Sometimes when you interview stars and directors they only give you one line answers. More often it goes well and you get some great stuff, but then there are times when it goes really, really well and the interview turns into a conversation. You not only get answers to your questions, you get to add questions and you get to really learn. That happened in my interview with the director of Acid Factory, Suparn Verma. We had more of a 25 minute talk then a quick q and a, during which he not only answered my questions, but expanded and showed his passion for making movies. Maybe it was partly because he started out as journalist, but I think it is more that he loves film, he loves directing, and he is excited by the whole process, so enjoy reading Suparn’s “lesson” on films, filmmaking, casting, and of course, Acid Factory. Class is in session!
Tell us about how your journey from fan to journalist to director happened?
I used to work with rediff.com for six years, and besides handling the chat section and the radio section, I was also a film journalist. I used to do movie reviews, and while doing Manoj Bajpayee’s chat at a directors house after Manoj left (incidentally Manoj is also acting in Acid Factory), the director and I got to chatting and he discussed my reviews and stuff and he offered me a film. At the same time I was in touch with Ram Gopal Verma and I worked with him for six months but nothing transpired there. Everything was a series of connections. I mean I wrote Hansel Mehta’s first film, my first film called Chhal. His next film was Yeh Kya Ho Raha Hai which I also wrote, the producer of that offered me Qayamat which had Ajay Devgn acting in it. Ajay Devgn took a liking to the ideas I had and put me in touch with Rohit Shetty and that is how Zameen happened. The DOP on Zameen decided to turn director that’s how Karam happened. Then finally I decided I needed to do my own film and that is how Ek Khiladi Ek Hassena happened, which I directed, and now Acid Factory is my second film. It has been a series of interesting coincidences and connections. It sounds nice and lovely and easy and simple in retrospect, but yeah, it has been an interesting journey. Some people would say it was quite fast – I would find it very slow because at 21 I wanted to be where I am today.
Did you imagine when you started with Rediff that you would be here today and directing your own work?
Oh yes, absolutely. Every year every employee is supposed to write what is their next year’s plan. For the six years I was there, I had a great time there, but every year I would write that I want to make a movie. Finally six years down the line I started writing movies and today I am directing. So, it was not something that was an overnight decision you know, it came very late in life. I mean, I have wanted to make movies since I was nine years old.
How cool was it to walk on the sets the first time and see what you had written come alive?
I wanted to attend every single shooting day of Chhal, so what I did was, since I was working in the day, the way I wrote the script was that I filled it with night scenes. So all the shooting in Chhal had to take place at night. I would finish work, go to the shooting, they would pack up at 5 in the morning, I would leave from the shooting and go sleep in the office. I would carry a change of clothes and then the office boy would come wake me at 9 o’clock and then I would start working again. So yeah, I think I tricked the director and the producer into making a film that was shot mostly at night (laughs). It was great fun. I think for the first 2 weeks Kay Kay and Prashant Narayanan were in the film and I wouldn’t call them Kay Kay and Prashant, I would keep calling them by their character’s names. I mean I would call them Girish and Karan and finally they both said, listen dude, we know you’ve written the film, [but] when are you going to call us by our correct names, we have names too. It was good fun… it was a great experience.
I bet you learned a lot sitting on the set to help you with your directing later.
See, here is the thing, I have not studied with anybody, I have not learned filmmaking per se. Even being on the set there is only so much you can observe. At the end of the day a film is always in the director’s hands. As a writer, I have conceived certain scenes and on the set it is being shot somewhat differently, it has a different perspective to it and that is a director’s call, the way he frames a shot or whatever, right? So, really you are there sort of outside looking at things, there is only so much you can observe. At the end of the day you have to go out there and do it yourself. I mean there is no such thing as secondhand learning. So it was interesting, it was more of a writer observing ok, fine this is how I perceived it and this is how they are perceiving it. At that same time as it was being shot I would say ok, this is how I wrote it, but while shooting it this would have made more sense! I think the true ground for learning films honestly is in the edit room. The kind of understanding you get for cinema per se is only in the edit room, no where else. You see what you shot, what they have done, how things come out and how transitions work and everything…I mean honestly you want to understand filmmaking go into the edit room and spend time there. I would be locked in the editing for all my films, I really enjoyed watching that.
Your first film as director was Ek Khiladi Ek Hassena. How was the experience directing your first film? First day on the set, were you excited, nervous?
