Mira Nair’s Masterclass on Independent Filmmaking
Mira Nair is a vital, vibrant woman that is very passionate about filmmaking, people, culture, and life itself. Her body language and gestures are that of a natural storyteller, every movement a crucial part of her narrative. She is riveting and has such a wealth of knowledge about all aspects of filmmaking, that no matter your role on a set, there is something to be learned from her.
This is my takeaway, my gift from Mira Nair.
“[A director must have] The heart of a poet and the skin of an elephant… there is power in the poetry of your own language, your own skin, your own story.”
This is true regardless of your genre or style, I think, because rejection is part of any craft, not once or twice, or even just once in a while, but all the time. Anyone looking for a job, a role, funds, permission, accolades, acceptance — more often than not, you’ll receive a hundred ‘nos’ for every ‘yes’.
“I always say arm yourself with craft because craft is vital, and however you find your craft, that’s vital.”
Mira is has a film school in Uganda and reiterates often the importance of having an open mind, to keep accepting new techniques, new perspectives, and to use the instruction that can be found everywhere, in order to make the best possible film.
“We make movies to transport you, to uplift you, and I hope, sometimes, to give one hope, you know, of how to see something that you had closed your mind on, or you never knew existed, but how that can give you a way to look at the world anew.”
This is one of the main reasons why I watch a film. I always hope to leave the theatre with a sense of having come off a roller coaster of emotion, but I tend to choose the films for myself that will evoke either a deep train of thought or visceral response. Even the most convoluted of plots can do this, but those that can retain a balance are particularly interesting to me. I appreciate the director that takes the time to look not just at the main thread, but the whole tapestry and makes it coherent.
“Well, the only question when I hand out the script to my inner circle of friends and colleagues is, basically, tell me what you think. Where do you get confused? Where do you get bored? You know, where do you not understand? And what do you not understand?
This really resonated with me as a creative, and I find I take this attitude when giving my own writing to others as well. I always want to be better, do better, and in order to do that, you must have feedback on where you can improve. You cast your net as wide as you can, to reach as far as possible, and only keep the best.
“There is nothing more valuable than prep for a film.”
Three of the lessons are actual footage from rehearsal for a scene from Queen of Katwe, where she runs through the prep for the scene and takes us through the whole process. From before the script is even walked through by the actors, they set up the entrances, how the cinematographer would follow the actor, the body language Mira is looking for, and direction. Through several takes, while rehearsing the scene, you can see the path of progression from a first take to the final shot that ended up in the film.
“So even though I know several of the rules — that you’re not supposed to speak behind the camera once you say “action” as the director — I don’t really obey them. If something is helped, I call it out.”
Constructive direction seems to be Mira’s style. She seldom says, “don’t do that,” but “do this at this time, instead of now. She works hands-on with the actors to understand the timing of a scene, and when to dredge up the emotion at play behind the words so the energy can be used to its greatest effect.
“- How do you share that energy in the trenches? … Can you keep each other going on? … And of course, getting the work done in an exciting way, never in a compromised way. That’s key.”
Mira works on building trust and looks for people that not only will perform well, but will play well with others. She has no set criteria, and will often build story onto a character that displays unexpected dimension, and she can instinctively tell will add depth to the story.
“Listen to your instinct, because it is what you possess that makes you distinct.”
Like Ken Burns, throughout the film, Mira Nair stresses the importance of self-confidence and listening to that inner voice that tells you whether or not you are on the right track. And when things go badly on set, you sometimes need to just call it a day, give yourself time to regroup and recharge.
“Energy is not limitless, and creative energy is absolutely limited. It’s not something that has an endless flow. Preserve that creative energy. Do not lose your cool, because even losing your cool takes so much energy. You feel terrible afterwards. You have to recover yourself. You’re embarrassed that you did this in front of everybody. Whatever it takes, save yourself from that. Swallow it.”
Mira also goes over some of her personal routines for getting back on track, and some of the steps she has taken to assure that the cast and crew perform at their best, including hiring a yoga teacher for everyone. She has found it to be very useful and helps build trust in each other, making her a very popular director to work for. However…
“Making a film, you do not have to be constantly popular. Once you achieve your work and once you inspire people to come and give you the work that you want from them, that is when you get their respect.”
When people have your respect, she has found that they perform at their best, and give their all. This leads to unexpected outcomes, all of which she is glad to get on film, to add to her bank of imagery…
“… throughout the shooting of the film, you know, how can we create this bank of imagery that will really be a huge resource when you’re editing the film.”
I thought this was very interesting, running parallel to what Ken Burns taught in his class about gathering everything. You never know when you might need it. If you find yourself with the wherewithal to do so, keep it all so that the editor may have the most material to work with.
“You create a tapestry of background action that could either pay off as the story goes on or may not even pay off and just add a great layer of life and actually would illuminate what the culture is like.”
From the setting to the background activity, Mira explains how she achieved much of this culture, even when her budget was extremely limited. There are choices, and you can get what you want if you just ask for it.
