, but we also had that piece of Strauss, that German music repeating constantly. So I liked the idea of not necessarily pulling the most obvious pieces together.