Exclusive: Amelia Director Mira Nair

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For much of her career, director Mira Nair has made films very much based on the Indo-American experience, whether it’s Mississippi Masala in 1991, The Namesake in 2006 or any of the number of short films she’s done over the years. That thematic throughline has been set aside for Nair’s latest film, Amelia, which teams her with Hilary Swank to bring the story of famed aviator Amelia Earhart to the big screen.

Earhart became famous for becoming the first woman to fly across the Atlantic in 1928, topping that feat four years later by being the first woman to make a solo flight across the Atlantic, turning her into a legendary icon both among women and aviators for the achievement. In 1937, she attempted to fly around the world, a journey that was cut short by tragedy when her plane disappeared over the Pacific Ocean in the last leg of the flight. Amelia doesn’t just cover the flights or the fame and celebrity that they brought Earhart’s way, but also her relationships with husband George Putnam, played by Richard Gere, and her affair with George Vidal, played by Ewan McGregor, making it far more than a clinical biopic.

ComingSoon.net got on the phone with Nair earlier this week to discuss her latest movie.

ComingSoon: We spoke a few years ago for “The Namesake” and I’m assuming this wasn’t even on the horizon. You were developing “Shantaram” at the time so did this just turn up on your lap, having already been in development?
Mira Nair: Well, you know, the producers came to see me to direct this film while I was putting together “Shantaram” and then I couldn’t because I was busy. Then, they went off and developed a screenplay and in the meanwhile, three months later, “Shantaram” fell apart just before we were to shoot because of the Writers Guild strike. Then the producers came right back the next week. It was a bit of a shock because I didn’t expect to jump right into another epic, but I was really intrigued by Amelia, the real Amelia that I saw in newsreels and so on. Yeah, so that’s how it happened.

CS: Did they have a script pretty much in the finished state at that point?
Nair: Yes, the producers had commissioned a script, but it was not the script that caught me. It was really when I started doing the research on Amelia and the newsreels and so on. I was really intrigued by her. She had this incredible dream which was an unconventional dream at that time. There was also such an interesting humility about her in those newsreels that I was intrigued by and that led me to read her own books that she had written. Then I finally commissioned my own script, the one that Anna Phelan Hamilton wrote.

CS: Was there anything specifically you wanted to bring to her story or anything you felt you could bring compared to other directors?
Nair: Many things I hope. One, I really was wanting to see how she found that balance or if she found that balance between that ecstasy she felt in the sky with the responsibility on the earth. I think that see-saw is a very modern see-saw that women and men face today and I wanted to see how she navigated that for herself. Second, I just also wanted to very much make an epic tale that would transport you as an audience. Someone that would make a film that would feel like you’re in the cockpit with her as she traverses the world. Amelia was a very worldly child. She wanted the world as a kid growing up in Kansas and that intrigued me immediately that she had an appetite for the world as opposed to an insularity, which was common at the time. So I wanted to make an epic action-adventure in a way using real planes in real places, so that you wouldn’t feel that you were not in some computer-generated quest, but you would actually feel the dust and the visceral quality of flying across the expansive oceans and landscapes and other counties, so that was very important for me.

CS: It’s interesting because it’s a very common, small town thing to want to get out of your town, but no one ever really went to that kind of extreme.
Nair: Yeah, and she did… and she kept on doing it too. There was never any sort of borders.

CS: I was really impressed by the newsreel footage, because it so seamlessly blended into the footage you shot. How did you manage that? Did you just work from the newsreel footage and reverse-engineer the look of the movie?
Nair: No, it’s the reverse. Those newsreels actually exist and it was so iconic to see the Friendship, see the Vega, see the Electra actually take off each time and also to see the real Amelia do that with them. By the time we were filming, Hilary Swank’s uncanny resemblance and mastery that she had over the gestures and the whole being of being Amelia was so seamless that I wanted to interweave the existing footage and what we were creating just to remind audiences that this was real; this was not fiction. This is really what happened that these planes actually lifted off and they were primitive objects, they were not amazing birds that we see today. So just to keep that heightened idea of reality and because we have such an extraordinary actress, we could actually interweave the newsreels with our own.

CS: Did you actually build planes to meet the original specifications or did you build older shells around modern technology?
Nair: With the Electra, that is a real Electra. We found 10 remaining Electras in the world and we found two that we could use in the movie. So we flew the real Electra in the real places. That was not a question. Later, we built that Vega and we have Amelia’s Vega in the Smithsonian, and we absolutely recreated it painstakingly outside and inside. With the Friendship, we did the same thing. We built it and then we recreated the cockpit inside to shoot in a studio, but otherwise it was all as real as we could, and that was the whole point actually. There’s such a lot of aviation enthusiasts in this country and in the world, and they all found us and we found them. They would fly in with their Tri-motors and the plane in which she takes up Eleanor Roosevelt. We had like three Tri-motors to choose from and I would pick one and the family would fly in with it (chuckles) and just stay there patiently as we filmed it. So these are real things they are not entirely made-up.

