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The Killer Inside Me Director Michael Winterbottom Felt a Little Bad About Jessica Alba’s Face Getting Bashed In

British director Michael Winterbottom has never shied away from incendiary subject matter – see his Über-explicit 9 Songs or the documentary The Road to Guantanamo – but his violent new work, The Killer Inside Me, showing this week at the Tribeca Film Fest, definitely raises the bar. Casey Affleck stars in the slow-burning thriller as a deranged killer hiding behind a mask of Southern gentility, with Jessica Alba and Kate Hudson trading off screen time as the objects of his misguided affection. Winterbottom sat down with Vulture at the Soho Grand to talk about sex, violence, and the intricacies of bashing Alba’s face in for the camera.

So, did someone really storm out of the movie at Sundance?
We were at Sundance and there was a Q&A following the screening, and the first question was this woman protesting that the film was shocking and disgusting and that the festival was shocking and disgusting for showing it. And then she walked out. She stayed till the end of the screening, though! It might have been better if she had walked out earlier.

Should the movie come with some kind of warning?
No. I guess some people hadn’t expected there to be violence in the film, even though it’s called The Killer Inside Me and it’s based on the Jim Thompson novel, which itself is quite graphic and violent — I think in the right way, the way it should be. It’s all quite shocking; it’s supposed to be. But even at Sundance, by the third screening or so people started to be like, "Oh well, it wasn’t that shocking." Because they were prepared to be shocked.

There’s lots of violent sex in the movie — and sex that leads to violence — but you didn’t shoot those scenes in an ugly way, so they kind of turn you on and turn you off at the same time.
Right. I’m not sure how conscious that decision was. I don’t think the point of the book — and I didn’t want it to be the point of the film — is that if there's some violent element in your sex, that means that the next day you’re going to go kill the person! It’s not that there’s a progression from sort of slapping someone to beating them to a pulp. I didn’t want it to look like he was on the verge of killing whoever he was having sex with. I wanted to capture all the potential for the tenderness that existed with these two women.

Okay, but you have to admit that the sex scenes are particularly hot, right?
[Laughs.] I mean in that way … with relation to … what it is … well, there are lots of different things going on there. Obviously when Lou [Casey Affleck] first meets Joyce [Jessica Alba], he desires her sexually. And then when she hits him, all the connections between sex and violence in his past come to the surface. There has to be something that sparks off this sense of passion to start the story, so the sex should be hot, ideally. Plus, Jessica Alba doing a naked love scene is bound to be quite hot.

She seemed comfortable with it.
Kate [Hudson] and Jessica were always just sort of in bed! There was usually either sex or violence happening, but always in bed, no clothes. That was sort of the start and finish of the story. Which was kind of weird. But it was harder for Casey to shoot the violent scenes than it was for Jessica or Kate. They felt they knew what they were doing, whereas for Casey it was hard to be so violent and do all those really horrible, ugly things.

And he had to do so without really showing emotion, which must have been hard.
I think so. What’s great about Casey as an actor in general is that he has the ability to make you curious about what’s going on inside his head, and that seems kind of key for the character of Lou Ford. A role like that is less the specifics — ‘do this’ or ‘do that’ — and more about what a person brings to it. And Casey brings that. Even as a person, you’re never quite sure what’s going on with him.

Did you feel bad about making Alba shoot the scene where she gets her face bashed in?
Yeah, a little bit. Not so much because of what it looked like, but more because it’s quite a slow process doing all that. It’s sort of like, "Okay, Jessica, he’s going to punch you a few times and then you’re gonna go out and get some more stuff put on your face, and then you’ll come back and sit down and he’ll punch you a few more times, and you’ll go out and get more bits put on your face, and then you’ll come back" … And then Casey had to keep getting revved up and punch her a lot as well! It was quite a long-winded punching process, actually.

Photo: John MacDougall/AFP/Getty Images