At the beginning of 2004, I came home one night and found a mysterious FedEx package sitting on my desk. I opened it up and discovered that I had been nominated for something called the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative. It is a programme that allows a young artist to work closely with an established mentor for one year. This was the first time that they had offered a film category (besides painting, music, dance, literature, and theatre) and I had been nominated to work with the director Mira Nair who is world famous for her films including Salaam Bombay! and Monsoon Wedding. In March I flew to New York to meet with Mira at her home and she cooked me fish curry and we drank wine and talked about movies until 2AM. A week later, when I had returned to Bangkok, I got a call from Rolex that Mira had chosen me to become her protégé for the year 2005.
Fast forward one year later, and it’s March 2005. I board a plane in Bangkok to spend a month with Mira on the set of her new film The Namesake. It will be shot in New York City and Calcutta, India from March-June. Throughout the trip I keep a diary.
I arrive in New York and have rented an apartment in the East Village area of Manhattan. When I was studying at NYU I used to live in this neighborhood so now whenever I come back to New York I always stay here. I know where everything is – the subway stations, coffee shops, bars, bookstores. I feel at home here.
After settling into my new home for the next month, I take the subway to The Namesake Production office at 35th street and 10th Avenue and arrive just in time for the big production meeting at 2PM. This meeting is the first and last time all the main crew members will meet before shooting begins. The three key creative people are here – Mira, the producer, Lydia Pilcher, and the DP, Frederick Elmes, who I am happy to meet as I admire his work with David Lynch (Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart). There are about 30 other people at this meeting. They are all the department heads – lighting, sound, costume, production design, transportation, accounting, location, catering, etc.
The meeting begins with everyone going around the room to introduce themselves. I am quite nervous as I don’t have any official position and hope that nobody laughs at me. When it’s my turn I tell them the truth – I am here to learn from Mira and will be sitting next to her at the monitor when she is directing. I will also be going to all the different departments asking questions and learning what every person is doing. Some guy says he wishes he were me because I have the easiest job on the set. Everyone laughs.
The production meeting lasts until 6PM. Michael DeCasper, the 1st AD (assistant director), starts from page 1 of the script and talks through each scene so that all the departments know exactly what is happening. Anyone who has any questions can ask them. But in truth all the departments have been in preproduction for over a month already. This meeting is just the chance for everyone to say hello to everyone else. After all, making a film is like going to war for 3 months. It’s important for the crew to know each other.
I have jetlag and wake up at 3AM. I read the final version of the script which is written by Mira’s usual screenwriter, Sooni Taraporevala. She has written most of Mira’s scripts since her first film Salaam Bombay! Overall I find problems with the script as I think it suffers from the common weakness of novels being translated into movies. It tries to squeeze the whole novel into a two hour movie and so there are too many scenes and not enough character and details. But then I remember that Salaam Bombay! was nominated for the Academy Award in 1988 so I’m sure Mira and Sooni know a lot more about writing a good script than I do! Maybe that’s the first thing I learn here – keep your mouth shut and your eyes open. That’s the way to learn!
I can understand why Mira turned down the offer to direct Harry Potter 5 to do this film. The story is about an immigrant Indian family that moves from India to America. Mira was born in India and moved to the US to attend Harvard University. After graduation she moved to New York City to pursue her dream of making movies. Her life is almost the mirror image of the main character in the novel. I think for her it’s a very personal story. I respect that she had the courage to turn down a huge film like Harry Potter to do this smaller project. She told me that her salary for directing Harry Potter would have been half of the total budget of The Namesake. The budget of The Namesake is 10 million dollars!
The shoot doesn’t officially begin until Monday but today is a pre-production shoot. They have scheduled some shots for today because the weather forecast is for snow and Mira wants snow on the streets to sell the “winter look”. And we’re in luck! It snowed last night and continues to snow in the morning as I sit in the production van for the 30 minute drive to the set in Yonkers (north of New York City). When I get there, everybody is in a bad mood because it’s the first day and very cold. I am freezing as I am not used to this New York weather yet.
The shots we do in the morning are mostly establishing shots of the snow. I meet the two lead actors - the character of Ashima Ganguli is played by Tabu. Her husband Ashoke Ganguli is played by Irfan Khan. They are both famous actors in Bollywood (Indian film industry). Mira chose to use actors from India as there are not that many Indian actors who are working in America. The exception is the main character of the film, their son, Gogol Ganguli, who is played by the rising star Kal Penn. He is a 26-year-old actor in Hollywood who is Indian. He was the main character in Harold and Kumar go to White Castle, a comedy I really liked last year. After acting in The Namesake, he goes to work in the new Superman film as Superman’s best friend. Today he is not on set.