Well, I was excited on the drive to the set; to the location actually where we shot, and once we reached there all of a sudden everyone turns to you and looks at you. Directing is all about confidence. You have to imbue confidence in others for them to follow you and the minute you start giving out directions – I want this, I want that, I want this – you just set into motion a whole chain of events, and people and everybody are doing their thing. It is a very interesting experience. The first day I shot it was a very intense sequence. Usually people on the first day of shooting do some light scenes, and I actually did three heavy duty scenes one right after another and it was an all night shoot. It was eleven to five; I have only five hours to shoot three big scenes because of the location permissions. It was Fardeen’s birthday the previous night, so he had partied heavily I think until 12 in the afternoon and he came on the set and we kind of chatted and stuff and he asked me, so what is the scene today? I explained the scene to him and he was a bit taken aback, and then I explained two more scenes to him and he actually took off his glasses and showed me his eyes and said, dude, I have been partying all night – you expect me to learn all this? I was thinking we do some nice simple shots of me walking in great style lighting a cigarette. I said dude, I have to get this film done in 42 days so you know what, all the lovely stylish shots – I will take them anyway, I really need you to do these scenes. And boy, he delivered, and delivered really well, and it was great fun (laughs). That somehow set the tone for the whole film -that we’ll be shooting like maniacs. I am a very energetic person, so I cannot understand laxity as such, or inertia. I like continuous movement. I like to be shooting. I like things to be there. I like things to be happening. I like that energy.
How was it handling such a large cast?
I think being a director is all about human resources, it is all about being an HR manager and making sure everyone is mentally there, and each has their own individual problems and gripes and everything. You need to be listening to everything and reacting positively and correctly at times automatically. At the same time you just need to keep them in the right frame of mind. I mean, that is a big chunk of what direction is all about and is not just with actors, it could be with your DOP, it could be anybody. It is like a big cinema circus you just need to keep everyone in their cages and keep them performing (laughs) and keep the show going on a daily basis until the shooting is over. At the end of the day I think the only person who really knows what is really happening on the set is the director and nobody else because it is all in his head! And as a manager, you have to make sure that no matter how far they decide to go, how much of a long leash you kind of give them, you need to make sure that they walk the line you have in your head – make sure that they don’t go across it or past it because then you end up making a different film than you conceived. I mean, you can finish your script and once you have locked it, you can improvise on the set, which is all good fun, but at the end of the day you must shoot the script you started with first because honestly making too many changes on the set, that amounts to big mistakes. When you are writing a script and when you are doing a pre-prod that is actually almost a year to a year and a half process, you have got a lot of time to think about every single action that you are going to do. But when you start changing things big time on the set, making instantaneous decisions at those times you are not thinking ahead, so you are more likely to make mistakes. Bottom line is you need to think fast, be on your feet. At the same time if you think it is too drastic, you need to make the right call whether to go ahead with or not because it could impact something negatively further up ahead.
Did you ever find that once you were directing the filming the idea you had in your head when you wrote the script wouldn’t work and you would have to change it?
At times what I would need to change was sometimes mental but was usually visual, or like moving or doing certain things. But really actually on location you need to give the actor the space to do his or her thing, and do it within the confines of what you want done. You need to often make changes and work yourself around what the location dictates and you have to be open to that. It is something very interesting, very organic. You are on the set and you thought that you should be sitting, you should be talking, you should be walking right now, you should be here and you should be there but yeah, you see a very set image in your head but you do change it at times, it happens all the time.
I like rehearsing my actors before a shot, and while they are rehearsing my DOP observes the movement, so he lights accordingly and there is enough space for the actors to do their thing. I also usually shoot the scene in its entirety, I don’t take one-one dialogue cuts. I shoot scenes and make the actors do the whole thing again and again, and I film it from different angles, different magnifications and stuff. This way the energy is never lost and it never becomes monotonous for them and since my camera is on them all time they are all on the edge. At any given point of time they know that I might shift the camera to them so I have them giving the complete performance. With Acid, I had two, three cameras on the set every single day so that really helped .
Give us a little hint to the story of Acid Factory.
Acid Factory is about six people who wake up locked up in a factory in a very peculiar situation… they have all lost their memory, they have no clue of who they are and then they realize that their lives are in danger from each other. Since they have no idea who is who, they have no clue whose life is in danger and who is the guy who is going to be threatening them. That is one part of the narrative, but you have three multiple narratives running throughout the film and you go back and forth in time as well so the audience enjoys the whole cat and mouse game more, because I keep revealing one plot at a time to the audience. So they get a sense of okay, this character is this guy and this character is this guy, and there are also many surprises in store for the audience as well. That is basically the story idea in a nutshell.
How did the idea for story of the film come to you?
