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When you interview Mira Nair, you don’t just converse about her film and the music, you feel every moment of her personality burst forth. It’s not just the enthusiasm for filmmaking or the vision of a director connecting with the iconic life of Amelia Earhart, it’s a spirit, an awakening soul when her personality emerges. As we discussed Amelia it was like talking with a friend who holds life and its adventures dear to her heart. It’d been twenty one years since Nair directed her first film as she remembers, “Jama Masjid Street Journal  in 1979 was my student thesis at Harvard where I graduated in film. Technically that’s my first documentary film, but Salaam Bombay! in 1988 was my first feature film.” Over the years she’s worked with composers L. Subramaniam (one of the worlds top violinists), Alan Silvestri, Nitin Sawhney, and Lesley Barber, but her greatest collaborative efforts have been with Mychael Danna on Vanity Fair, New York, I Love You, Monsoon Wedding, Migration, Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love, and 8. Even if Mira has collaborated with you years ago she still remembers the spirit, the soul, as with Alan Silvestri scoring The Perez Family in 1995, “He’s a doll, it’s been about fourteen years, but I really love Alan. He’s a lovely human being and makes such good music; we had a great time,” explains Nair. When it came time to score Amelia the director needed a maestro to envision an epic tale of aviation and one woman’s challenges against all odds, an enlightening story with intricate emotional elements that documents iconic moments in history. It was as if it was meant to be, the scheduling and working process of making Amelia was the destiny that foretold who would realize the music for such an adventure. Everything fell into place and in the end when the clouds cleared and Amelia Earhart was freely soaring through the sky we hear the magic of memory musically emerge, the genius of composer Gabriel Yared. The perfect composer for this film and as Mira puts it, “He’s like an ancient brother of mine in the soul,” the similarities of their cultures are astounding, a perfect match artistically.

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Born on the 15th of October 1957 in Bhubaneshwar, Orissa, India, Mira Nair was educated at Delhi University and Harvard. She began her film career as an actor and then turned to directing award winning documentaries including So Far From India and India Cabaret. Her first film, Salaam Bombay! was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 1988; it won the Camera D’Or and the Prix du Publique at the Cannes Film Festival as well as twenty five other international awards. Next came Mississippi Masala with Denzel Washington, The Perez Family, and the sensuous Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love, which she directed, co-wrote, and produced. In 1998 My Own Country emerged, which was based on Dr. Abraham Verghese’s best-selling memoir about a young immigrant doctor dealing with the AIDS epidemic. Mira returned to the documentary form in August 1999 with The Laughing Club of India. In that summer Nair shot Monsoon Wedding in thirty days, one of her best films garnering ten nominations and five wins for various awards.

Mira’s next feature was the HBO original film Hysterical Blindness. Following the tragic events of September 11, 2001 in 2002 she joined a group of eleven renowned filmmakers, each one was commissioned to direct a film that was eleven minutes, nine seconds and one frame long for 11'09''01 - September 11. One year later Nair directed the Thackeray classic Vanity Fair, a provocative tale set in post-colonial England. Since 2005 Mira has directed The Namesake, Migration, and 8 with a group of eight filmmakers. The very next year she followed this tradition of working on 11'09''01 - September 11 and 8 with eleven filmmakers in New York, I Love You/ New York, je t'aime and then emerged to direct Amelia in 2009. Since her first film Salaam Bombay! Nair has been nominated and won a staggering list of awards. Mirabai Films (Mira’s New York based production company) has produced twelve of her films since Salaam Bombay! It established an annual filmmaker’s laboratory called Maisha, which is dedicated to the support of visionary screenwriters and directors in East Africa and India. Next Nair will return to the theater from where she started, returning to her roots to direct a spectacular musical on Broadway based on her classic film Monsoon Wedding, while her next feature film will be an adaptation of Mohsin Hamid's bestselling novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist, which will be filmed in New York, Pakistan and Chile this year.

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It was on Friday morning December the 4th when I finally reached director Mira Nair at 7:45PM her time in India, but 6:15AM here in Los Angeles. It was during her last hours in India that we talked before she left for London the next morning. Two days earlier I had found out from Gabriel that his score for Amelia had been nominated by the International Press Academy for a Golden Satellite Award for Best Original Score. I mentioned this to Mira as we opened our conversation and her response was overwhelming with an energetic, “Excellent!” Then I said, “There are just so many awards out there,” and Mira responds, “Just pick them up is what I say, but you really don’t need to put your idea into the whole thing (laughter).” Considering the number of awards and nominations she’s had in her lifetime, this was definitely a lighthearted and humble approach. Her collaboration with Gabriel was a Godsend as he joyfully admits, “I’m an oriental guy and we found each other very similar in just giving your soul, your heart to the other, this is very important.” Mira Nair’s vision is like no other filmmaker and her films speak for themselves, her challenges are great, but she always conquers her next vision with unparalleled enthusiasm. She’s in love with filmmaking; it’s her life as she spiritually soars into the future.

