Period Piece as a “Complete Romp”: Mira Nair Brings Her Own Vibrancy To “Vanity Fair”
by Wendy Mitchell
Mira Nair is the last person you would expect to take on a stuffy adaptation of English literature of the early 19th century. Which is exactly why her witty and vibrant take on Thackeray’s classic “Vanity Fair” isn’t stuffy at all — it’s filled with the more colorful aspects of pre-Victorian life. Nair even manages to work in a bellydancing routine for her heroine, Becky Sharp.
Nair started her filmmaking career with documentaries before wow-ing Cannes 1988 with her debut narrative feature “Salaam Bombay!” (which later garnered an Oscar nomination). Her numerous other films include the interracial love-story “Mississippi Masala,” the immigrant family saga “The Perez Family,” and the sensuous period tale “Kama Sutra.” Her most recent projects have included HBO’s “Hysterical Blindness” and the 2001 smash “Monsoon Wedding,” a swirling ensemble piece about the complexities of a contemporary Punjabi wedding. That $1.2 million feature grossed more than $13 million in the U.S. alone.
Working with Focus Features on their $23 million period drama “Vanity Fair,” with an A-list cast including Reese Witherspoon and Jim Broadbent, may seem like a departure for Nair. But this Indian-born, New York-based director insists this is “pure and simple independent filmmaking…If you make a film with Hollywood money that doesn’t mean that the fire in the belly of an independent filmmaker is gone.”
“Vanity Fair” follows Becky Sharp, a charismatic young orphan determined to climb up London’s social ladder. Becky (Reese Witherspoon) makes an important friend in Amelia (Romola Garai), briefly ingratiates herself with a wealthy spinster (Eileen Atkins), marries a dashing would-be heir (James Purefoy), fights off the advances of Amelia’s slimy husband George (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), and finds her entrée into the inner circle with a marquess who may have ulterior motives (Gabriel Byrne).
Sitting down with Nair — even in a generic hotel room during a press junket — you immediately see why her films are so vibrant — she is dressed in an emerald green sari, with large, captivating eyes and a quickness to laugh uproariously. She spoke with indieWIRE’s Wendy Mitchell about how she avoided making a “silly frock movie,” why Becky Sharp has been one of her favorite heroines since she was a teenager, her next film plans, and her new film lab in Uganda. Focus Features releases “Vanity Fair” on September 1.
iW: How did you get involved in this project?
Nair: Focus, which was distributing “Monsoon Wedding” at the time [as USA Films], thought of me while they were putting this together. They didn’t know that I had a complete, passionate history with this book since I was 16. I was born and raised in India, and I went to an Irish Catholic boarding school where I was steeped in English literature: Shakespeare, Blake, Shelley, Keats, the whole gang. And I discovered “Vanity Fair,” which I kind of read under the covers at night. I never left it; I dipped into this novel every few years.
iW: What was the attraction to the novel, was the India connection part of it? [Two of the English men are making their fortunes in India.]
Nair: That was part of the attraction now. But initially, when I was a kid, I just loved Becky Sharp. She was just me. Not me per se, but women like us, completely modern women who had no time for what society of expecting of them, who wanted to create their own way. Against all odds, I might add. The fact that she was such a survivor and a character that Thackeray just enjoyed fully. Because I think of him, too, as this ultimate outsider in his own society. He was born in Calcutta and sent away to school. So he always looked at his own society from the eyes of someone who was both inside it and outside it. Which is how he created Becky Sharp.
So first it was that. And then when I was offered the film and read the novel and really worked on my version, looking at the screenplay, I loved the intersection of colony and empire that Thackeray wrote so brilliantly about. It was this intersection in time when this money that was coming from the rape of the colonies into the English middle class at home, that created the Osbornes [a family in “Vanity Fair”] of the world who now had the money of the aristocrats but not the titles and the status. Everybody wanted that which they could not have. I think Thackeray was fantastically observant. And satiric but affectionate too. Exposing. That intersection gave me the aesthetics in terms of the color, the costuming, the music, the dance. He provided the foundation for all of that. It’s just that I took the ball and ran… because you couldn’t drag me to see a silly frock movie, with the woman in crinoline waiting for the guy to show up. Forget about it. Becky Sharp isn’t that way, and she never has been.
iW: Were you scared to take on this great work of literature that you were so passionate about?
