There is no screenplay credit for British filmmaker Michael Winterbottom's new movie The Trip to Greece, but the real authors are Homer and Virgil.
This is his fourth and possibly final road movie with Welshman Rob Brydon (Blinded by the Light) and Manchester native Steve Coogan (Philomena) who dine on the best dishes that Greece and Turkey have to offer while visiting scenic locations and offering droll asides as they did in Winterbottom's The Trip (2010), The Trip to Italy (2014) and The Trip to Spain (2017). Their new working vacation, which hits theaters and streaming today, follows this format as well as the steps of Odysseus after the Trojan War.
It took Odysseus a decade to reach his home after the war in Ithaca in Homer's poem, so Winterbottom believes it's an important summation to the 10 years he has made these kinds of films. The first went viral when Brydon and Coogan tried to one-up each other with their eerily accurate impersonations of Sir Michael Caine.
"There's a parallel between Steve's character and the translation. His character has left his wife when his child was young, and his son has popped up in all the other previous films, and that idea of trying to get back home," Winterbottom says by phone from the U.K.
"It felt like (with Odysseus) where it was 10 years of fighting, and it takes another 10 years of traveling to get back home. It's the idea of getting back home to the son and wife he's been separated from, and it was a way we could tie that into Steve's story. It seemed like something useful for the last go at The Trip."
While Coogan and Brydon juggle issues with their make-believe onscreen families (in this film Coogan's father has grave medical issues), it's still easy to envy them. They witness the best natural and architectural wonders that the Aegean Sea has to offer and dine on mouthwatering cuisine while trading wisecracks about high and pop culture.
When asked if it was difficult to capture the mountains and beaches of Greece or to make the food the comics are about to consume look appetizing, Winterbottom reveals that what is challenging and what is easy in making these films can be surprising.
The food in those Greek cafés really is that photogenic.
"The filming is incredibly simple. My job is to show what happens in front of the camera. The whole preparation period is me and other people going around eating in restaurants and choosing the ones we like. I like the food, and I like the people there. We don't do anything to the food. That's down to the hard work of the restaurant and the hard work of the people in the kitchen," he says.
"You have Steve and Rob chatting about themselves and history and not that much attention to the food, and then you have the hard work of the people in the kitchen trying to make the food is as delicious as possible. All of that is very much a documentary from that point of view. We've found in the past that a lot of people have gone to those restaurants or have gone on that trip because they've seen Steven and Rob doing it. I wouldn't put anything in that wouldn't be good if they actually did that."
If the food and the cooks are camera ready, getting the filmmakers to the locations is where the real work begins.
"It's a road movie, so it's a very simple shape. We start in Troy and end in Ithaca. That's a given," Winterbottom says. "The logistics and the preparations for these films is quite long. All the prep has gone on for two years before we do it because it's quite complicated for the logistics for the restaurants and the hotel and travel. These are places that everyone wants to be, and it's difficult from that practical point of view."
Brydon and Coogan are terrific improvisers (for more evidence, Google videos of Coogan's 2011 takedown of tabloid journalist Paul McMullan on live television). They can also work from memorized material, and the movies Winterbottom makes with them still follow a predetermined structure.
"We write a 60-page outline, and that provides the guide and tells who they meet along the way and kid of what they could be talking about, especially the starting points of what they were talking about, like Greek philosophy or the history of a particular place or a Greek tragedy. It's how we connect the story to them. For each meal, there's kind of a seven-page outline, and they use it as a starting point, and then they improvise from that point on," he says.
In the Know
Because Coogan spouts factoids so easily in the movies he has made with Winterbottom and other directors, it's tempting to think that he can instantly recall the poets of England's Lake District like John Keats (in The Trip) or Greek myths. In Winterbottom's 24 Hour Party People, Coogan correctly notes that James Bond producer Albert "Cubby" Broccoli's family did indeed popularize the vegetable in the States.
In addition, both comics are correct when they riff on feuds between Greek deities as if their tales were written by Mario Puzo instead of the Bowdlerized retellings in grade school English classes. (In college, I had the pleasure of reading the myths in more recent, unexpurgated translations that were more violent and sexy than the stuff that's in the Bullfinch mythologies. The real stories are the sort of things that David Chase of The Sopranos would write.)
When I bring up the two men's seemingly endless grasp of world literature and history, Winterbottom starts to laugh.
"I think (Coogan) got slightly the wrong end of the stick on that one (24 Hour Party People). He exaggerated the role of Cubby Broccoli. In 24 Hour Party People (his character Tony Wilson) actually thought Cubby had invented broccoli. Steve is a fountain of facts, but we provide a lot of information for them, too. Steve and Rob are not necessarily as well-read in ancient Greek poetry or drama as they occasionally seem to be," he admits.
Brydon and Coogan do know each other off-screen, but they don't hang out as often as The Trip movies imply. The comic energy that arose from them trying to one-up each other has changed in the decade the three of them have been collaborating in Europe's eateries.
"The idea originally was that they had very different versions of the world. They share the same age and come from similar backgrounds and a wealth of pop cultural details, so they can quote lyrics from obscure songs in the '80s to each. The idea was that their disagreements could be funny. They're partly genuine and partly fictional. It could give them a lot of room to debate and to make fun of each other," the director explains.
"Steve and Rob know each other, but they're not close friends. The more it has gone on over the years, it has somehow made the dynamic more complicated because that rivalry, that competitive edge, I really enjoy and the childishness to see who could give the best impression of that person is funny. As it goes on, you wouldn't be doing it if you weren't friends, and the friendship element has increased, whereas in the first series, it was more about their rivalry and their differences."
But Seriously Folks ...
Winterbottom is also responsible for the chilly science fiction film Code 46, A Mighty Heart about the death of journalist Daniel Pearl and last year's biting satire Greed, where Coogan played a retail tycoon whose fortune is based in part on sweatshop labor. The Trip to Greece also explores Europe's current refugee concerns. Kareem Alkabbani, who co-starred with Coogan in Greed, plays a version of himself and in the film helps other Middle Easterners stuck in European limbo. To keep the subplot from seeming maudlin or phony, Winterbottom says he simply followed the classics
"One of the things that the film draws on is The Odyssey, which is Odysseus trying to get back home, having been at war for 20 years. The other story that we drew upon was The Aeneid by Virgil, which is kind of a reworking of The Odyssey," Winterbottom recalls.
"It's about a Trojan whose city has been destroyed by war, who flees that city with its family and spends 10 years wandering around the Mediterranean before eventually being the founding father of Rome. It's The Aeneid that Steve's (onscreen) dreams are connected to. It's about refugees from Turkey and trying to make a new life in Europe, which is what's been happening to hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people in the last few years. It seemed like it was something that we wanted to do, but also quite natural."
MovieStyle on 05/22/2020
Print Headline: Bringing it all back home with Winterbottom