Winterbottom's Cock and Bull

TORONTO-It's a little disconcerting to discover that any similarity between Michael Winterbottom's Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, an adaptation of an 18th-century novel, and 24 Hour Party People, a freeform comic biopic about British music maven Tony Wilson and the birth of the Manchester music scene, is purely intentional.

Winterbottom says that when he was making 24 Hour Party People, Laurence Sterne's The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman was one of his major inspirations. "That was in some ways sort of the model when we were doing 24 Hour," he notes. "The book is very playful, you know, and it's all about sort of breaking up the story and going off on digressions and the writer sort of telling you stuff."

Sitting in a bedroom at the Hotel InterContinental just before Tristram Shandy's world premiere at the 2005 Toronto International Film Festival, Winterbottom says he remembers getting hooked on the 1759 novel-a bawdy fictional autobiography of an English gentleman-when he was a teenager.

About 10 years ago, Winterbottom started trying to come up with a way to adapt the supposedly unadapatable novel, famous for breaking rules of storytelling that barely existed when it was written. "Every time it's about to tell you something, it sort of just goes off somewhere else and then you come back and you realize it's sort of gone beyond the point it was just telling you about."

Winterbottom says he decided the way to adapt the book was to take the same self-referential approach as the novel and make a movie about filming a book that can't be adapted, with cast members alternating between their 18th-century alter egos and their egotistical 21st-century selves.

In the film-opening Friday (February 24) in Vancouver-Steve Coogan, Winterbottom's lead Party person, plays a self-obsessed actor named Steve Coogan. He's also cast as both Tristram Shandy and Tristram's father, Walter. Fellow Party animal Rob Brydon plays both Rob Brydon, a petty actor aiming to steal the spotlight, and Tristram's uncle Toby.

"Steve's very good at playing versions of himself," Winterbottom explains.

In a separate interview with the Georgia Straight, Coogan admits he was worried about playing the character of Coogan and says he would never have taken the risk if not for his faith in Winterbottom. "I was very concerned. It scared me," Coogan recalls. "But if I was going to do that kind of thing and use bits of myself to help bring this novel to life, I thought if anyone could pull this off, it would be Michael Winterbottom."

Coogan notes that despite the movie's freewheeling feel, it wasn't heavily improvised. He says the structure was always in place, and so was the dialogue for actors playing variations of themselves.

Other cast members playing characters with their own names-as well as characters from the Shandy story-include Shirley Henderson (Harry Potter's Moaning Myrtle), Dylan Moran (Shaun of the Dead), and Gillian Anderson (The X Files).

Jeremy Northam (Gosford Park) is also in the film but does not play Jeremy Northam. He was cast in the role of Shandy's director, who is not named Michael Winterbottom but who is navigating all the chaos of helming a movie that's making everybody nervous.

Despite the film's conceit of weaving in and out of various realities, Winterbottom says there was no way he was ever going to play himself. "That would be my idea of hell," Winterbottom says. "Any sort of performance, I hate. It kind of sends a chill. Some of the people in the crew [of the film within a film] were our crew. Some people quite like the idea of performing. But for me it's like the last thing I would ever do."

That seems to be pretty much the only thing Winterbottom is nervous about on-screen. His previous film, 9 Songs, was one of the most hard-core movies ever made by a mainstream director, a love story told in sexual interludes. Depending on your perspective, Winterbottom either pushed the sexual boundaries of mainstream filmmaking or pushed the artistic boundaries of porn.

But Winterbottom claims he's not trying to push boundaries, just looking for challenges. "You try to find something interesting to do, something that's fun to do," he says. "With 9 Songs, I'd done a few films that were kind of love stories and relationships. And sex is a really important part of it; it's a distinct part of it. Why can't you include the sex?"

"What's unique about Michael, to me, is when I work with him I'm never entirely sure what's going on," Coogan says. "I'm never even quite sure what I'm doing. But I'm happy to be partially blind as to what the process is. The happiest experiences of my professional life are working with Michael on this film and the previous film."

Winterbottom adds: "It's always interesting doing something where you're not quite sure whether it's going to work or not; you're not quite sure whether it'll make sense, but you're sort of having a go so that you can see."

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