When I met Sanjay a writer had already narrated this story idea to him and he bounced it off me. I really loved the idea and the story idea was very challenging. For me, since I am a writer, I said listen, I need to write this myself and he was like yeah, let’s do it together. So we wrote the screenplay together over some nine months and we kind of tinkered with the story and played around with it and worked it all out.
Did you have people in mind as the roles were developing? Did you say OK, Dino would be perfect for this and Fardeen would be perfect for this, as you were writing the script?
Most of my actors I kind of had in my mind when I wrote it. Because they have no memory, there were no character names until kind of the last stage, so instead I would write actor’s names and out of the actors I wrote in the script I think I got most of them. I am very lucky to have got that.
How did you go about casting? Do you go and narrate the story to them, is that how it works?
Here is how it works: I would narrate to each and every actor individually, and every actor that I narrated the script to said yes. I had this lucky three page script printout and I would take it with me everywhere. The last person to be cast was Dia, and the day I narrated the script to her that print out vanished and then I was like OK, fine, and I knew that my cast was done (laughs). That was an interesting experience. I would do a two-hour narration; I would act out the whole film, scene to scene with each actor’s movements and the character’s movements, and I would show them the film. I also had cut per-prods of the action and stuff so they could get an idea of the kind of action that I had in my head that they were going to be shooting. So they more or less had a larger picture of the kind of film we were trying to make.
How was it working with the cast?
Great fun! See, Fardeen and I had already worked together so there was a great comfort level. Manoj was a great experience because he loves to improvise, and I would literally improvise along with him and we created the character that he plays in the film together. With Danny, what I realized is that he is exactly like Mr. Feroz Khan who I directed in a previous film. He works on the principal that if he likes you, he is there for you, but if he doesn’t like you, in my opinion, you shouldn’t be in the same room as him. He has his own set of principles and stuff, he is all heart so you need to react to him on an emotional level.
They are all really, really professional actors you call them on the set at nine and they are there bang on the dot at nine o’clock. I mean Irrfan is a great performer, one of the best performers we have. He is an extremely professional actor. You just need to tell him what you want once and he delivers. For him, it is all about stringing the harmony of what is the level that you want and he gets it, bang on. The way he works with other actors – it is all very interesting.
Aftab and Dino, I am working with for the first time and they both have very interesting energy levels. With Dino, I had to do something very sly. Dino’s role is a very bizarre, off-kilter, edgy kind of role. On day one of shooting I made him very, very insecure. I told him if you pull this off it will be great, but if you don’t we are screwed, because this is not a one or two hero film it is an ensemble film and my group dynamic has to work. If one person in the group does not work, we will be in trouble. Dino just kept quiet and he smiled and then he started to act and day one went interesting, day two went OK nice, day three went OK fantastic, and finally on day four, it was one of the most crucial scenes in the film, the 14th scene in the film where his character really comes into his own and when he finished performing, everybody just broke into a spontaneous applause because that guy delivered in spades! It is a very, very edgy role and he had to be edgy throughout the film, so a lot of the time he distanced himself from us and not be a part of the parties we would have every single night, because we would be shooting 12 hours a day and partying eight hours in the night, so we almost partied non-stop and then shot like mad so it was good fun.
Dia, it was very interesting when I was casting her. My one problem with Dia was that I always perceived Dia as a very fragile beauty and I wasn’t sure she had this hard as nails, eating-balls-for-breakfast kind of femme fatale that her character was in the film. Dia realized that I had this reservation, so she actually went and shot a portfolio of a set of photographs where she did different makeup, had a different look in her eye, had different costumes and when she met me she said, please open the file, is this what you have in your mind? I was just taken aback, I was blown, I was like if this is the level of dedication you have you are my character, and I gave her a hug and said OK, fine, you are doing the heroine in my film and that is how it happened. I am really lucky to have got that kind of energy level from my actors.
Favorite scene in the film?
Actually, I can’t divide the film or cut the film into favorite scenes (laughs). I can tell you that Dia and Fardeen’s favorite scene has been cut from the film because I couldn’t find a place to put it. I tried my best but I couldn’t manage it.
Favorite performance in the film, or is everyone brilliant?
See, it is like this, and all the actors understood this, that the group has to work. If the group doesn’t work, then the film falls flat on its face, so none of the actors tried to outshine each other. What they did was try to work with each other, at times help each other, or even be there for each other. Sometimes they would come on the set even if it was not their scene. That is the kind of energy that really worked, because they realized that they have to work as a group. That is something that I ingrained in them on the first day of the shoot. I shot only after lunch; the first half of the day I made them read the script in front of each other. They all sat around and read their parts so they all knew what they were doing, they all knew what was going to go on on set, so that really helped, I guess.