Nair: I was so brilliantly supported with this film. At first with Julian Fellowes, who was my first and only choice to re-work the script on my terms. And he was an equally helpless fan of Thackeray. We weren’t learning it for the first time. We had both internalized this novel over the years of ourlives. And fortunately we saw eye to eye. I wanted to preserve and bring back the democratic swirl of the novel. I wanted to drag as many interior scenes into the exterior, so I could populate the streets and really make a “Salaam Bombay!” in London, where you could see the cacophony, and the pigs, and the filth, the coal mongers, and the army of the working class who had to fuel the upper classes… I wanted to make a very visceral film.
Also, Becky rises from the gift of song, and because I come from a film tradition where song sequences and music and emotion are so inextricably interwoven, I wanted to explore that fully. The song sequences, the music, the dance, and of course with the costuming, that should feel as far from a history or homework lesson as possible. It should be a complete romp. We also have this nice Indian street slang expression in Bombay that means “give me my money’s worth.” When I take your money to see a film of mine, I want to give you your money’s worth. I want to transport you into a place that’s full and rich and crazy and also has resonance for you and I today. Thackeray is asking a philosophical question about vanity: Which of us is happy in this world? Which of us having met our desire is satisfied. That is the question.
iW: And that’s a modern question.
Nair: That’s a timeless question. I ask that question of myself honestly, often. When I evaluate what I want to do next, that’s the question — What is valued? What is contentment, what am I desiring, really? Those are questions that are deep and totally timeless. Every time you visit it, there is something new, and something more relevant to your life today.
iW: Were you drawn to the character of Becky especially because she’s not always likeable? Thackeray said that this is “a novel without a hero.”
Nair: Of course. Which of us is always sweet and pretty like they want the romantic comedies to be? That’s only in the movies, and that’s not my kind of movie, frankly. That’s what I love about Thackeray. He presents the paradox and presents the contradiction. He revels in the nuance of Becky… There is a truthfulness in her character that I love, with all its edges. Precisely because of its edges. And the complicatedness, the enigma of her. There are these mistakes that come alongside ambition, which is what Thackeray was showing us. That’s also life. We all make mistakes, that’s what makes us compelling and sexily human.
iW: Why did you think Reese would be the right person to play Becky?
Nair: Because of her extraordinary intelligence and her minx-like quality. And the fact that she’s such a skilled actress that she’s going “clickety clack” and five different things can be happening in her face and you know each one of them. That’s pure and simple Becky Sharp. And she has this irresistibility with audiences, I could retain the complexity of Becky because I knew I wouldn’t lose the audience because Reese is so appealing. As a director, I like to reinvent people, I like to show sides of actors that they have never been asked to play before. For me, it was a chance to bring to the world Reese Witherspoon as a completely full-grown woman… she’s such a spiritually layered person that she brought all those levels to Becky.
iW: This is the largest budget that you’ve ever worked with — did you enjoy that or was it daunting?
Nair: I don’t want to sound jaded, but mounting an epic is mounting an epic. The machinations are the same whether you have $7 million to do a 16th-century epic in India, as I did in 1995 with “Kama Sutra,” or when you have $23 million to do an essentially $80 million epic in the 1800s in England, Europe, and India. It was always the same old story of planning so brilliantly and being prepared so fully that we could capture the epic as well as the intimate in the same fluid, visual way.
iW: What is the planning process like with Declan [Quinn, her long-time cinematographer]? Do you storyboard?
