Interview: Mira Nair
by Carlo Cavagna
LEFT: Mira Nair on the set of Vanity Fair
irector Mira Nair is on the defensive. From the very first question during a roundtable interview in Los Angeles, she is obliged to justify and explain her artistic choices on Vanity Fair, her new film based on the famous 1848 novel by William Makepeace Thackeray, and starring Reese Witherspoon. How long does Nair think the film should have ideally been? Was there a longer cut of the film where the story didn't feel so edited? Why was there so much Indian culture in a film set in early 19th Century England? Is it realistic that Reese Witherspoon and a bevy of scantily clad court ladies would perform a Bollywood-style “slave dance” for the King of England?
The blunt questions are not hugely surprising, given the mixed critical reaction to the film. USA Today called it “choppy” and “confusing.” The New York Daily News observed that it “crams in so many of the events and characters of Thackeray's 900-page novel that the story often seems to be moving on fast-forward.” Peter Travers of Rolling Stone concluded that “ Vanity Fair ends up nowhere.” More damningly, many critics think the film fails to capture the spirit of Thackeray's bitingly dark book, which is aptly summarized by its subtitle, “A Novel Without a Hero.” Witherspoon's Becky Sharpe comes across as something of a Jane Austen-style, spunky feminist heroine in the first half of the film, and a victim done in by both circumstance and her own ambition in the latter half of the film—not as Thackeray's ruthless, promiscuous schemer.
Still, the film has supporters as well. Compliments have been showered upon Nair's lively, colorful visual style and the talented cast, which includes Eileen Atkins (Gosford Park), Jim Broadbent (Iris), Bob Hoskins (Who Framed Roger Rabbit?), James Purefoy (Mansfield Park), Romola Garai (Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights), Gabriel Byrne (Miller's Crossing), Jonathan Rhys Meyers (Bend It Like Beckham), Rhys Ifans (Notting Hill), and Geraldine McEwan (The Magdalene Sisters). The Washington Post called Vanity Fair “intensely watchable,” and the Chicago Tribune praised Witherspoon's “radiance.”Vanity Fair's biggest supporter is of course Nair herself, who first came to international notice in 1988 with the acclaimed Salaam Bombay! She has since split her work between India and the United States (which has included such films as Mississippi Masala, Kama Sutra, HBO's Hysterical Blindness, and Monsoon Wedding). Nair fields each challenging question expertly, cowing reporters with her superior knowledge of Thackeray's novel and of English cultural history in general. She rarely betrays irritation, and indeed, her enthusiasm seems to grow as the interview progresses and the conversation turns toward her own boundless passion for film.
Question: Let's talk about the Indian elements that you brought into the movie. The way you weaved Indian culture into the movie has surprised some people. Was there so much Indian culture in the book? Would someone in the 1800s, like Becky Sharpe, occasionally look like she was wearing what appeared to be a sari-like dress. In other words—
Nair: I understand. Should I answer the question?
Nair: What was brilliant about the book, and why I made the film, really, is that it was about a time in early 19th Century England when colony was hugely intersecting the Empire. People in the middle classes of England were getting fat off the riches of India, specifically. All the spoils of the colonies were basically stuffing up the coffers at home, and so much was influenced at home as a result of this intersection. And Thackeray wrote a kind of a cinema verité portrait of what went on in that day. He writes at length about fashion that came from India, or the marble inlayed furniture that came also from India, or the furniture that came from China. He wrote at length about all this, about Joss Sedley's brocaded vests that he took seven pages to describe.
I just took that whole theme, which was for me very important—the whole exploration of race as well—you know, “What's a shade or two of tawny if there's half a million on the table?”—that scene with the Jamaican heiress. This was what that time was about, because those people now had the money of not just a merchant class, but of the aristocracy. But they didn't have the status, and they wanted the titles. That was what Vanity Fair was about. It was about all these people who were clamoring for what they could not get, which is a human folly that we all have.
Question: If you had your wish, how long would this movie actually be? Because it appeared to me that there had been some edits, where perhaps you wanted to say a little bit more, but maybe the studio, or yourself, or somebody—What's going on?