Why did you change from being an actor to a director?

When I began I started on the street and on the stage. Actors have no control over their lives and choose to be accessing themselves really and as a director you make their world that you’re interested in.

You worked with Mychael Danna on six films, what happened with your collaboration on Amelia?

Oh yeah, he’s like my brother. To be honest he started to score the film, we started with Mychael Danna, as I do with almost all the work I do, but what happened was that Amelia became delayed.

The studio wanted to take a hiatus in the middle of the editing, about six weeks, and that meant pushing the scoring and the mix back. Mychael was already contracted to score Chloe with his other mate whom he always works with, Atom Agoyan, and he couldn’t delay his commitment to Atom, so that’s how this happened. We were sorry, but yet on the other hand Gabriel Yared was very much on my mind as someone I would have liked to work with someday because I really love his music, so with Mychael’s blessings as well, I went to Gabriel.

What gave you the idea to use Gabriel Yared to score Amelia?

The tracks I keep listening to in Gabriel’s work and in fact I use in many temp tracks for my films when I’m cutting, is usually a couple of tracks from Betty Blue, also a couple of beautiful celestial tracks from The English Patient, those are my favorites. Gabriel has done such beautiful work over the years consistently. I’ve heard his full gamut of music, but I love Convento Di Sant’ Anna (The English Patient), it reminded me of some place in the sky, very celestial, therefore Amelia seemed to be a perfect fit for his sound.

Explain the type of music you wanted for your film?

I was looking for music that was celestial. Music that makes you feel like you are literally flying through the elements, literally soaring spiritually for the most part, but also music in addition that captures the world in it. One of the many things I loved about Amelia was that she was a worldly child, someone who dreamed of seeing the world right from being a child in Atchison, Kansas. The music had to be both something that could make you soar and feel this real quality of flying, but also would have a sound of the world.

What about the romantic element in it?

Oh yeah, I didn’t make a specific reference to the romance because it was a very much a part of the world. It had to be, the love story is a very interesting trajectory, it’s not your classic love story where you know two people just meet and fall in love. It’s a shifting balance, it’s a seesaw that starts as an arrangement and ends as a love story. That was something that had to be scored delicately, the emotional quality of the romance had to be plumped and plumped without sentimentalism and Gabriel really understood that.

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How do you envision what music should do for your film?

Film music should not replace or be a manipulative arrow in teaching the audience how to feel, but it should submit to and it should serve the film and serve the world that is in the frame. Serve it in a way that’s not gratuitous, but just be another element to transport you greatly, more greatly, that’s what it is. It’s a great seduction to over use music, but I try to be very rigorous with my use of music in all of my films. It’s a big part of my work, but that’s what I would hope for.

Is it a character in your movie or the psychology that underscores your vision?

Film music is a character in the film to me, very much so, yes, very much so. It’s like psychology I suppose. It has much to do with the emotion, the melody.

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Melody has so much to do with the way you feel, it’s so subjective, you know how it affects you, so I trust that, I trust that intuitive response to music. It’s also very important that film music has to let the scene breathe and yet inform it, it’s a delicate element to add to film and I enjoy it.

In the filmmaking process, when did you first think about the kind of score you wanted for Amelia?

Mostly I start from the very beginning. Often when I’m preparing to see my own films I often have a piece of music that I’m writing the film to in a way, in some instances, if I’m lucky enough to have that insertion. That’s not what happened with Amelia, we found our way, but often music is a real inspiration. I’m not a devotee of music really. With The Namesake, the film I made before this one, I heard a piece from Nitin Sawhney, the great British/Asian rock musician who’s a big star in England. I just listened to it all the time, The Boatman’s Song, where he took a traditional Indian boat song and he made something different from it, but it was beautiful. Again, I always work with Mychael Danna, but The Namesake was where I went to the same musician I was listening to because of this piece of music that kept inspiring me while I was searching for my film.

Did you edit Gabriel’s music into your film or did you use other music to edit with?

We used the temp for a few months and then we cut it to original score for the last three or four weeks of the final cutting. We scored the film in July and we delivered the picture in October, so for August and September we had his real music. We mostly used Gabriel’s music from The English Patient, mostly three or four pieces, one of them being Convento Di Sant’ Anna.