After shooting in the snow in Yonkers in the morning, we move locations to Rockaway Beach in Brooklyn to shoot a flashback scene in the afternoon. From the snow to the beach in one day! The scene has the father Ashoke talking with his four-year-old son Gogol on a beach. It’s a difficult scene because 1) it’s very cold 2) there are large waves crashing all around the actors and the crew 3) there is a small boy in the scene and 4) it is the first day of shooting and the crew is still not 100%. We are all hurrying to finish the scene before the sun sets at 6PM. What I see today is that filmmaking is the same anywhere in the world whether it’s a short film in Thailand or a $10 million feature film in America. There is never enough time. People are under pressure. But the heart of filmmaking is always the same - a director creating a scene. This never changes.
When I was younger I always thought that big Hollywood films were different from my own. I thought the famous directors worked in a different way. But today I am surprised to see that Mira Nair works exactly the same way I do. She gets frustrated the same way I do. She is worried that the sun is setting just like I do. She even forgets to shoot a shot just like I do.
Seeing this gives me a lot of confidence that I can do what she can do. Throughout my month in New York I will see and learn many things – but what I learn on this first day will be the most important lesson of all.
Today I wake up at 8AM and take the subway to DuArt, the film lab located on 48th street. We are watching dailies from yesterday’s shoot. I get there and sit in the theater with Mira, Lydia the producer, Fred the DP, and Stephanie, the production designer. The shots we did yesterday were done with bleach bypass, a developing process that gives the image more contrast. It’s a nice look and gives the film a gritty urban feel. The team is happy with the footage and the actors are good. That’s the most important thing because when the audience watches a movie – that’s what they’re watching. I am happy just to see the dailies projected in the theater. In Thailand, when you shoot a film you never get to see it projected in the theater. You always watch dailies on video. This is much better because you get to see exactly what the audience will see.
First day of Shoot!
Shooting in New York I learn that the crew vans don’t leave from the production office. They leave from random street corners around the city and it is the responsibility of the crew to be at the street corner at the right time to board the van. Today we are shooting in Yonkers again so the crew van meets at 96th street and Broadway at 6.20AM. When I get out of the subway and run to the van it is still dark and freezing cold. There is nobody on the street except for these crazy people who choose to spend their life making movies.
Today is the first official day of shoot and Mira does an Indian-style blessing ceremony (buang-suang). It is similar to what we do in Thailand – to give blessing and good luck to the production. She mixes rice and red paste and then walks around the room placing a red dot on each crew member’s forehead with her finger. When she comes to me she puts a dot on my forehead and, because I am her protégé,
I receive the honor to put the dot on her forehead. (If the film turns out badly, I hope she doesn’t blame me!)
Now the film begins!
Like last Thursday, we are shooting in a small apartment and there is not much room to move around. Throughout the day I sit next to Mira at the monitor to watch her work. All around us, 60 people are running back and forth, working like crazy. Between shots she will turn to me and talk. Sometimes I ask her questions but other times she just wants somebody to chat with to take away the pressure. When she is very busy and frustrated, I walk away to chat with the other crew members so that she can have some space for herself.
There are always three people sitting in front of the monitor - Mira, me, and the script supervisor. She is a nice woman from South Africa named Robyn who has worked with Mira many times before. Because films are shot in pieces out of order, it is the job of the script supervisor to keep track of the continuity of every shot. The script supervisor is the editor’s representative on the set. They make sure that what the director is shooting will not be a problem for the editor to cut. This includes props, costume, actor’s movement, and even actor’s dialogue. This is a very important position and that is the reason she sits next to Mira always.
We wrap shooting at 8.30PM. It has been a hard day full of cold and rain. We went overtime and Mira did not finish all her shots. I don’t get home until 11PM and crash into bed.
Today I spend a lot of time talking to the sound man, Ed Novick. He has been a sound man for 25 years and has worked on hundreds of projects both for film and TV. When I was studying in film school I was also a sound man on many projects so I am interested to learn more from a professional. In Thailand, when we make films, we just put the microphone on a boom and swing the boom around and try to get every line. But Ed is more experienced. He switches between using a boom microphone and a wireless microphone and usually uses a combination of both. Sometimes he even uses two booms. I am surprised how creative his job is. He must know the script from a creative perspective to be able to perform his job 100%. His choice to use a boom or a wireless is not always which one sounds better, but which one is more correct in “feeling”. Ed works with two people – a boom woman and an assistant. He records sound, the boom woman holds the boom, and the assistant runs all the cables and connects all the wireless microphones. And that’s all! The sound department only has three people. Ed recorded sound on Spiderman, a $100 million film, and his department had the same three people! He says to me “my costs are always fixed”. On set, Mira is frustrated with Irfan, the lead actor playing Ashoke. She tells me that a director needs to get used to the rhythm and style of each actor because everyone is different. She tells me that Tabu is more flexible.– she can change every take to satisfy the director. Irfan needs more preparation time. You have to tell him exactly how you want it and he can only give you that – he cannot improvise.
