how michael winterbottom and russell brand are fighting inequality

We speak with the activist director about 'The Emperor’s New Clothes,' his collaboration with Russell Brand.

by Francesca Dunn
21 April 2015, 12:50pm

Michael Winterbottom has a career spanning cult fiction and memorable documentary, period adaptations and sexual investigations, but can always be relied on for his unbeatable social commentary. He won hearts with 24 Hour Party People and Wonderland back in the late 90s/early 00s, shocked with the explicit 9 Songs and merged fact with fiction on The Road To Guantanamo before teaming up with Naomi Klein to cover the financial crisis with Shock Doctrine. He has since made us made us laugh as we embarked on The Trip and The Trip To Italy with his mates Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon and, most recently, became one of the first directors to shine the spotlight on Cara Delevingne in Face of an Angel. Without pausing for breath, Michael is now joining forces with self-proclaimed revolutionary Russell Brand on The Emperor's New Clothes; a shocking, hilarious and inspiring documentary that focuses on the inequality currently tearing a brutal divide down the center of society in London and across the globe.

Fresh from releasing our Activist issue, i-D speaks to the fast-talking, hard-hitting UK director to discuss working with Brand, Cara's future and whether hashtagging counts as activism.

This is your first documentary in six years… what about the topic appealed to you and how long had you been considering it?
The starting point was back when I was working on Shock Doctrine with Naomi Klein, so a little bit of that is referenced in the film. At the time, everyone felt that given the seriousness of the crisis of the unregulated free markets, there would be some change… but six years later nothing's changed, things have actually got worse. How did we all get persuaded that the financial crisis isn't really about bankers and free markets, but about public spending? I mean, in the 2010 election it somehow became all about how we've all spent too much on students! So that was the starting point. I had tried to work with Russell before on an adaptation of Bookywook but we never made the film, so when I bumped into him I thought it would be good for us to do something.

Obviously the film was made in order to promote change. A common reaction these days is to take to social media and hashtag the campaign - #heforshe #blacklivesmatter or in this case #thingscanchange. In your opinion, is that activism or just a trend?
That's a good question. Personally I don't do any social media, but obviously activism on any level is good and social media clearly has a big impact on what people feel about things. Whether you can radically change things just by clicking on a petition though, I'm not sure, but it's definitely better than not doing anything at all. With people like Russell, a lot of his activity is on social media but he's also out campaigning in the streets, and it's definitely important to do that as well. People notice you a lot more when you protest than if you just share something online.

So how can we actually make a change? By getting out there?
Yes. I hope that when people watch the film they feel like they can change things. I think when changes happen, they happen suddenly. The whole idea of greed and letting the rich get richer has run its course now and even people on the right know that everyone's sick of that and that people want a different, fairer society. One of the reasons I wanted to work with Russell is that he shows that local activism can have effects. You know, the New Era campaign where all of the residents campaigned against the being privatized and they won! Those things have a massive impact on people's lives. And for democracy to be real, it has to be on a local level, because those kinds of changes are the important changes.

There's always a lot of drama surrounding the fact that young people in particular aren't voting… but when so many of us feel completely unrepresented, should we vote for the lesser evil or not at all?
WelI personally, do vote. For me, despite all the problems, I'd rather vote Labour over Tory because although marginal, there is a difference between them. You look at Westminster though and it's a farce what goes on, so I understand if people don't want to vote for a mainstream party because they're really just tinkering with things. Anyway, real democracy isn't just voting once every five years, so it's certainly not a perfect system. I completely see Russell's point of view that we shouldn't vote at all and that the only way to really change things is by getting involved yourself.

And not just hashtagging?

Do you find it more challenging to make a documentary or fiction?

Well there are boring technical reasons… this one for example has got quite a lot of archive footage, and when you have a lot of archive a film it's a very frustrating experience. Working with Russell was fun though. Going around the city and running into banks was also fun. On the other hand, we spent a lot of time emailing all the bankers and all sorts of people requesting filmed interviews and obviously they kept saying no. Basically, with documentaries you can't get people to do what you want them to, and with fiction, there's a whole bunch of people wanting to be involved and to work together and it's a lot more collaborative.

What about one of your most recent collaborators, Cara D? As one of the first directors to have worked with her, do you think that she shows promise as a young actress?
Yes, she's great! When I filmed with her, a lot of the scenes appear very spontaneous and people might think that she's just being Cara, but they're actually all quite scripted and she retains that feel of spontaneity. The two actors she was working with most in the film were Daniel Brühl and Valerio Mastandrea. Valerio is like one of the top actors in Italy, and Daniel's a great actor and they both really loved working with her too. She's fantastic and I think she's going to have a great acting career.

Special screenings complete with live-streamed Q&A with Russell Brand will be in cinemas across the UK on Tuesday, April 21 (tickets available here), followed by official release in select cinemas on April 24.


Text Francesca Dunn

Russell Brand
michael winterbottom
the emporer's new clothes
the emperor's new clothes