Nair: I am very happy with the film. I think the big challenge for me in making this film was to achieve a kind of cinematic rhythm, and a balance—
Question: How long do you think the film—?
Nair: Maybe I just finish? Sorry.
Nair: —was to achieve a kind of cinematic rhythm, and a balance between all the stories that were going on at once. It is, in fact, narratively very close to Monsoon Wedding, which is my previous film and has the same aspiration—to have a balance between all these stories. The structure of Vanity Fair is such that you can feel like it's ending way before it's ending, and that was what I never wanted you to have. I wanted you to feel that you wanted more, because I was giving you so much, but I wasn't giving you enough that you could always be satiated on all fronts. Because that wouldn't keep you wanting the rest. So, in the struggle toward getting you to a feeling that this is the ending and not anything else before it, I did sculpt a lot myself. But other than that, no, the studio just was dazzled by the movie. They really respected the movie. And they didn't—
Question: So how long is the movie?
Nair: The movie is two hours and twenty minutes.
Question: There's no other cut? There has been some discussion regarding a longer cut—there's only one cut?
Nair: No, no. There's one cut.
Question : Was Reese the first choice for the role?
Nair: Yes. Reese was my first and only choice for the role. She called me up months before I was offered Vanity Fair, just out of the blue, saying she was Reese Witherspoon, and she loved my films, and would I please meet with her and work with her? And so we met. I of course had loved her work, but I really loved the curiosity in her, her intelligence. Six months later I was offered Vanity Fair. I phoned her immediately, and I said, “Will you be my Becky Sharpe?” She said yes immediately.
Question: She got pregnant in time for the role, too. Did she have to work a lot on her British accent? Did she work with a coach?
Nair: Of course. Reese is a very applied person, and harnesses her skills beautifully, because she has been acting since she was ten. That's an extraordinary thing. Anyway, yes, we had a wonderful dialect coach called Jill McCullough, and she worked with her every day. The idea was not to perfect the accent, but to actually glide past it—to have it so much in her that she would not make it something like an exam every morning. It was a wonderful relationship between her and Jill. There was a looseness, but a rigor at the same time.
AboutFilm: The accent wasn't totally new to her, though. She had used it before in The Importance of Being Earnest.
Nair: Which I try not to remember. [laughter]
Question: It seemed like a demanding part. What aspect of the production was most difficult for Reese? Were there parts where she struggled?
Nair: Of course. Reese, you know, she's an athletic actor. She's just complete. You know, she's pregnant, [and] to perform with such athletic vigor, not to mention grace, at every moment! Look at what she did. She climbed onto a coal cart with one hand, like a gymnast, in one shot. No cutting and pasting to make it look good. She leapt onto elephants. She got onto wet carriages. She lugged that trunk. We kept the trunk pretty heavy, always, just for [the effect of] that little girl yanking this trunk. She did it all. There was nothing that she said she couldn't do.
For me it was very important to keep that energy on the frame, to keep the film pulsating with life. I didn't want to do this talking head nonsense. It was about the fluid camera. There were twenty scenes in which she had to be pregnant, so we obviously staged them toward the end and celebrated her pregnancy. But the stuff where she didn't have to be pregnant, there were loads of tricks. I hired an army of little boys who reached her bump. They were always staged in a certain way, with long lenses. Everything else was there, but their heads obscured just the bump. There were loads of tricks like that, so that we kept the camera as fluid, and kept as much of the expanse, as I wanted. I would say that she did it all.
Question: What did you think of working with Gabriel Byrne? There's so much that Thackeray says about the Marquess of Steyne, but you brought another aspect—that he was missing love in his life, and that's why he had a fixation with Becky Sharpe. How did you take that from paper to Gabriel?
Nair: For me, it's easy to play an unfeeling aristocrat, but I wanted to play Lord Steyne with soul. And I've always carried a torch for Gabriel. I just wrote to him, and he didn't even read the script. He just said yes. A lot of the people in this cast just said yes because of Monsoon Wedding. They just said, “Whatever.” Literally. And he was one of them. He said he saved the letter for posterity. Because he has soul, you know, and he has a kind of mystery about him. And let's face it, we love looking at him.
