As part of a series of films celebrating architecture on film, the Barbican recently screened the underrated British science fiction film Code 46, which tells a tale of forbidden love in a city that is futuristic and yet very familiar at the same time. Just before he went on stage to do a Q&A following the screening, Michael Winterbottom discussed some of the themes and ideas raised by the film with Alex Fitch.
Alex Fitch: With Code 46, did you try to capture a particular architectural aesthetic that hadn’t been seen on film for a while?
Michael Winterbottom: No. When we were thinking of making the film it was much more about what the characters were doing, what the society was like. So it wasn’t so much about trying to find a look for the buildings or a style of architecture, it was about the function of the buildings and how the city was organised. It was to do with the relationship between the city and what was outside the city, between which spaces were safe and which weren’t, between the bureaucratic controls and complete lawlessness. It was more to do with those kind of ideas, which connect the story and the characters, than it was to do with looking for a particular style.
AF: One thing that’s very interesting about the style of the film – in the programme notes it’s described as ‘an architectural collage’ – is that you mix shots of the Jubilee Line in London with shots of Shanghai and various other cities. When you set a film in the future, predicting what things will look like is very problematic, but making a city that’s ‘all cities’ gives it a kind of timelessness.
MW: Yeah. The idea was that we’re in the future, but we’re not that far in the future, so we weren’t trying to imagine a society that had no connections to today’s society. Between starting the idea of making Code 46 and actually filming it, we did In This World, which is a film about refugees, and to a certain extent, some of the ideas about the landscape and the organisation of the story came from working on that. Also, a huge percentage of buildings in London were there 50 years ago, so if you’re talking about a film set 50 years in the future, a large number of buildings from now would still be there. There’s more continuity than there is change in that respect. I wanted it to be very familiar, very recognisable, very real, and not a created world on a stage or on a set, but at the same time feel like you couldn’t quite pin down that it was like any particular kind of place that exists right now. That was the criterion: to find things that were interesting and made sense of the story and gave it a context, but were one step away from the real.
AF:With that sort of retro-futurism, you seem to be following in the footsteps of Ridley Scott somewhat, by retrofitting buildings and predicting things that almost seem old the first time you see them in the film.
MW: Yeah, to a certain extent, although this is different from Blade Runner. I think Ridley Scott’s a brilliant filmmaker but he was looking for an image and a style and we weren’t. We had the experience of doing In This World with the refugees that we had to get papers for – it was incredibly hard to get them across any border. So, the idea is that although things are difficult, and the environment is harsh, and the ozone layer is depleted so people don’t want to go out in the daylight, and it is very crowded, the city kind of functions. Outside, you have a chaotic desert, and all the outsiders are trying to get into a city, so instead of having the difference between different countries, you have just ‘the city’ and ‘outside the city’ replicated in lots of different places. So it was about looking for places that made sense of that idea and the specifics of the story, rather than looking for a retro style. What was brilliant about Shanghai as the core of the city that’s in the film is that you have a whole section that’s only really gone up in the last 15 years with a determined effort to look towards the future and then you have bits of Shanghai that look like they’ve been there for a century and haven’t changed. You have that density of population and therefore the sense of how a society organises itself when it’s packed together – Shanghai is an incredibly crowded city, incredibly full of energy, incredibly full of work; it had the sort of energy you would have if you were in the city that we were imagining.
AF: What was the genesis of the project?
MW: I’ve worked with (writer) Frank Cottrell Boyce quite a few times and with Andrew Eaton, the producer. Andrew, Frank and I were talking about things to do next and I liked the idea of doing a simple love story set in the future. The starting point was that it would be very simple and have a kind of mythic connection or fairy tale feel to it. By being in the future, you would strip out the specific reality of this year and this time and have something more generic, more universal optimistically, or more detached from a social context. That was the original idea but when it came to developing it, it became weirdly more than we were expecting. By the time we sent the script to actors, the actors were talking about what they thought were the politics of the script in relation to the future world, what it was saying about ‘the state’ that they were living in. They took it in a much more overtly political or social way than they would have done if it had been set in a real city. It was almost the fact that it was fictional that made them question ‘is that good or bad?’ – the fact that some people had freedom to move and others didn’t, for instance, which, in a film set today, everyone would accept as ‘that’s how it is’.
AF: I think it’s interesting that a lot of science fiction films set in modern cities seem to have unreliable narrators. Both the two lead characters in this film end up with their memories wiped because they’ve broken the genetic laws and that follows in the footsteps of the replicants in Blade Runner, the multiple motives of Lemmy Caution in Alphaville, Jonathan Pryce’s character in Brazil… Do you think that’s something to do with the multi-faceted nature of cities?
