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Magic, realized: An interview with Salman Rushdie on his movie

Hope floats...
Paladin Films

A sweeping, transgenerational tale laid down with an incisive precision not unlike Gabriel Garcia Marquez' lyrical prose, Salman Rushdie's 1981 novel, Midnight's Children, would seem like a natural choice for a film adaptation, what with its healthy helpings of magic realism, melodrama and historical fiction. Yet, there it's been sitting on bookshelves, award ceremonies and book lovers' hearts for over 30 years, somehow miraculously untouched by Hollywood's compulsion to turn every dog-eared page into a flurry of consecutive images. But just outside the confines of the major studios and with the buffer of three decades, screenwriter Rushdie - along with critically acclaimed director Deepa Mehta (Water, Bollywood/Hollywood) - has managed to turn his own novel into a cinematic extension of his craft.

I had the pleasure of sitting down with Mr. Rushdie and hearing him talk about his new project.

Marvin Miranda: How was it for you to be able to creatively return to this story 30 somewhat years later, to be able to open it back up? It seems like it would be a unique opportunity to tinker around with something that was already finished.

There are things that you do when you're younger that you do differently when you're older and vice versa. I think in many ways it's a young man's book. It reads with the kind of energy and drive of a young man and all of that I kind of admired about my younger self. I think the only reason I could do it is because I had so much distance from it. If it was a novel I wrote just now I really wouldn't have thought I was the right person for it. But it was a way for me to ask myself, okay, here you are at this point in your life as a writer and you're looking back at this story you told a very long time ago and you could make, if you like, a companion piece for it. I always thought of it not exactly as an adaptation but as a thing by itself that would sit well alongside the original. I said to Deepa, we should think of it as not exactly as an adaptation of the book but as a relative of the book. Think of it as a cousin, a sibling. Hopefully a family resemblance but it has to be its own thing. For instance, I think the book is less emotional than the film. The book is less nakedly emotional, the feeling is right out here [extends his arm to its fullest in front of his chest] and that's partly due to how Deepa approaches film. She very much starts with what is the emotional line through the story and how do you hold on to that. It meant that the film's emotions are rawer and upfront. In the book they're kind of ironized and they're seen through comedy, this and that, and I don't think you cry when reading Midnight's Children. A lot of people cry when watching the movie, I'm happy to say.

Did you have a preconceived idea of how the film would turn out and did it meet that expectation?

Truthfully, I had no idea what the film would look like. And I think both Deepa and I were very aware during this long process that the chance of screwing up was very high. So there was the possibility that we would not pull it off. So that kind of terror drove us forward, really. I knew when I saw the dailies - and I saw hours and hours of the dailies - at that point I knew we had the possibility of doing something good because the thing you can't ever change is how the film looks and how the actors act. Once that's done, that's done and if it's not there at that point you're not going to get it. But it was clear when we went through that long process, of looking at the dailies, that the film looked extraordinary. I think the job [cinematographer] Giles Nuttgens did was quite exceptional and the performances: every actor had given it 200%, given it all they got and I couldn't see a single weak link in the performances. Well, that's not completely true because there were two places where we had to re-voice people. They're very small parts. There were one or two parts where the voice just didn't feel right so we had to put a stronger voice on. Those were minor characters but in terms of main characters it was quite clear that everyone had done a good job. So, at that point you think, well, you have the raw material. You have performances which are wonderful and you have a film which looks great. Then, you know, where the film is really made, is in the cutting room. That took more than a year. In fact, it was spent on so long that even after we started screening the film we were still re-cutting it.

Was it a natural choice to have you narrate your own story?

I'm not a big fan of there being voiceovers in movies. I really prefer it when the film tells it story. But we came to feel that given the narrative is three generations and there are so many characters, that it's all over the place geographically, it needed some organizing voice just to hold it together. One thing we agreed on - the reason why I think it works - is that we would never use the voiceover in a expository way. We never use it to say, here's what you're about to see or this is what you just saw means; that we would always use it to add another layer with [protagonist] Saleem reflecting on his life or thinking about themes of the story. Use it in an almost poetic way so as to add another layer of meaning that you would lay on the story. That's why I think it does work in the end. It never says, and now, this happened! and then you see it happen. It was a very late decision to have the voiceover at all. It was after we'd done the first cut. Then I said, well I could write it. And an even later decision for me to do the voiceover because my view had been, get an actor. Deepa did try it with a couple of actors and she came back to me and said, I just don't like it and I think you should do it. I had my arm twisted. And Deepa is very good at arm-twisting.

