Film: Nonsense and Nonsensibility

Director Michael Winterbottom makes a clever comedy out of an un-filmable 18th-century novel

Rob Brydon (left) and Steve Coogan are rival actors in Tristram Shandy.

TORONTO Somewhere, cameras should be rolling.

During one of those moments when seemingly every Toronto Film Festival actor and filmmaker are squeezed into the International Continental Hotel's paneled bar and adjacent courtyard restaurant, actors Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon grab two empty chairs, watch the surrounding chaos and let loose upon one another. It's a live-action repeat of their lead performances as rival actors in director Michael Winterbottom's film-within-a-film comedy, Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story. They badger and question each other mercilessly, creating an interview about interviewing. The laughter is non-stop, and while their improvisational foolery might not match the clever antics within Tristram Shandy the film, it's more than worthy of DVD bonus footage.

"I know that Michael (Winterbottom) does these film festivals all the time, but this is new to me," Brydon admits. "I've never been to Sundance, although my last film Mirrormask was there. But I'd like to go."

"Oh, I've been there," Coogan says, cutting off his co-star's sentence. "I've been asked to go to Sundance.

I'm in America a lot. You know, meetings, important meetings."

Brydon jumps back into the conversation with a wink and a grin.

"Yes, I heard your film Around the World in 80 Days was a huge hit for Hollywood," he says to Coogan, knowing full well that the film was a box-office turkey.

Based on Laurence Sterne's 1759 nine-volume novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, a classic of English literature considered by many to be un-filmable, Winterbottom and his longtime writer-partner, Frank Cottrell Boyce (they credit the script to the joint pseudonym Martin Hardy), have crafted an inspired comedy that follows a film crew working on an adaptation of Tristram Shandy. Steve Coogan, who worked with Winterbottom on 24 Hour Party People, plays Tristram and himself playing Tristram. Rob Brydon follows in the same manic footsteps, playing himself as well as Tristram's eccentric Uncle Toby, a retired soldier who re-creates his old battles on the grounds of Shandy Hall.

Off-the-page antics include Coogan's girlfriend, who visits the set with their newborn baby, Coogan's agent who's busy with scandal control and an attractive assistant director (Naomie Harris) who flirts with Coogan. In between the chaotic film-shoot antics are re-created scenes from Tristram Shandy involving powdered wigs, period wardrobe and battle re-enactments.

Supporting players Gillian Anderson, Jeremy Northam, Kelly Macdonald and Stephen Fry keep the bouncing blur between film and reality funny, irreverent and inspired.

From the doorway to the bar, Winterbottom watches the comic performance of his leads and smiles. It's proof that his casting, something he considers the most difficult part of filmmaking — after gathering up the necessary production money — was dead-on.

As funny as Coogan and Brydon are in person, they're even more hilarious in Winterbottom's comedy.

Taking a chair warmed up by his departing actors, Winterbottom smiles when teased about his non-stop work ethic. Blink and you'll swear he's just finished a new film.

Earlier in the year, Winterbottom was at the Sundance Film Festival holding an afternoon discussion at Park City, Utah's Elk's Lodge in support of 9 Songs, called the "the most sexually explicit movie yet by an established English-lingo director."

The following afternoon, at a hotel courtyard, Winterbottom described in detail his goal to make an artistic and honest film about an adult relationship ripe with sexual desire.

Nine months later, he's back working at another film festival. Winterbottom talks about the challenges of Tristram Shandy and why comparisons to other movies set in movies — Jean-Luc Godard's Contempt, Francois Truffaut's Day for Night — don't fit with Tristram Shandy.

"I don't understand directors who take years to start a project," Winterbottom says. "Granted, it's not always easy to get the financing, but once I have it, I'm ready for work. My films generally don't cost a lot of money, but we don't always make money either. We released 9 Songs ourselves, and I can tell you that it's hard work and we didn't make money. It's not funny accounting. It just costs money to make and release a movie."

Before long, the conversation heads to another Winterbottom film on the horizon, The Road to Guantanamo, about three British teenagers wrongfully imprisoned as terrorists in the infamous U.S.-operated Guantanamo Bay Prison.

A political drama based on a true story, The Road to Guantanamo is worlds apart from the zaniness of Tristram Shandy, or the hardcore romance of 9 Songs. (Guantanomo recently won a directing prize at the Berlin Film Festival.)

Winterbottom is the most unpredictable filmmaker working today. He's also the most prolific. He captured critical acclaim with his debut feature, Butterfly Kiss. Since then, he's tackled different subjects in different times and places: Welcome to Sarajevo, about the recent civil war in Yugoslavia, and In This World, a political drama much like The Road to Guantanamo, about Afghan refugees traveling to Europe.

Winterbottom has worked with classic literature before. He adapted Thomas Hardy twice, Jude, from Jude the Obscure, and The Claim, from The Mayor of Casterbridge.

The London-based Winterbottom, a seasoned veteran at just age 45, looked at the dashes and asterisks throughout Sterne's novel and felt the inspiration to turn it inside out. As one character in the film describes Tristram Shandy, it was "post-modern before there was modern."

Anything goes in the hilarious film, and the same thing can be said for Winterbottom's prolific, surprising and fantastic career.

The humanity of his storytelling is the artistic thread that connects all of Winterbottom's work. That, and his seasoned filmmaking technique. Watching Coogan and Brydon continue their antics for a nearby TV crew, the director admits that the challenge is to distinguish between when they are acting and when are they being real. If you can't tell, that means everyone has done their job well. ©

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