Interview: Claire McCarthy and Denson Baker, director and cinematographer of The Waiting City

Interview: Claire McCarthy and Denson Baker, director and cinematographer of The Waiting City. By Simon Miraudo.

Denson Baker, Claire McCarthy and actor Samrat Chakrabarti.

The Waiting City is a truly joyous surprise of a film; a sumptuously photographed and fully realised emotional journey into the heart of India. It stars Radha Mitchell and Joel Edgerton as Fiona and Ben, a couple who venture into Calcutta to collect their newly adopted daughter, only to find themselves on a path of (occasionally devastating) self-discovery. I was fortunate enough to share some tea with director Claire McCarthy and director of photography Denson Baker on a rainy Perth afternoon. Below is a transcript of our chat:

SM: I’m always really interested in breaking in stories, so I’d like to know how you both got into the filmmaking industry.

CM: Well I sort of started making films when I was at uni, but I really focused on music and painting before that time and I didn’t really know what I wanted to be; I was sort of drifting about various areas of the arts. When I was at uni I started to do some experimental films and this is a fusion of all the things I really loved. Pictures and philosophy and history in some ways; it’s human behavior, it’s music, it’s really a synthesis of all the things I really loved. Then I started to get more serious in drama. I went to film school at AFTRS [Australian Film Television and Radio School] and met Denson who was a year above me (and I’ll let you tell your story) and then made a couple of documentaries and dramas at film school and after film school continued to make a feature called Cross Life, which has been doing the festival circuit and kind of getting a boutique release now.

DB: I grew up in Perth, first studying at high school where I was doing media, and I was the kid with a video camera at every event the school had and every production. I started doing workshops at FTI in Fremantle, and studied at the Central TAFE doing Film and TV. Just shooting short films and music videos in Perth, camera assisting on some of the children’s series being done in Perth at the time. But then saw that with my aspiration of being a feature film cinematographer I would have to move on to where the films were being made and moving to Sydney seemed to be the place. I moved to AFTRS and did really well out of that. First year in film school I won the Cinematographer of the Year award, which is the first time a first year student had won one, and started immediately getting work out of film school. I was doing commercials, and did my first international shoot at 23. I went to Germany and shot commercials in Frankfurt and Munich, and eventually got my first feature film break and went up from there.

SM: Beautiful. Well Claire, where did the inspiration for The Waiting City come from?

CM: I made a documentary in India, really inspired by my sister actually. I wasn’t intending to make a film, but I went with my sister who was finishing high school and responded to a family taunt that she could never survive a day outside of her middle class comfort bubble. That she could never survive in the slums of Calcutta – this is from my mother! She decided that she in fact could survive a day in the slums of Calcutta, and decided to go after her final exams. She called me and I was in between jobs at the time. I decided to go with her for three months and work in the slums. I decided to make a film about her experiences, and relate to India, but independently of that I met a lot of couples trying to adopt children in the orphanage we were working, and that was the seed of the idea. I started to interview these couples and became quite interested in their life stories, and what led to this point where they were adopting children; what was going on in their relationship, and how this had galvanized them as a couple. I did more research on people who had adopted from other countries as well, and collated that into the first draft of the film. So it’s a combination of experiences in India, research and interviews with couples, my own experiences, and then the imagined world of drama and what happens when you take nonfiction elements and put them in a fiction world.

SM: The film looks amazing; I guess for Western audiences the closest visual comparison would be Slumdog Millionaire, which is a much more manic, fantastical film.

DB: A very different story.

SM: Very different in the story, and in the look of it, as yours is very dreamlike. I want to ask you Denson, firstly, how did you get involved with the film, and secondly, where you at all frightened, or at least intimidated about filming in India? It’s quite a task.

DB: Yeah sure. To answer your first question…how did I get involved in the film? Well Claire and I had done some productions together beforehand, a short film project, a couple of music videos, one which we did in India…

SM: Old Man River?

DB: Yep, Old Man River, which was a test for how we approached The Waiting City. I didn’t really have any fears about going into India; I mean shooting in India is an absolute adventure; a privilege and a lot of fun. I’d been to India previously on an SBS documentary series that I was shooting; several years before I’d been to Mumbai and kind of knew what to expect before that.

SM: So you were already kind of schooled in it.

CM: As much as one can!

DB: Yeah, with the music video there too, we actually approached that video to test some of our techniques; our look and our approach to the shooting style. With that music video, we learnt a lot about how we really want to do things, rather than what would be the way to approach the film. There’s a lot of lessons learnt from that. Then we did a number of research trips, where Claire and I would travel around looking at locations, looking at the streets of Calcutta, and we went to other places as well and I took a lot of photography; I did a lot of still shots that sort of became our style guide. We started to look at the pictures more and more – I shot over 6000 in preproduction – and Claire and I looked through them and picked out what we liked and didn’t like about them. There’d be shots of people, of faces, of light, of locations, just taken from the car as we’re driving through, and when there happened to be some beautiful light coming down over the dusty street, and that started to become our style guide, I guess, and that’s where we developed our style. We didn’t want to be emulating another film’s style, we wanted ‘The Waiting City look’.

