In 2015 filmmaker Michael Winterbottom (24 Hour Party People, The Trip) followed North London rock band Wolf Alice as they toured their debut My Love Is Cool. As they prepare to release their second record Visions of a Life, Winterbottom’s interesting take on the rockumentary — a weaving of fact and fiction —couldn’t come at a better time. We spoke to the director ahead of On the Road’s October release.
Before I ask you about the theme and style of the film, can you tell us briefly how this project came about?
We’d been talking about trying to do a film about a band on tour for a while. We did a film ages ago called 24 Hour Party People, which we showed in New York, and after the show we met the band Ash. They were telling us about their life then, which was endless touring; they hadn’t been home for months and every night was a new city, and in a way that world of the travelling circus had something quite romantic but exhausting about it. So since then we’ve been thinking about different ways to do it and suddenly we had a gap of about six months so we thought OK let’s try and make this film.
Why did you choose Wolf Alice as your subject? With their new record about to drop and some of their biggest ever shows booked it seems like you’ve caught them at a very significant moment. It may have been a risk to some extent?
I think they’re a great band. The start of it wasn’t “I love Wolf Alice, shall we try to make a film about them?”, but I wanted to make a film about a band on tour, I wanted them to be young, I wanted them to be a good live band, I wanted a band that were touring the UK, I wanted a band that were the right size to be living on the old-fashioned style tour bus. Then there were a whole series of coincidences: we were asking around with people we’d worked with before about bands and my daughter had been at school with Theo, the bass player; we met up with their manager Tav who used to manage Ash, who were the band that originally sparked the idea; Wolf Alice are named an Angela Carter short story, and I’d worked on a documentary about Angela Carter years ago when I first started. There were just lots of little coincidences, so we met them. I also think it was good that Ellie fronts them, having a woman front them in a style of music that generally tends to be a bit of boys’ noise. But when we met them they were up from it and I love their music so they were the best choice.
The film is an interesting weave of fiction and documentary styles; in a way though, given your interest in music in previous work like 24 Hour Party People and 9 Songs, and your play with fact and fiction in The Trip, this film seems like a natural meeting of the two interests. What lessons did you learn from these two elements of your previous work that informed the making of On the Road?
With 24 Hour Party People we were using a lot of archive and dropping our actors back into it and recreating gigs which was fun, but if you’re filming real bands it’s a lot easier. In terms of The Trip etc., I like road movies with a simple framework, you start here and end there, meeting people on the way and seeing the places they go to. I’ve done a lot of road moves and being on tour is the extreme version of that.
Was it difficult getting the balance right?
The fiction bit for me was just to get a personal point of view of the tour rather than just being a camera filming everyone equally, and to get a sort of intimacy. One part of that is when you’re by yourself or when you’re making friends with someone or falling in love, and I wanted those intimate moments as well as all the public performances and so on. We asked Leah and James who were playing the two characters to be in character the whole time, and to be a part of the crew as much as possible, so that we could film them as much a part of that group as we could but with the advantage that if we wanted to have Estelle lying in her bunk bed by herself or thinking about things, or we wanted to see the two of them in bed together we could do.
How did you develop the characters of Estelle and Joe and their blooming relationship?
Well, there’s not a huge amount about them; I didn’t want to have a big backstory. As I said, I wanted the sense of intimacy to capsulate if you were on the bus what it would feel like, which is part of being in a band. As we well as being on tour you can also feel apart from your family and friends or you can fall in love etc. So it was more to do with those emotions or that atmosphere and mood rather than a story. And also, after they leave each other at the end of it all and it’s quite open, it’s like when we go away and make films you have two month or whatever where it’s all-consuming and it’s your whole life, and then you walk off-set and you’re back in the normal world and there’s a kind a weird sense of break between the two.
Throughout the film, Estelle herself picks up the guitar and has an impressive talent, often playing alone or to other members of the touring crew. What were you trying to show in these moments?
When we were casting one of these things we asked was if they could play; a lot of people in the band’s real crew could play really well, that would be something that would naturally draw you into that world, and Leah does play a lot and loves writing songs. But for me she’s a little bit like the audience, lots of teenage girls who are there to see Ellie, who want to be like Ellie, felt she expressed something about their life. And I thought Estelle, because she’s just starting out, is a little bit in that space as well. So her performing in the film was natural – she would have done that anyway – but she in a way would love to be in the band, she would love to be Ellie in a way.
There’s a hilarious scene when the band is being interviewed on the Radio, and the host is overly friendly when their live and then practically ignores them when they’re not. I have to ask whether this was genuine or not…
We didn’t interfere at all! It kind of went on longer, and was funnier than that, but the guy just completely blanked them. What I found funny about that in general was that Wolf Alice were selling out all of their venues on the tour but they were still having to do the likes of Radio Norfolk.
Touring can be exhausting and frustrating and repetitive, which is something you try to depict in the film. Given that the band was genuinely on tour as you filmed them, were there moments you found yourself having to call it a day and give the band some space?
For the start we tried to be as discreet as possible and not in the their face, we were very distant and stayed way out of their way. Partly because we were nervous about not wanting to create a problematic situation, and partly because Estelle —who was the main point of view for us— didn’t know them either, so it felt natural that she would only see them from a distance. And then gradually as the tour went on she got more relaxed with the band and they got more relaxed with her, so then we went in and they were more relaxed with us as well. We would never ask them “Oh can you just do that again”, it was just like “You do what you want to do and we’ll stay in the corner”.
Finally, what is it you enjoy about merging your interests of music and film?
I think it’s different with every film. With 24 Hour Party People what was really attractive to me was the attitude of Factory Records, the anarchic attitude – do whatever you want, if something happens great, if it doesn’t never mind. The fact that so much good music came out of all that chaos seemed like a great idea of how you should be. With the case of the Wolf Alice film it was more about what it must be like to live n that world, to live inside that bus looking out. Obviously, they have the excitement each night that there’s thousands of people that love their music, and when you’ve been writing music in your bedroom to get to that point must be amazing, that kind of feedback from people that love what you’re doing and feel like you’re expressing something important to them, but it’s also an incredibly hard life as well.
On the Road is released in UK cinemas 6 October 2017.