Article/ The Curzon Interview: Michael Winterbottom

After his faithful adaptation of ‘Jude the Obscure’ (Jude, 1996) and relocating ‘The Mayor of Casterbridge to gold rush era America (The Claim, 2000), Michael Winterbottom looks to India for a unique take on ‘Tess of the d’Urbervilles’ and tells Jason Wood (Curzon Director of Programming) why he has returned once again to Thomas Hardy

Jason Wood: What is it about Hardy’s work that appeals and what qualities make it suitable for the screen?

Michael Winterbottom: I love Hardy. I first read him was when I was a teenager. He is a great storyteller. Both ‘Jude’ and ‘Tess’ are great love stories. Hardy gives you a very intimate portrait of his hero or heroine, but also shows the bigger picture – how their lives are determined, or at least affected, by the way in which society is organised. He is much more radical than many people think. And he’s more optimistic. Hardy frequently moves away from Tess’s individual story and puts it in context – how it would be for other people rather than Tess. I think that was one of the most important aspects of the filming for us – to be with Trishna and Jay, but then to see the other people, to see the family, or the city, or the workers in the field or the factory or the hotel. To provide a context for the story – to give some sense of the connections between Trishna’s story and the world around her.

Jason Wood: I understand that the idea for Trishna originally came to you when you were making Code 46 (2003). What was the trigger for the idea and what initial concepts did you wish to explore?

Michael Winterbottom: On Code 46, we shot for a few days in Rajasthan and on one of the recces, we visited the desert outside Ossian. I was with some crew from Mumbai and there was an incredible contrast between the life and attitude of the crew and the people of the village, whose lives were just beginning to be affected by the forces of mechanisation, urbanisation, industrialisation and, above all, education. It was this that reminded me of Hardy and Tess. In his last two novels, Hardy is describing a world where the stable life and culture of the village is being transformed by all these things: people losing their jobs on the farms due to mechanisation, people moving to the towns, the railways providing physical mobility and along with that education offering the prospect of social mobility. Having shot Jude as a traditional period film, I felt that it might be possible to more accurately capture Hardy’s world by transposing the story to India. For example when we filmed a steam train in Jude, it seemed nostalgic and picturesque – whereas for Hardy, it represented speed and modernity.

So the mobile phones, Jeeps and jets and TV of Trishna were a much simpler way of showing the impact of modern technology on a culture that had been static and stable for hundreds of years. Trishna is a character who has more education than her parents, who doesn’t speak the local dialect like her parents, who feels slightly set apart from those she works with and can dream of a better life. Trishna’s tragedy is that she has one foot in the fixed, old rural world, and one foot in the new, mobile, urban world.

Jason Wood: Did you go back and re-watch Polanski’s take on the novel?

Michael Winterbottom: I did watch it again. I saw it when it first came out and I fell in love with Nastassja Kinski. Then I got a chance to work with her on The Claim – which was also based on a Hardy novel. This time, I watched it with one of my daughters who thought it was beautiful but very slow!

Jason Wood: Landscape forms a key part of your work, most recently the beautiful Lake District in The Trip. How did you set about capturing the colours and textures of Mumbai and Rajasthan, and what kind of contrasts and contradictions did you want to emphasise?

Michael Winterbottom: Marcel Zyskind – our cinematographer – has worked with me on over 10 films now. We always take the same approach, which is to try and capture what is there. I remember the first thing I ever directed was a documentary on Ingmar Bergman and I met Sven Nykvist who talked about how he and Bergman would go to a location and watch it in all the different lights and then try and recreate that. We take the same approach. Except we shoot everything on location. So it is a question of being in the right place at the right time. After that, it’s pretty simple.

Jason Wood: You are probably tired of being told how prolific you are. Is part of it a desire to keep the filmmaking process fresh and exciting for yourself?

Michael Winterbottom: It is just that it is more fun to be making a film than not. The boring and frustrating periods are when you are trying to persuade financiers to give you money. Once you are working on the detail of the film, it is very satisfying. So why not make lots of films? And anyway, everyone used to make a lot of films – it is relatively recently that it has become fashionable to spend a lot of time resting between shoots.

With thanks to Curzon Cinemas

Trishna screens at Cornerhouse from Fri 9 March