Interview: Director Michael Winterbottom on Trishna

The British genre chameleon on adapting the Thomas Hardy classic with Freida Pinto, plus his upcoming reunion with Steve Coogan.

by | July 10, 2012 | Comments

To invoke that old cliché, if there’s one constant in Michael Winterbottom’s filmography, it’s change. The British director has put together one of the most diverse bodies of work in modern film, moving from drama to comedy to music to sci-fi to hard-boiled noir and frankly unclassifiable meta-fiction — and most everything in between. His CV includes movies as varied as The Killer Inside Me, A Mighty Heart, Jude and 9 Songs, while his collaborations with Steve Coogan — 24 Hour Party People, The Trip and Tristram Shandy — have delivered a kind of screen alchemy unique to both artist’s work.

True to form, Winterbottom’s latest, Trishna — arriving in US theaters this week — finds him adapting Thomas Hardy’s classic Tess of the d’Urbervilles by resetting it in modern-day India and shooting improvised with rising star Freida Pinto in the lead role. We had a chance to talk with the eclectic filmmaker recently about the movie, and also caught up on his next output with Steve Coogan, The King of Soho.

Trishna marks a pretty interesting take on Hardy’s Tess. What was your intent behind choosing that particular novel and resetting it in modern-day India?

Michael Winterbottom: Well I was in India about nine years ago looking for locations for a film called Code 46, and when I was there it struck me that a lot of the things that Hardy was talking about were happening in India now. I’ve made a film of Jude, Hardy’s last novel, quite a long time ago, which was quite a faithful adaptation of Jude as a period film. I kind of felt that when you do a period film it’s very hard to get any ideas of a changing society. With Tess and Jude, his two last books, he’s writing about characters who are in a world that is sort of changing — and changing quite rapidly — due to mechanization of farming, to urbanization, new forms of transport, new forms of education, and you can’t really understand these characters without understanding that world. In a period film it’s very hard to get ideas of society at all. So in Jude, when the character gets on a steam train it’s about progress and mobility, and the way in which physical mobility starts to give the idea of social mobility — but when you shoot a stream train in a period film, like in Jude, it just becomes a picture of a steam train chugging through the countryside; so it has the completely opposite meaning. So I was in India and I thought, yeah, that would be a kind of great place and time to a version of that story. Tess is a book I love, and next to Jude, the one of Hardy’s novels that deals most with social change, where it’s an individual who, in the end, her tragedy is due to the worlds changing around her. So that’s why I decided to have a go.

What were the parallels you saw between Freida Pinto’s Trishna and the character in the novel?

It’s basically someone who comes from a very stable rural community that has stayed the same for centuries, and then is affected by the modern world. With Tess, her education was better than her parents’ education, and Trishna stayed at school longer and because of that she speaks English, rather than just a dialect. There’s a sense of opportunity, because people move into cities and have the sense of possibilities, but at the same time the stability of the rural life, and the stability of the family, is broken up because of these economic changes. So, in an incredibly detailed way, a lot of the social changes of Tess’s world are exactly the same as a lot of the social changes in Trishna’s world. It’s interesting because it’s even more extreme: in Hardy we’re going from the manual labor on a farm to the coming of the steam engine and working on a factory, whereas obviously in India these days it goes right through to jets and laptops and the Internet and so on, so the modern cutting edge of technology is even further away from the life of the people a generation ago working on a farm.

The movie plays loose with the novel in several ways — for example, merging Tess’s two male suitors, Angel and Alec, into a single character. What was your reason for that?

Well because Angel and Alec in the book are very clearly and distinctly drawn as a sensual lover and a spiritual lover, and I tend to think that most people are combinations of both those things. I found Jay’s [combined] character to be more subtle and interesting by having both aspects of those kinds of characters. Jay is someone who wants to be in love, in a good way, with Trishna, but he’s someone who has the sensual side. So when he falls in love with her the first time he still makes love to her, even though he knows that as a man and as an owner of a hotel he can make love to her and nothing happens to him, but as a woman and as an employee he compromises her by doing that. So yeah, I wanted him to be, or I hoped he would be, a more complex character, and also a more real character in having both Angel and Alec in his characteristics.

When we initially meet Jay he’s a kind of English-educated playboy tourist — was that a remark on the relationship between the two countries?

Yeah, I mean — well Jay is British. If you’re gonna do Tess you’re obviously influenced by the novel. In the novel Alec, whose family are rich and have made their money in the North of England through manufacturing, he’s sort of bought a country house and taken out a new name and bought a bit of old-fashioned English heritage to disguise the fact that that money’s new money — so that kind of echo in the film, making Jay so his dad’s bought a bit of Indian heritage to make respectable the money he’s made, had a quite a good parallel. But I guess also for me it gave the story that point of view that I can understand the story from. And yeah, more and more, especially working on two other films I’ve done before in India, you meet a lot of people who are second generation people in Britain who are moving back to India, because India now seems more dynamic and has more opportunities. That movement backwards and forwards is something that in itself is interesting, and also something that I hoped would be in the film. That’s not in the Hardy book, that sense of the relationship between the rich West and developing countries, where one level of tourism is another form of colonialism — you’ve got rich westerners, whether they’re white or whatever, going back and living like princes and having this almost feudal life for a short holiday. At the same time you have to understand that tourism is a big industry that gives people a lot of opportunities.