[But what] I wasn't sure [about]—because he's such an Irishman, and he's so strong politically, which is one of the big reasons I adore him—is whether he would surrender to the slack-jawed way of the English aristocracy, the way he had to speak. He was fantastic. That's something I didn't know, whether he would do [it]. But he immediately surrendered to [Steyne]. And yes, we invented the painting [of Becky's mother at the beginning of the film, which Steyne purchases]. It's sort of an Indian trick, actually, to give you a motif [so] that you will understand that this girl is a motherless child, that that's her mother, and what it must feel like to be an orphan, to run her father's business at seven. All those things in one scene, and then to have this painting be the talisman of her ascent, reminding her, “Are you doing good?” It was with Gabriel's soulfulness that we could go toward that dimension of not just a ruthless aristocrat, but one who is also poignant in his way.
AboutFilm: This movie and Monsoon Wedding—so many characters, as you've already mentioned. How do you juggle so many characters? How do you get them all in, and make sure that each story gets enough screen time? How do you strike the balance and make it work?
Nair: Every scene has to have a very strong intent. But because it's such a scrolling saga, every scene has to do five things in addition to that intent. I'll give you an example. The scene in which Dobbin [Rhys Ifans] has to tell Lord Osborne [Jim Broadbent] that George [Jonathan Rhys Meyers] and Amelia [Romola Garai] have married. That's the scene, right? But, what I want to [also] convey in that scene is that England is going to war. So I tell my assistant directors that I want this whole scene not just in front of a doorway, but in a complete street. I have recruiters, and war people, and drummers—all these other subplots are happening. You get the sense that the whole country [is] in upheaval when Osborne comes down, and Dobbin has to talk to him.
And I told Rhys Ifans that you are saying to [Osborne] that George is marrying Amelia, but you are absolutely in love with Amelia. “Even though you have saved Amelia by making George marry her, it's breaking your heart to say that George married Amelia. So when you say George married Amelia, you have to flinch, like you have daggers in your heart while that is being said.” That's the specific direction. So, he has to flinch at that moment, because I know that my camera is going to be on him saying those words. So you have a spectacle of everybody going to war, but you [also] have the infinite idea, the emotional dagger. That's how I work. The intent of the scene has to be very clear, and not just very clear to the actors. I have to nail it visually, so that you, the audience, get the point. That's how I do it, step by step. Always trying to question, “Do we need this?” Taking away the excess, but also jamming the frame with all kinds of layers of action, that will give you more than just the one thing. I can give you many examples.
AboutFilm: Are you always as specific with your actors as you were with Rhys in that scene, or do you talk to them in different ways depending on who they are? Do you let them improvise?
Nair: Of course, of course. See, my work is to make everyone bloom. Everyone. There is no one way to make everyone bloom. You have to find the way that person can respond to. So yes, when I need to be specific, I'm very specific. But with actors, I'm very specific, because I also know the rhythm of the whole scene. Often there's many more things than that actor happening in that scene, so [if] I know I'm going to be on the actor in that moment, he better nail it at that moment. And we're doing so much. Fifty-five days we shot that movie in, Vanity Fair. So, it's achieving a lot on a daily basis. It's about getting it and moving on. [laughs]
Question: The marriages are bitter; the men are going off to kill off the French, and then you see parents with the bodies of their children—Is the film a metaphor for today?
Nair: I think that things have not changed. I think that was the brilliance of his novel. He knew that what he was writing about was steadfast, because he was writing about the human condition, and the folly that is in all of us. He's showing you this amazing saga, but he's asking the essential question, “Which of us is happy in this world? Which of us, having met our desire, is satisfied?” That is the essential question of life, for you, me, and them. Becky Sharpe—she was modern then, and she is totally timeless now. Then, to have a Becky who didn't like the cards that society gave her, and created her own deck—that was a radical thing. Today, we are still doing that, as women, especially. Of course, it's lauded sometimes in our world. It's more accepted than it was then. But the journey, and the struggle, and the mistakes, and the folly, and the greed, and the vanity, and the fact that [if] you get a little more, you want much more than that—well, that's human nature.
