Mira Nair

The director of this Amelia Earhart biopic talks about the film, Hillary Swank and upcoming projects

Mira Nair might not be a director with the name recognition of a Spielberg or Bay, but she certainly has put together a quality catalog of films throughout the years. From films like the Denzel Washington-starrer Mississippi Masala to the international hit Monsoon Wedding, Nair has tackled several different topics and genres throughout her career. Nair's latest film explores the life of famed aviatrix Amelia Earhart with Amelia, which will be released on DVD and Blu-ray on February 2. I recently had the chance to speak with Nair over the phone about this new DVD release, and here's what she had to say.

I wanted to know how you first came on board to this project. Was it Ron Bass' script or were you involved in this before that?

Mira Nair: Actually, the producers, Ted (Waitt) and Kevin (Hyman) had come to see me in 2008 about the film, but I couldn't do it at the time because I was busy with Shantaram at Warner Bros. with Johnny Depp. They moved on and then after the WGA strike, the project collapsed just before shooting, so they came back. It literally arrived at my doorstep. It was more than just the script, it was really Amelia's own legacy and the 16 hours of newsreels I saw on her, which captivated me, really. I said yes and jumped in. That's how it happened.

I remember when I first heard about this, it seemed like no one else could play this besides Hilary Swank. Can you talk about landing her and what she brought to this legendary character?

Mira Nair: Actually, Hilary was attached to it, the second time around. It was Hilary, really, who was one of the three people that came to me. That was another huge piece of attraction because she's such a remarkable actor but is also, in a physical way and also a spiritual way, she's very much Amelia. It was the chance to work with an actress like her was a huge draw.

I was going through the bonus features on the DVD and I saw those Movietone News segments, which are great. It was pretty cool to see how accurate she was in the accent and the mannerisms. Can you talk about the preparations Hilary went through to get this character down?

Mira Nair: Well, Hilary is, of course, a consummate student as well. She has her process, which I would say is at least two months. We took another few weeks to get the look absolutely right in a very detailed way. While we doing the outward thing, Hilary was preparing the inward thing. Thanks to George Putnam, we had so much material of Amelia documentaries available for us. She really studied those and had her speeches and even her regular conversations, on her iPhone, Hilary would (Laughs). She had a great dialogue coach, who is a great teacher of how to preserve the way Amelia spoke but also how to make it absolutely alive. It got to the point where I would say to Hilary, "A little less Amelia, please.' (Laughs).

I loved the rest of this cast as well, like Richard Gere, Ewan McGregor and Christopher Eccleston. Were they attached when you came on board as well, or did you find them?

Mira Nair: Oh no. Only Hilary was and I cast the rest of them. I mean, I've loved Christopher Eccleston for so long and, in fact, the studio was less aware of him than I was and I really had to make a case for him. He's just fantastic in the role and Ewan, of course, we all strived for and Richard as well. We just went role by role.

I really did love those newsreel segments and I loved how you incorporated them into the film. Where did you find Kerrin (McCue) for the announcer? I thought it was wonderful.

Mira Nair: We found him in New York. He's such an amazing voice-over man and a wonderful guy. Because we did a lot of work with news reels, like movies are, we went back and forth creating our own newsreels and went back and forth, so Kerrin became a member of our cast because we kept having to go to him. He was perfect for the role, yeah.

You shot the film in Canada and parts of Africa and I saw on the DVD that the locations in Africa had all these vintage planes. Can you talk about what you actually found in Africa and what you had to bring in for the vintage planes?

Mira Nair: Sure. You know, I lived in South Africa for three years in the 90s and I knew South Africa pretty well. What I really wanted to do was to recreate the final flight, so people could really feel the adrenaline and the thrill of actually flying around the world, so we could feel like we were in the cockpit with her. South Africa, I knew just from having lived there, would give us these various locations in which we could either shoot or just recreate the rest of the world. The bonus was that, since our film is set in the 20s in 30s, these older airports in the Cape Town and Johannesburg areas are all art-deco airports. We could create one, like Miami, for instance, where we can't find in America. It doesn't exist anymore. The bonus was that these older airports were now the airports for the private planes and vintage planes and so on. The planes, the airports and also the skies. The skies of South Africa are amazing, just the whole expanse of sky. It's a very different sky, so that was a huge thing. We traversed the whole country. The only thing we didn't get from South Africa was the Electra because that didn't exist there and that is the hero of this movie, next to Hilary. The Electra was flown in by a collector, who still used it, in the south of France. It took a week to fly this Electra from the south of France directly across the African continent. Actually it was a lot like Amelia's old time because the Electra takes a certain kind of gas and you can't load too much fuel onto the plane. They had to keep landing in different countries to refuel and in the process of doing that, they actually got hi-jacked in a country when they went to fuel. They were surrounded by guns and the soldiers demanded $30,000.

Oh my Lord.

Mira Nair: They were literally stuck there for two days, the crew, phoning the embassies and so on. It was just like an adventure. It was crazy. We finally got it there and then overnight we got the plane to look correct. It was like movies within movies were going on.

Wow. That's insane.

Mira Nair: Yeah. Really insane.

I was curious about what new projects you're developing right now that you can talk to us about?

Mira Nair: Yeah. I'm in the midst of two projects. One is I'm taking my beloved film Monsoon Wedding to Broadway as a spectacular kind of musical. So we're deep in that and I'm also developing a film on a book I purchased called The Reluctant Fundamentalist. It's a thriller set in New York and Pakistan in Chile, based on this Pulitzer-Prize winning book by Mohsin Hamid of the same name. That's what I'm doing. We just finished writing it and we're looking to shoot it in the fall.

Nice. So is there anyone you're eyeing to cast in this yet?

Mira Nair: Not yet with casting. I just, literally two days ago, finished the script. Casting will happen in the spring, so we're ready to shoot in the fall. I can't talk about names yet.

Finally, what would you like to say to those who didn't see Amelia in the theaters about why they should pick up the DVD on Tuesday?

Mira Nair: I think cinema exists for us to be transported to other worlds. The beauty and the power of Amelia is that she had an amazing world view. She was a person, coming from Kansas, who had an appetite for the world and an appetite that absolutely challenged what was expected of women at the time. She was also incredibly passionate, which existed for flying, also existed in her own life with men and fashion. I think this is a transporting journey and I hope that it will give people the idea to dream. She was a great dreamer.

Excellent. Well that's all I have for you, Mira. Thanks so much for your time and the best of luck with your upcoming projects.

Mira Nair: Thank you, Brian. Thank you so much.

You can watch Hilary Swank take to the skies in Mira Nair's Amelia, which will be available on DVD and Blu-ray on February 2.