British filmmaker Michael Winterbottom says he has “no regrets” that the events depicted in his upcoming Sky series “This England,” which follows the COVID-19 response of outgoing U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government, did not include the turbulent period that led to Johnson’s resignation in July.
Speaking to Variety at the Sarajevo Film Festival, where the director will be giving a masterclass on Friday, Winterbottom said it was his intention from the start to end the six-part limited series after the first wave of the pandemic, a decision that didn’t change with the dramatic events that forced Johnson to step down.
“There are limitations in ending it there, but I still think that was the best idea,” the director said. “It was very fresh, so I think we got a lot of stuff right.”
Produced by Richard Brown’s Passenger (“True Detective,” “Catch-22”) and Winterbottom’s Revolution Films, “This England” is based on Johnson’s tumultuous first months as prime minister, with a behind-the-scenes account of his government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic interwoven with the stories of experts and scientists racing against time to find a vaccine; the doctors, nurses and care-home workers working on the frontline; and ordinary people whose lives were thrown into turmoil.
Sources told Variety last month that the highly anticipated drama wouldn’t be filming additional scenes to chronicle the chaotic final days of Johnson’s government, when the former prime minister was forced to resign following a wave of scandals and a revolt by lawmakers from his Conservative government.
Winterbottom insisted that the series is “not just about Boris,” though he admitted: “When Boris was clinging onto power, there was quite a bit of sensitivity about what we could say and couldn’t say about him.
“I think we give quite a sympathetic picture of Boris Johnson in many ways, and definitely a picture of Boris Johnson that is at odds with the picture painted by Dominic Cummings,” he continued. Cummings, who served as Johnson’s chief advisor, gave evidence against his former boss during a government inquiry into the notorious Partygate scandal and said it was his “duty to get rid” of the disgraced P.M.
Asked if Johnson would be a fan of the show, Winterbottom said: “I have no idea whether Boris Johnson is the sort of person who would watch it or not. I don’t think he would feel we’re being too unfair to him.” (“If you had to be played by someone, Sir Kenneth Branagh is a very good choice, so I’m sure he’s pretty flattered,” the director quipped. “There could have been worse choices.”)
On Thursday, Fremantle announced it had closed sales across 88 territories for the Sky original drama, with broadcast partners including Movistar+ (Spain), Viaplay (Nordics, Baltics, Poland and the Netherlands), Cosmote (Greece), OSN TV and OSN+ (MENA), M-Net (South Africa), BBC First (Australia) and TVNZ (New Zealand).
Sky will debut the series in the U.K., Ireland, Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Italy this autumn, with its U.K. launch on Sky Atlantic and streaming service NOW set for Sep. 21.
As he prepares for the release of a series that chronicles recent events in the U.K., Winterbottom recalled his experience filming his third feature, “Welcome to Sarajevo,” in the Bosnian capital nearly 30 years ago, at a time when memories of the city’s four-year siege were still fresh.
“With ‘Sarajevo,’ we were working on that script probably a year and a half” before filming commenced, he explained. “We got financed, but I was making another film. The idea of the script at the time was to do it about something that was happening now. It wasn’t like, ‘The war’s ended, let’s do a quick history of what happened.’ It was more like, ‘The war is going on, and we’re in the U.K. watching it on TV news but not doing anything.’ It felt like there was an opportunity to try and engage with it.”
A similar sense of urgency inspired “This England,” which began taking shape as the pandemic was still in full swing. “It was still going on. We were in lockdown when we were filming it,” Winterbottom said.
“In a sense, it just felt like this was a generational thing. People [compared it to] the Blitz in the U.K. All those clichés seemed to be quite true in a way: that people had felt like this was something that we were all in together. People were isolated in their houses, but we’re all in it together. We thought it would be interesting to try and engage with it.”
Winterbottom also spoke in Sarajevo about his forthcoming “Promised Land,” a thriller set during the lead-up to the 1948 partition of Palestine and the subsequent creation of the state of Israel. The film, which is currently in pre-production in Italy, is set to begin principal photography in October.
“We’ve had three or four serious efforts to make it over the years, and come quite close and not made it,” said the director. “With most projects, when you get quite close to making it, and then for whatever reason it doesn’t happen, you feel like it’s gone. But then every three or four years I get the [‘Promised Land’] script out again, and…it still feels like I want to make the film. It’s great that it’s happening.”
As for why it’s taken so long to bring his long-gestating drama to the screen, Winterbottom laughed. “I’m not going to speculate.”