Last Sunday, the Mumbai Mirror published an interview with Shripriya by Aseem Chhabra.
A Magical Experience
The class was called Directing Poetry and it was a once in a lifetime opportunity for 12 graduate film students at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.
“Poetry is so personal and visual, and it seemed like a great class to take on how to adapt a poem,” said Shripriya Mahesh, one of the two Indian Americans who managed to get into the class. Her classmate Shruti Ganguly also attended the course offered last year, while the two were in the third year of the program.
What made the class fascinating was that it was taught by the Oscar-nominated actor James Franco, who has also been collecting a series of degrees himself.
Franco’s plan was to make the class read Tar, a collection of poems written by Pulitzer Prize winning poet C.K. Williams. Each student was then to write a script and direct a short film based on the poem. Franco, who also played the role of the producer then planned to edit all the films into one full length feature.
This Friday, Tar – the film written and directed by Mahesh and her 11 classmates had its world premiere at the Rome Film Festival.
Mahesh picked two poems that spoke to her – Color of Time, where Williams remembers his childhood and Waking Jed, where the author observes his son who is about to wake up. “I thought it would be wonderful to connect the two ideas,” Mahesh said to me on Skype. A former executive at eBay, Mahesh finished her NYU program in May, and moved in the summer to Singapore with her husband and twin boys.
Franco invited Williams to the class and he read out all the poems selected for the film. “Just listening to him read was amazing and moving,” Mahesh said.
Then a few fortuitous things happened. As the students started to think about casting for their films, Franco offered to act as adult Williams.
And since Franco at that time was acting in Detroit in Oz: The Great and the Powerful, the shooting of the Tar segments also moved to that city. One more thing – Franco brought some of his Hollywood friends to act in the film. So Jessica Chastain drove down for a few days from a film shoot in Canada to act as young Williams’ mother. And Mila Kunis agreed to act as Williams’ wife.
All of this meant that Mahesh along with a few other classmates got to direct both Franco and Chastain. “It was very generous of the actors,” Mahesh said. “They didn’t have to do the films.”
“Directing James and Jessica was a joy,” Mahesh said. “They were very professional and collaborative. It was a very mutually respectful environment where I never felt they were stars.”
“He (Franco) switched roles very easily, “ she added. “When I was directing him, he took directions, even though he knew the script very well. But he would ask me ‘Do you want me to do it this way or another way?’ When I would call cut, he would ask how was that?”
She added that Franco nailed the performance of Williams in just a couple of takes, especially a tender moment towards the end of the film where he observes his son’s finger and ear. And while Mahesh was directing Chastain, Franco watched her and even gave helpful advice.
A lot of Mahesh’s beautifully made ten and a half minute long film has the free flowing style reminiscent of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. “When you are talking about memory and this was a year ago, that was a very relevant film. James suggested it to us as a visual reference.”
The visual style also matched through the shorts, since the films were shot by two cinematographers and the project had one production designer.
Last week Mahesh was heading to Rome for Tar’s premiere. “It was a very unique opportunity and the great thing is we went into it without expecting any of this,” she said. “I thought adapting poetry will be interesting. And then it became a magical experience when all these things fell into place.”
Photo credit: Anna Kooris