Michael Winterbottom is Britain’s most prolific, versatile and restless director. He’s also the most difficult to pin down - this is a man who’s made 20 films in 17 years, across multiple genres, in numerous different countries, with casts ranging from real life refugees to Angelina Jolie.
Indeed, aside from making experimental Steve Coogan comedies such as 24 Hour Party People, A Cock and Bull Story and The Trip, the most prominent through-line in his protean career is probably his interest in Thomas Hardy.
His new film Trishna, for instance, is a contemporary take on Tess of the d’Urbervilles and marks his third Hardy adaptation after Jude, which was based on Jude the Obscure (and partly shot in Edinburgh), and The Claim, his Peter Mullan-starring Western riff on The Mayor of Casterbridge, which relocated Hardy’s story from 19th century England to the California gold rush.
On first glance, Trishna, which is set in modern-day India, would appear to be his most radical re-telling of Hardy yet, revolving as it does around a rural peasant girl from Rajasthan (played by Freida Pinto) who falls into a destructive sexual relationship with the spoiled ex-pat British son (Riz Ahmed) of a wealthy Indian-born property developer. For Winterbottom, though, transposing the story of Hardy’s tragic heroine to such a setting offered him the chance to show just how cutting edge and attuned to the changing world Hardy, whose books he fell in love with as a teenager, really was.
“The rural England Hardy describes, particularly in his last couple of books, is one where the static, traditional community is being broken up by railways, by urbanisation, by mechanisation on farms,” says Winterbottom, who first had the idea of making an Indian-set Tess while scouting locations in Rajasthan for his 2003 sci-fi film Code 46. “It just struck me back then that a lot of aspects of this culture were very similar to the society described in Hardy’s novels. I just thought you could have a more interesting version of the novel by setting it in modern times.”
It also offered him the chance not only to shoot the film quickly (he made it in seven weeks early last year), but also work in an unobtrusive, semi-improvised documentary style, something that was the antithesis of The Claim, where the progress-inhibiting need to build sets, manage tricky locations and stick to the script for budgetary reasons left him feeling that he was expending most of his energy getting on and off set everyday. With Trishna, he set it up so that all the energy went on screen. “I wrote the screenplay, such as it was, but had this line on it that said ‘This is not a script’, because really it was just an outline of the story that said who’s there, where it is, what is happening and provided some rough dialogue. Freida and everyone else were free to improvise around that.”
It’s an approach that harks back to his debut feature, Butterfly Kiss, which he shot with a tiny crew up-and-down the motorways of Britain. It’s perhaps also the reason that, unlike that other prolific polymath-like figure on the world cinema scene, Steven Soderbergh, he’s never made a big Hollywood film.
Not that there haven’t been offers. He turned down Good Will Hunting and walked away from a deal to make The Ciderhouse Rules for Harvey Weinstein because he didn’t like John Irving’s script. But he is much more comfortable working with A-listers like Angelina Jolie (A Mighty Heart) and Colin Firth (Genova) on his own terms, shooting fast in real locations around the world with minimum fuss.
In fact, on Trishna, Pinto says Winterbottom refused to treat her like a star and expected her to get on with filming amidst the vibrant street life of modern-day Mumbai. “I don’t know whether that’s a compliment or not,” he says.
One thing he is sure about is that he has no plans to slow down his prodigious work rate. In addition to another collaboration with Steve Coogan on a biopic of the late adult entertainment impresario Paul Raymond (provisionally titled The King of Soho), he’s got a possible collaboration with Jack Black in the pipeline and a potential film about the coverage of the Amanda Knox trial that may or may not star Colin Firth. He will also shortly finish an ongoing project about the effect of a father’s jail sentence on his family that he’s been intermittently shooting with Shirley Henderson and John Simm for a few weeks each year over the last five years. “I just want to do films that I’m interested in,” surmises Winterbottom of his diverse career. “For me, if you’re going straight from one film to another and they feel like the same film, it’s like: why bother doing it?”
• Trishna is in cinemas now