Shekhar Kapur Talks About Emotion, Cate Blanchett, and Finding Out What’s Love Got To Do With It?

Indian-British director Shekhar Kapur has been involved in the film industry since the early 1980s. Originally an actor, he made his first feature Masoom in 1983 but it was his 1994 biographical film Bandit Queen about Phoolan Devi that first garnered him international attention. His biggest works to date have been the Cate Blanchett staring Queen Elizabeth I films, Elizabeth in 1998, and Elizabeth: The Golden Age in 2007. Adapting Jemima Khan’s script about cross cultural romances with What’s Love Got to Do With It? Kapur finds himself in new directorial territory.

Nadine Whitney spoke to the venerated artist about his work, and especially how many Australians he has directed.

SK: My first directing project was in 1983. I was very young. I’d come back from England as a chartered accountant and I kind of got lost. I came out of accounting and found what I thought I wanted to do. My daughter is 21 and she says to me, “Dad, I don’t know what to do.” I reply to her “I don’t know what to do next, all my life.” I went and made my first movie after deciding to leave accounting.

NW: It’s an incredible thing to make a movie at such a young age, and then move into large scale productions with Bandit Queen and then going into huge scale productions like Elizabeth all within just over a decade. What was it like working on films like Elizabeth?

SK: Yes, scale comes to me naturally. Some say to me “How do you make your shots feel so big?” I give them a simple answer, “Use a wide angled lens!” (laughing). I like scale because I feel scale gives me emotion. So if you look at Elizabeth people said I changed the very nature of how historical films are shot. I didn’t. I just needed scale to tell the underlying fundamental story of what I was trying to say. Elizabeth for example was driven by destiny. My stories are driven by destiny. How do I communicate destiny? It doesn’t come easily into words, so I try to find visual aspects of destiny. I remember one day when I was going to do Elizabeth I went to a 12th Century cathedral and I stood and saw that it looked immense, and I realised that hundreds of thousands of people must have stood in the same place, and hundreds of thousands of people have since passed away, yet this building still stands. So I decided to make these big architectural spaces to represent the destiny of Elizabeth.

In the beginning destiny dictates what she (Elizabeth) does, but by the end of the film Elizabeth is dictating her own destiny. You’ll find she was scaled, making her look small and by the end the camera has almost gone down to look at Elizabeth as a reverent subject and she is looking larger than the palaces and all the architecture.

NW: By the time we get to The Golden Age she is just magnificent; she is utterly in control. I would be a remiss Australian if I didn’t ask you what it was like to work with Cate Blanchett and Abbie Cornish.

SK: Abbie, and Heath Ledger in Four Feathers, and lately Olivia DeJonge who played Priscilla Presley in Elvis who I worked with on the television series Will [a one season production about the life of a young Will Shakespeare where Olivia played his Will’s love interest]. I’ve made movies with a lot of Australians, on the other side of the camera also. Cate always told me that when the continents parted you got left behind.

I am ultimately not a product of my visuals, although people keep talking about them. I’m fundamentally educated by the actors. With someone like Cate, when you ask her questions… she was such a revelation to work with because she exceeded a lot of things. She exuded an incredible vulnerability, to be in front of the camera and let all the onion layers peel away but remain in control of your skill and craft, it’s tough to do. She was always doing it. In a way there is something radiating from her, and I could catch on to that radiation and ultimately we were working absolutely in tandem in a state of huge trust and love. Cate, me and Geoffrey Rush.

It was incredible working with Cate. I just read that she’s considering retiring or taking a break from acting. I’m going to call her and say “Actually, Cate, there’s a third Elizabeth film to come. Elizabeth is a series of divinity. It is a woman that believed she needed to become Queen to be divine – so that’s the first film. In the second film she attained a level of divinity in her own mind. So the third has to be “So how are you going to deal with divinity if you’re going to die like everybody else?” How do deal with mortality if you’re divine? There is a story about Elizabeth that she would not sleep or lie down for hours, fifteen or sixteen hours at a time, because she was afraid she would die. She couldn’t handle the fact that “I am divine, how am I going to die?” I think there’s a beautiful film waiting in that. A more intimate film. With Cate, she can go even further with her craft. She’s an amazing actor.

All very famous people deal with that fear. They use oxygen chambers. They have to deal with death as being ordinary and they can’t cope. “I’ve always been extraordinary? How can I suddenly be ordinary because I’m going to die?”