The shoot wraps at 9PM and again Mira doesn’t have time to shoot the last scene which is a love scene. Mira, Lydia the producer, and Michael the first AD talk to each other and decide that instead of going overtime, they will reschedule the love scene to shoot on a soundstage later in the month. Tough decisions.
Today we are shooting in a small apartment in Oyster Bay on Long Island and Mira is sick and in a bad mood. Kal Penn is acting for the first time. The apartment set is so small that everyone is out in the hallway and there is not much to see so I leave early. Rolex has sent a photographer from Switzerland to shoot photos of me and Mira and I have to go and meet him for dinner. The van gives me a ride back to Queens and from there I take the subway into Manhattan. I’m starting to feel like a New Yorker again.
Today is an exciting day. We are shooting at Goldwater Hospital on Roosevelt Island, a small island located in the East River off Manhattan. The location is beautiful. It is a very large old hospital with long scary-looking hallways. It is the perfect location for a Korean horror film. In fact it has been used in many New York films before and can be seen in the movie Jacob’s Ladder. Today the weather is warmer and it seems Mira is happier and working faster. For the first time, we do scenes with more than two actors.
It’s interesting for me to see a large scene with extras in the background. I’m surprised to see that Mira never talks to the extras. She is only concentrating on her main actors in the foreground. The background extras are all directed by the 2nd AD. He is responsible for understanding the scene and choreographing the background action. This is very important. Although you don’t notice the background extras in movies, if they are directed badly, it can ruin the scene. On my own films, I always talk to every actor in the scene. But on a large film like The Namesake, the director just doesn’t have time. She has to trust that everybody on her team understands the story and is doing their best because she doesn’t have time to do everything herself.
A film is not made by one person. You have to trust your team.
I learn that on a large film, the job of each crew member becomes more specific. For example, in Thailand we have the production designer and he brings several assistants. But here, there are no “assistants”. Everyone in the art department has a specific job and position. One that I learn is:
She is a very nice woman named Jessie Walker and her job is to “make the set look old”. As many scenes in this film take place in 1977, her job is to make all the props and sets look “old”. She paints the sets and props to make them less shiny and more old-looking. That’s it! That’s her job! On a big film, even this specific job requires a trained person. She has been a scenic for close to 20 years!
The last scene of the night is very interesting. Ashoke is calling his wife on the phone from the hospital. The production design department installs a fake phone booth in the hospital hallway. The scenic makes sure it looks “old”. The make-up person makes actor Irfan Khan look 55 (he’s in his 30s). And the sound man has set up a system so that when Irfan is on the phone he can really hear his wife’s voice. Tabu had recorded her lines to a sampler and Ed plays it back into the phone while Irfan is acting in the scene. This way he feels like he’s really talking to his wife and it helps his acting. Finally, the 2nd AD choreographs extras walking in the background. Everything in a film is fake!
We wrap at 12.30AM
Today I take the 60th street tram across the East River to the hospital set. I am treated to a beautiful view of the East Side of New York and the tram gets so close to buildings that I can see into people’s apartments!
We continue shooting the hospital scene with Ashima giving birth to Gogol. The scene takes a long time to shoot because there are many actors and a baby which keeps crying. I remember an important rule I learned at film school – don’t put babies and animals in your films! I guess that’s also true for a big budget film. Even if you have $10 million you can’t make a baby stop crying!
The scene is between four people – Ashoke, Ashima, a doctor and a nurse. While I am sitting next to Mira watching the scene, I can feel that it doesn’t work. But I can’t say anything because I am not the director and this is not my film. But I feel that the actors playing the doctor and the nurse are bad. And the scene is not funny when it’s supposed to be. Even though I can see that the scene doesn’t work, I know how Mira feels because I am also a director.
Sometimes, you are under a lot of pressure during the day and it makes you tired and unable to see things clearly. Many times I have directed a scene that seemed to be good but later in the editing room I realized it was horrible. But on set you can’t see it.
Sometimes, you only see what you want to see. Again, seeing my mentor’s mistakes gives me confidence. It makes me feel that I am not the only one who makes mistakes. Even very experienced directors make mistakes. So they are not so different from me.
