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Watch: Michael Winterbottom’s ‘On the Road’ Mixes Documentary, Fictional Elements

Variety logo Variety 2/10/2017 Leo Barraclough
© Provided by Variety

“On the Road,” which opens the Berlinale’s youth-film section Generation 14plus on Friday, is a documentary-fiction feature hybrid about a rock band on a tour of Britain. Variety has been given an exclusive clip from the film (below). Director Michael Winterbottom explains why he chose the hybrid format.

Winterbottom had been mulling making a movie based around a rock-tour bus ever since meeting the band Ash at the U.S. premiere of his 2002 film “24 Hour Party People,” and spoke to them about life on the road, but the idea remained dormant for more than a decade.

When he finally resolved to shoot such a movie in 2015, and having chosen North London guitar band Wolf Alice as its subject, he looked for a format that would deliver a fresh perspective on the tour-bus experience.

Winterbottom thought that an orthodox fly-on-the wall approach would only reveal the surface of the story, so he decided to embed two actors with the band’s touring team, whose fictional love story would intertwine with the real events of the band’s U.K. tour. While the documentary elements of the film were able to capture the public aspects of the tour, “it felt to me that part of being on tour is private and personal, so having a fictional version of that would probably be the only way you’d get to the heart of that,” he said.

He chose relatively unknown actors, Leah Harvey and James McArdle, to play the fictional characters as during the casting process “it dawned on us that it wouldn’t really make sense to have a recognizable face in there, because it would take you out of what we were trying to do.” Harvey’s character, Estelle, is a member of the band’s management company, while McArdle’s character, Joe, works as part of the technical crew.

Although Winterbottom sees some similarities between the experience of being with a rock band on tour and being on location with a film crew, he says the former is “massively more intense,” as they are living on a bus with a large group of people, with the city-to-city road-trips interspersed with the “Groundhog Day” routine of setting up, sound-checks, press interviews, performance and the like.

Although Estelle and Joe are fictional characters the actors had no scripts as such, and the personalities of the characters and their improvised lines emerged from conversations with the director.

Independent Film Sales is handling world sales for the film at Berlin’s European Film Market.

Winterbottom has been a regular guest at the Berlinale since his first feature, “Butterfly Kiss,” was selected for competition in 1995. Since then, he has had six more films in Berlin’s competition, winning the Golden Bear for best film in 2003 for “In This World,” and the Silver Bear for directing for “The Road to Guantanamo” in 2006.

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