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Director Series-Marc Forster-Kite Runner

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With The Kite Runner, Marc Forster creates a panoramic yet intimate drama that spans generations and the globe to tell of the impact of the Soviet invasion and Taliban regime on Afghan natives and emigres. With a crew featuring longtime Forster associates such as cinematographer Roberto Schaefer, ASC, production designer Carlos Conti, costume designer Frank Fleming, visual effects designer Kevin Tod Haug and casting by Kate Dowd, The Kite Runner’s themes of loyalty and the intricacies of relationships are familiar to Forster’s prior work, something which might undergo a sea change now that he has signed on to helm the 22nd installment of the Bond franchise.
Adapted from the novel by Khaled Hosseini and mainly starring a cast of unknown Afghan actors, The Kite Runner centers around the life of an Afghan novelist living in the present-day San Francisco area, who twice ventures back to his homeland, first through memory to relive his experiences with a childhood friend in the pre-Soviet invasion days of the 1970s, and later actually returning to rescue the son of his now deceased friend from the horrors of a Afghan orphanage.
Before being banned by the Taliban, kite flying and aerial kite fights were the national sport of Afghan boys, and the film features marvelous scenes of kites soaring over the city. Along the way, the film reveals the intricacies of Afghanistan’s pre-Soviet invasion social hierarchy, the horrors of the invasion and the later trials of Afghan immigrants in the U.S. struggling against their own traditions in their adopted homeland, as well as the current climate of Afghanistan under Taliban extremism.

Below the Line: Kite Runner is especially remarkable in how you handled directing the kids.
Marc Forster: Thank you so much.
BTL: How did you discover the main three kids? Did Kate Dowd bring them to you?
Forster: Basically, Kate went to Afghanistan, to Kabul, a month and a half before I did, and saw thousands of kids, and when I arrived she had narrowed it down to two schools. From those schools we looked at 25 kids each. I just played with them, and out of those 50 kids I selected the three leads.
BTL: Even though the film is subtitled, I recall them as all speaking English. They are so natural.
Forster: A lot of people come out of the film and say, “Oh! I completely forgot the film was subtitled!” It’s a great compliment.
BTL: The kite-flying sequences are done with such expertise. How were they planned?
Forster: I had a kite master who choreographed every kite fight and showed me how you attack, retreat, and all the different kite fight possibilities. And we used little models to create fights, and I decided from that which versions I wanted to use.
BTL: Were visual effects used?
Forster: It was a combination between a little helicam, visual effects, and shooting some kite plates. Obviously, shots that were impossible are pure visual effects, but then we still shot kite elements. It’s a mixture of it all.
BTL: Kevin Tod Haug is a VFX master.
Forster: Yes, he was the visual effects planner. I’ve worked with him on all my films. I’m using him on Bond 22 as well.
BTL: Roberto Schaefer’s cinematography has a spontaneous feeling. Do you storyboard?
Forster: No. Roberto and I sit down and we have little floor plans and I sort of block the scene and then we discuss it and draw in little camera angles here and there, but we don’t storyboard unless we do previs, like we did for instance with the kite-fight sequences. We did a little previs with kites to determine what we wanted, and from that we determined what will have to be pure visual effects, what’s possible to do for real, or where we need plates or a mixture of techniques. On other movies, in sequences where heavy visual effects come in, we have a mixture between storyboarding and previs. All the visual effects and plates in this were done by CafeFX.
BTL: Carlos Conti’s production design presents a picture of Afghanistan showing an upper middle class situation, something most Americans will be completely unfamiliar with. The main boy’s father lives in the modern house and wears business suits. What kind of research went into that?
Forster: I got a lot of Super 8 footage that has survived from the ’70s, footage showing families and the city and houses and parties. Those were used to get a feel of the furniture and the clothing. [Costumer designer] Frank Fleming and Carlos both used those. And we had a lot of authenticity advisers who lived there in the ’70s and escaped, whose life stories were similar to Khaled Hosseini’s, and Khaled Hosseini himself. We showed them images of how we were going to dress things, the houses, etc. Carlos actually built the main house in China, because architecture like that doesn’t exist where we shot. The rest of the architecture is very similar to Kabul in the ’70s. In the wealthy neighborhood at that time there was an architecture that was sort of modern, flat roof house architecture, so we built the house just as those houses looked.
BTL: You’ve worked with Frank Fleming since Monster’s Ball. What sort of research went into costumes?
Forster: Again, a ton of research from photo books and Super 8 films. People might not know, but Kabul in the ’70s was sort of like the Paris of the east. There was a mixture of how people dressed traditionally and also westernized. The kids watch The Magnificent Seven at the movie theater, and the main boy’s father drives a Ford Mustang. That sort of thing really happened there in the ’70s.
BTL: You shot in China.
Forster: We shot in the western part of China in a province right on the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Same mountains as Afghanistan; we were just on the other side. So all the landscape scenes are shot in that same mountain range, and the city we used is at the bottom of the range.
BTL: Did you import your crew?
Forster: We had a very extended Chinese crew. I brought my keys and a couple of supplemental crew from all over the world, some from Australia, America, England, all over. I think there were 28 nationalities on the film.
BTL: Did you have a lot of translators?
Forster: Oh yeah, you had Dari, the Afghan language, and then we had Chinese Mandarin. Where we were shooting was where the Muslims of China live; they speak Uyghur, not Mandarin. So you have Mandarin, Uyghur, Dari, and English—four main languages. And often, any of those parties only spoke that particular language, so it was quite complicated.
BTL: How long was the shoot in China?
Forster: Three months.
BTL: What were the biggest technical challenges in China?
Forster: There were huge challenges for every department because we had to bring a lot of stuff to that remote part of China. Nobody really had shot there before, no western movie. It was an incredibly complicated logistical situation bringing everything in. That we got what we needed to get each day was like a miracle, I felt.
BTL: Editor Matt Chesse’s work covers a lot of time and handles the flashback structure very well. Was any of that structure discovered in editing?
Forster: No, we stuck to the structure of the script, and also the structure of the book is like that. It starts in the present with the phone call and then goes into the past.
BTL: There seemed to be a photographic difference between what was shot in China and in San Francisco. Was there something done in DI to change the texture of the images?
Forster: We were trying to get most of it on set with the design and photography. Carlos tried to use much more vibrant colors in the early part, and then scale the color tones back during the time of the Taliban regime. And Roberto did the same with the lighting. The DI influenced it a bit. Every department, wardrobe, production design and lighting worked this way. We did what we needed while making it and then polished it up in the DI.
BTL: Is the finale when they go to the horrible orphanage also based on research?
Forster: Yeah. Some of it is really, really s
ad and disastrous. But it’s not just Afghanistan. It’s everywhere in the world, and if you look at some of these orphanages it just breaks your heart.
BTL: You take risks with the film because the actors are unknown for the most part. That was refreshing.
Forster: It was very important to me that we didn’t cast a star because if we had, the viewer would always have an association with them from the other parts they played. It was very important not to do that, because we were going into a place few of us know anything about, and it was important to discover that place and really connect with it, and I think you can only do that with actors you aren’t very familiar with.
BTL: It must be an incredible change to go to Bond.
Forster: It’s quite a jump. We’re in preproduction now. Things are busy but good.

Written by Henry Turner

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