During dinner I have the most interesting chat with Norm, the make-up person. We talk for 30 minutes and he tells me all about the unions. In the American film industry, all the crews are in unions. The Actor’s Union, the director’s Union, the production designer Union, the make-up Union. Every film department has a national union. In America, they have unions to protect the small people from being taken advantage of by powerful people. The unions set rules for their members – a weekly salary, maximum working hours, etc. If a producer breaks these rules, they have to fight with the Union. So they cannot take advantage of the small people like in Thailand where sometimes the company overworks the small people. It’s supposed to be a good thing.
But the union system also has problems. The union makes money from its members so it wants as many members as possible. But some producers don’t want to hire union people because they are more expensive. There is no law that says they must hire union people.
They can hire non-union people and their film is then called a “non-union film”. But the unions sometimes come and sabotage the production. They will send their people to the set and tell the non-union people to strike! For example, they will tell the non-union make-up people “if you stop working we will let you join our union for free” and so all the make-up people agree to strike because if they join the union, they will make more money. So they strike and the production has to stop working until the producer agrees to hire union people.
The most notorious union of all is the driver’s union, also called the Teamsters. This is a very powerful union. They have been known to destroy non-union productions by sending their members to the set with trucks and keep honking the horn the whole day so that the film cannot record sound. Sometimes they even beat up non-union drivers! The producer has no choice but to hire union people.
But then once the little people join the union, sometimes they also cannot find work because there are too many people in the union! Norm tells me that many make-up people in the union cannot find work. There are too many people and too few films. And then there is corruption. The members who are close to the union managers get all the best jobs. So that is just like Thailand! This is one reason why it’s so expensive to make films in Hollywood and why many films now shoot outside the United States.
No shooting on weekends. I go to the Guggenheim Museum to see the installation work of Thai artist Rirkrit Tiravanija! Very interesting!
Today we are shooting at JFK airport and the crew van leaves from the corner of 35th street and 3rd Avenue. When I get there it’s 6.00AM and the sky is still dark. I see about 30 people waiting on the street that I don’t recognise and I find out later that they are the extras in the scene who are waiting for the extra bus. I always feel sorry for extras. Many of them are actors who never made it and so keep working for years and years as extras hoping to get a big break. Some of them are so old now and I think to myself “you shouldn’t be waiting in the street at 6.00AM. You should be at home with your family”.
The scenes today are quite complicated with a lot of extras walking in the background because it’s an airport scene. Security is very tight and some of the make-up people get stopped at the X-ray check point for carrying nail clippers in their bags!
We are shooting in the international terminal of JFK but in an area where there are not many passengers. I think about Steven Spielberg’s The Terminal which recreated this same terminal inside a soundstage. I think it is the biggest set ever built for a movie in history. It is quite amazing what people will do to make a film.
The shoot progresses quite smoothly throughout the day and I leave at 6PM to meet some friends for dinner.
Today is the most beautiful day and the most beautiful location we’ve had. It’s warm and sunny and we are shooting out in a beautiful home in Oyster Bay. It is a large house with a sloping lawn in the back that ends at a beach. Oyster Bay is one of the most hi-so neighborhoods in all of America. It is where a lot of rich New Yorkers live when they don’t want to live in the city. It is also the inspiration for the The Great Gatsby, one of my favorite novels of all time.
We are shooting here because in the script, Gogol, the son of Indian immigrants, has found a rich American girlfriend and comes to her childhood home to meet her parents. In the script he is proud to have “gotten” this girl but at the same time has the feeling that he will always be an outsider in her hi-so life. That is almost the same fate that befell the hero of The Great Gatsby.
I know that is the reason Mira has chosen to shoot here in Oyster Bay. Among these gorgeous homes overlooking the bay, there is a sense that this life is out of reach for immigrants. We were not born here and because of that, we will never belong here. This is America at its most class-conscious. As I walk along the beach I sense a beautiful sadness. I also, will never belong here.
Mira is sick again today and in a bad mood. Rolex sends a journalist to talk to her but she declines so he just talks to me instead. During break as everyone takes the vans to a nearby church for lunch, Mira lies on the grass overlooking the beach and falls asleep! I think Mira is a successful director because she puts her job in perspective. She loves film. But she loves life more. She doesn’t forget to enjoy the view and I think only when you understand this can you make filmmaking work for you as a career.
Mira is still sick today and in the morning a doctor comes to the set to check on her and give her some medicine. But the film must go on.
