Mira Nair, Discovering A Very Modern 'Amelia' The director of Monsoon Wedding knew Amelia Earhart as an icon, but as she researched her new biographical drama, she discovered a woman with an intriguingly iconoclastic streak -- and a surprising sense of humility. Nair talks to Melissa Block about heroes, heritage and trying to make a large-scale studio film feel satisfyingly personal.
NPR logo

Mira Nair, Discovering A Very Modern 'Amelia'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/114003628/114054314" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Mira Nair, Discovering A Very Modern 'Amelia'

Mira Nair, Discovering A Very Modern 'Amelia'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/114003628/114054314" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Melissa Block.

Picture Amelia Earhart in 1932. She's just piloted a bright red Lockheed Vega over the Atlantic, solo, aiming for France.

(Soundbite of film, "Amelia")

Ms. HILARY SWANK (Actor): (As Amelia Earhart) Excuse me, sir. Where am I?

Unidentified Man #1: (As character) In Gallagher's pasture. Where are you supposed to be?

Ms. SWANK: (As Earhart) When I left, I was aiming for Paris.

Unidentified Man #1: (As character) Oh, you missed, you know. It's over there.

BLOCK: We were hearing Hilary Swank as the pioneering aviator in the new movie "Amelia." It's directed by Mira Nair. She made her name with small indie films including "Salaam Bombay" and "Monsoon Wedding." For Mira Nair, taking on Amelia Earhart meant figuring out the woman inside the myth.

Ms. MIRA NAIR (Director, "Amelia"): Growing up in India, I didn't really know of Amelia Earhart. For me, her image was perennially tied to being on a postage stamp, which was this very cool-looking, androgynous, wind-swept look. And that was about it. I didn't know much about her. But when they offered me this film to do, my first interest was actually Hilary Swank, who was already attached to play Amelia, and I love her work and wanted to work with her, but then immediately instead of reading any script went right into the 16 hours of newsreel that exists on Amelia.

And the thing that really intrigued me was, despite the hoopla that surrounded her becoming an icon in her time and so on, especially the newsreels are about her medal-getting and ribbon-cutting and so on, but 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.

BLOCK: Or aviators.

Ms. NAIR: Well, anyone, you know. You know, here we are taught to enjoy celebrityhood and all that. 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. I want -all I want to do is fly.

BLOCK: What would you tell Hilary Swank about getting into this character, what she should avoid doing, what you wanted her to bring out?

Ms. NAIR: Well, Hilary is a consummate actor who is deeply immersed in the research of Amelia or any character she plays. For close to six week, I think, we both went through a process of getting the look right, getting the hair, getting the clothing, of course, getting the freckles, you know, the different looks through the years.

I remember Hilary's trailer used to be plastered with images of Amelia, you know. And also in her iPod, in her ear, she would - Hilary would have Amelia's speeches, and that was real fodder for Hilary, to get the cadence, the accent right. Actually, my direction often would be: Hey, Hil, a little less Amelia, please.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BLOCK: Less Amelia…

Ms. NAIR: You're too much Amelia for me, you know. And she would laugh and know exactly what I meant. Because at the same time as we wanted to nail Amelia as Amelia was, at the same time I was always careful about really not making her a museum piece in any way. You know, 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. I mean, if she were to walk into a room today in her jodhpurs and her aviation jackets and her ideas about marriage or men and women, she would be still considered an iconoclast.

BLOCK: Tell me about the Electra. This is the plane that Amelia flies for her final flight, the flight around the world, a silver plane, and we see it flying over these incredible landscapes in Africa. I think some of the planes you used in the film were built for the film, but not this one. This was an original, right?

Ms. NAIR: This was an original. There are 10 Electras left in the world. And the Electra is a magnificent piece of both art deco design and aeronautics. And we moved heaven and earth to fly real Electras in this movie and succeeded. And that was my big mandate is to shoot real planes in real places, unlike the usual computer generated imagery that we are so, you know, surrounded by in cinema today.

BLOCK: How old is that plane?

Ms. NAIR: The actual plane?

BLOCK: Yeah, the Electra.

Ms. NAIR: Oh, that one was made in the '30s, I imagine, '36, 1936.

BLOCK: What gave you confidence that that plane could survive the rigors of this shoot that you were undertaking?

Ms. NAIR: Oh, we met this extraordinary family, the Chabberts, who fly that plane commonly. They've lovingly refurbished that plane. They actually use it to fly around themselves. And so we found this extraordinary lover of the Electra, Bernard Chabbert, this wonderful man who lives in the south of France, and he flew the Electra across the African continent.

But anyway, the remarkable thing about Bernard was that his father actually was a pilot himself and was stationed in Dakar, Senegal, and met Amelia Earhart when she landed there on her final flight. 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 that was a real sign that this was our real Electra, that Amelia was herself, you know, associated with it in a kind of pretty intimate way.

BLOCK: Mira Nair, you've made so many films that are really personal to you, I think, "The Namesake," "Salaam Bombay," "Monsoon" Wedding," that have a lot to do with your heritage and India itself. When you do a picture like this one, a big budget movie, a Hollywood biopic, I wonder if it feels in a way more constricting. There are more expectations, there's studio pressure, that maybe it's harder to make it feel like your own.

Ms. NAIR: It is a big - it's a real - I call it, you know, making a studio film is something like trying to keep the poetry, but being a horse trader at the same time, you know. You're sort of negotiating all the time with so many voices trying to hear the best ideas but trying to hear your own voice. And I must say my journey with making "Amelia" was finally something that I would consider my own, but it is a lot of people and a lot of pressure and a lot of money, and it's a real - it's a journey.

BLOCK: Are there times when you say, this just is not worth it? I want to go back to my own smaller movies that I have, really, a whole lot more control over.

Ms. NAIR: There's a give and a take, you know. Sometimes it's really exciting to have this canvas, but the other things, you know, when you make a film, the amount of market research that goes into it. You know, they show the rough cuts of films, and then you have to really listen to the questionnaires and the numbers and what people are liking and not liking. It's a real dance, and that sometimes can get very exhausting.

But in the end, I think in this case of "Amelia," Fox Searchlight is pretty astute, and they've been partners of mine for a long time with "The Namesake" and other things. All they wanted or kept saying is we want more Mira in this, you know. We want your voice. And so that was comforting, but it took a while to get there.

BLOCK: We want your voice, but we also want you to listen to this market research from these people who have their own ideas about how your movie should be.

Ms. NAIR: Exactly, exactly, yeah, but that's what I mean by the dance.

BLOCK: Mira Nair, thanks so much.

Ms. NAIR: Thank you, Melissa.

BLOCK: Director Mira Nair. Her new film is "Amelia."

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.