The music of Ek Khiladi Ek Hassena was a big hit! What can you tell us about the music of Acid Factory?
I think the music of Acid Factory is going to be one of the biggest blockbusters of this year. We have got 4 different music directors: Shamar Tandon, Baapi Lahiri, Gourov Dasgupta and Masai Scott. Interestingly, we have only one lip synch song in the film. I mean the kind of story it is it can’t stop, and even in that song none of my actors are lip synching. It is a strip bar that they go to, and you hear it via the strip dancers – it’s not sung by any of the actors in the film. A couple of the songs are used as background music. They are not really there as song-songs like in a typical Hindi film. It is a one hour, fifty minute film, so it just works in that constraint.
What can audiences expect from Acid Factory?
I think they can expect a ride like they have never been on before. It really is a twisted, very, very action packed interesting thriller of a ride. It’s like the world’s wildest acid trip is what they can expect from us.
How has the industry changed from when you wrote about it until now?
I think the change had already or almost started taking place when I started writing about it. A kind of new blood came in about the time I started writing, and the old school kind of took a back seat. I think at the end of the day, it all kind of happened because of economics. The budgets heeded a certain style of film making. Earlier, you would shoot at times at random over the course of one or two years, over 180 days. It was quite scattered, the whole medium. When smaller budget films started being made, suddenly the industry started to wake up wondering how the hell can these guys make this in this much amount? Then they realized these guys came organized, with ready scripts, with organized shooting schedules, with everything worked out and worked backwards from the date of release, and that’s how they managed to make the film with that much budget. Not just by being ready, but by spending money correctly, and that’s how the new model translated into the bigger budgeters, too. Similarly, the actors got tired of running from set to set and making 15 films in one year. They decided they were going to shoot 2 or 3 films a year and they decided to only do one film at a time. Writers started giving the scripts before the shooting began. Multiplexes came into being that change economics completely – the whole paradigm changed. So, it was a whole lot of things and in the end it all boils down to money, but I have seen that all change and the work ethics of this generation, the kind of code that we will live by, that we want to kind of achieve in terms of the kind of cinema that we want to see is really, really fresh.
Do you think that darker films, edgier films, are more accepted today?
They are being more accepted by audiences, they have been exposed to more of a variety of cinema per se, not just on Indian screens but also on television. I mean, television has caused a big societal change in this country in terms of morality, in terms of exposure to the world. It really has opened up a whole new world out there and that in turn has benefited a lot of people, a lot of artists – a lot of things. I mean, the Internet and cable television has changed the world as we know it.
What do you think of Hindi cinema today?
I think this is the best period to be a part of Indian cinema. It is there on the precipice – once it leaps, it will fly, it will soar, it’s right there. I think I will be part of the birth of the next leap that Indian cinema takes and I think it is a great moment to be part of.
What sort of movies do you want to make in the future?
Honestly as a viewer I am not genre specific. I enjoy movies of all genre, I enjoy world cinema, I enjoy comedies and rom-com and horror. Horror is something I am very keen on making. I want to make a love story, which I already have written down. I want to make all kinds of films, but the only thing I know is that I will never be able to tell you a very simple story. Simplicity is really not my thing. I like a bit of a twist. I need grays! I can’t do just black and white.
You wrote that Shekhar Kapur said about Fellini, “a movie is not just a story, you need to experience it, it is also an audio visual medium, look at what the director is trying to do.” What, in your opinion, does a director try to do?
I think it depends from director to director. Some directors just want to entertain you, some directors actually want to tell you something, some directors want to jolt you, some directors want to hit you on the head and kind of awaken your senses, some want to scare you, some want to make you cry. But bottom line it comes down to your script: we are all storytellers. At the end of the day each director is trying to tell a story in his or her own unique way or style. For me, what I am trying to do, well, I was a born joker in school and class in college, so I think I am trying to entertain. I like happy people, I like that energy. I just want people to be alive. I love life a lot and I love people who are full of life around me. I can’t take morose people. I can’t take people who have no energy. I cant take people who are despondent and if they are, I tend to bring their energy up to mine! So, that is how I function and so via my cinema I am trying to infuse life into them and have them live or experience the edge that I like to walk on.
It was wonderful to talk to someone who is so enthused about his craft and so willing to share so much insight into making films. Suparn says that with his movies he is trying to entertain, and we are sure he will succeed. Make sure and go see Acid Factory, because it certainly threatens to keep all of us on the edge of our seats waiting to see what he reveals next. We wish him the best of luck now and in the future! Stay tuned, because BollySpice also has interviews with Manoj Bajpayee, Aftab Shivadasani and Dino Morea still in store! Class dismissed!