Today is the first day that we are shooting in Manhattan. We are in the Upper East Side on 75th Street and Park Avenue which is the most hi-so part of the city. The townhouse we are shooting in is actually owned by the same family that owns the home we shot in yesterday at Oyster Bay. The townhouse is a very beautiful five floor building but being a real apartment, there is again not that much room to move around. I ask Lydia the producer why they didn’t build these sets on stage and just shoot the exterior in the real location and she tells me “money”. It would have been much more expensive to build the set because “the union carpenters are very expensive”. I remember the conversation I had with Norm last week.
We are shooting scenes between Gogol (Kal Penn) and his American girlfriend Maxine who is played by the Australian actress Jacinda Barrett who I saw in Bridget Jones 2 as the beautiful assistant of Colin Firth. In real life Jacinda is very beautiful. She is 5’10 with long blonde hair and when she is not shooting she walks on the street talking on her mobile phone and everybody who walks past stares at her. She looks like a movie star. She is also about an inch taller than Kal and Mira tells me that she needs to have Jacinda slouch down in some scenes so that she appears shorter than Kal.
But Kal also has some fans. The townhouse is across the street from a school and in the afternoon when classes get out, a bunch of teenage girls run over to take pictures with Kal because they loved him in Harold and Kumar go to White Castle. They tell him they all have the DVD! Before The Namesake, Kal has only been known for his comedy roles. He is a very talented actor and can do a lot of funny things with his face just like Jim Carrey and other famous comedy actors. But this film is a challenge for him. It’s his first dramatic lead role. He has to make the audience believe him as a leading man. Mira sends him to a personal trainer to lift weights and get more muscles! He is too skinny!
Overall today is slow because it is difficult to light a real apartment. Over the last two weeks I have spent a lot of time watching the DP (Director of Photography), Fred Elmes, light the set. He is a real gentleman – very quiet, but with intensity - just like a character in a David Lynch film. Today the lighting is difficult because there is no space and Fred has to put an 18K HMI on a crane across the street and blast it in through the window. Though the lighting takes time, what Mira and I see in the monitor is always very beautiful. Like directing, cinematography is about taste. There are many people who know how to put up lights, how to get an exposure, but in the end, the great DPs are the ones who have good taste. Ultimately, the job is not technical, but artistic. When I see Fred’s dailies (I have been watching all the dailies on DVD on an Apple laptop computer) they are beautiful because they are tasteful. Any DP can make something look pretty, but only a few can make it look right. That is a matter of taste.
Lunch breaks at 5.30PM. Over here, “lunch break” doesn’t mean it has to be lunch time, it simply means six hours after we start. Usually we start at 6AM so lunch falls around noon but today we start at 11.30AM so lunch is at 5.30PM. So it’s actually dinner but it is still called “lunch”. Because of the union rules, you cannot work your crew for more than six hours straight. Every six hours you need to have a 45 minute break and so the first break is always called “lunch” and the second one is called “dinner”. It’s not important what time they are. And you have to give your crew at least a 10-hour rest between days – this is called “turn-around”. That is why today’s call time is at 11.30AM. Because last night we didn’t wrap until after midnight! So by union rules, we can’t start before 11.30AM without paying penalties to the crew.
During the break, the whole crew goes to eat leaving just some location assistants and interns to watch the equipment which is sitting in the street. I am surprised there are no police on set. Maybe because this is the Upper East Side and it is a very safe neighborhood. I don’t come back after lunch. I meet a friend to go for a walk in Central Park. You can find the most beautiful view in New York by standing on the east side of the park at 90th street overlooking the reservoir to the West Side as the sun sets into the buildings. You can see the silhouettes of all the famous New York apartment buildings - the San Remo, the Beresford, and the Dakota – where John Lennon was shot.
Today we are back at the same 75th Street location. Mira is shooting a party scene with about 20 extras moving back and forth in the scene. I am excited to watch this because for me, the hardest scenes to shoot have always been ones with a lot of characters talking to each other. It becomes very complicated to stage the action without the audience becoming confused about where all the characters are in relation to each other. The easiest way to do it is to break the people into groups and that is exactly what Mira has done here. Because this is a real apartment, there is not a lot of room to move the camera so she stages the main action in the foreground and simply has the extras moving in the background. This is much easier to do because the camera does not need to move to follow the main characters. It is not as fluid visually but those are the limitations of shooting in a real location. In a way it’s just like shooting two people talking but with people moving in the background.
Nevertheless, this scene takes almost three hours to prepare. Partly it’s because of the lighting and partly because the scene requires a lot of rehearsals. By now I am used to the pattern of working on this set.