How did you come to cast Freida Pinto? Was it any kind of a riff on the role she played in Slumdog Millionaire.

Not really. I mean, I was very aware of Freida’s role in Slumdog. What happened was, we’d actually tried to make it about seven or eight years ago and the casting director came back from India after a couple of weeks and said that she didn’t really find anyone that was suitable for the part, so we gave up at that point. And yeah, the same person suggested I meet Freida and I thought she’d be great for the role.

Given that parts of the film could be read as a critique of Indian society, were you met with any resistance in staging the production?

Yeah. Well one strange thing was, in order to get our visas to work there we had to give a dialogue script, and we were like, “Well actually it’s gonna be improvised; we don’t have a dialogue script.” But the Indian government was like, “No, no — we have to have a dialogue script because in the past people have done things we don’t like.” So we wrote a dialogue script for them, which wasn’t the dialogue script [laughs]; I mean, it was an honest effort to kind of give a guide to what we were gonna do. So clearly there is a sort of sensitivity at an official level, but all the people we worked with we collaborated with very closely. I had some concerns that maybe the sexual side of it might be problematic, but so far no one has had any problem with it. Sensuality and dance and love and all that kind of stuff is obviously a huge part of Indian culture, so they seemed to be happy with it.

There was a time, if I’m not mistaken, where they weren’t able to kiss in Bollywood films. Is that still the case?

Well, they do have kisses but there are specific rules. But basically they can kiss in Bollywood films now. And they see Trishna and they seem perfectly happy with it, so they can show this in Indian cinemas now. I guess it’s permissible. [Laughs]

It was fun to see Roshan Seth in the movie, however briefly. What was he like working with?

He was lovely. Weirdly — he didn’t remember it — I worked with him once for one day 20 years ago when I was doing a little TV thing. He was very charming then and he was very charming now. And he looks almost exactly the same, it’s incredible. The scenes were all improvised and at first I think he was like, “Oh okay — is that gonna be alright?” but then I think he got into the swing of it, and he was great. [Laughs] He was coming up with lots of really annoying stories to annoy the rest of us. [Laughs] He’s a great actor.

You’re well known for moving between genres with ease. How do you do it? Do you just pick stories that are of interest to you?

Yeah, that’s essentially it. Most films you do are ideas that we develop. So you start at a point of “Oh, that would be an interesting area to make a film about, or this character or this book or this place” and you just start from somewhere that’s interesting. To some extent I guess if you’ve just done a comedy then something serious seems interesting; if you’ve just done a period film, something modern seems interesting — and so on. But there isn’t really a plan to it; it’s just, “Okay, well that seems interesting.” A lot of those ideas that you think are interesting fall by the wayside for one reason or another, so the ones that you end up making are the ones that have kept me engaged for a long period of time… and also we’ve managed to persuade someone to give us money for. [Laughs]

And you’re working on King of Soho [a biopic of London porn king Paul Raymond, played by Steve Coogan] next?

That’s correct, yes. We just finished filming two days ago.

How’d it go?

It was a nightmare. [Laughs]

[Laughs] Steve Coogan must be terrible to work with.

[Laughs] No, it wasn’t Steve’s fault. It’s sort of… it’s a true story that skips around from the 1950s to the 1990s, which is obviously not that long ago but it’s long enough ago to be problematic when you’re filming in the center of London. So the actual process of making it was quite hard work ’cause it was quite a busy script, and lots of different periods and you know, we were trying to create… for some reason, I thought we would be able to recreate that world, but — [laughs] — it’s really hard. I don’t know how it went, really.

You shot in Soho itself?

[Laughs] Yeah, we shot in Soho. We annoyed lots of people we know by causing lots of traffic jams on the road we were filming. We drove a lot of people crazy and got lots of abuse.

Maybe you can transform this into another meta-movie about the making of the project?

[Laughs] Well, I don’t know. To be honest, when we started working on the project it had elements of that. At the very beginning the conversation was like, I kind of imagined that we would be working like that a little bit — it would be like Paul Raymond somehow telling us the story or Paul Raymond’s life, which we haven’t done so far. I mean, we have little bits of him talking to other people about his life; he was very good at doing PR and he had a very public image, so we use that a little. But I kind of think we might have to resort to that technique — [laughs] — to articulate the whole story.

Well it’s worked so well for you before

[Laughs] I know. I think our friends are thinking that somehow we’re going to do it. The thing is, it’s something that Steve’s very good at. Steve’s very good at kind of stepping out of the character a little bit, and back in again.

Even when he’s playing himself.

Even when he’s playing himself. [Laughs] That’s true.

Did you ever consider giving Tess the Tristram Shandy treatment?

[Laughs] No, I think shifting it to modern day India was enough of a wrench. I didn’t want to destroy it even more.

Trishna arrives in US theaters this week.