You're also executive producer of the film with frequent Deepa collaborator David Hamilton, who produced it. How was it being part of the production team for an independent film?

Well, we just avoided the big studios. It was a decision we made right away. We could probably have gotten the money more easily and we could probably have gotten much more money which we actually did need. We could have really done with an extra few million dollars because the shoot was really brutal. We had 65 locations and 70 shooting days. Just a nightmare. And very, very long shooting days which required everybody to be very giving, people not to be towing the union line. People just shot 'til the day's work was done and everybody approached it in that spirit, without which we couldn't have done. So we could have really done with a bit more money. Not for [the filmmakers], although that would have been nice. But we decided right from the beginning we were not gonna go down that route for exactly the reasons of creative control. We wanted to have final cut. We wanted to not have casting decisions enforced upon us. We wanted to have the script be what we wanted the script to be rather than somebody else dictating there should be another re-write or new writers brought in. You know, everything that can happen. So we knew it would be very much harder to make the film. This also was, at the time, the aftermath of the financial crash and so on, you know, when money for independent films was really very hard to get. So we knew it would make it much harder to make the film. I think the thing that actually helped us crucially was the fact that Deepa and David are Canadian-based because Canada still has money that it makes available for independent cinema. I think it ended up a very sizable percentage of the budget, David Hamilton will tell you more exactly, but it was somewhere, in my memory, around 20% of the budget came from Canadian sources, all these different bodies that are there. They all really gave us the maximum support that they were able to give us. Partly because Deepa is such a beloved figure in Canada people want to help her with her work as she wants to make it.

Deepa and I have been saying that every time we have these opportunities to talk to the media that everybody says this is Deepa's and mine film but, actually, it's very, very important to say this is David Hamilton's film because if he had not spent, whatever it was, two and a half years putting this together there would be no movie. The budget was so tight, the requirement on everybody was so intense to get it done, to be able to bring it home on time and on budget, who knew that that could even be done. It required a very tolerant crew and very tolerant cast which we were very lucky to have. People really felt that they wanted this to happen and they wanted to be part of it.

Speaking of the cast: there are quite a few notable Indian actors featured. How was it working with them?

The cast were all very proud to be playing parts in Midnight's Children, which, for many of them, it was a book they read when they were young. It meant something to them to be able to embody a character that they had read. As a result, I think you see it on the screen. Everybody is giving everything they've got. There are no stars in this film. Although, many of these actors in India are quite considerable stars. Shabana Azmi, Rahul Bose, very well-known people. Shriya Saran who plays Parvati the witch and Siddharth who plays Shiva, they're not Bombay actors, they're South Indian actors but they're very, very big in South Indian Cinema, Telugu cinema. Many of these people have the experience of being movie stars and being treated as movie stars and we said, look, forget it, everybody's being paid exactly the same, everybody gets the same hotel room, everybody gets the same per diem, nobody gets anything different and you gotta think of this as an ensemble piece. Even the lead character is played by two actors. There's a child actor and a grown up actor. So even the main character is not the star. [Adult actor] Satya [Bhabha] doesn't come into the movie until over an hour, which is not traditional for a lead actor. That was the spirit that everybody worked with. That was the reason why we could make it. Everybody just said, okay, leave your ego at the door, show up, do the work.

Did you ever consider any of the Bollywood superstars?

There were some actors, very good actors at the very top of the Indian film industry, "super superstars," and we did talk to them and some of them were interested but they had no familiarity with working in this way. They make films which are entirely made around them. There are five or six men and four or five women who are at that level and they become everything in the film, the whole film revolves around them. For them to be asked to give up all of that, even with the best role in the world it's difficult for them to do 'cause they've never worked in that way. And they see, quite rightly, that their choices actually have a very big effect on the annual gross of the Indian film industry. Which films they choose to be in actually determine what films are hits and misses and so on. So if you are Aamir Khan or Salman Khan or Shah Rukh Kahn and if you're Priyanka Chopra or Kareena Kapoor or so on, the movies you decide to be in become the movies of the year. They say, we can't make the decision to take a bit part in a movie. In a way they were right not to do it and we were right not to have them because it would have distorted this ensemble cast and this feeling of everyone just pitching in. Nobody is bigger than the character so people simply embodied the character.

Midnight's Children opens on Friday, May 3 at The Arclight in Hollywood, Laemmle’s Royal Theatre in West Los Angeles, Laemmle’s Playhouse in Pasadena, Laemmle’s Town Center in Encino and Regal’s Westpark 8 in Orange County.


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