SM: Even with all that preparation you did, surely there were some logistical roadblocks when it came to production. Can you tell me about those?

CM: Well yeah. I think shooting in India, especially in Calcutta which is a little more regional – and there is still regional cinema in Calcutta, it’s quite famous for that, but inevitably, the process is going to be really different to shooting at home. Both different, but also similar as well, more similar than perhaps we had initially imagined. When we went to India to shoot the music video, we kind of realised that we were in good hands; that India makes an extraordinary amount of content each year, and that they’ve got Bollywood, and independent scenes, and regional scenes, but they do make foreign films too. We were really lucky to be able to attract great people, and I think that helped the process we wanted by having a great team. We really handpicked our team and who we wanted to work with; those who were crazy enough to go on this journey with us, that they were passionate about the project. We didn’t want to approach it like a foreign film; we didn’t want to come in, take over and then leave. We wanted to make sure that there was a cohesive, collaborative relationship with all our team. So we ended up having a 120 Indian team; both from Mumbai and Calcutta, and we had 10 Australians that came as well, not including the three cast from Australia. Some of the things which we knew we would come up against: crowds would gather when we’re in public spaces. And we really did have a commitment to naturalism in the film, we wanted there to be the actors in real locations rather than in the studio, and we knew there would be logistics – major logistics – getting from one area to another. Often traffic is quite complex, and with navigation, some streets might be one way one part of the day, and then change to be the other way after 3o’clock. Crazy, crazy things that you just can’t anticipate.

DB: It is one of the most densely populated cities in the world. I’d find that I’d set up a great wide shot and then you’d start having people pop up on the rooftops, so far away you couldn’t even deal with them and I’d be like “I’m just going to have to change the shot, there are just too many people.” So now I’m getting closer and tighter. We actually found that we knew from our music video experience, we couldn’t fight the chaos, and run the show our way, we had to embrace it and work with how things would go, and we often found that magic would come out of that.

SM: And I think that translates pretty well into the whole film.

CM: Sometimes we’d shoot with long lenses, and other times we’d use documentary techniques, and try to be more formal in our approach. We’d use a dummy crew, a dummy decoy camera unit to draw people’s eye-lines. We’d use all kinds of tricks!

DB: Send the B-Camera team and get them to film some dancing…

CM: They’d film something really cool, and we’d be doing our little scene.

DB: Intimate little scene with Joel and Radha…

CM: We’d do things like that. On the whole, we also had Pramod, our sort of crowd control. He was this big old bear of a character who knew when this dance would happen, people would gather and love to look at it. And we’d be standing in a place where there is virtually no people, and then within five minutes a thousand people would gather, and keep gathering, he would know when to draw them away, when to let them look, when to let them be involved, and be really pleasant. There is this culture of filmmaking, everyone’s so curious, it’s all about respecting the rights of people to observe, but yet, still get the work done.

DB: When you take over someone’s street, you want to treat them with respect, you don’t just want to plonk yourself in there and say “Uh, we’re filming. Get lost.”

SM: To that point, one of the things I really loved about the film were the characters Krishna (Samrat Chakrabarti) and the sister from the orphanage (Tillotama Shome). I was really interested in the process of casting in India. I assume you were quite involved with that.

CM: Well I worked in collaboration with a casting director in Australia for the Australian team, and then a casting director in India who helped me select people. And there’s some very senior actors who you mentioned in the film, as well as some non-actors. And the actors were very happy to embrace this performance style. We wanted there to be, like we said before, this commitment to realism, a more authentic play between real people. In terms of our senior cast, finding them was tricky, there were a lot of people and their performance style is sometimes a little different, having that type of pared back, sort of natural approach. The thing with Samrat Chakrabarti who plays Krishna, he’s such a fantastic actor and has worked a lot in Bollywood in India. His parents are from Calcutta and he spent his childhood there, but he was educated from 12 in the States. So he really does have both sides of the fence, and I thought that it was quite interesting that he has a cousin who works as a hotel bellhop, and he had this insider’s point of view, but he knew the kind of delicate qualities that needed to be carefully monitored; he sort of had to have this Charlie Chaplin-esque charm about him, but still be believable and still be able to ask things that you would never be able to get away with, in a kind of guileless way. He had that really sweet quality about him. Tillotama, she’s quite a well known actress, she was in Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding, and when I first met her, I was a fan of her acting, and [First A.D. in India] Tess was like “No no no, you’re never going to get Tillotama, she’s never going to do it.” And I was like “Aw, can we just have a cup of tea? Have a chai?” And she comes in and she’s like 4ft1: “Claire I love your movie; I love your script, but it is not for me, I have no lines, I’m not in this movie at all, and I’m Muslim I cannot play a nun…” (Laughing) So anyway I hypnotised her for an hour and she left the room saying “OK, I’ll do your movie.”

DB: And she loved it too.