NW: You are known in some ways for fostering large talent onto the screen. You cast Heath Ledger in an international film…

SK: I had Heath before he was really famous.

NW: Lily James certainly already has a name…

SK: I think What’s Love Got to Do With It? is one of Lily’s best performances.

NW: It’s one of the few time where Lily James is allowed to get a bit messy, she’s allowed to have her own opinions and make mistakes. She’s not just the “pretty girl.”

Moving on to Shazad Latif. I can’t wait for him to become a huge movie star.

SK: Ah, Shazad. He’s just finished a huge role in Australia for a major studio. He’s quite the star.

When I met Lily to cast the role of Zoe I said to her that when we meet Zoe she’s in a tumble drier, she doesn’t know what to do, she’s fighting herself constantly. And the question was is Tinder a way to find herself, was it a way to look for intimacy, was it a way to fall in love.

On the other hand there’s this guy who looks absolutely solid in terms of where he’s at. And that’s what Shazad brought to Kaz. It’s amazing, when you look at him on screen he’s solid like one of those old romantic heroes of the 1930s. Completely dependable. I actually saw him again last night. He’s such a good actor. He’s a minimalist actor – with a look here and there and a little inflection of his voice and he can convey so much.

NW: He’s great. I’ve been watching his career through his television roles on Penny Dreadful and Star Trek: Discovery. I was very excited to see that he got a leading role in a film with a superb cast, with Jeff Mizra and of course, Dame Emma Thompson. Iconic to get the Dame.

SK: Who can go wrong with Emma Thompson?

NW: What was it like working with Jemima Khan’s script because this is kind of a personal script for her.

SK: I think it was tough for Jemima to give it to somebody and say make this. Even the script that she wrote was about an unformed life, and off the script itself was an unformed character (Zoe). A person in search of themselves. Because of her experience she would come to me and say “Well, that’s not how I thought about it.” And I told her at one point you have to let go. It’s what I do with actors. A some point I have to let it go to the actors. It was quite a collaboration and for a first-time narrative screenwriter Jemima did really well. And she understands that you can’t impose on a director a checkbox. Especially when you’re dealing with something like love and intimacy.

For me love is not an ending, love is a beginning. I’m not saying that as some kind of great metaphor, I’m saying that because when the journey ends, the yearning ends, the mystery of love ends… love ends. Love is the beginning of the mystery, like life. And if you come back one day and say, “Oh I know what life is” and there is no more mystery because you know what is going to happen tomorrow, then where is all the excitement and the interest in life gone? It’s the same with love. If you know what’s going to happen the next moment you can’t even call it love. Love is a constant discovery of each other. More than that, love is a constant discovery of yourself through the act of love.

NW: I think that’s something What’s Love Got to Do With It? discusses to an extent. When the movie looks at the concept of assisted marriages, it’s not talking finding someone and falling head over heels in love with them, it’s talking about finding somebody and finding the way to love them. As opposed to the idea that Zoe has that it just has to be this big boom moment. She and Kaz have two very different responses to the same question.

SK: There’s this idea that arranged marriages is a concept developed in the East, or at least the terminology. Marriages are arranged all over the world. Italian marriages. My Big Fat Greek Wedding – if you look at the grandmother in that movie who is upset that the bride isn’t marrying a Greek boy. In India and Pakistan we have a joint family system, so there was a system evolved. Now as the joint families are going away people are starting to live individual lives, especially people who have emigrated all over the world. That kind of traditional marriage has to take on a new meaning. How do you sustain a marriage? It’s very interesting that these words are in the film from Jemima’s script that “It takes a village to sustain somebody, it takes a village to sustain an adult.” It’s talking about more than arranged marriages, it’s talking about family. There’s so much in the film that is talking about family and when I read the script people were saying “rom com” instead I just latched on to the emotion of it during script readings. I knew if we were going to take the film to a different level we needed the family dynamics. I’m not a rom com director. I don’t know how to direct a film with a joke every five minutes. What I did know is the idea of human emotion and how I’ve used it before. I’m a highly emotional being – to a fault. So, that’s where I took off and saw that it is an emotional film and that’s what makes it different from the genre of romantic comedies which I find very limiting. Something that is never limiting is emotion.

Shekar Kapur’s new movie What’s Love Got to Do With It? is currently in cinemas and is distributed by Studio Canal.

Nadine Whitney

Nadine Whitney holds qualifications in cinema, literature, cultural studies, education and design. When not writing about film, art or books, she can be found napping and missing her cat.

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