Nair: No, we don’t storyboard. We talk about the look. We bring to each other paintings and photographs and other films. In the case of “Vanity Fair” it was more about what we would NOT do that what we WOULD do. Because we knew that we would not make the usual frock movie, the usual stately period movie. This was to be a modern, jugular approach. And yet not a ridiculously modern one, we wanted to be faithful to the period. There’s an unsung English painter named Atkinson Grimshaw who painted the streets of London and evokes that damp light. We looked at Grimshaw’s work a lot, we looked at a lot of paintings about street life at the time. We looked at Delacroix and British orientalism. The way the British saw India and the way they saw themselves. Filmically, one film that really helped me regard it all as not so precious was “The Duelist,” Ridley Scott‘s first film. It’s also set during this time period and the realism is very palpable in it. And I looked at Emir Kusturica‘s “Time of the Gypsies,” and then I made the English crew see my great Indian director Guru Dutt, his film “Pyaasa” (1957), which was known for its very lush song picturizations.
iW: How did you go about choosing the songs in the film?
Nair: I looked at poetry from that period. The first song, “She Walks in Beauty,” is a Byron poem, and the second song, “Now Sleeps The Crimson Petal,” is an Alfred Lord Tennyson poem. I chose lyrics that would be closest to what Becky would be singing about. And then Mychael Danna, my brilliant composer, would put the melody to it. We hired Custer LaRue, this great Southern singer, because I felt her voice matched Reese’s body. And then we recorded the songs before we started shooting the film. And we gave them to Reese, who just completely nailed the lip synching and the inhaling. She really got the breath of a singer. She’s just flawless. I was joking with Reese that she has a major career in Bollywood now [laughs].
iW: This seems on the surface as a big departure for you, but do you see it fitting into the thread of your past work?
Nair: I think so. I don’t sit around thinking about things like that because I go where my heart really takes me. But “Vanity Fair” is about the circus of life, and that’s what my films generally are about. And I love these sprawling sagas, I love working with ensemble casts, I love multilayered stories. And I love the ellipses it requires in cinema to tell about the passage of time. I always tell my crew my next film will be about two people eating sushi in a hotel room in Paris, but it will never be that! [laughs] I’m always going to be on the streets. iW: What are you going to be working on now?
Nair: I am committed to do two films [“Homebody/Kabul” and “The Impressionist“] but I read a novel on my way to shoot the last shot of “Vanity Fair,” which completely moved me to my bones. That was Jhumpa Lahiri‘s “The Namesake.” She’s an Indian writer, she did “Interpreter of Maladies,” a book of short stories, and this is her first novel. Like “Monsoon Wedding” was my personal film about my life in Delhi, “The Namesake” is completely about the life that I’ve traveled. It’s about a couple who leaves Calcutta in the ’60s to come to Cambridge, Mass. And their son grows up in New York City today.
So it’s another intimate epic that I want to make with two Indian superstars and a very well known Hollywood actress, who plays a young lover of the boy — I can’t say names right now. We start pre-production on September 15th. With “Vanity Fair” being my biggest release — 800 screens and so on — I don’t want to be terribly bothered by the vicissitudes of the box office. I’ve done my work and I’ve served it and I must keep myself humbled by work while the hoopla (or non-hoopla) is going to happen. I’m fielding a lot of major offers, so I’ve got to keep my head screwed on right. I put all of my energy onto the screen and I can’t fritter it away.
iW: And you have your new filmmaking lab…
Nair: It’s Maisha. Tomorrow the architect is arriving in Kampala [Uganda]. My husband and I took our savings and bought this land and we are building this kind of tabernacle, this space that will eventually become like an artists’ colony. But August 1, 2005 is our first lab. We’ve funded about 70 percent for the five years I want to get started. It will be 12 candidates from East Africa and South Asia, and eight mentors from all over the world. We hope to create a film culture about a part of the world you never see anything about.
iW: Will participants actually be shooting projects as part of the lab?
Nair: The first year is just a screenwriters’ lab because we have such a huge theater tradition and a huge writing tradition, but not the film tradition. So people can’t even imagine they can make a film about their life. Then the second through fifth years will be screenwriting and directing. The first year we have to keep it simple — first you have to get the script right!