Michael Winterbottom thought modern India was a perfect setting for famed Thomas Hardy novel.
With a prodigious output of 20 features in the past 17 years, English director Michael Winterbottom is a one-man cornerstone of Britain's filmmaking renaissance. Like the mega-productive Coen brothers, he is a genre unto himself, making stylish, daring and assured small-scale films on a dazzling variety of subjects.
His output ranges from sci-fi ("Code 46") to western ("The Claim"), rock 'n' roll ("24 Hour Party People"), literary adaptation ("Tristram Shandy"), erotica ("9 Songs"), comedy ("The Trip"), war ("Welcome to Sarajevo"), documentary ("The Shock Doctrine") and pulp thriller Americana ("The Killer Inside Me").
His determination to make interesting, challenging films whether or not they fill multiplexes has attracted a cadre of this era's best actors, including Angelina Jolie, Kate Winslet, Rachel Weisz, Colin Firth, Woody Harrelson, Tim Robbins, Casey Affleck and Steve Coogan. He also casts non-actors in major roles, leading them to vivid performances. His immigration drama "In This World" starred real Afghani refugees.
In a phone conversation last week, Winterbottom proved as prolific a talker as he is a filmmaker, a veritable human spigot of anecdotes, opinions, ideas and observations.
"Trishna," Winterbottom's latest, stars Freida ("Slumdog Millionaire") Pinto in a colorful, affecting version of "Tess of the d'Urbervilles" transposed to 21st-century India. Following the corruption of a naïve rural hotel maid in the big city, the film features a raft of Bollywood celebrities playing themselves, alongside villagers and hotel workers in sizable roles identical to their own personalities. In pursuit of realism, the director gave his actors only the gist of each scene, encouraging improvisation. With so much of the film ad-libbed, Winterbottom said he considers his screenwriting credit "shameful."
"We filmed everything documentary-style, with a small crew, infiltrating our actors into real situations and trying to be discreet. The family where Trishna lives, that's the real family of a jeep driver. That's their house and their extended family." Winterbottom auditioned numerous families, then filmed the finalists' interactions and conversations without cries of "Action" and "Cut." "They're not actors at all so the whole thing of 'Do this, do that, start now, stop now' is very distracting," he said.
Rather than doing a bonnets-and-bustles period adaptation, Winterbottom saw parallels between Thomas Hardy's 19th-century tragedy and contemporary Indian culture and society, where strict sexual mores can cast lovers into disgrace.
Winterbottom read Hardy as a teenager, falling in love with the beautiful, doomed Tess, he recalled. "It's very appealing to a young person. It's about all the ways your life can go wrong. Hardy writes very intimately about individuals and he's sympathetic to them. He's always on their side, but he shows the ways they're formed by bigger cultural forces. It's about the way the church responds to Tess' out-of-wedlock pregnancy, and Tess' gender and economic class creates her story."
Staging the story in India, where the rift between country and urban life is as stark as in Victorian England, would highlight the story's "very radical" issues more clearly than a literal adaptation, he felt.
"India's quite complex like that. Rajasthan's an old-fashioned and conservative region, so it is difficult for women to have careers outside the home, difficult for women to have sexual independence. Yet you look at the temples and they're full of sculptures of naked, sensual dancers. Attitudes about falling in love are puritanical, yet Bollywood movies celebrate romance. That contradiction is woven into the culture, as well."
Ever in pursuit of novelty, Winterbottom is filming a comic biography of a 1970s London pornographer who became one of the city's biggest real estate tycoons, and is planning a musical drama about the Beatles' final days. "There's a script," he said, "but we haven't got access to the music. Until that's sorted out, it's unclear." Not that that's likely to slow him down.
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186