A prolific filmmaker who moves between Hollywood and independent cinema, Mira Nair’s films have included Mississippi Masala, Monsoon Wedding, Vanity Fair and Namesake.
As a child in her native India, she first became aware of aviation icon Amelia Earhart when she saw a postage stamp with the aviatrix and her plane, the Electra, on it. Nair admits she knew immediately that Earhart was a ‘wild woman.’ Now, on the eve of the premiere of her movie Amelia, starring two-time Academy Award winning actress, Hilary Swank, I spoke with Mira Nair about her new film.
In doing your research for the movie, what surprised you about Amelia Earhart?
What interested me, and this is what I kept as my compass, was this balance that she wanted to achieve about this ecstasy of the sky, this passion she had for flying, and her responsibility on earth. How do you keep the passion and the responsibility?
I didn’t want to make a film that felt like homework. I promised my teenager I would make a film that was more real than that. I wanted the film to be a living, pulsating portrait of this woman who dared to dream of things that no one had ever done before.
Amelia lived life as fully as possible and didn’t put a lid on her emotions or her ambitions. She left behind a legend that I hope will continue to fuel a passion in people to accept no limits.
How did you relate to her?
I was born in a small town in India, and Amelia was from a small town in Kansas. I felt a great sense of affinity for her dreams to experience the bigger world around her. Those were my dreams too.
The way Amelia trained herself to overcome fear and go after the impossible is a lesson that I think we all aspire to. And yet I was drawn to a portrait of her that went beyond iconic, that looks at her quirkiness, her need for love, her capacity to make mistakes and even to be so brave as to be reckless.
What do you admire the most about Hilary Swank’s performance as Amelia?
What’s most extraordinary about Hilary is that she masters all the outward stuff, but then she does something more and communicates the inner workings of Amelia – her humility, her self-effacing goofiness, her sort of unexpected girlishness.
Hilary is a spiritual actor – she really acts from within – and she took great joy in finding Amelia in every way, spending close to a month just getting the look right. The hair, the walk, and especially the speech – her performance was very particular and very deeply Amelia.
Was it hard to find a Lockheed L-10 Electra airplane that Amelia flew?
Finding our Electra was like casting one of the stars of the movie. The plane is so vital to Amelia’s story, it led to an amazing journey. We found an Electra in the South of France, and flew it across the entire African continent, in Amelia’s footsteps.
It was an incredible trip that nourished us through the course of shooting. I think people can relate to the plane because it reminds one of all the beauty and potential of flying.
There’s a scene where Amelia crashes the Electra.
I really embraced the action sequences by the throat, and the scene where the plane crashes, I wanted to make a scene that you’d never seen before. So what we did with that scene was we build an un-functioning Electra and we rigged it that it would actually fall apart. It was very complicated.
Do you think that how you end the movie is what really happened to Amelia?
The last 12 minutes of our film is exactly the last 20 minutes of the transmissions between Amelia and the U.S. Coast Guard cutter ‘Itasca.’ It’s so dramatic to film exactly what happened. She ran out of fuel with 2.000 miles to go (before reaching Howland Island).