TRISTRAM SHANDY: A COCK AND BULL STORY directed by Michael Winterbottom, written by Martin Hardy from the novel by Laurence Sterne, with Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon. An Odeon release. 91 minutes. Opens Friday (February 17). For venues and times, see Movie Listings. Rating: NNNN
Before Michael Winterbottom launched Tristram Shandy at the Toronto International Film Festival, he screened it for a much smaller crowd in a little town in Yorkshire.
There were no red carpets, celebrities or plush hotel suites crammed with eager journalists, but the director of 24 Hour Party People and Welcome To Sarajevo was still pretty nervous. Here he was in a museum devoted to Laurence Sterne, author of the novel most readers consider unfilmable. The audience included locals as well as Sterne experts from around the world.
"They loved it," says Winterbottom. "A lot of people want a movie to be exactly like the book. But Tristram is so anarchic, so unfilmable, that all of them seemed very relaxed about the idea that you had to mess around with it."
By "messing around," he's referring to the film's structure. Instead of depicting the problems of writing which Sterne does in much of the book Winterbottom and co-writer Frank Cottrell Boyce (both writing under the name Martin Hardy) concocted a film about the difficulties of making a film of the book.
This brilliant concept allows us to watch the actors including Steve Coogan as Tristram and Rob Brydon as his Uncle Toby play themselves as well as their characters. It's cinema vérité, complete with behind-the-scenes squabbles, budget talks with producers and that bizarre staple of contemporary journalism, the movie star interview.
Which makes talking to Winterbottom and his actors a somewhat surreal experience.
"I don't think what happens off-set in this film is anything out of the ordinary," says Winterbottom, talking at his characteristic breakneck speed.
"It's just like my life when I'm making a film. After shooting ends, you've got all these little things to attend to girlfriend, baby, financiers, journalists and then for a couple of minutes you focus on something important. I think the film captures that feeling pretty well."
Winterbottom knew that he wanted to pump up the off-screen rivalry between the two male leads. It helped that Coogan and Brydon were good friends.
"Steve and I worked a lot in TV in England, and the show I'm best known for Marion And Geoff was produced by Steve's company," explains Brydon. "Our relationship is sort of brotherly, where you get on very well but you also occasionally get on each other's nerves."
"Michael didn't need to encourage the rivalry; it was already there," adds Coogan. "We used what we knew were elements in our relationship and exploited them."
Coogan, who in the film is obsessed with the idea that he might appear shorter than Brydon (cue a wardrobe change to give Coogan taller shoes), also points out that he is, in fact, between 11/2 and 2 inches taller.
"It's true," he says, in a way that makes me wonder whether it is.
Winterbottom was open to improvisation, and the film is bookended by two hilarious unscripted passages. The first is about Brydon's nose. The final one, which concerns impressions of famous people, I'll leave as a surprise.
"That opening scene only came about because it was raining out and we felt like doing something," says Brydon. "I remember finishing it and thinking, "Hmm, that was pretty good.' I'm glad it got left in."
Winterbottom says he has plenty of material for the DVD extras, including footage of the actual crew shooting the fictional crew.
Coogan, however, is a bit nervous.
"They filmed a lot of stuff, and some of it is questionable," he says, perhaps adding another layer of fiction to the whole artistic experience of the movie.
"Some journalists probed a bit too much into my personal life. Asked me difficult questions. I guess as long as it's funny it was worth including."