Mira Nair, Discovering A Very Modern 'Amelia'

Director Mira Nair i i

hide captionMira Nair's first feature film was 1988's critically acclaimed Salaam Bombay!

Chris Pizzello
Director Mira Nair

Mira Nair's first feature film was 1988's critically acclaimed Salaam Bombay!

Chris Pizzello

Growing up in India, director Mira Nair didn't really know much about Amelia Earhart — aside from what she'd seen on a postage stamp.

So when she was offered the chance to direct a new movie biography starring Hilary Swank, the first thing Nair did was dive into the archives.

Tillotama Shome in 'Monsoon Wedding' i i

hide captionMany of Nair's films, from Mississippi Masala to The Namesake, explore themes of heritage and tradition. Above, Tillotama Shome in Monsoon Wedding, a romantic comedy chronicling the extravagant preparations (and the mild madness) involved in the marriage of a young Punjabi woman.

Tillotama Shome in 'Monsoon Wedding'

Many of Nair's films, from Mississippi Masala to The Namesake, explore themes of heritage and tradition. Above, Tillotama Shome in Monsoon Wedding, a romantic comedy chronicling the extravagant preparations (and the mild madness) involved in the marriage of a young Punjabi woman.

"Instead of reading any script, [I] went right into the 16 hours of newsreel that exist on Amelia," the director tells Melissa Block. "And the thing that really intrigued me was despite the hoopla that surrounded her becoming an icon in her own time — the newsreels are about her medal-getting and ribbon-cutting and so on — despite all that, I noticed a very odd and beautiful sense of humility about her. And humility is not a trait I often associate with America."

Or aviators?

"Well, anyone, you know," Nair explains. "We're taught to enjoy celebrity, talk about yourself, boast about your achievements. But instead, in Amelia's cases there was a kind of, 'Yes, I'll tolerate the hoopla, but my ecstasy is really in the sky — all I want to do is fly.' And that hooked me."

A Lot Of Research, And 'A Little Less Amelia, Please'

Hilary Swank and Mira Nair i i

hide captionActress Hilary Swank (left) spent weeks working with Nair to perfect their understanding of the iconoclast Amelia Earhart.

Ken Woroner
Hilary Swank and Mira Nair

Actress Hilary Swank (left) spent weeks working with Nair to perfect their understanding of the iconoclast Amelia Earhart.

Ken Woroner

Nair went digging next into Earhart's own chronicles of her career and fell in love with her subject's sense of humor — "and her very brave ideas, that she expressed in a very unpretentious ... Kansas-speak: 'I want to fly because I want to fly. I want to do it because I want to do it. I fly for the fun of it.' Things that she often said. ... I like the plain-talking aspect of her — the way she spoke and what she said."

Nair spent nearly six weeks working with her star, honing their sense of who Amelia Earhart was. The hair, the clothing, the freckles — "also in her iPod, in her ear, Hilary would have Amelia's speeches," Nair says. "That was real fodder for Hilary, to get the cadence, the accent, right."

At times, it was too much.

"Actually, my direction often would be, 'Hey, Hil, a little less Amelia please,' " Nair says, chuckling. "And she would laugh, and know exactly what I meant. ... We wanted to nail Amelia as Amelia was, [but] at the same time I was always careful about not making her a museum piece in any way. She had to be alive, and flesh and blood, and also accessible to today's audience."

"And so much about Amelia is so undeniably modern," Nair muses. "If she were to walk into a room today in her jodhpurs and her aviation jackets, [with] her ideas about marriage or men and women, she would still be considered an iconoclast."

A Hunt For The Right Plane, And A Surprising Find

For the sequences involving Earhart's final flight, Nair's production crew tracked down one of just 10 remaining Lockheed Electras. The gleaming silver airplane — "a magnificent piece of both Art Deco design and aeronautics," Nair enthuses — was built in 1936.

The filmmakers found it in the care of a Frenchman who had refurbished it lovingly and who flies it regularly. At some risk and with some trouble, Bernard Chabbert flew the plane from France to South Africa, where much of the movie was filmed.

"The remarkable thing about Bernard was that his father was a pilot himself and was stationed in Dakar, Senegal — and met Amelia Earhart when she landed there on her final flight," Nair says. "And when we asked Bernard for his Electra, he showed us this beautiful vintage picture of his father and Amelia eating dinner in Dakar — and we just felt that this was a sign that this was our real Electra, that Amelia was herself associated with it in a pretty intimate way."

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