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.
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.