CS: The amount of research that went into this. After seeing the movie, I actually did a little of my own and was surprised to learn how much of what was in the movie was actually true. But there must have been things you didn’t know about, for instance her relationship with George Putnam. Was that stuff you found in the books?
Nair: Well, she had much in her books; the attitude was in her books. She called her husband the modern martyr who let her go all the time. His modernity in a way, that in her books, the attitude, not the words expressly. Sometimes the words are real like what I call “the prenup,” the conditions she gave him before they married and his response to that was exactly from the books, from what they actually said to each other. But in terms of our scenes, no, Anna wrote them and that’s one of the things that I really did love, that this was a partnership that became a love story. That was something that became very poignant and powerful to me.

CS: I’m guessing people must have mentioned that this feels like a very different movie for you. Did you feel that way while you were making the movie, that it was very different from the other things you’d done before? And was that very deliberate?
Nair: Yes, it was deliberate to do something different, but I think you have to know how to make movies in order to make movies (laughs). I certainly think I do know how to make movies and each movie is different. For instance, choosing the widescreen format, the anamorphic frame, I did that because I wanted to honor the planes, the horizontality and the magnificence of the planes. Once I chose that widescreen then I had to use that as a character in terms of I was going to make the frames work. No, I didn’t think of it as a different movie in that sense, but I was consciously making it the epic it is. For me, that was really important, bringing the world to “Amelia.”

CS: What about shooting all of the flying scenes, which must have been something very new for you, I’d assume?
Nair: Yeah, the special effects and the action stuff, I was determined to do it as good if not better than most people. (Laughs) So it was a lot of thinking, planning and learning, but really carefully orchestrated. The crash was something important for me to get right and get in an exciting way and also the last 20 minutes, the last flight, because that was based entirely on the last recorded transmissions between Amelia and the Itasca. I found that again, relying once again on authenticity was a huge sense of power, real powerful stuff, to actually dramatize the last transmissions.

CS: I generally love epic movies and I thought this was lovely, but have you found people to be cynical about the movie, because they automatically assume “this is a director making a movie for Oscars”?
Nair: No, I mean, I must say I just finished it two weeks ago and it was absolutely a big endeavor to make this kind of movie in kind of full way. People I think seem to be really transported by it and that was a huge part of my intention and I hope that that’s what we’re doing is making people understand the act of flying and understand the sinew of this remarkable woman, who continues to be remarkable today.

CS: Absolutely. Amelia’s story happened over 70 years ago, so why did you think now was a good time to bring her story back up?
Nair: Well, I think these are tough times in America and I think it would be good to remember that this woman was an amazing hero and a total visionary, and also an equally hard time in America, you know, (during) the Depression and she kind of became a beacon in some way. She will never die in that sense because she remains modern, but it’s an unpeculiarly parallel time, what’s going on now to the Depression and I think it’s a time to remember too, that we had our heroes and we will continue to have them.

CS: Is your next project going to be “The Reluctant Fundamentalist”?
Nair: That’s right.

CS: Having just finished this movie, have you already started development on that?
Nair: We’ve got a screenplay and we hope to shoot in the spring. I’m also preparing “Monsoon Wedding” to be a musical for Broadway.

CS: As far as “Fundamentalist,” is that going to be a very controversial movie? I know it involves a Muslim explaining how he’s fallen out with America.
Nair: It’s about a young man who really has a love affair with America and how he searches for his place in the world really after 9/11.

CS: The book was very insular, more of a conversation between two people in a café, so how is that going to be handled?
Nair: We’re writing it as a thriller. In the book, the American with whom he talks in the real world, is sort of a silent receiver and in our film, it’s a two-hander between him and the American. It’s shot in four countries and it’s a big thriller.

CS: As far as “Monsoon Wedding” the musical I know a lot of directors don’t like when their movies are remade and don’t like revisiting former work.
Nair: I know, but I came from the theater so for me it’s very wonderful to return, once at least to the theater. It’s a totally different form, to stage a musical version of something is a very different language, a very different vocabulary than a movie and I love that film and I think it really has in it’s bones a musical.

CS: Do you have any kind of timeframe for opening that?
Nair: I think a year from now. My son is preparing to leave and go to college in a year so I want to stay home and work at home here in New York, so I’m staying home now and making the musical and then do the movie.

CS: Have you run into any of the problems that Broadway seems to have been facing financially since the economic collapse and people having less money for theater?
Nair: We’re not yet there, not yet there, we’re still doing the creative work and then we get into the nasty world of finance. But we seriously have really hardcore producer financiers who are really committed. So I don’t know if it will be a challenge.

CS: One of the amazing things about the original movie is that it helped bring Bollywood mentality to the States which we really didn’t see before that.
Nair: It’s not a Bollywood film, please don’t say that it is because it’s not. (Laughs)

CS: But it opened up Americans to seeing those kind of movies.
Nair: Right, right.

CS: Do you think the musical might do the same thing for Broadway people?
Nair: I think so, I think so, I hope so.

In the meantime, Nair’s new movie Amelia opens nationwide on Friday, October 23.