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Director Series: Mira Nair

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By Mary Ann Skweres
Director Mira Nair brings William Makepeace Thackeray’s timeless novel Vanity Fair to the screen, laying bare hypocrisy, materialism and social presumption of early 19th-century England as it follows the rise and fall of social climber Becky Sharp (Reese Witherspoon).
India-born Nair, who made it big in 2001 with Monsoon Wedding, has loved Thackeray’s book since she was a teenager and wanted to make a period film that was so much more than a “museum piece.” With only 55 shooting days and a $23 million budget, she needed to rely heavily on the creativity and talent of the film’s craftspeople to achieve her epic vision.

Below the Line: How did you develop your vision within those budget and time constraints?
Mira Nair: It was strategic military planning. I put our resources into the big set pieces—the streets of London, the Indian picnic at Vauxhall Gardens, Waterloo and the escape from Brussels—so it looks like a film that brims with life. A big vision I had was to take as many scenes out of the interiors and put them on the streets, because we never see that in period films. We never see the real filth and the armies of the working classes—what they do to create the upper class life that we are looking at. And because this film was about Becky Sharp, who came from the wrong side of the tracks and rose in high society, I wanted to make London street life very palpable so that you know if she makes a false move, she would go right back there.
BTL: How did you express your vision to your cinematographer Declan Quinn?
Nair: This must be the fifth film we’ve done together, so Declan’s my major collaborator. We speak in shorthand. With Vanity Fair it was much more about what we did not want to do, than what we did want to do. With the cinematography, first it was designing the action. We walk together, study the location and then determine actual camera positions for that location. We choreograph and block. I didn’t go for the handheld look of Monsoon Wedding, because it was a more stately time, while at the same time never really going for the classic way of shooting—the master shot, the over-the-shoulder. I wanted this tapestry of an all-encompassing fluid camera—strong enough to be in control, but loose enough to make discoveries.
BTL: Did you go for any special lighting?
Nair: Definitely. Because the taste of the film was quite flamboyant. With the colors of the costumes and the set design being rather ornate, we purposely kept the lighting natural and in fact used candlelight almost all the time in the interiors. We tried to keep it as people would light then. We also created the hot light of India in England, because we first filmed India in England. Declan and I have done movies together in India so he really understands the light of India and could create it artificially in England. Otherwise, we didn’t get fancy with the light.
BTL: You’ve worked with editor Allyson Johnson before.
Nair: Allyson is brilliant. This is our third film. We did Monsoon Wedding and 11’09’’01 together. I hope to be making many films with her. I didn’t have time to see dailies. On the sixth day, I would go to the editing room, but I don’t usually trust myself to edit while I’m shooting because the fatigue level is so strong.
BTL: Would she show you completed scenes and go over performances?
Nair: Yes. It helped to see who was doing what and how to damage control and how to best direct the actor. But the true editing really happens after the film is shot. Then we start over. We go scene by scene together. I see all the takes. Sometimes it’s my version, sometimes it’s Allyson’s version. What I love about Allyson is her understanding of my rhythm.
Because I was juggling so many stories in this film, for almost every scene it’s in my mind as to what would be the last frame and what would be the first frame of the next scene. I would never cut from a mid-shot at the end of a scene to a mid-shot beginning the next scene. It’s not my style. I love to cut in a way that smash cuts the epic frame with the intimate detail, to create that kind of energy that shows you a detail but shows you a vast expanse at the next moment and then back to the detail so that your eye is constantly being enlivened.
BTL: You had practical locations. How did you make them your own?
Nair: Not one single shot, except for the slave dance, is shot in a studio. A huge part of the design is informed by the location we choose. We were lucky enough to find several key locations on the first day of scouting. The street of Bath with Lord Steyne’s mansion, Aunt Tilly’s home and Becky’s home, that physical geography we found on the first day. Declan and I designed shots to maximize that location which I wove into the rewrite of the script. Maria [Djurkovic, production designer] joined us six months later.
BTL: You’ve never worked with Maria. What sensibilities of hers made you want to collaborate?
Nair: I loved her work on The Hours. Because of Reese’s pregnancy, we had to jam 16 weeks of prep into eight weeks so I wanted to work with an English-based person who really knew the locations. She loved my vision of integrating the influence of the colonies into the time period. Maria was also very schooled in the correctness of the period and she wouldn’t let me get away with anything that was incorrect, but loved my flair for flamboyance and spectacle. She had a fantastic team.
We spoke at length about the fact that I was going for a film that was about a society layered with sham and hypocrisy, and removing those layers on screen was important for me. The reality base was very important. After the Sedleys had gone to ruin, I didn’t want a gentile cottage that looked like it was out of Laura Ashley. I wanted to not be able to put food on their table, which is reality. That’s why I wanted her to be scratching in the dirt for turnips. That location was an abandoned house on top of a water mill. We didn’t clean it up, just made it safe for us to work in it. We left it untouched with cobwebs, creaky floors and gaps in the woodwork. That is what it is when you lose all your fortune and you have to find a roof over your head. These were times without security blankets. The ornate only feels ornate when you match it with the gutter.
BTL: Much of the lushness of the film comes from the costuming.
Nair: I loved Beatrix [Aruna Pasztor, costume designer] since [seeing her work on] The Fisher King. I think she’s a total artist. Becky Sharp was an ultimate trendsetter. She did not have the jewels of the heiresses, but she would take feathers and rope and fur and make herself more distinctive than the queen. That was her forte. That’s were Beatrix came in. In her hands, everything was fashion. I wanted her to be correct for the time, but to create clothing that we would all lust for. Because of the colony and empire intersection, we went for the peacock pallet and the earth pallet—indigo and crimsons. We would study paintings and everybody would be in grays and whites but we’d see points of red, so we would create entire scenes with that type of pallet. We hand-did everything so that it would have the hand-made quality that I love. They weren’t always pretty costumes. They were often frayed and dirty and layered. Bob Hoskins used to joke, “Are you paid per costume piece?” It was Beatrix’s artistry that she would style everybody.
BTL: Hair and makeup complimented the costuming…
Nair: Jenny Shircore, the hair and makeup designer, is a complete visionary. She never stopped. In her hands an extra had the same value as a movie star. You can see that in this film. Everybody is as interesting as anybody else. That was her brilliance. She was solidly rooted in the period, but we went for flamboyance. This was Regency, not that straightjacketed puritanical Victorian time. Even Dobbin, who plays such a silent suffering type, when I took him to India, I wanted him to go native, to give him that manly, crazy aspect with long hair so that I could offset any impression that he’s just a love-struck wimp. Jenny loved that. And Reese Witherspoon looked extraordinary in that towering hair. That was the great aspiration of this film: not to show Reese the way she’s always shown, but to discover in her the full-blown woman.
BTL: Who else contributed above and beyond?
Nair: I am obsessed with sound. I have this extraordinary collaborator on my sets, Drew Kunin, the sound recordist. I like to create almost music with the sound in the film, so his work was a huge task of getting me not just the intimate details, like the rustle of the silk, but also the full-scale cacophony of war. Drew does it with such artistry.
Another key member for me in this film was Danny McGrath, third assistant director. I’m a fiend for background action. Before every shot I make a major announcement about what I am trying to do with the scene, so everybody—every actor, every extra—is engaged, because every part of the frame matters to me. Danny set the background action with the visceral quality that I love. I love scene wipes. I have to have a series of carriages, anybody laterally crossing the frame as well. So there are planes of action all the time.

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