Michael Winterbottom may be British and an Oxford graduate, yet the energetic, boyish 51-year-old is all over the map when it comes to his filmmaking. Ever since he chained up Pulp Fiction star Amanda Plummer with nipple rings on British motorways in his debut feature, 1995's Butterfly Kiss, he has been testing the boundaries, often in far-flung reaches of the planet.
“Jude the Oscure and Tess of the d'Urbervilles were my favourite Thomas Hardy novels,” he says, of the nineteenth century British author, “and I always wanted to turn them into films.” While he has also made 2000's The Claim, a western version of The Mayor of Castorbridge starring Sarah Polley—ultimately his biggest budget movie (US$20 million) and his biggest flop—his 1996 film Jude with a 20-year-old Kate Winslet had truly started the ball rolling for both of their careers.
“Kate was desperate for the role,” he recalls with a grin. “She would do anything for that part! It's great when someone is that enthusiastic.”
Now he has taken two emerging young talents, Mumbai-born Freida Pinto and British-born Riz Ahmed (from his 2006 docudrama, The Road to Guantánamo) and literally thrown them together without a script to retell the story of Tess of the d'Urbervilles in India. So that Tess becomes Trishna, a beautiful, educated 19-year-old who has to support her traditional rural family after her father's truck, the means of his livelihood, breaks down. She meets the British-educated Jay, who offers her employment in the city, then seduces her. When she falls pregnant and ultimately has an abortion, she must live her life in disgrace.
“A lot of the things Hardy was talking about in his books are present in contemporary India,” notes Winterbottom. “Rural communities are undergoing a rapid change, due to mechanisation on farms, urbanisation and education. So as with Tess, we can talk of Trishna being caught in the old community while holding modern aspirations and hopes. She kind of has one foot in each camp and can't really bridge the gap in the end.”
Winterbottom has streamlined Hardy's story, blending the characters of the libertine Alec and the well-intentioned though weak Angel into the character of Jay. “In Hardy's novel, two men fall in love with Tess and both have a false idea of her. One is completely sensual and has a physical desire for her, while the other has a spiritual idea of what she might be and has no desire physically. I thought it would be interesting to combine the two so that Jay has a physical attraction but also falls in love with her. The reason it doesn't work out in the end is their social difference and the failure of his imagination. He can't imagine what it's like to be true to her. It's ok for him to make love to her, yet he doesn't think about the consequences. He keeps her working in his hotel just to have sex with her and ultimately he destroys her.”
Pinto appreciated Winterbottom's off-the-cuff filmmaking style, his use of real locations and real people, and working with a small crew. “When you have a script given to you and there are certain things you have to do, it often gets contrived,” the 27-year-old actress says. “But Michael did not change the environment; he did not change it or make it more suitable for filming. My family in the film was a real family, not actors. They were just enjoying co-operating with us. Everything we did right, from milking the cows to the poo in the woods—it was all for real. For all of us it was demanding but it was very liberating and fruitful. Emotionally, it was a bit draining as the camera never stopped rolling—you just had to be in character because you didn't know what was going to end up in the film. After watching the film it all completely makes sense. It was one of the most demanding roles I've done and I'd do it again in a heartbeat.”
These sentiments are shared with other actors Winterbottom has worked with, most notably Colin Firth, who appeared in the under-rated gem Genova, Angelina Jolie, who was a willing collaborator in A Mighty Heart, and also Steve Coogan, the British superstar comedian who has failed to make it big in Hollywood though has excelled in Winterbottom's comedies, 24 Hour Party People, A Cock and Bull Story, and last year's The Trip, which all have done well here.
Interestingly, Winterbottom's comedies are all about blokes, while his frequently fraught dramas have usually starred women. Aren't women funny?
He laughs, conceding he'd never thought about it. And then he does.
“It's true that the comedies have been more blokeish. That's because you have to feel like you have an intimate understanding of what's going on to find it funny. You are more likely to be in an area that is closer to your own experience.” Then he stops, and reflects. “No, it's not really that. It's just trying to find something to do with Steve. It's just that, basically, I like working with Steve."