MW: Maybe. I hadn’t thought of it like that. The starting point was a simple love story and then transgressive love. Then you take the Oedipal myth and genetics becoming an issue, which connects the idea of what’s taboo and what’s not taboo. So by introducing an element of not knowing who your parents are, that creates a place where you could break a taboo without being aware of it. At the time, and still now, there was a lot of talk of genetics and artificial reproduction, and how that connects to issues of morality. These are issues that people haven’t had to face before, so it was interesting from that point of view, but as we were making the film it was more about the story rather than any social issue. All the elements, like climate change or population growth or bureaucratic controls, connect to important things going on in the world today, but we weren’t trying to make a film about genetics, it’s more that it just connects into our story.
AF: It’s interesting to see Code 46 again in light of the other films you’ve made recently. In Code 46, Samantha Morton’s character has to be shown the photographs in her album to remind her of what happened, because those memories have been taken from her. In 24 Hour Party People, when the fictional version of the narrator meets his real self, he says, ‘It didn’t happen like that!’ And in A Cock and Bull Story, you have the film within a film and the actors playing versions of themselves. Is that a theme you’ve become very interested in?
MW: It’s an area that’s interesting to work in. In one way, In This World was creating a fictional journey to bring over two refugees, but they were nevertheless real refugees, so we had to get real paperwork to get them across and deal with real bureaucracy on how to get that paperwork. And finally, when we took them back, one of them came back over and became a real refugee! So it’s fun if those areas between the story you’re telling, the world where they are set and the world where you are making them, are integral and complex and have different sorts of connections with reality. It’s done in a serious way in In This World, or in a comic way in 24 Hour Party People, but it’s still enjoyable to play in that area. I like to film on location, and the reason we shot Code 46 that way rather than in a studio is to place characters in real situations and see what happens.
AF: It’s almost like you’re bringing a degree of psycho-geography to the filmmaking process by putting actors in interesting locations.
MW: Completely! You hope the places you take them to aren’t just photogenic or just some kind of background, but if you get the story right you feel you understand the characters because of the world that they’re living in, and you understand a little bit more about the world because of the characters. I remember when I started watching films as a teenager, watching something like Breathless, it’s so great when you see the characters walking down the streets of Paris because on one level you can see people looking into the camera as they walk by, and you’ve got two main actors who don’t, so you can tell the other people aren’t really in the film, they just happen to be there. That makes it more real in a way because it’s really the streets of Paris, and those people are really walking there! It also makes it more fictional because it makes you very aware of the camera; there are your actors pretending the camera isn’t there, and there’s that guy looking at the camera who knows it is there. So in a way it both intensifies the fictional and the real aspects of the film.
AF: Regarding the creation of the futuristic world, I remember when Minority Report came out, Spielberg said something along the lines of, ‘Oh yes, we hired all these scientists to come up with things that would be coming true shortly’, but it all seems absolutely ridiculous. By contrast, your film is spot on with video iPods, etc.
MW: Exactly! Minority Report came out while we were in preparation for ours. At one point, as a joke, we were going to do this big pseudo-scientific document about all the science that we’d drawn on to make our film because Minority Report was completely based on that ludicrous gadget/gimmick thing. For us, it was a question of looking at the way societies work now in different places, taking some of the issues like genetics and refugees and just move one step away from that. In the opposite sort of film, it’s great to watch something like Alphaville and just pan across a random skyline of Paris and that is the future. It’s as realistic a vision of the future as you’re going to get.
The only leap in a science fiction direction was that Tim Robbins’s character – by having this empathy virus – could sense what people were thinking, which I think is probably quite a long time off! Apart from that, it really was quite a retro story, quite a classic, conventional story about a man who goes away, meets a girl and falls madly in love with her. The initial idea for the love story was that you cannot explain why someone falls in love with this person and not that person.
AF: It’s interesting that at the end of the film the other characters try to explain away the love affair by saying, ‘it’s a side effect of his empathy virus’.
MW: It is, isn’t it? A side effect of being empathic! The idea at the end was that it’s about two people who can’t be together. They want to be together, but the reality of their worlds is that they’re opposites and they become victims of the transgression, and as usual as in today’s society, the man’s okay!
AF: Do you have a particular interest in science fiction or did it just feel like the right world for this story?
MW: I occasionally see science fiction films and read science fiction books, but I’m not a science fiction fan in the sense of reading or watching a lot of it. It wasn’t even to do with dealing with issues, it was more to do with it being in a fictional world. The futuristic world allowed us to simplify the story. That was the initial impulse, that it would be nice to do a story that was very, very simple: man meets girl, falls in love, they can’t be together and they end up apart. It was the idea of the fictionality of it that was appealing, and as I said, weirdly, as you go on, that fictionality can get lost in the world that you create. You have the extra problem with science fiction, ‘what are we supposed to understand about this world?’, which is a given when you do a film set now.
Interview by Alex Fitch