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Vanity Fair - Mira Nair Q&A



Compiled by: Jack Foley

Q. Why this subject matter?
A.
It was wonderful serendipity really to be offered Vanity Fair by Focus Features, which was the studio that was distributing Monsoon Wedding, and they didn't know that this was actually one of my favourite novels since I was 16 in an Irish-Catholic Boarding School in India, where I was a great lover of English literature and had read this book. It's the kind of banquet of a novel that I've drifted to over the years and every time I did it gave me something new. So I said 'yes' immediately and what I love about it is the fact that Becky Sharp is completely alive and well today; she's a totally modern girl and I think that's why she stuck in my mind from 16 because very much like Becky I was an Indian chick who didn't quite do what I was supposed to, and make my own way, you know. So I think I kind of remembered that.
But besides that, it was a great opportunity to look at the democratic nature of Thackeray's world, of early 19th Century England, at a time where it was being fed so solidly from the colonies. And that whole intra-section between colony and empire gave me such a great palette to work with, both in terms of the characters and the visual expanse of it.

Q. Is it fair to say that Becky Sharp has been softened up for modern, international audiences, because it's fair to say she's not quite as ruthless as I remember her in the book? She's more sympathetic?
A.
Well, I like to see it a different way. I cast, sort of intuitively. I cast Reese because I knew her and she captured that minx-like character that Thackeray described as Becky Sharpe, because she's irresistibly appealing. I felt I could retain the complexity and the prickliness of Becky and we both were really interested in showing a Becky who, while she lived life as a total survivor and know room for any whimpering in her, she also kept her eye on the prize for what was more special to her, and use that loosely.
I don't think I restrained from showing that in a pretty heart-breaking kind of way, because that is her folly, and that is human folly, but at the same time, Thackeray wrote this as a tabloid and as a monthly page-turner and, much like Hollywood today, his editors used to wrap him on the knuckles and say 'maybe you're enjoying your anti-heroine too much; this is 1848, they won't believing this. Make Amelia sweeter, make Becky less of a mother, and these notes would come in, and you see certain things that Thackeray does to Becky almost in response to these notes, but I also saw it that he enjoys Becky and he recognised and knew her. She was a survivor like he is; I mean, he gives Becky her own set of morals, and that's something that I zeroed in on, the fact that she's at home with the courtiers and the king; she doesn't lie; she's capable of wild acts of selflessness, all this stuff is in the book - it's not something I invented.
So it wasn't my intention to sweeten it for an audience.

Q. Would that glorious dance set-piece in the movie really have happened, or was it that you just decided to have a blast of marvelous exotica?
A.
In the book, it's slave charades; it's seven pages of ladies in rooms - of course, she was dressed as a slave girl, which was next to nothing, and Lord Stain was presenting her to the king and the intent was to shock; that she was in his hands completely and it was about the same intersection we were talking about, of colonies and empires and using that. This was not Victorian, this was not uptight, this was about flamboyancy and about shock, that whole particular episode.
And I make movies, you know, I want in a minute and a half to prepare the story and get that intent and absolutely make you riveted to the screen, because the idea is that it should be flamboyant, excessive and shocking and it was, therefore, a Middle Eastern version of the slave dance versus a slave dance charade.

Q. Rhys Ifans gives one of his best performances on-screen. But this was the most elegant we've ever seen him. What was it about him that made you feel he could play this role?
A.
Well, I happened to have sat with him for an entire evening when I was at the BAFTAs, when I was nominated for Monsoon Wedding, and he was next to his girlfriend, Jessica, and I spent many hours with them and really saw his face just sort of suffused with love for her. As I got to know him I saw immediately the sort of poet instead of the clown. And two years later, I was directing Vanity Fair, and Dobbin was, I think, next to Becky, one of my favourite characters in the novel, and I didn't want a classic pretty boy - I had two already - and I wanted somebody that Amelia would bypass, but yet somebody who had such soul, you know, and so our lovely casting director was a great champion of this kind of offbeat kind of way of looking at it, because that's how I wanted to approach the whole cast. And therefore I thought of Rhys Ifans, because no one had seen him like that, and we asked him to come in, and we met again.

Q. What problems did Reese's pregnancy cause?
A.
Well, one we were saved by the fact that Thackeray had written about 18 scenes in our script in which she was pregnant and when she gives birth, and all of that is in the dramatic shape of the narrative. But of course with her pregnancy we had to increase them, so I think four more scenes were written with her pregnant.
But on another level, it was like a prophecy that I had wished for that came true, because when I first met Reese she was really a tiny girl, and I like sensuality and fullness. I'm not a fan of the under-fed actor, and so I actually made a joke about it with Reese and her husband, you know, 'do something, I need some more flesh on the girl'! This was, of course, a year before we began shooting, and so I loved that fleshiness, I loved that sensuality, and for me it's important, because Reese plays 18-35 in this movie, and there's that womanliness to her, otherwise she's really a tiny girl.
But it's also a very physical movie and I wanted none of this talking head business. I wanted her full figure, running down, rolling in carpets, all of that which you saw in the movie, so there were certain strategies like hiring a number of young extras, who came up to the level of her bump, that I would put very strategically in the frame of the long lens to cover just that, or there would be a lot of screen wipes of carriages going by at sort of strategic moments. All of that kind of thing was planned because I didn't want the talking head kind of movie.

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