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‘The Trip to Spain’ director Michael Winterbottom discusses fine food and funny men

The structure of director Michael Winterbottom’s trio of pseudo-travelogues – “The Trip,” “The Trip to Italy” and the latest, “The Trip to Spain,” ( which opened in theaters Aug. 11) – are always similar: U.K. comedian Steve Coogan and friend/fellow laugh-getter Rob Brydon traverse a specific region – ostensibly on assignment – eating at top restaurants, hanging out and bickering. With the pair playing loose versions of their real selves, the movies overflow with bracing improvised wit, celebrity impression contests and lots of midlife crisis moping. And even though Coogan and Brydon have little to say about the impeccably prepared food they’re eating, cult followers of the films have been known to duplicate the pair’s culinary journeys, matching them bite for bite.

That means whatever measure of gastronomic allure the “Trip” road pictures offer can be credited to the lush cinematography of director of photography James Clarke (whose U.K. resume is rife with cooking competition shows) and to Winterbottom, who assigned himself the enviable task of restaurant curator: Once the country of choice is selected, he compiles a list of the area’s eating destinations, visits them multiple times, then begins figuring out which ones fit into his loose storyline. “It’s fun, all that research,” says Winterbottom, who turns his “Trip” producers into mealtime companions. “I try not to go alone. That would be too depressing.”

Recently we tracked down Winterbottom in Puglia, Italy, to talk about the humor in Coogan and Brydon’s food ambivalence, the absence of paella and what it was like to taste the best Spain has to offer, from the Michelin-starred Etxebarri’s 15-course tasting menu to the sizzling gambas pil pil at El Refectorium in the southern port city of Málaga. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Besides Coogan referring to Etxebarri’s fresh goat butter as “life affirming,” that’s about it for restaurant criticism. Why is that?

The idea of doing “The Trip” had come from having various lunches with Steve and Rob, thinking they’d make an enjoyable location for a film. But I knew they weren’t foodies, that they weren’t going to be obsessed. I did think that given that they were going to all these great restaurants they might occasionally mention the food. But I realized quite soon that they wouldn’t. I’ve given up trying to persuade them. There’s something funny about Steve and Rob eating great food while all these people are slaving away in the kitchen and all they’re interested in is talking about themselves and their careers.

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Each of the “Trip” films first premiere in England as a multi-episode television series. Is it true that a dedicated foodist might find the TV version is a better fit?

In the episodic version there’s more meal, there’s more of everything. There’s more time, so there’s also more conversation, more journey. On the first film, the journey was actually quite short. It was going around the Lake District in England. Whereas on “The Trip to Spain,” they set off by ferry from London and drive their way all the way through to the Sahara desert.

As a director of narrative features like “24 Hour Party People” and “A Mighty Heart,” how long did it take to figure out an approach to lovingly composed glamour shots of food?

We don’t have one to be honest. The whole idea of the filming is that we shoot it as simply as possible. We shoot the food in exactly the same way as we shoot Steve and Rob, the restaurant and the countryside. Obviously we’re choosing restaurants with really great food. But we don’t really try and make the food look good, we just try to capture the experience of what being in the restaurant and the experience of being at a lunch with Steve and Rob is like. So if the food looks good it’s purely by virtue of the food, rather than the filming. If the food looks delicious it’s because it is delicious.

Do you ever get pushback from your stars about your restaurant lineup?

Rob and Steve don’t get any choices. But they don’t mind. I just tell them where we’re going – and they don’t care.

The first restaurant they go to, Txoko, is in a storybook fishing village where just-caught anchovies are grilled over an open wood fire. What led you there?

Initially we were recommended Getaria by a couple of chefs in London. There’s a Michelin-starred restaurant there that’s really good but it didn’t feel like the right place for filming. So we went down on the ports, and there was a whole string of restaurants. In the end, the one we chose was partly because the chef was really friendly and also it’s a good location because it’s close to the water.

The true no-brainer was Etxebarri, which was voted the sixth best restaurant in the world in 2015.

If you go to Spain, you should go to that restaurant. [The chef, Victor Arguinzoniz] does only one meal a day, a set menu. It’s fantastic food. Apparently he used to be a carpenter, working in wood, then he started cooking. He has no formal training. In all the restaurants in Spain, they cook on wood on the street. But at Etxebarri, he has covered wood fired ovens and uses all different sorts of wood.

In this film you’ll see Spanish classics like chorizo casero, jamón ibérico, and all manner of croquetas. Nowhere, however, is paella. Was that by choice?

It was a little bit of a choice. If Valencia was on our route in the end, maybe we would have included paella. But in England, the one cliché of Spanish [cuisine] would be paella. So it was quite nice to avoid it.

Talk about the scene where Steve meets a young traveling musician who airily opines that they’re eating in all the wrong places.

I just liked the idea of making fun of Steve’s pomposity. He’s like an earlier version of Steve, just as annoying but better looking. We thought that’d be quite funny. But all those places that he mentions? There were lots of great restaurants that in the end we had to cross off because they just weren’t on our route. So that was just our way of sneaking in references of places we didn’t end up filming.

Will there be a fourth “Trip” installment?

When we did the first one we said, “There will be just one,” so who knows? I think enough time will have to go by so Steve and Rob will have grown and changed in some way. For me, I’d like it to be in Sweden or somewhere in the Arctic Circle. It would be funny to deposit them somewhere cold.

food@latimes.com

@latimesfood

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