Opportunity Knox for a director well schooled in scandal

Michael Winterbottom, the man behind the controversial 9 Songs, tells Kaleem Aftab why he plans to make a film about the most infamous murder case of recent times
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The Independent Culture

As soon as Michael Winterbottom completes one project, he is talking about the next one. That is why he has been able to make 20 films since 1995, a rate that makes Woody Allen look like a snail.

Trishna, his India-set adaptation of Thomas Hardy's Tess of the d'Urbervilles, had its world premier at the Toronto Film Festival in September. Now Winterbottom is thinking about Amanda Knox, the American student who was recently acquitted of the murder of Meredith Kercher. Last year, the director attended one of the court hearings in Perugia and revealed that he was making a film.

"Well I don't really want to talk about the result of the appeal," he tells me, days after Knox's return to Seattle, insisting that the result has not scuppered his project. "We are still working on the screenplay. The idea doesn't depend on the verdict. It's starting from the point of view that you can never really know in a case with such conflicting evidence what the truth is. The film is about the way in which a case like this is covered, why we all have such a great interest in it and how the medial deals with crimes like this."

Colin Firth, whom Winterbottom directed in Genova, will reputedly star, although the 50-year-old director says: "Colin's been involved with the project from the beginning, but I'm not sure whether he'd actually be involved in it if we ever made it. Colin came out to Perugia with us to talk to some of the journalists. But at this stage, we don't have a script and we don't know what that script will be about or who the characters will be, so it's impossible to know who is going to be cast in the end." He adds that the fact that Firth has an Italian wife and spends so much of his time in Italy may mean that the man who won an Oscar for The King's Speech will not want to be part of the project in the end.

Winterbottom has focused on journalists before, in A Mighty Heart, about the kidnapping and murder in Pakistan of the Wall Street Journal journalist Daniel Pearl and in Welcome to Sarajevo, which is based on the true story of Michael Nicholson, a British reporter who rescued a young orphan girl from a war zone.

Repetition is something that Winterbottom embraces. Trishna seems to be the result of throwing all of his films into a curry pot. "It's funny you should say that," he says. "Because when we were working on the film in the edit, someone in the office said that as well. It borrows a little here and there. That's what I always do when I run out of ideas. I guess I'd better stop before I repeat myself in every film."

Trishna is Winterbottom's third adaptation of a Thomas Hardy novel; in 1996 Jude the Obscure became Jude, starring Kate Winslet and Christopher Eccleston; in 2000 The Mayor of Casterbridge was renamed The Claim and set in 1860s California.

The Rajasthan-set Trishna is his most enjoyable Hardy yet. Winterbottom is not the first director to see the parallels between the world of classic British novels and contemporary India. Gurinder Chadha adapted Jane Austen for Bride & Prejudice and there has been a plethora of Bollywood adaptations of British novels.

"I'm a little bit aware of this phenomenon," says Winterbottom. "I don't really have much knowledge of Bollywood. But if you take someone like Hardy, he's writing a big long novel, which is serialised every month to start with, and so it needs a big arc. It needs a lot of melodrama, lots of stories and so on. That becomes a problem when you come to do a film of his book. That kind of melodrama, the sheer amount of plot can be so hard to do. I guess in Bollywood films melodrama is not such a problem."

Winterbottom has compressed the novel by amalgamating some of the characters. "I think Jay, played by Riz [Ahmed] in the film, is quite a tricky character because he's a combination of Angel and Alec from the book. He has to fall in love with her in a way that Alec might – she's beautiful and desire is there. But then he drifts into a position where he turns Trishna into a kind of slave or prostitute."

The Slumdog Millionaire star Frieda Pinto plays the title role. Much of the rest of the cast is made up of non-actors. Winterbottom says: "I suppose, especially for me working in India, one of the ways of trying to avoid feeling like you're making up stuff about people whose lives you don't understand is to use those real people. They're doing what they are doing and you don't have to tell them what to do."

This is not the first time the director has shot in the region. Eight years ago he filmed for 10 days in Rajasthan, while making Code 46, a futuristic reimagining of the Oedipus myth as a romantic mystery, starring Tim Robbins and Samantha Morton. He was back in Mumbai five years ago for A Mighty Heart. Much of that film was shot in Pakistan, a country that featured in his Berlin Golden Bear-winning docudrama In This World, about two Afghan boys who try to get into Britain, and in The Road to Guantanamo, about the "Tipton Three", British Muslims who were arrested in Afghanistan and sent to Guantanamo Bay.

"What happens I think to some extent is that you do a film in an area and it triggers off other ideas," he says. "So maybe if I hadn't done one film there, then I wouldn't have done any of the other films since."

On the horizon, Winterbottom is set to deliver Seven Days, to Channel 4 in early 2012. The director has been shooting the film, about the relationship between a convicted drug smuggler and his wife (John Simm and Shirley Henderson), for several years.

Also upcoming, Winterbottom regular Steve Coogan, who starred as himself in The Trip and A Cock and Bull Story and played the maverick Manchester producer Tony Wilson in 24 Hour Party People, came to Winterbottom with the idea of making a film about the Soho porn baron Paul Raymond.

"Steve felt that there was a lot in Paul Raymond's life and in his character that he understood and that it would be a great part for him, which I think is true." They are currently working on the script and also on a sequel to The Trip, in which Coogan and Rob Brydon go to Italy.

The Raymond film will be another controversial project in a career peppered with scandal and chaos. For 9 Songs, about the ups and down of a relationship, he asked his actors, Margo Stilley and Kieran O'Brien, to have sex on camera. Meanwhile, in real life, his ex-wife, Sabrina Broadbent, the mother of his two children, wrote Descent, a semi-autobiographical novel about a marriage crumbling as a result of the long absences of the heroine's film-director husband.

The film Winterbottom is most likely to make next is Bailout, a comedy starring Jack Black based on the novel The Financial Lives of the Poets. But with his production partner Andrew Eaton talking up a Liam Gallagher-produced Beatles biopic, The Longest Cocktail Party, the director is not ready to say which of the many projects he has on the boil will be the first to pass go.

'Trishna' will be released early next year