Interview: Freida Pinto and Michael Winterbottom on Trishna


Anyone who reads is probably well aware how prolific and versatile British director Michael Winterbottom has been in recent years as he’s kept apace with Woody Allen in directing at least one movie a year since 1995.

His latest film is Trishna, a loose adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s classic novel “Tess of the D’urbervilles” set in modern-day India, starring Freida Pinto as the title character, a 19-year-old woman from an impoverished village who wins the charms of a young man from a rich family named Jay (played by Riz Ahmed of Road to Guantanamo) when he sees her dancing in her village. The film follows the journey of this woman as she experiences the different cultures of her country, moving between her small village to the teaming city of Mumbai. Although the film tends to stray from its literary roots, Winterbottom creates a very rich film around this young woman’s story and everything she experiences over the course of a number of years, from a debilitating truck accident to a reunion with Jay in which their roles are drastically changed. sat down with Winterbottom and his star, the lovely Freida Pinto, while they were in New York for the Tribeca Film Festival earlier this year. What made you want to adapt “Tess” to modern India and got you going on this movie?
Michael Winterbottom:
It wasn’t like, “Let’s do Tess and where do we set it?” I was in Osian, which is a small town in Rajasthan, looking for locations for a film called “Code 46,” which is about 8 or 9 years ago. While I was there, I thought it would be good to set “Tess” there. A lot of aspects to the world were similar to things Hardy is talking about and I’d done a film based on “Jude” which was his last novel, and that was trying to be a very faithful adaptation. The challenge when you do a period film is that Hardy is talking about a world that’s changing rapidly, he’s talking about characters whose tragedy in a way is that they have one foot in the old rural stable community and one foot in the new modern, urban restless world. The trouble is that you can’t really get a sense of modernity and change in a period film. It just looks like a picturesque version of ours, so I thought, “Okay, well we can try to have a go at a movie.”

CS: This is also the first screenplay you’ve written yourself in some time, right? I couldn’t tell because there was no writer credited in the notes that I saw.
It is, but there wasn’t really a script as Freida likes to point out. (She laughs at this.) On most films, it’s a similar process where I’m evolving the script in one way or another and there’s usually a lot of improvisation, so the actors are involved in the script in one way or another as well. Sometimes or often there’s a writer involved but most of the stuff we do tends to be like “Okay, we have this idea” and sometimes we work with the writer, sometimes we work just with the actors, but it’s always a collaboration and you’re always involved in that collaboration in some way. The credits are slightly misleading, so I didn’t really write it.
Freida Pinto: I guess because the treatment and the concept is Michael’s, he is our go-to person if we’re confused about how the next scene would play out. Even though we are exploring the human relationships on that very day on set itself, because it’s his concept. Really, I don’t think it is right to call this film a direct adaptation because I think it’s been very deftly adapted to a different culture altogether. The credit goes to Michael for that, but even thinking while he was in India that Tess would fit into the Indian setting quite well. So yeah, he pretty much knew of it way before we came onboard, because it was his idea, so he is the scriptwriter in that sense.

CS: How did you find out about it and did he just give you a treatment?
I got this amazing treatment with pictures and the photographs that you took on your location scouts, and I got a treatment saying “In this phase of the film, this is what happens, and then we move onto Bombay and then it goes back to Nargur.” I had an idea of how it was going and I could see with the whole whistling scene the direct ideas that were taken from Thomas Hardy and some that were changed in order to fit this new setting. That was what we had and I could draw quite a few parallels with my character to Tess, definitely.

CS: So you were already familiar with Thomas Hardy’s novel?
Oh, yeah, I was already familiar with it. The strawberry scene didn’t make it, but…
Winterbottom: Yeah, in “Tess” there’s a scene at the very beginning where Alec gives Tess…
Pinto: Feeds her a strawberry, which is quite iconic.
Winterbottom: Which we shot. We spent ages because strawberries grow in India but they don’t really grow in Rajasthan, so we had that whole thing of how to get strawberries and we had to import them from a thousand miles away from the South of England, and we had them brought up and they kept dying because it’s too dry. Finally, we shot the scene – it was a very nice scene… (he breaks up laughing)
Pinto: That was the tastiest strawberry ever and it didn’t even make it! (laughs)

CS: What was the toughest aspect of the role to prepare for? You have to do a couple different things, working at a mill, working at a hotel… I don’t know what the term for that job is, hostess?
Yeah, she plays all kinds of things, she’s a hostess…
Winterbottom: She’s a waitress…
Pinto: She’s a waitress at one hotel, hostess in another.
Winterbottom: Like the character in the first hotel, she is a hotel worker, and a lot of those people, in a way, for them it’s a real career and they do various different jobs hoping to go through it and end up in management.

