With The Killer Inside Me, Michael Winterbottom has made one of cinema’s darkest noir thrillers. Paul Byrne drags him out of the shadows…

When The Killer Inside Me debuted as Sundance last January, one woman in the audience was so incensed over the graphic violence depicted that she stood up and shouted in protest, “How dare Sundance!”. By the time Michael Winterbottom’s faithful adaptation of Jim Thompson’s 1952 noir classic made it to the Berlin Film Festival the following month, the outrage had quietened down to scattered accusations of misogyny, and a few walkouts.


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Telling the tale of a 1950s West Texas deputy sheriff (played brilliantly by Casey Affleck) whose bipolarism sees him play the sweet country bumpkin out on the streets and the sick sado-masochist killer in the safe loving arms of the two women who love him – respectable girlfriend Amy (Kate Hudson) and prostitute Joyce (Jessica Alba). Both pay a heavy price for loving a man who reveals his dark, troubled side to shocking, and crushingly fatal, effect. In the book, one such attack refers to beating a woman’s face to ‘stew meat’.

An icon of pulp fiction, Jim Thompson died a lonely alcoholic in 1977, having never seen any of his novels make it to the big screen intact. The likes of 1972’s Steve McQueen-led The Getaway was disowned by director Sam Peckinpah, and earlier collaborations with Stanley Kubrick (on the likes of The Killers) left Thompson frustrated and broke. Later, Stephen Frears adapted The Grifters, but much of Thompson’s bitterness and brutality was sacrificed in the name of mainstream success.

The prolific English director Michael Winterbottom (Family, Jude, Welcome To Sarajevo, The Cock And Bull Story, A Mighty Heart, etc) bravely decided to change nothing about the novel Kubrick once described as “probably the most chilling and believable first-person story of a criminally warped mind I have ever encountered”. Hence the boos. And the walkouts. And the glowing reviews.
 

PAUL BYRNE: Thompson’s novel has been described as not so much hardboiled as cracked – was it difficult, remaining faithful to such a – literally – close to the bone book?

MICHAEL WINTERBOTTOM: Well, of course, in the bigger context, there might be some difficulty in regard to what people actually think about the film, but the process of actually making the film wasn’t that difficult. Once we decided we were going to stick to the book, when it came to trying to decide how to shoot a scene, it was a case of going back to the book and trying to find a way of doing that.
 

A brilliant and, at times, very harrowing film, as it should be. That outcry at Sundance, and beyond, you’ve said you were shocked by such reactions, which surprises me…

There are two elements to this that surprise me. Obviously, I wanted those moments to be shocking. What was surprising to me at Sundance was more the reaction of ‘this is horrible. I don’t want to watch this horrible scene. And I think it’s immoral’. That element was shocking. The idea that it’s immoral to show violence as something that is horrible, brutal and nasty, and somehow, the implication is that you can show this story about a man beating these women, about killing them, as long as it looks okay, as long as it’s not disgusting. And that to me would be more immoral, just perverse. It’s not more moral to show violence as being entertaining, or exciting, or acceptable. It’s more moral to show violence as being horrible.

Was it difficult to get famous faces such as Jessica Alba and Kate Hudson involved in such dark roles?

We were lucky with not only Casey, Jessica and Kate but also Bill Pullman, Ned Beatty, Elias Koteas – we had a great cast. It was partly because Jim Thompson is respected as a writer. I think in the case of Jessica and Kate and so on, probably also because Casey is a great actor. All the other actors, apart from Casey, came in for just two or three days. We had a very weird structure where every scene was nearly always Casey with just one other person, and that person kept changing.

With Jessica, she came in and said she really wanted to play Joyce. So, it wasn’t difficult. Maybe it was a difficult decision for her to make, that she wanted to play that kind of role, but from my point of view, it was easy.

Having sat through the likes of the Fantastic Four movies and the Fool’s Gold, along with many other Hudson/McConaughey travesties, a part of me secretly enjoyed their beatings onscreen.

[Laughs] Steady on. There are a lot of bad movies out there…

When it comes to Joe and Joanna Sixpack picking up a DVD with Alba and Hudson looking sultry on the cover, this will be akin to taking a puppy home and discovering it’s a gremlin…

Yeah, that would be good. It should be obvious that this is not a romantic comedy. It’s called The Killer Inside Me. But I do think that Jim Thompson, like all crime writers, he’s taken material that’s very dark – difficult, emotional material – but he’s writing it in a form that’s entertaining. He’s writing them for a market that wants to read them for fun. And the story is exciting, it’s very melodramatic. There are lots of things happening all the time, there’s lots of action, and Thompson keeps the story moving very fast. If the film could be like that, that would be great.

You play it down, but you’re incredibly prolific – you’ve had 11 films in the last 10 years. What’s the drive? A hatred of waiting around, and having endless meetings about financing, which seems to take up most filmmakers’ time?

Well, I think you’ve answered your own question. Who would want to have a finance meeting as opposed to making a film? When you’re making a film, when you’re working with an actor, or you’re scouting locations, all those things are interesting. It might be hard work, but it’s interesting.

It used to be that everyone made a lot more films. It was normal to make a film very regularly, whether you were a European independent filmmaker or an American studio filmmaker, everyone made a lot of films in the ’50s and ’60s. The sort of films I make are small, independent films, and we’re lucky if we’re shooting eight weeks. It’s not that hard to film eight weeks each year.

Finally, in Ireland, our film industry verges constantly on crap. It would be great if you could uproot some Irish heritage so we could claim you – and all your awards – as one of our own. We really need awards. The IFTAs will be giving gongs to skateboarding dogs soon…

That’s very flattering. Funnily enough, the first thing I worked on with my producer, Andrew Eaton, was Family, the Roddy Doyle adaptation, over in Dublin. So, maybe that’s enough to qualify me as part of the Irish film industry…

Words – Paul Byrne

The Killer Inside Me is now showing at Irish cinemas