Every scene is rehearsed and shot in the same way: 1. Mira will rehearse the scene with the actors on the set. All the department heads are present to watch this rehearsal. Once Mira and Fred have decided how they will shoot the scene, they let the actors go. 2. The stand-ins are called in so that the crew can light the scene and prepare the set. This lighting set-up takes the longest time – sometimes hours. 3. The actors are called back in to finalise the scene. 4. They shoot.
Every scene follows this pattern. It has taken about a week for the crew to get up to 100% but now I look around and feel that everyone is working at full speed. I think every production is the same, no matter for a big film or a short film. It always takes some time for everyone to move in the same speed, everyone to understand each other.
I leave early to take a train to Connecticut to visit my sister. I come back to the city at 10PM and call the set. They tell me they are still shooting. Next morning I find out that they go overtime again and don’t wrap until 2AM! I know that each day of shooting costs an average of 85,000 dollars. Tonight’s overtime will add another 35,000 dollars to the day’s budget!
Today is my last day on the New York set and it is the most exciting day because we are shooting outside in the streets of Soho! I always remember New York movies looking like this – Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese, Spike Lee – the movies I grew up watching all portray New York this way – the streets. So I am so happy to finally be on the street today – now I feel like a part of a real New York movie! Compared to all our other days of shooting, today is crazy. There are crowds everywhere. Cars and trucks drive through the street and honk their horns. Police helicopters fly overhead making the sound man go crazy. There are a group of paparazzi photographers on the sidewalk because we are shooting right outside the Marc Jacobs store and the Wimbledon tennis champion Maria Sharapova is shopping inside. We have to wait for her to come out and leave because all the photographers are getting in the way. Finally she comes out and walks right past me about three feet away! She is beautiful! Six feet tall, long blonde hair, wearing dark glasses like a super model. I smile at her but she doesn’t smile at me. Bitch.
After she leaves we begin to work, shooting a scene with Gogol and his new Indian girlfriend Moushumi (he has broken up with Maxine) walking in the streets of Soho. They walk and talk and the camera operator follows them with a Steadicam. There is a lot of noise with cars and people and helicopters and Ed, the sound man, tells Mira that this scene will have to be ADR. That means that the sounds he is recording cannot be used in the final film. The actors will have to go back into the studio and record the dialogue again. If possible, you never want to do this because the actor’s performance can never be as good as the original. But here we have no choice. The Soho street location is beautiful but the sound is bad.
Sometimes you have to sacrifice one for the other. It takes all afternoon to get three shots of Gogol and Moushumi walking down the street. First, a wide shot in front of them. Second, a medium shot of Gogol. Third, a medium shot of Moushumi. The continuity doesn’t really match in the shots but I know it will be okay. There is a nice liveliness to the scene and people won’t notice the continuity problems. I ask Robyn the script supervisor and she says the same thing. If the scene is good – people won’t notice the continuity. After we finish this shot, we hurry and shoot one shot of Jacinda Barrett walking down the street for another section of the script. We put the camera right on the sidewalk in the busiest street in Soho – but amazingly, nobody really looks into the camera! I don’t know why. Maybe it’s New York and people are used to seeing film crews on the streets. But this shot makes me happy. It feels like I am in film school again – shooting on the streets with people walking all around us. There is an excitement to it. While we are shooting this, the second crew is preparing the night shoot. This is a scene inside a moving taxi and the lighting team is rigging the lights to the rig that will pull the car. That’s the way the teams work. They are always thinking one shot ahead. While the first team is shooting, the second team is preparing for the next shot.
We break for lunch at 6PM and during the break I go around to say goodbye to the crew who I have become friends with over the last 3 weeks. I will see most of them again in India a month from now when the production moves to Calcutta. But goodbye for now!
I leave tomorrow morning for Bangkok. This last day I spend at Mirabai, Mira’s personal office. It’s the first day of editing! The editor, Allyson Johnson, has been editing the footage since the first day of shooting but this is the first time that she has been able to show Mira. I arrive at 11.30AM and talk to Allyson – I met her last year when I came to New York and she was editing Vanity Fair. The production office has rented an AVID system and installed it at Mirabai so Mira can edit in her own office without the interference of too many people at the production office. That’s the funny thing about editing. It only requires one person. When you shoot, you need so many people – sometimes hundreds. But when you edit it’s always one person.
Mira arrives at noon and we all have lunch before working. I feel lucky to be able to sit with her as she looks at the cuts and though this is not my film, I have been with the production since the beginning and I feel happy and proud to see the film edited into sequences. We edit from 1PM to 6PM, looking over all the scenes that have been shot. Even though it is still rough, I can see the movie coming together before my eyes. That’s the magic of editing. I ask Mira what she wants when she’s directing actors and she says “energy – the actors have to have energy from the start of the scene to the end”.