Question: And the class structures—the effort to break through that—
Nair: Of course. And like I used to joke, if there's anyone who understands class better than the English, it's the Indian.
Question: You normally make pictures in America or India. How was filming in the UK?
Nair: You know, we are real colonial hangovers. We are really steeped in Dickens, and Shakespeare, and Blake, and Dylan Thomas. I can recite—my father used to make me memorize Portia every summer—crazy things like that. So we know. I've not shot in England before, but I love England, and in many ways I'm very familiar with it. So it was a great joy. The crews in England, they still have to get used to the idea of women leading their army.
Question: But you always have a lot of female crew members.
Nair: I do. I always do.
Question: You've said that Dobbin was the moral ballast of the story, which suggests that Becky was pursuing something improper or morally wrong. But isn't it fine to aspire to move from where you are and ache for something more? Dobbin wasn't the only one who was morally sound, don't you think?
Nair: He was more clearly the moral center than the others, because he was selfless. At every moment he was selfless. He was always wanting nothing that would make him any happier. So in that sense, he was the moral center.
Question: You've got cynical characters who speak the truth in this film. Eileen Atkins and Gabriel Byrne, these are the ones who cut through all the B.S. and take the lid off of everything. So it seems like you're trying to rip apart—
Nair: Thackeray was taking the layers, revealing the sham, and the hypocrisies, and the vanities, sometimes with great affection and sometimes with great bite. That was what I wanted to do, cinematically, all the time. Literally revealing the layers, revealing the shams, taking off stuff that you are putting on to be a certain way, which we all do, of course. But, to make the modern audiences not look at these people as fossilized specimens from another age, but just people like you and me, who like to take baths, who hate to wear that wig they keep for the visiting aunties. I wanted to keep that reality base, very much.
Question: Your films so beautifully capture so much. And they're not talking heads, as you said. Do you that because you naturally like to use the whole canvas?
Nair: Yeah. I love the circus of life. I love it. And I also come from strong cinema verité documentary stock. I always think the truth is stranger than fiction. In my fiction films, I like to marry that extraordinariness of ordinary life with a story.
Question: There's always other things going on in the frame.
Nair: Yeah, and also people come and see the films more than once. Like the book gives me something new each time, I hope that in seeing Vanity Fair more than once, people will get new things from it.
Question: The slave dance scene—Now, that is actually a Moroccan dance, right?
Question: And it was a Bollywood choreographer. Obviously you're taking some poetic license. So it didn't matter to you?
Nair: No, no, it mattered, but in the sense that in the book, Thackeray spends eight pages, okay, talking about dumb charades—a game which I love, but on the theme of slavery. Becky was dressed, in Thackeray's words, in next to nothing as a slave girl. They were performing in a very elegant spectacle, for the King of England, with all the ladies of the court in the dumb charades. Now, would you pay money to see that scene, or would you pay money to see the dance? I like to give people their money's worth. I wanted to take the same intent and make it totally like you couldn't get your eyes off the screen. The intent was that Becky was in Steyne's total control, that she was doing his bidding, that Rawdon [James Purefoy] was getting disgusted. All the story points that were in that other thing we basically created in this. And because it was, again, this intersection of colony and Empire, I thought, let's do it as a dance. Because it's much more fun. It's much more what I go to the movies for. In India we have a nice slang, “Give me my money's worth.” I'm giving you your money's worth.
Question: But, for the era, was the dancing realistic?
Nair: It's about—the creation of the slave charades—was to shock. So the intent is there, to shock that world, and to show you that this was not exactly normal, and therefore it was scandalous. But, also realize that this was pre-Victorian. This was a time when they were given to flamboyant excesses, and great debauchery, especially for visiting royalty. So, you know, I think Thackeray would love it. We hope.
Question: What happened to the whole idea two years ago of Bollywood coming to Hollywood?
Nair: I don't really do Bollywood, so don't ask me. [laughs] The way I look at it is that Bollywood has conquered half the world. We've always spoken to zillions of people, and it's just about time that the West woke up to the power of the Bollywood vocabulary. Also, the West knows a good market when it sees one. We're talking billions of people here. Everyone wants a piece of the pie. And so that's [how] you create these trends. But I still believe that there's only good movies, and there are only terrible movies. If you make a good movie, whether it's a Bollywood movie, or this movie or that movie, it will speak to people. That's all there is. That is the criteria. Not really anything else.