CS: What did you have to do prepare for doing those things?
Just a lot of tray-carrying (laughs) in one arm, because the other one was… I did a lot of work with one arm because my other arm is meant to be fractured from the accident that she had with her father. There was this amazing man named Muggum who kind of gave me a crash course in whatever happens in a hotel so actually I trained two days before Riz came down. I was just working around the hotel trying to see if Michael and the company would get convinced by the fact I was there but then they found I was wearing a Cartier watch and that’s not something Trishna would wear. (laughs) Yeah, so I was trying to see if I could play the role before I got into it and then I guess it just happened, it’s just a flow.

CS: Sure, but it has to look real.
I guess just observing other people doing it.
Winterbottom: It also helps in a way if you’re in the kitchen and everyone else who generally works in the kitchen, it’s easier to see what they’re doing and blend in. That was the kind of principle in general. The doctor is a real doctor, the family is a real family. Obviously, there’s massive amount of tiny details in situations that are very specific to a certain place and a kind of person and an individual family, so the idea was to slot Trishna into those real places rather than try to manufacture fake places.
Pinto: I almost forgot about the doctor and the cast and when he cut it off. That was for real! (laughs)

CS: Speaking of doctors, I was really kind of shocked by the scene when Trishna gets an abortion and the way it was handled almost matter-of-factly in the movie.
The thing is when we started… in the Hardy novel, she has the baby and the baby dies, so that was the original idea, and then going around doing research for filming in Rajasthan, everyone from clinics and drivers we talked to, said that basically everyone’s first reaction was that if their daughter got pregnant and wasn’t married would be to have an abortion. I was quite shocked to think…

CS: You’d think in that society it would be very taboo.
My first instinct would be that in India, abortion would be the last thing, but actually compared to British society in the 19th Century and even England now, it was more like that would be your first choice. Your first choice would be to try and get rid of the problem before anyone knew about the problem. The issue with Trishna obviously is that we wanted the idea that because she’s sitting in the field there’s a sense that other people know about it, so because other people know about it, she should go away to try to get rid of the shame.

CS: Were you surprised by that aspect of the story?
Not really. I’m not going to mention which particular Indian festival, but the rates of abortion after that particular Indian festival is really really high in India, so it didn’t come as a surprise.

CS: You worked with Riz before in “Road to Guantanamo,” so can you talk about working with the two main actors and all the non-actors and how you used improv. I remember you mentioning that with “Code 46” there was a lot of guerilla filmmaking involved, but this doesn’t look like that. It looks like the shots and locations are more established and set up.
Good, good. No, in Rajasthan we had quite a small crew, mainly the crew was people I’ve worked with before from England and then we had a few crew we brought up from Mumbai, but not that many, so we had local people of Rajasthan and ours. We shoot with available light, we tend to shoot as observationally as possible, we try not to like say we’re doing a breakfast scene with the family, everyone would go there at their breakfast time and we’d say, “You do what you normally do and then we’ll bring our actors into your kitchen or bedroom or whatever.” We try and work in that way as low-key as possible. Really it is a combination of things because on one hand, we want the world of Trishna and Jay to be as real as possible, so we have non-professionals, and then obviously, their love story is about two individuals and that’s down to Freida and Riz. Most of those scenes in a way are kind of separate, they’re by themselves, so in a way, it’s kind of a chamber piece, it’s a film with only two characters in a sense. It’s really got the two of them and everyone else is like their context but no one else really has a story. It’s just the story of these two people and what’s going to happen to them. Obviously, that’s difficult because you’ve got two people to be interested in the whole film so you rely on your actors to make those characters interesting.

