Michael Winterbottom

LONDON – The exact moment of a director’s arrival is often hard to pinpoint, but in the case of Brit director Michael Winterbottom, it was an evening in May at Cannes last year, at the first screening of “Jude” in the Directors Fortnight.

“It was a turning point in our lives,” recalls producer Andrew Eaton, Winterbottom’s partner in Revolution Films. “In the space of 123 minutes, we went from being merely interesting to hot.” The pic got an emotional standing ovation from an audience packed with industryites, Polygram tied up the filmers on a three-year first-look deal within a matter of hours, and by the next day the movie was the buzz of the Croisette.

Winterbottom was hardly unknown at the time, but to his growing coterie of admirers in Europe and North America, it was beginning to look as if his career was destined to have more false climaxes than a Bruckner symphony. Following a couple of admired U.K. telepics that played some fests, he first drew attention in North America with the Roddy Doyle-scripted “Family” (1994), a 4×60 serial for the BBC that played to critical acclaim in its two-hour version at Telluride, Toronto and Chicago.

Hopes were high the following year for his first theatrical feature, “Butterfly Kiss,” a romantic black comedy about a lesbian serial killer (Amanda Plummer) and her roadside pickup (Saskia Reeves), shot on the anonymous highways of central England. The $700,000 pic drew critical raves in competition at Berlin in February, but proved a tough sell commercially.

Eaton admits that “Jude,” made for 10 times the cost of “Kiss,” has failed to set wickets alight in any major way, but he feels the movie will live on. Given its subject matter, adapted from Thomas Hardy’s last and bleakest novel, “I had some doubts about its commercial potential at the time,” he says, “but the reviews have been terrific, and Michael’s definitely arrived.”

Born in 1961, Winterbottom grew up in Blackburn, near the locations of “Butterfly Kiss,” and after earning an English degree at Oxford U., he entered the industry in the mid-’80s via the cutting rooms of Thames Television, then London’s weekday commercial broadcaster. A film buff with a special liking for Scandi cinema and the French New Wave, his small-screen debut was in 1988 with the twin docus “Ingmar Bergman: The Magic Lantern” and “Ingmar Bergman: The Director.” Over the next couple of years, he worked with writer Frank Cottrell Boyce on two young-adult dramas, “The Strangers” (1989) and “Forget About Me” (1990).

Winterbottom’s feel for character and bigscreen values was immediately apparent in “Forget About Me,” a likable comedy-romance about a pair of Scots celebrating New Year’s Eve in Hungary that, unlike most Brit TV movies, showed a feature film struggling to get out. Crisply shot on 16mm on a tiny budget, the 72-minute item starred the then-unknown Ewen Bremner (“Trainspotting”) and played a handful of European fests.

Even more of a de facto movie was “Under the Sun” (1992), also for Thames TV, a slick rites-of-passage yarn shot on Super-16 that followed a young woman (Kate Hardie) stranded in Spain on a round-the-world tour. Winterbottom’s upbeat style, mainstream European mix of character and emotions, and acute visual sense already distinguished him out from the pack of British small-screen directors.

Pressed at the time of “Butterfly Kiss” for themes common to his highly varied work, Winterbottom said, “Perhaps the material in which I’m most interested are stories which on the surface are unpromising, but which I feel I can make enjoyable (to) draw an audience into situations involving people they would normally wish to avoid.”

Many would say he pulled that off in spades with “Go Now” (1995), a BBC telefilm made between “Kiss” and “Jude” that redefined the disease-of-the-week genre with its lively, non-PC treatment of a man with multiple sclerosis (played by Robert Carlyle, “Trainspotting’s” Begbie). The pic has all of Winterbottom’s fast-developing trademarks, from a look best described as stylized realism to an almost prankish delight in subverting audience expectations.

Made for $1 million, “Go Now” was the first production of Revolution Films, set up in March ’94 when Eaton was still working at the Beeb. Winterbottom spent the latter half of last year sans Eaton, directing the Miramax/Channel 4 “Sarajevo,” about a reporter (Woody Harrelson) in the war-torn region. Reportedly very striking in its mix of styles, the pic is the subject of a tussle between Berlin and Cannes.

Though Winterbottom has yet to announce his next project, it looks likely it will reunite him with Eaton. On the duo’s desk are three scripts: Cottrell Boyce’s “The Mayor of Kingdom Come,” a Western set in the Rockies (but likely to be shot in Europe) inspired by Hardy’s novel “The Mayor of Casterbridge”; Nick Hornby’s “Fast Forward,” a romantic comedy set in contempo London; and “Beloved,” a noirish thriller by Irish writer Eoin McNamee.

“Miramax is keen to work with Michael again,” Eaton says, “but now we’ve both got young families, we’re more attracted to projects that can be shot in Europe, not far from home base.” In the meantime, Winterbottom cops an exec producer credit on Revolution’s “Resurrection Man,” set to roll this month under director Mark Evans.

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