Michael Winterbottom promptly announces that he doesn't like making period films. The irony is that he finished shooting one not 24 hours earlier.
The British director completed production the day before on King of Soho, in which Steve Coogan plays the pornography impresario Paul Raymond from the 1950s through the '90s.
But Winterbottom was in New York for the Tribeca Film Festival premiere of his Trishna, an adaptation of Thomas Hardy's Tess of the d'Urbervilles that doesn't go the period route. It transfers the Victorian story from 19th-century Dorchester to contemporary Rajasthan and Mumbai, India.
It's neither the first time he's adapted Hardy (1996's Jude and 2000's The Claim) nor his first modernising of an older work (2006's Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story and its kind of sequel, last year's The Trip, which also drew from Laurence Sterne, albeit faintly).
Trishna stars Freida Pinto (Slumdog Millionaire) as a peasant woman swept up by the charismatic son of a rich British businessman (Riz Ahmad).
Why don't you like making period films?
What I find enjoyable is the relationship between the characters in a story and the environment they live in — the towns, their family, their relationships. All those things are much easier to feel as spontaneous and natural and kind of true, in a way. You take a group of actors and you put them in a real environment, the way they behave is affected by that.
How did you arrive on transplanting Tess to India?
I happened to be working in Rajasthan, India, about eight or nine years ago. It seemed like that kind of society was undergoing a lot of the changes when Hardy was writing Tess. It felt like it had a lot of close echoes to what I was writing about. It was there, it was real, it was concrete. Whereas, when we did Jude and tried to recreate that, the truth is you can't, really. If you show a steam train in a period film — as we did in Jude — it just looks like a nice, old-fashioned, picturesque steam train. Whereas for Hardy, steam trains were modern and at the cutting edge of technology.
What is it that draws you to Hardy, whom you've now adapted three times?
A lot of people in England think of Hardy as a sort of fatalistic writer. To me, Hardy always seemed much more radical, especially in Tess and in Jude, his last two novels. He's describing a society that he pretty much lived in. I think Hardy's great in how he shows the way society and forces like the church or education and class and gender affect individuals. And he doesn't suggest that people are only a product of those forces.
Trishna has a natural, almost documentary-like feel. Was it difficult to get that in the realm of a Bollywood film culture accustomed to more artificial filmmaking?
We took Freida and inserted her into the local environment. The family that she's in — the mum and the dad are actually from Mumbai — but the rest of the family is a family of a driver. That's his family and his house and the children go to the school that his children go to. We really inserted our characters into a kind of real environment rather than using a lot of actors from Bollywood. It was the same in Mumbai. The film director is a film director, the dancers are dancers. In a way, everyone in the film was a version of themselves.
Was it easier to get a grasp of Indian culture and life by using nonprofessional actors?
Exactly. We were observing how they behave rather than telling them how to behave. The way I like to work is very observational.