Making Amelia fly again
Mira Nair likes to make films that are unusual.
Her movie, Amelia starring Hilary Swant, Richard Gere and Ewan McGregor, which is releasing in India today, is just that. The biopic on aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart is the biggest film Nair has made in her two decades of filmmaking.
She tells Patcy N more about the challenge that is Amelia.
How did you first hear about Amelia Earhart?
When I was growing up I remembered seeing a postage stamp of Amelia. She was this very androgynous girl. I remembered being quite intrigued by her. It was only when I came to America that I read about her. I didn't think of making a film on her until I was asked to do so. I found out everything about her by looking at hours of news reels. I found her to be an utterly modern and radical woman even by today's standards.
What convinced you to make a movie on her?
Firstly, the fact that she came from a tiny town [Kansas]. I too hailed from a small town. She dreamed of seeing the world right from a very young age, which was something very unusual for a girl in the 1920s.
Secondly, she dreamt of doing something considered mad and crazy, and that is to fly a plane. In the 1920s that would be equivalent to flying to the moon.
Lastly, she lived beyond herself. She didn't satisfy herself with her own private accomplishments but instead stood up for women's rights.
Image: Mira Nair and Hillary Swank
Photographs: Paresh Gandhi
'An extraordinary thing about the research was to find interesting vintage planes that work'
What kind of research did you do?
We already had two of her biographies before I was even on board. In fact, we based the movie on those biographies. I also spent time with people who had actually known Amelia. I tried to find the beating heart underneath the words.
A lot of research was done on the planes. We had real planes as I did not want to use special effects. That was an extraordinary thing about the research -- to find interesting vintage planes that actually work.
Which facet of her personality and character did you find the most challenging to bring on celluloid?
Amelia was very self-possessed; sometimes her personality was very enigmatic. To retain that kind of mystery and yet get the audience to know her better was the real challenge.
Image: Hilary Swank in Amelia
'Hilary actually learned to fly for her role of Amelia'
Did you make any changes to the biopic?
No, we kept it factual. You can't really make changes. In fact, the last 20 minutes of the film is a blow by blow account of the direct and actual transmission that we got from Amelia's cockpit. So it's a very dramatic adaptation. I love to be as authentic as possible.
Why Hilary? How was it working with her? Did she have to undergo any training, like flying a plane?
Actually it was Hilary who came to me with the project. She asked me whether I could direct the film. She was Amelia. I did not cast her; she cast me. My interest to direct Amelia was doubled because of Hilary, who I find very extraordinary.
There are a lot of spiritual as well as physical similarities between Hilary and Amelia. Hilary is a daredevil. She actually learned to fly for her role of Amelia. She even got her flying license.
Image: Ewan McGregor and Hilary Swank in Amelia
'Ewan McGregor and Hilary had terrific chemistry'
How was it working with Richard Gere and Ewan McGregor?
Richard has been a movie star for decades. He's got this kind of meditative maturity about him now which was very helpful for the role of George Putnam. Because George helped make Amelia's dream come true in terms of actually flying those planes.
Ewan is wonderful in a dashing James Bond-kind-of-way. He and Hilary have terrific chemistry that was absolutely necessary because he plays Gene Vidal with whom Amelia later falls in love.
How relevant do you think a character like Amelia Earhart is in these times?
I think such people live eternally because to see the stories of people who dare to dream and then achieve those dreams is something that we all as humans inspire for.
Image: Ewan McGregor in Amelia