Michael Winterbottom on Wolf Alice doc On the Road

Michael Winterbottom makes his first tour documentary (with a twist) with On the Road, which follows alt-rock group Wolf Alice playing in support of their acclaimed debut album. We spoke to the filmmaker about his unique fiction-nonfiction hybrid

Feature by Josh Slater-Williams | 02 Oct 2017

“Living on a bus is not to be recommended.”

We’re speaking to the ever prolific British director Michael Winterbottom about his new film, On the Road, in the decidedly calm confines of a publicity company’s meeting room, where the only wheel-based peril comes when we almost trip over an office chair on our way out at the end of the interview.

Despite a resume that includes various road movies (Butterfly Kiss, In This World, The Trip and its sequels) and films built around a clear love for music (24 Hour Party People, 9 Songs), On the Road is, somewhat surprisingly, Winterbottom’s first foray into the mode of the tour documentary. This is no ordinary rock doc, however.

On the one hand, On the Road features an intimate look at life, well, on the road for British alt-rock band Wolf Alice as they tour the UK in support of their 2015 debut album, My Love Is Cool. Maybe two-thirds of the film is a straightforward documentation of the tour and all that goes along with it: backstage musings, after show DJ sets, radio station obligations and what have you. But alongside this, Winterbottom has two actors (James McArdle and Leah Harvey) along for the ride as part of the tour, playing, respectively, Joe, a Glaswegian roadie, and Estelle, a member of the PR company. Their own backstage lives, including a burgeoning romance, are interlaced with the real world material captured by Winterbottom.

The result of this fiction/nonfiction hybrid, now being released to coincide with Wolf Alice’s second album, Visions of a Life, is a laidback film that’s enjoyable to luxuriate in. Winterbottom reportedly first developed an interest in a tour doc after speaking to the band Ash at a premiere for 24 Hour Party People, but the opportunity to make one only really came about years later when a rare six-month gap in his schedule arose.

“At one point we had a thing a few years ago,” he tells us of the idea lingering in his mind, “of maybe doing something on the bus, but just be on a bus and we’d go around festivals on a bus but never see the band play. But it’d all been quite vague. It always felt like there’s something about that world that’d be quite fun to look at and explore.”

Winterbottom’s never been one to shy away for experimentation in his projects, but he tells us he considers the fictional device of On the Road a crucial means of capturing some truth concerning the touring experience: “The thing I wanted to capture is some sense of what it would be like to be in that world yourself. That’s why we had the fictional element in it, in a way. What it’s like in the moments where you’re alone, where you’re missing your family? Or where you’ve met someone and you’re falling in love with them? If you wanna try and capture the mood of being on tour – the feeling of being on tour – you need to have that sort of personal element as well. And I didn’t think we’d get that from just filming the band and crew for a documentary.

“People are so aware of images now, these days,” he continues. “It’s very hard to get something you feel is natural and observatory. So, perversely, it felt like putting some fiction in there, putting some people who would be our point of view but we’d also be intimate with those people in a way we couldn’t be with the band, might capture something more realistic about what the experience is like.”

So, why Wolf Alice for this particular project?

“I like them as a band,” Winterbottom says. “To do a film like this, you have to like the band. That sort of classic British guitar band is the sort of music I’ve always listened to. So that was one of the reasons. We also wanted a young band on a bus, wanted a band that were touring Britain. We were in a sort of six-month gap so [the band] had to be touring Britain in that six months. It was a great moment to capture in a way because they had a big following, and in order to be on a bus, you have to have quite a decent-sized following.”

The nature of the band's relationship to their following also interested Winterbottom. “They were young enough and new enough in a way that the gap between them and their fans was almost non-existent, really,” he explains. And as a bonus, Wolf Alice's crowds are a bit more diverse than your typical indie rock gig. “[It] wasn't deliberate, but finding a band that had a female frontperson meant that the atmosphere in the gigs was probably more enjoyable because it was not quite so boys-y, like a band like that might normally be. And you had all these girls standing at the front, really identifying with Ellie [Rowsell, guitar and vocals]. They saw her expressing in her body what they felt, and wanted to be her – that connected.”

On that last note, we ask Winterbottom if he feels the nature of the film captures a unique portrait of Britain in a way, and the audiences of the cities visited. “I hope so,” he answers enthusiastically. “That was one of the things from the beginning that I hoped might be the case. You’d be seeing these venues, which in a sense could be anywhere, filled up with a couple thousand people... you’d imagine they'd be very similar, but definitely when you’re there... Belfast has a slightly different texture to Dublin, which has a different texture to Glasgow or Manchester, so in reality, it was an interesting way of seeing Britain. You’ve got the world passing by on the bus and then you’ve got these internal venues in the inner cities where the crowds did have a different flavour. If that did come out in the film, that’d be great.”

As a title, On the Road feels like it could well suit a retrospective of a good chunk of Winterbottom’s own filmography, given the aforementioned output concerning road movies: “When I started watching films, going out specifically to find films to watch, I loved watching road movies then,” he says. “I think road movies are almost the simplest shape for a film. You have a starting point, usually just one or two characters, and it’s about what happens to them along the way. I like that kind of form, it’s very simple. I think it’s the most basic form of narrative, really; you don’t have to worry too much about story. I like films where there’s not a huge amount of plot, where it’s more that you’re trying to capture what the world’s like, capture the world and condense it down. And a journey’s quite an easy way to start for that.”

The film also shares its name with a famous novel, but we posit to Winterbottom that, considering the band in question, he could have gone for another literary reference and called the doc The Company of Wolves.

“That would be cool,” he responds with a chuckle. “I hadn’t thought about that one. ‘Wolf Alice’ itself is from Angela Carter [from short story collection The Bloody Chamber]. I thought we could get away with the Kerouac [nod], but The Company of Wolves could have been good as well. You should have been around when we were coming up with the name.”

On the Road is released 6 Oct by Lorton Entertainment