CS: How is it working in this way, doing scenes with Riz where you’re both trained actors and then other points where you’re interacting with non-actors?
It’s a lot easier with non-professionals than it is with trained actors. (Freida laughs at this.) I’m just joking.
Pinto: I guess it’s great to have both of it in the same film, that’s amazing. With Riz it was a lot easier because we’re talking, we’re communicating about the scenes the day before or on the day. Especially because we’re playing two different characters from two different backgrounds, I’m bringing in my point of view, and he’s bringing in his and we’re trying to find like middle ground. There’s a lot of communication happening, unlike Jed and Trishna have no communication at all, but the two of us were really talking about it. With the non-professional actors, actually, like Michael said earlier, you don’t want to scare them with too much information and make them nervous about it, so doing whatever they’re doing and joining them while they do it, whether it was being part of the whole breakfast-making process in the morning and just joining the family or going to the fields and picking out the vegetables and making it seem real. I remember this one time when we were gathering all these vegetables and putting them on the truck, you don’t want to make them conscious there’s a camera filming them all the time, so you want to give them just the right amount of instructions but not too many while they’re loading the truck. Yeah, I guess just playing along with them rather than them playing with us is key.

CS: Your character goes through an amazing transformation in the movie when she goes to Mumbai and gets involved in the film business. It’s funny, because it may be the most romantic movie you’ve ever made, Michael, well until the third act…
When it reverts to type.

CS: How was it going through that transformation and were you able to shoot in some kind of logical order that makes it easier to create that character arc?
I don’t think we really shot in order but it was nice we had Mumbai in the end.
Winterbottom: We shot in blocks. The story is different emotionally at different locations and the hardest thing is to make it about the relationship between the environment you’re in and the individual. So the first hotel has a very different mood from the last hotel so it was in blocks so in a sense, you’re always in one block and then you can be in sequence. Unfortunately, the blocks didn’t come into sequence so Mumbai was the last thing we shot.
Pinto: It’s strange because now because of this film and the way we shot it, even now I associate each of those places with an emotion. Like Samud was the happiest place ever. Nargur will forever be the dark place and every time I go there…
Winterbottom: But it’s a very nice hotel.
Pinto: It’s a beautiful hotel but now the emotion that now is attached to the experience of shooting the darker scenes over there… yeah, it was nice because all those various locations play a character as well.

CS: That seems to be the case with all the movies Michael makes and wherever he goes, the environment always plays a critical part of the story. One of the first movies we knew you from was “Slumdog Millionaire,” which was Danny Boyle working in India for the first time, so were they very different experiences?
Different experiences because they were two different stories completely. That was more of a feel-good film than this is. (laughs) Experience-wise, “Slumdog” felt like I was shooting in my backyard because it was completely set in Bombay and we actually had a script, and also when you’re working on a set like that, we had massive crowds and a lot more difficulty containing those crowds. Mumbai is a crazy city with a crazy population, so that was the challenge of working on that, but here I felt sometimes more at ease just because of the intimate setting of our film crew–there was just about eight of us, I guess–and not many people on set. You don’t see too much camera rigging and screaming, “Action, Cut” all of that, so it was a very intimate setting. It felt like all of us were a family to be honest, seeing the same people over and over again.
Winterbottom: Some things were quite complicated but we never really had that much problem. I worked in Rajasthan before and every time I got the camera out almost ten years ago, we’d have a crowd of people looking to see what we were doing with the camera, but we didn’t really have that this time.
Pinto: I think they got used to it. (laughs)
Winterbottom: Yeah, perhaps we were in smaller places–I’m not quite sure why it was–but actually the shoot was pretty simple.
Pinto: But also our locations were a lot more intimate. The house in Osian, the temples and all of them, there were a lot more intimate settings. It was just really beautiful, even in Nargur, it was just us and the beautiful hotel and that was it.