Like the first day, this last day I am again reminded that an experienced director like Mira makes mistakes just like I do. She gets angry because some shots are not so good and she didn’t shoot more takes. I laugh inside. I think every director in the world knows what that feels like – to sit in the editing room and realize you didn’t shoot enough footage. It’s nice to see that this famous director gets angry and complains just like I do!
Mira: “I don’t have any more takes?”
As the sun sets on the last day of my stay in New York, Mira and I leave together and walk down 6th Avenue to the subway. She tells me she is not taking a taxi because she is trying not to spend so much money. She turned down the big paycheck of Harry Potter 5 to do this film that pays her very little. Maybe she thinks she made a mistake? But then she smiles and tells me “you have to do what you really care about”.
We hug at the subway and I watch her rush down the stairs and disappear. Then I walk back to my apartment, watching, listening and smelling the atmosphere of New York all around me. One day maybe I will be back to direct my own film here. That would be nice.
TO BE CONTINUED NEXT MONTH IN
Tonight I leave for Calcutta. I was last in New York at the end of April so it has been around one month. In that time, Mira has finished shooting all of the New York scenes and now comes to Calcutta to shoot all the India scenes. This is the final two weeks of shooting and then the film is done! I arrive into the Calcutta airport at 12.30AM, and am surprised how small and old the international terminal is. It looks a lot like the old Don Muang Airport when I was a child. Anyway, I catch a cab to the hotel and so my first view of India is from the window of a taxi, rushing through the night time streets. Calcutta is old. It is what people think of when they think of India, people sleeping on the sidewalk and cows walking in the street. But there is also a lot of history here. You can feel the history, the sense of a lot of time passing through these places. As I majored in history in college, this is a feeling that excites me. I get to the hotel, check in, and finally get to sleep around 3AM.
My first day on the set is a shock. Calcutta has 12 million people and they all seem to be gathered on the street watching the film shoot. Indians love movies. Bollywood is the largest producer of movies in the world and so movies are an important part of popular culture here. The city is hot and crowded and noisy and it takes a long time for my car to get through all the people and drop me in front of the set at 8AM.
I go upstairs and say hello to all the crew members and Mira. I learn that about half of the crew members are sick from eating bad food or drinking bad water. Even Mira is sick, but as usual, she is full of energy. They are in the middle of directing a scene with all of the Indian family members.
The house they are in is very beautiful and Fred Elmes’ lighting is gorgeous as usual. I also meet Sooni Taraporevela, the writer of the script and the woman who has written almost all of Mira’s scripts since Salaam Bombay!. I think it must be difficult for her to see someone else direct something she has written because certainly every writer sees the images their own way. I ask her if she has ever thought of directing and she says no. I ask why and she says because she doesn’t think she can handle the pressure – she doesn’t have the personality. I agree with her – for the year that I have known Mira, I see why she is successful as a professional filmmaker. It’s not only because of her talent and intelligence but also because of her personality. She is like a lion. She is very strong, very charismatic, and she never gets tired. Like today, even when she is sick, she still smiles and chats with me between takes. She has the personality of a leader, which is what you need to have as a director.
The shoot finishes at around 9PM and I take a taxi back to the hotel with the film’s star Kal Penn. We have a nice chat and he tells me how excited he is to be working with Mira. He says, in Hollywood, there are so few serious dramatic roles for Indian actors and he feels lucky to be able to work on The Namesake.
Today is a crazy day and maybe the most difficult day of the entire movie. We are shooting inside Howrah train station which is the busiest train station in India. It is like Hualumpong but three times bigger and with ten times more people. Everyday, 1.5 million people pass through this train station.
We are shooting a scene where the Ganguli family runs through the station to board a train. There is security everywhere because of Tabu, the main actress, who is very famous in India. There must be over a thousand people who are in the station trying to get a look at her, including the paparazzi from the newspapers. The production shoots in the middle of the train station and police need to be deployed to hold back the crowds with shotguns and rifles and wooden sticks. I ask the policemen why they need guns and they say without guns, the crowds will just come in and start stealing the equipment.
