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.
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.