Michael Winterbottom answers critics of 'The Killer Inside Me'

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Michael Winterbottom’s new film has been shocking audiences since its premiere at Sundance in January. Wally Hammond meets the prolific British director to talk – spoiler alert! – about how he handled its dark plot.

Michael Winterbottom’s ‘The Killer Inside Me’ is a faithful adaptation of Jim Thompson’s celebrated 1952 noir, a tale of corruption, deception and violence, told from the point of view of a young, small-town Texas deputy sheriff, Lou Ford (Casey Affleck). Assigned by his sheriff (Tom Bower), on the orders of a local bigwig (Ned Beatty), to run an attractive, assertive hooker (Jessica Alba) out of town, instead Lou embarks on a dangerous, mind-flipping relationship that leads him down a path of tempestuous sadomasochistic sex, complex double-dealing and – eventually – sociopathic murder.

Since Sundance and Berlin, your film has had a rough ride. You’ve been accused of irresponsibility, nihilism and misogyny. Do you feel you are guilty of any of those things?
‘No! At Sundance, a woman stood up and said, “This is disgusting and the festival is disgusting for showing this film.” I think the gist of what she was saying was that the violence was shocking and horrible and so the film was immoral.

‘I completely disagree with that. What would be immoral would be to show violence that wasn’t shocking, violence that seemed enjoyable or fun or attractive or simple or easy.

‘I think the area of misogyny is a difficult one. In the book, the victims are Joyce [Lou Ford’s prostitute girlfriend played by Alba] and Amy [his long-term lover played by Kate Hudson]. So, for me, that was a given. This is the material – and we were going to make it.’

The scene when Lou attacks Joyce goes on and on… I was thinking: Can I go on watching this film?
‘When you read the book, the killing is shocking. I thought it was important that the killing was shocking in the film. And one of the shocking things is that Lou chooses to punch her to death. It’s an intimate, slow way of killing someone. When it came to editing that, it seemed important to give it enough time for people to see the contradictions that are going on, between what she feels for him and what he, possibly, feels for her. But I was surprised at the strong reaction.’

Do you consider yourself a moral director?
‘Well, I don’t like films that are made to teach you lessons. It’s a difficult area because you can start talking a lot of pretentious nonsense if you are not careful. I think you should make films and you shouldn’t talk about films afterwards. It’s about being honest. Finding a way of being truthful.’

The sado-masochistic sex scenes are very important. When you were shooting with Jessica Alba and Kate Hudson, were there any considerations that held you back?
‘Lots of considerations! But, no: the book was written in 1952 and what is very surprising is its provocative approach to sex and violence. The classic noir thing – the girl-next-door versus the whore – is not used. Thompson creates a situation where the girl-next-door [Amy] is sexually active and the whore [Joyce] is totally in love with Lou and wants to get married. But if you’re asking: were there restrictions on what we could show in sex scenes, the answer is yes. There are rules for both Jessica and Kate. But the person who was most shy was Casey.’

The film is told from the point of view of a very unreliable witness.
‘When you read the book, you realise Thompson never gives you things as they are. It’s Lou who is telling the story. In the film, there are a number of things that happen off-screen that you are unaware of until later. As time goes on, you think: Okay, this guy’s perception of things is not necessarily accurate.’

It’s also complicated by the way we’re meant to sympathise with Lou. Isn’t there a weird complicity you’re setting up for the viewer?
‘Well, possibly. You’re seeing the pointlessness of the violence, its destructiveness, in that anyone in the story that connects to Lou – especially the women who love him – are the ones he wants to destroy. It was cathartic. It made me realise how – in tiny, domestic ways – people are self-destructive. We do crazy things that only hurt ourselves. Often, it’s your feelings about yourself that makes you angry towards others.’

How much does ‘The Killer Inside Me’ function as a love story, albeit a perverse one?
‘There is a love between Joyce and Lou – and between Amy and Lou even. Of course, Lou is in denial – certainly about Amy. One subtle change I suppose we might have made was to make it a little bit more explicit in the film about Joyce’s love for Lou and, to some extent, about Amy’s love for him. There is that extraordinary scene in the film, isn’t there, where despite everything, Joyce still seems to be in love with him?’

That’s a blackly ironic moment, close to gothic horror.
‘Exactly. That’s what I like about it. Because it’s not about psychological realism. Lou’s telling the story and everybody else is a character in his story. Therefore, they are only really there to the extent that they connect to him. The importance of Joyce and Amy to him is that they love him unconditionally, no matter what – and he kills them anyway.’

Read our review of ‘The Killer Inside Me

Author: Interview: Wally Hammond



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