CM: She LOVED it. Just standing around smoking cigarettes in her nun’s outfit.(Laughing)

CM: She’s really such a fantastic actor and so joyful, and even though she’s got such a cameo role, you really remember her. A lot of people talk about her, and also Barun Chanda, who’s quite a big actor in Calcutta, he starred in a Satyajit Ray film, he plays the doctor in that last sequence. It’s a tiny role, but again, he’s like a rock star in Calcutta. And also Tanushree Shankar, who is Ravi Shankar’s wife – the well-known musician who hung out with Jimi Hendrix and cut albums with all these big amazing musicians. She’s a really well-known dancer and actress, and it was good of her to do that role too. She’s won all sorts of awards in India. So yeah, I was really blessed to meet such great actors and for them to be a part of it, because often when you have great actors, they may not appreciate the importance of the support roles. And I think they’re as important to a film as your leads. Your leads need to be supported by equally great actors, and they need to embrace different processes as well. It’s not always about being in the scene with another actor; they need to be willing to embrace emerging actors as well as non actors as well as be able to have actors that are humble enough to have one line or no lines in the film, and still have gravitas. And that was great.

SM: In regards to adoption, certainly when it comes to adopting from Africa and India, there’s a big preconception in our culture with Madonna and Angelina Jolie (I’m sure you’ve been asked this a million times). Even when you meet Fiona and Ben for the first time – she’s this high powered lawyer and he’s this muso – you kind of briefly question their motives. Not knowing these characters; are they in this for a family? Are they in this for themselves? When you’re writing the script, and certainly in their depiction through the performances, did you feel as if you had to really differentiate them?

CM: I wanted to sort of explore even within your own self, you can be unconscious of your own desire. And that it’s not until you get taken out of the safety of your environment, and when you’re put under pressure, that both the good and bad parts of yourself can really come to the fore. And the journey of the story, the point of it like you say, is to bring out the better parts of each other; to offer that to each other, as well as to become selfless about their choice. And perhaps on paper they were great; but how do you know you’re really ready to become a parent. When does that journey begin, and for them, they get to India and this journey is them getting ready to do that. It was certainly playing with judgments and presuppositions, and how they brings those reactions to India when they first arrive, and by virtue of their journey, sort of soften their worldview and try to deal with things that have been latent in their relationship, and by doing that understand each other better and see the world a different way.

SM: Well I’m one of those people who is all over Twitter. Which is probably not a good thing…

CM: (Laughing) HATE Twitter.

SM: I see on Twitter, weeks before a film comes out, critics talking about it, and then certainly on the week of release everyone is talking about the film. And in some cases, certainly with U.S. blockbusters, the talk kills them.

CM: It can, and has actually.

SM: But what I’ve noticed is the reverse effect on Australian films. I see people talking about Animal Kingdom and The Loved Ones, and even The Waiting City for the past month; people have been talking about it and it doesn’t even come out for another week. Do you feel like audience’s perception of Australian films are changing at all, and if this plays into it?

CM: I do, I think so.

DB: With good reason too.

CM: We’ve been talking about this a lot; this film; it’s been about four years from script to screen. When we were in the thickets of development, it was at a sort of dark ages of Australian cinema; Australians weren’t really going to their movies. And it was this sort of loss of faith in Australian content. And we wanted to really be universal and have this emotional journey for the audience as well, and be a transformative journey, and to have an ending that was satisfying (hopefully) and also gave – without trying to sound like we got all the elements right, because it’s really difficult and I still don’t know how the film’s going to perform – but the intention was to have a catharsis in the film. And I think that some of these films that have been performing really well – and I feel a lot of hope and optimism in where the industry is going, because what is really universal in a lot these films is the epic quality and catharsis in terms of the character relationships, and a kind of startling visual style in a lot of these films. I think that when we were preparing and developing the film, that we really wanted it to attract people to watch the movie, and it has performed really well in selling to other territories.

McCarthy, Mitchell, Chakrabarti and Baker at the film’s premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2009.

SM: That’s good to hear. Well, I’m going to finish up now because you have a lot of interviews today. What is next for the two of you?

DB: I actually just finished post-production on a film called Oranges and Sunshine, which I shot in the U.K. and South Australia – a U.K./Australian co-production. And that’s coming out at the end of the year. It was a really exciting project. Jim Loach is the director; he’s the son of Ken Loach. And it stars Emily Watson (who’s the lead) and Hugo Weaving and David Wenham. And that’s going to be a great film.

CM: Yeah, that’s going to be a special film.

DB: But there’s quite a few projects on the horizon.

CM: I’ve been working on a couple of writer/director projects, an adaptation of a book, a couple of grants for things, writing things, and Hopscotch (who’re doing the distribution) we’re working together, and I’ve got a project with Radha, a few little things. We both got agents when the film premiered at Toronto last year, and I’m attached to a couple of American projects, so hopefully we can bring them back here as co-productions; which is kind of another thing we’re interested in exploring; innovative ways of partnering Australians with other filmmakers from other countries, so that we can make films collaboratively and hopefully stimulate the industry as well.

SM: Great. Well I wish you both the best of the luck with the film.

CM: Thank you! And to you too!

The Waiting City is in Australian cinemas now.

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