Question: What made you want to be a filmmaker, and how did your family respond when you told them? Were you young?
Nair: No, I was always ancient. [laughter] I began by making documentary films. My family did not understand how to even spell the word. What is a documentary film? For Indians, documentary meant how much coal the Indian government has produced this month. So my mother wondered, “Why have I educated this chick, to make documentary films?” For five years, they hardly even saw my documentaries, and they used to get quite chagrined by the choices—namely, you know, living with strippers in a Bombay nightclub. They just pretended I didn't exist for awhile. But, then I made Salaam Bombay! They came to Cannes when we opened it. It was amazing for them, and then they were totally taken. They've been my complete supporters ever since.
Question: What drove you to become a filmmaker?
Nair: You know I started as an actor, in protest, political theater, in India. I always looked for a way to find whether it was possible to use artistic expression to change the world. I began to feel that was impossible to do as an actor, because you are always at the mercy of somebody else's vision. I came to Harvard on a scholarship to pursue acting, but it wasn't really inspiring. And I fell into the next best thing in the University, which was documentary filmmaking. I felt immediately at home and very blessed in that. I worked visually—I always was a visualist in some ways—I worked with people, and I worked to tell a story about life. And so, I made documentary films for seven years, and then began to tire of finding audiences for documentaries. I wanted more audiences. So, I made fiction.
Question: Do you believe there's more of a struggle being a female filmmaker?
Nair: The struggle is not as a woman. The struggle is to keep the inspiration, and to do what my heart tells me to do. And also, we come from a paradoxical nation. I've been used to Indian women leading and winning freedom for our country. I've been used to Indira Gandhi when America can't even fathom what it might feel like to have a female president. We are used to women in leadership. So, it's not like, “Can I do it; can I not?” There was a sort of weird fearlessness in fact, that I was brought up with, that I could do really anything.
AboutFilm: What do you find irresistible, as a filmmaker? What can't you resist, in a project, or when you're shooting?
Nair: Great question. I commend you. A great question. Umm… [thinks] I can't resist, something— Let me answer it another way. My criteria, when people offer me movies that I don't originate, is if I can think of other people to make that movie, I don't touch it. But if I think of a way that only I can do something, that I know nobody else can do, then I do it.
Truthfulness attracts me, and truth comes in all kinds of strange ways. If the dialogue, if the story itself has the truth, that's a big thing. I always joke with my crew that my next picture will be two people in a room eating sushi. But it will never happen. And so obviously the circles of life is very attractive to me. I need a visual expanse every time. And I love to tell our own stories. After Vanity Fair and two years of it, I want to now see my own people and our own dreams through my lens. So, I'm going to do The Namesake next, which is Jhumpa Lahiri's new novel, which starts in Calcutta and goes to Cambridge, Mass., and ends up in New York, which is pretty much the road I've traveled.
Question: Have you cast that yet?
Nair: I've cast two major roles in it, but I can't say. One is a big Indian star, and one is a Hollywood actress. So it'll be good. In a few months, you'll hear. I'm shooting in December.
Question: What's your favorite memory making this picture?
Nair: My favorite memory? A friend of mine visiting the set in Bath, and seeing the expanse, the carriages and the horse shit, and the coal mongers, and the pigs, and the everything, and he looked at me and he said, “You know, Mira, this is Salaam Bombay! ” I was so happy—I had no idea. I suddenly thought, “Oh my god, he's got it.” Because that's what I was going for—the underside, the stuff that makes us realize what the working class does to make the upper classes have their shenanigans, their dreams and their vanities, that push and pull. In Salaam Bombay , we were shooting with hidden cameras on bustling Indian streets. In Vanity Fair we were creating early 19th Century London, but it had never been created that way. So it was really dazzling for a lot of people. But for me, we were in the trenches, creating it piece by piece.
[Read the AboutFilm review of Vanity Fair]
[Read the AboutFilm review of Monsoon Wedding]
Feature and Interview © September 2004 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
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