“… we chose a very particular palette, so that everyone wouldn’t come in in their gaudiest, blingiest best… We created a palette of indigo, of ochre, of burgundy of colors that are also very specific to India that I absolutely love…. And it all reflects in your own aesthetics, and what you want, and what you’re asking your costume designer to give you, or your people to give you. You know, you have to ask for it. You have to say this, not that.”
What is here that might help? Can you bring this? Can we use this? Can we shoot here? All you can do is ask. It might be something as simple as a photograph of the mosque in a shot overlooking the city, or using the footage taken of children decorating a car for someone’s wedding with marigolds.
“So locations inspire me, you know, and they can come from life, they can come from photographs I’ve loved, they can come from somebody’s suggestion. But how you use a location, you know, for your character is what is key.”
Mira takes us through a homecoming scene she added in for a character in Monsoon Wedding, and while there was nothing particularly remarkable about his apartment, at the end he steps out onto this terrace with an incredible view. You can see that the character is far from alone, but the twilight expanse of the sky, the gathering shadows, and even the waist-high balcony wall provide the illusion of a sanctuary, where the character is finally free to drop his stoic facade and weep.
“That is the — the key for me — is to work with people who take me much further, you know, and who share the sensibility, but introduce me to horizons that I would not thought of.”
Working with people new to the industry is nothing new for Mira. However, she takes time to cultivate her relationships with her crew and works best not with people that challenge her authority, but people that challenge her world-view.
“Do not surround yourself with yes people, because yes people are going to keep you in a stasis that you will never get out of, you know? So surround yourself with people that take you further.”
Mira’s philosophy has worked well for her, and has this to say about key crew roles in independent filmmaking:
“The writer is possibly the most important collaborator with the director.”
“And if anything else someone can do for me, like the first assistant director or someone that is close to me, I send that out. I don’t fritter away my concentration, because the concentration is vital. What you have in front of you is a precious moment, and you have to achieve it.”
“… That’s what I love about the cinematographers I work with, it is that they are poets of light. We have — we share that sensibility, and then they run away with it and create the light.”
“I think musical rhythm in an editor — for me — says a lot. How somebody responds to music and how some editors cut images to music. Rhythm is the essence of editing in cinema. And rhythm is ineffable. You can’t quite put your finger on it. But rhythm is the essence really, of how a story is told.”
When you put together this kind of a stellar crew, you get these amazing films that surround you and take you along on their journey.
“You know, it’s that kind of interplay, which, of course, is done in the editing, but is conceived of initially in the shooting, and in the lighting. So it’s a beautiful sort of mating dance really when you achieve what you want to in this interplay of light, and camera, and performance, and music. That is cinema. That’s what cinema can give you is literally using everything that excites you into the creation of a frame or a sequence that transports you.”
But how does that translate for scenes that aren’t necessarily about the beauty and the joy of life?
“When you’re making a film that is an ensemble or that is as several characters, several subplots that blend, it’s even more important to know not just that every scene has an intention, but how the pieces of the story interlock and how you can also keep the through line of a story going without — with clarity and with even some sense of suspense.”
“And it’s like building a whole world of actually incredible refined culture, music, exaltation to the god, et cetera, with a danger, and a mystery, and a foreboding. Actually, the scene is critical to be seen as a play of light and sound. And things are in shadows. Things are revealed which are disturbing. You don’t quite know. And yet, the atmosphere is built very carefully to evoke both refinement and terror.”
“I don’t want to hold a flag and signal that something terrible is to come. I’d rather it steal upon you from behind, and then, oh my god, he’s gone.”
While Mira loves music and has found composers with incredible talent, she also expounds on when to use the music, that the timing of sound, or absence of it, can add just as much emotion to a scene as the action in it.
“So you can use sound design to great effect. And the sound design itself can be both based on a reality or completely, you know, about nature. Often, nature teaches me a lot about sound… and I love to just submit to the sound, of nature especially, because it’s an enormous teacher, you know. And it’s filled with a newness, actually, each time, you know.”
That newness, the unique — those are key concepts that are seen time and time again through Mira’s work.
“The key to making films is to have something to see. Something that is distinctive, preferably never seen before. And something that only you can bring.”
Even if you have no budget, and are doing all of the work yourself, don’t let that stop you.
“So basically, my advice to you is to stop at nothing… So make every challenge actually an opportunity. That is the key. Never apologize, but find a way.”
“And remember that if you don’t tell your own story, no one else will. And if they will, it will never be as good as you telling your own story.”
Mira Nair’s Masterclass on Independent Filmmaking is comprised of 17 lessons that span over 4.5 hours. The perks and extras that come with the class include being able to download the transcript to “read along” with the class, and workbooks you can download.
Mira Nair is a veteran director of nearly 40 years of experience, creating many award-winning films, including Salaam Bombay!, Mississippi Masala, Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love, Monsoon Wedding, Vanity Fair, The Namesake, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, and Queen of Katwe.