As part of X Media Lab and the Melbourne International Film Festival in 2007, film critic Tom Ryan talked to Indian filmmaker and bloggist Shekka Kapur, along with Geoffrey Rush and Jill Bilcock, who starred in and edited Shekhar’s latest film for Working Title, Golden Age, as well as his previous film Elizabeth. Elizabeth starred Cate Blanchett for which she won an Academy Award.
Shekhar Kapur showed at a previous appearance on Friday at X Media Lab what a fascinating speaker he is. Asked what advice he was giving the Singapore Government, he laughed. “What advice can I give a government – I’m a filmmaker!” was his initial comment. Then without pause he rushed into a summary of his advice, which was that Singapore could become the film hub of Asia. “An Indian filmmaker would not feel comfortable working in Shanghai,” he reasoned, “and a Chinese filmmaker would not be comfortable working in Mumbai. But both would be very comfortable working in Singapore. That is why I believe Singapore could become the film hub of Asia.”
He had explained how Asia was so important to the future of film, as well as the internet. “At the moment Asia is regarded by the West as firstly a market, and secondly a source of outworkers,” he said. “But the number of Asian consumers is so huge that sooner or later they will begin to make demands of the market, and the whole thing will shift towards Asian tastes.”
It was a recurring theme. “India has 1.2 billion people,’ he would say. “And China is even bigger.”
When asked what Australia could do in the future, it was essentially the same advice. “I would suggest that Australia become a truly Asian country,” he told us.
The session at MIFF began with Geoffrey Rush explaining how he turned Kapur down when first approached to play Walsingham in Elizabeth. But Kapur took him out for a drink, and later agreed to play the role.
It was a similar story with Jill Bilcock. Kapur related how Jill had told him no in a very Australian way: “NO!” she said. “NO!” Jill explained that she was in the middle of editing something else, and she thought why should I drop this project to work on Elizabeth. Besides, it had already commenced, and Jill commented that on many of her films these days, including Baz’s, she begins work at the script stage, before shooting has even begun.
Kapur said that producers sometimes tell a director “we want you because of your vision” but what they really mean is they think the director will be able to secure the actors for less money. He spoke of the battles between directors and producers. Producers have a tendency to work with the writer before unleashing the screenplay on the director. “Producers get nervous when a writer teams up with a director, because it gives them power over the producer.”
Kapur explained that whenever producers read the script, they see all the dialogue in close up. “But that’s not the only way of shooting a film,” he told us. “I can shoot a scene up against a wall, and we can be drawn into the characters, but sometimes it’s more interesting if there’s a war going on behind the characters.”
In Elizabeth Kapur’s strategy was to observe Elizabeth the way her subjects would observe her, so there were lots of shots around pillars and through windows and doors. He would shoot a scene where half of it was a shot of the back of Cate Blanchett’s head, even though she was the main speaker in the scene.
Kapur commented that he avoided screenplays that were regarded as ‘perfect.’ “For me, a perfect script is too claustrophobic. It’s much better if I’m involved in the development of a script. But what’s happening now is that producers are getting scared of the writer and director becoming a team. Because then the producer loses control.”
“A script is just a script,” he said. “As the actors come on board you start to explore the subtext and get into the mythical level. For me, Elizabeth was love in the context of power, it was destiny in the context of power.”
He explained that for him it’s fascinating to see what Geoffrey Rush did with the role, to see his interpretation. “What they are doing organically is for me as important as what I had thought was important beforehand. Both interpretations are right, as long as they are honest to themselves. Often it becomes more powerful through the layers of subetext. And of course the editor has an interpretation that is just as valid as the director’s.”
Jill agreed. “Even though the words might be on the page, there can be many different interpretations.” She added that Kapur is an unusual director in that he doesn’t watch the rushes. “I make sure that he makes some comments that are written down by continuity during the day,” she said, “but he doesn’t like to watch what he has done during the day. He likes to move on.”
Tom asked if there was discussion about the film. Jill said “Geoffrey would pop over to the edit room too. Shekhar would come over occasionally, but it wasn’t about running through all the rushes. If you’re doing something, he lets you continue and find your own path.”
Jill Bilcock mentioned that with Elizabeth, the film changed during the editing. “It was intended to have lots of intrigue, but we didn’t get a lot of that in the end. We realized that we had great performances with Geoffrey and Cate, so we centred the film around Cate. And it was wonderful watching audiences respond to the film when it was made. You realize how much people want to see this kind of movie, and how every time Cate dresses as the Queen, the whole world believes it. She’s magnificent when she plays that role.”
Shekhar explained the role of a director as encouraging creative input from the actors, the crew, everyone involved. “I have to make sure it doesn’t become like wild horses going off in all directions,” he added.
He told us how he was amazed to be offered the job of directing Elizabeth, an Indian filmmaker working in Bollywood. “I was drawn kicking and screaming to the project. I tried to get myself fired. I said I hate costume drama and the prodcers said ‘I hate it too.’ I said I hate British film except for Trainspotting, and they said yes, you’re right, Trainspotting is the only relevant British film.”
Kapur often mentions destiny. He explained that Indians tend to the melodramatic. “All the events of my life, I view as mythic. So it is inevitable that I look for the mythic elements of a film.”
He explained that with Elizabeth, he viewed the stone surrounding the monarch as representative of permanence that underscored her own impermanence. “I stood in a cathedral in England and realized it had been there since the 12th century,” he said. “Meanwhile all these people had come and gone.”
Kapur told us that the Spanish Armada was one of the most ill-conceived flotillas in history, but it would have won easily due to it sheer size, if it were not for a freak storm. “If it wasn’t for that storm, we would all be here speaking in Spanish.”
Kapur alluded to a third film in the series, even though at present it’s uncertain if anyone is committed to completing the trilogy. “I always saw it as a trilogy,” Kapur said.
“What happens when you get absolute power? Because absolute power is divinity. Elizabeth felt she had divine right. She starts to believe that she’s immortal, and we treat them like that. If you’re divine and immortal, how do you face your own mortality?”
“ There will be a third film,’ he said to Rush and Bilcock, “it is in your destiny.”
This article was first published in the Melbourne Age.