Gabriel absolutely deplores or despises hearing different music to the film when you’re making it, did he express that idea to you?

Everyone hates temp tracks. No composer like temp tracks even if it’s their own music they composed for other films they worked on (laughter). I never want the temp tracks to be imitated in my film, that’s not the point.

Do you ever get the luxury of using the composer’s original music to edit your other films with?

No, not often because it’s always about timing, the scoring and so on. So not often, but I make sure that I pick the picture with the real music, hearing the original music. I’m involved with that before and afterwards. With Amelia we had the luxury of using Gabriel’s music and that really improved the timing of my film, a lot, a lot, a lot! It really helped when I was cutting the picture; you are much more informed, but musically, not pictorially or visually because if any change needs be made on either level it can be done.


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What is the most important part of the scoring process that makes the music successful in your film?

Communicating with the composer is essential, one important part of the process is to make sure that you are seeing things similarly or that he understands the spirit of what you want. Then the second thing is when you get temp tracks from him, to be very communicative in whatever way suits the composer. Each person is different, some like it on the phone, some like it in person, some like it through E mail, whatever, you must be specific. I’m pretty hands on in that sense, I’m pretty specific about what I might want in reference to the music he’s given us, so it’s not like, ‘Oh, do it again, only better,’ I’d never say that (laughter). It’s important to be very specific where an instrument comes in or doesn’t or a hit that I would like or whatever, I would be very, very specific about any comment that I would make and Gabriel would really appreciate that if he was talking broadly because it deals with specific things you are doing.

How did you work with Gabriel?

We did a combination of all three things (phone, in person, and E mail) in fact because we really felt like we knew each other, but finally Gabriel preferred to E mail comments just so he could communicate details to me. Then I used to go and work with his right hand co-producer of the music, Kirsty Whalley, sometimes in the editing room to do some reworking of the music if needed. So that would work for the scoring, for everything.

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How hands on are you as a director on the scoring stage?

It’s not about showing your authority at all, it’s really about the joy of it, but if there is anything that’s disturbing then you can speak up and bring it to their attention, you see it, so then you need to direct the composer. For me it was not so much changing as opposed to sometimes eliminating an instrument or making sure that separate tracks were recorded for these different instruments, that kind of thing.

What are the most powerful parts of Yared’s score, when his music and your film work perfectly together as one?

I think the flying sequences are extraordinary, really extraordinary, and I think that the romance, the love, they are different shades of love until it’s finally consummated in true love. By the time that they have that last phone call with each other you really understand the poignancy of this kind of love, which was really a partnership first that became love. Gabriel really captured that.

Sometimes the sound design and the music contradict each other when they are mixed together, why use the noise of a plane in the cockpit while the characters are flying through these beautiful areas, why not just drop the sound out and use the music?

We actually killed the plane sound almost completely within the final flight, when Amelia traverses all those different oceans, the deserts and the animals, the final flight. We really gave this part a complete eulogy to the music, but at other times and during certain action sequences, when the scenes in the plane were very dramatic, it would have become in too unreal to lose that sound.  

Sometimes we surrender to the music, embrace the music, especially in the spectacular flight sequences. Like when Eleanor Roosevelt was flying over Washington D. C. at night or Amelia going around the world, that was almost pure music, but other situations are action oriented drama which have different requirements, if we used just music it would have been unreal. It would reduce the level of reality if we had killed the sound of the plane completely.

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One of the greatest things about Amelia is at the end of the film, when you know that Amelia will never return, how you reflected the emotional feeling of emptiness through the film.  

I was very happy with that. Now you have many more white hairs. I’ve been significant, the significance of one individual in the face of an ocean. We didn’t have to even show you that in the film to feel it. I must say one thing with the music that I asked for and Gabriel really gave me, was a sense of the relentlessness of destiny, which is the final fifteen minutes of the film. It’s a very long cue, the Electra going down over the ocean. It’s a very long cue and that’s something Gabriel really perfected, the sense of destiny, it’s just relentless and it’s going to happen. I am only part of a larger destiny.

What did you love working with Gabriel?

He’s like an ancient brother of mine in the soul, he is really like that. Also we come from similar cultures, so there’s a great understanding for that culture really and I felt a sense of being at home with a genius of sorts.

What do you love about film music?

It’s like painting with sound, with melody. One more extraordinary element to add to the film, it’s almost essential to transport an audience. I might wander and experiment otherwise, but I would say, ‘Yes, film music is essential for my films.’ 

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