The scene we shoot in the daytime is very complicated. The family is running through the station trying to catch their train, surrounded by a large crowd. So there are about 50 extras surrounding the actors. I even get to be an extra in the scene, playing a tourist with a camera around my neck. The camera is on a Steadicam in front of the four main actors and the extras are behind them to block out the crowd of onlookers who are not in the scene. In fact, you wouldn’t be able to shoot this scene without the extras to block the crowds from looking in the camera. Mira shoots this shot seven times, not because the actors are bad (they don’t need to do much) but because the choreography of the extras moving past them isn’t good. That’s the important part about background extras. When they’re good, you don’t notice them, but when they’re moving incorrectly, it can take you out of the scene.
While this is happening, the paparazzi almost get into a fistfight with security and the manager of the station gets into a large argument with the producer. But Mira continues to work. In a way, the producer is there to ensure that the production problems don’t reach Mira, so she can concentrate on the creative side only. In the afternoon, the crew gets on the train to shoot a long dialogue scene on the moving train. But because there is so little room, I decide not to go and get in the way. Instead, I take a train with the Rolex photographers out to the countryside around Calcutta to see what it is like. And it looks just like Thailand. I shot some of my short films in Esan, and the Indian countryside looks the same as Roi-Et.
Today is a holiday and I spend the afternoon interviewing with the Rolex documentary crew. They ask me many things, but the question that sticks in my mind the most is “what is the most important thing you have learned from this experience?” I have learned the answer ever since the first day of shooting in New York. I have learned that what Mira does and what I do is the same thing. I used to think that the famous film directors did things differently, that they had some secret methods that made their films so interesting. Being with Mira for the shooting of The Namesake has shown me that her work is no different from mine. She needs to fight for every shot, nothing comes easy, there is never enough time, and the footage doesn’t always turn out the way you want it to. But you keep fighting to try to get as close as possible to the idea you have in your head. That’s what a film director does, from making a 5-minute short film to a 5-hour epic. Seeing this has given me confidence that I can do what she does. Throughout the time I have been with her I have learned many things, but this lesson is the one that is the most important to me.
Today we shoot on the streets of Calcutta and as usual it is hot and there seem to be a thousand people standing in the streets watching us. Birds shit on all the crew members and the equipment because we are shooting under some trees.
The scene we are shooting has Ashima and her two teenage children taking a street tour of Calcutta, being pulled by a rickshaw. The camera is on a steadicam in front of them. Because we are shooting at noon, the sunlight is very strong so Fred puts up a 12ft x 12ft frame with diffusion to cut the sunlight. So as the rickshaw with the actors are being pulled along the street, four other crew members have to run along with the rickshaw holding up this big frame above the actors. This is one of the situations that DPs hate the most – shooting in noon sunlight. It is hard to make the light look nice because the contrast is too strong.
After lunch, we move to shoot the actors sitting inside a bus moving in the street. This scene takes a long time to set up because we are working inside a real bus with actors and extras and the camera and sound people. It is about 100 degrees and everybody is under pressure and in a bad mood. The bus is parked in a main street and all around us cars are honking their horns because of the traffic jam that is created. Everybody is angry because they have closed off half the street for shooting. The cars are also blocked by the thousand people who are watching the shoot, standing in the street. The police need to keep them away from the bus with big sticks.
I notice that weather makes a big difference in whether a film shoot is enjoyable or not. When it is too hot or too cold the crew members start to get angry easily. Working on a film is just the same as working in any other job. You want the job environment to be as pleasant as possible. That’s why it is always easiest to shoot indoors where the temperature is normal. The crew is always happiest that way!
Today is my last day in Calcutta and we are shooting again in the same house we shot last weekend. The scene is a celebration of Ashima and Ashoke after their wedding in 1977 before they move to America to start their family. So on my final day on the shoot, we move back to the beginning to shoot the first scene in the film. It is a nice end to my first trip to India and also for my experience on The Namesake. In the scene there are flowers and golden silks everywhere. All the actors are dressed in golden silk costumes as is the custom for Indian weddings. There seems to be a big celebration for my last day on the shoot. Of course it is all fake – this wedding is not real, the people are all just actors, it is just a normal Wednesday in the rest of the world. But being here now, the celebration seems to be real – that’s the way it is with movies, every now and again when the sets are well done, the actors are good, and the extras are well cast, for a minute you forget that it is just a movie – it almost seems like real life. So here, now, it seems a real celebration for my last day. I say goodbye to all the crew members. I will see Mira again soon but some of the crew members I know I will never see again. It is always sad to leave a film set. Throughout the shoot, we become like a family and it is quite sad to say goodbye to this family.
As I walk away from the set, I turn around and watch everyone go back to work, setting up the next shot. Though I am leaving today, there are still 5 more days of shooting until the film is complete. I will wait for the day when I can see The Namesake in the movie theaters. Then this experience will truly be complete.