CS: What ended up being the biggest challenge for each of you making this?
Well, I think for me was, I think technically, it was the most complex film I’ve done in years, because you’re trying to take a period novel and adapt it to a modern setting, you’re trying to film feel like 35 millimeter, but you’re shooting with a very small crew and a very structured story. It’s sort of a melodrama but you’re trying to improvise it and try and make it feel natural. You have main characters from different places, so you’re trying to bring two different cultures together. And you’re trying to shoot in India. I’d shot in India twice before and had quite difficult experiences. So with those things, there felt like a million things that could go wrong but actually, the shoot was a good experience.
Pinto: Yeah, it was, and a very different Rajasthan to what I’d known and previously seen so that for me was a bit of an eye-opener for me as well. What was challenging for me I guess was playing a character that was not very close to me and to who I am.

CS: Less than the lead character you played in “Miral”?
Miral in a way, that total defiance was… I’m talking more like the emotional, not so much the physical. I am Indian and in that sense I fit in, but just the fact that she had a completely different struggle to what I’ve had, that was the bigger challenge. You want to do the best you can in making it seem as realistically as possible, so I guess my real guide were the girls that I met and the time I spent with that family, that was my real guiding force. “Miral” was fine, because my Mom actually watched both films and she said, “When I watched ‘Miral,’ I saw a lot of you in the film because she was doing exactly what she was not supposed to do,” but when she saw “Trishna,” she said that was the first time she did not see me in the character.

CS: That’s really interesting. I want to ask about the music because you have more traditional Indian music…
We have a lot of music, we have just about every sort of music.

CS: Right, and you also have Japanese composer Shigeru Umebayashi who did the music for “In the Mood for Love” and some of Zhang Yimou’s films, which is not the approach you’d expect.
Well, I loved “In the Mood for Love,” both the film and the music, so in a way, this gives me elements of traditional music but we also have that Bollywood film music because that’s what Trishna watches and that becomes part of what she wants to do. Then we worked with Amit Trivedi, who is a beautiful guy who plays the composer in the film and he wrote songs specially, so for me, that was a really new thing, to have someone while we’re filming, with the script, talking to you about how the songs should be and playing you demos of songs that he’s writing. It seemed like it would be fun, because we’re dealing wit the fringe of Bollywood, both Trishna’s kind of ideal but also when she goes to Bombay and meets with Anurag Kashyap, who is a director. So he was writing the lyrics for the songs and how we can tell the story through songs before we even shoot the story, which is great, and then we love Umebay’s music, so after I’d done a cut–we’d been using his music as temp–then I sent him the film, he’s in Tokyo, and said, “Do you dig it?” He was like “Yeah” and he was amazing, he’s a really sweet and lovely guy. It was kind of strange because with Amit, it was someone who was around on set and actually in the film, someone we got to know before the shoot, which I never normally do with composers. Then with Umebay, it was the opposite, it was all on Skype, so I never really saw him until he came over to London to record the music that was the first time I actually met him. It was kind of weird and at two opposite sides of the spectrum. Both of them are brilliant for the songs and the score.

CS: Any idea what you want to do next? Last time I spoke to you, the plan was to do “Promised Land”…
No I still want to do that but I still can’t.

CS: Do you usually have two or three things in development so you have a few different choices?
Yeah, exactly. Usually it’s two or three things that you’re trying to persuade people to make and try and do. I just finished filming two days ago. I did a film called “The King of Soho,” which is a film with Steve Coogan.

CS: So what is that? Your fourth movie with him? Can’t get away from each other.
Fourth and last. No, no… it’s about Paul Raymond, it’s about a guy who ran a club in London, so it’s been a nightmare for us. His story takes place in the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, ’80s and ’90s in Soho in London and we had no money. At the beginning, I don’t know why, for some reason I thought, “Oh, it’s alright, we’ll be able to fund it,” and then actually, because of the stuff we needed, we can’t.

CS: You’ve been fairly selective about the projects you do so do you have anything else lined up?
Yeah, I have a couple of independent films, but like Michael said, it’s difficult working when the films aren’t completely financed. I’m still prepping for them and they’re very, very interesting projects, so hopefully I’ll start working in one or two months.

Trishna opens in New York on Friday, July 13 and will be available On Demand starting July 20. (If you live in New York, we strongly recommend seeing it on the big screen.)