Anthony Maras could have seen the filming of “Hotel Mumbai” go wrong in so many ways. The filmmaker has opted to tackle a brutal real life tragedy for his latest movie, which is a bold move. Had he wallowed in exploitation, this would have been a disaster. However, with a soft touch and respect for the victims, Maras was able to craft something intense and moving, but never over the top.
This week, “Hotel Mumbai” hits theaters, and to mark the event, we recently got on the phone with Maras to talk about his work. The film stars Dev Patel, with an ensemble supporting cast that includes Nazanin Boniadi, Armie Hammer, Jason Isaacs, Anupam Kher, and more. Maras directed and co-wrote with John Collee, as well as edits. You can see the conversation below.
Joey Magidson/Awards Circuit: What about this story made it something that you wanted to tell on screen?
Anthony Maras: I think there’s a lot of factors, but what really grabbed me about the story overall was the story of the staff of the Taj Hotel. I knew very little about the attacks beyond what we had seen on television, seeing the burning building, all that. It was after seeing the “Surviving Mumbai” documentary that was made from the attacks, and pretty much hearing the stories of the Taj staff, how even when they had options to get out of the hotel, they came back or they stayed, in order to help strangers. It was something that had me asking myself what I would do in that situation. The further I got into the documentary and the stories, the more I wanted to make this. I didn’t know how long it would take for the film to be made, to be financed, and it took a little while, but I wouldn’t change any of it for the world.
JM: When you sit down to start telling this story, how do you decide what the important factors are, between dramatic license to make it into a movie and realism to be respectful to the victims?
AM: Of course. It was very much an instinctual process. There were certain themes that were kind of like the guideline. Seeing people of different cultures and economic classes coming together in order to survive. Also, darker themes, like what drives people to commit these acts? Those were our general guidelines in the story phase. My co-writer John Collee and I didn’t have a specific take on it, we spent a lot of time listening. “Surviving Mumbai” was made before we came to this, so we spent a lot of time going through the research materials for that. Then it was really when we were able to go to India, as well as interview people in other parts of the world, that the story came together and into focus. We went to Mumbai, we met many of the hotel staff who survived the attacks and still work there. We workshopped the story, and again, there was no clear take on it, more of a process over months. As we heard different stories, they’d melt into a pool of other stories. For example, we hadn’t decided whether it would be a single protagonist, we were thinking about maybe Chef Oberoi or potentially the David and Zahra characters. We weren’t sure about that or an ensemble. I guess the process of finding out about the attacks informed how the story unfolded. We heard many statements from guests, staff members, including the chef. When you hear about their actual stories, going through that process ended up with the film you see. I know it’s a very general answer, but the different perspectives we got in the research process led us to the film you see. I know that’s a general answer, I’m sorry!
JM: It makes sense. It could go any number of ways. There’s so many stories to tell, though I think this is the right way. Only following one character could leave you wanting more. You give audiences a good sense of who everyone involved was and what they were going through.
AM: Yeah, as you were saying. That sounds right! (Laughs) Not to be flippant about it, but there are a lot of films about terrorism and catching them or preventing the attacks. I guess our intention was to sort of place audiences in the eye of the storm, and because there were many facets of the storm, we go through many aspects of it.
JM: When you get to shooting, how did you decide about the way to depict the violence? You obviously wanted to find a balance and not let anyone mistake this for a “Rambo” movie. How did you manage that?
AM: Exactly. We took a bit of a particular approach in how the scenes were shot and constructed. Our cinematographer, who I’d worked with on all of my short films, we talked a lot about what we wanted the scenes to feel like. The immersive nature of what we were going for here was important to us. So, rather than being too specific on the storyboards or being too specific about what amount of violence in the scene we’d depict, we had the actors come in two or three weeks before shooting started and go through a series of rehearsals. They weren’t the kind of rehearsals done with camera movements in mind. In many cases, they were done so we could watch intently and decide what to capture. There’s a lot of actors in the frame, you know, together with both accomplished actors and fairly inexperienced ones. We wanted to try and get a real sense of realism and authenticity. I think that was achieved by letting the actors do their thing and have the main camera focus on them, while others floated around and captured other moments. A lot of the craft was done in the editing room. I felt an incredible sense of responsibility to the people I’d interviewed to try to depict their experience in an authentic way. You do want to feel gratuitous, but you do want to depict what actually happened.
JM: Speaking of the cast, with the name actors, which helped get the film made, how did you find that balance in finding the right people for the job?
AM: You know, if we break it down, Dev Patel was the one we always had in mind, from the time we started writing the script. Insofar as the other cast members go, pretty much everyone that we went out to, we were lucky enough that due to the script, they wanted to be a part of it. The generosity of those actors, it really allowed their performances to triumph. By that I mean, it didn’t bother Armie Hammer to be tied up on the ground all day. They were willing to stick it out, day in and day out. It was a very supportive atmosphere. It really felt like we were in it together.
JM: When someone sits down to watch “Hotel Mumbai,” what do you want them to take out of it. What’s your hope there?
AM: Um, I guess I can answer that question this way. The people who were caught up in this attack were from every conceivable economic class and social background. From all different walks of life. The way they came together was really inspiring. So, I hope people in the cinema, they get a sense of what’s possible when people from different walks of life put differences aside, in order to survive. That’s a big part of it. I hope it also sheds a bit of light on the psychology of what drives people to commit these attacks. We scoured through thousands of pages of court documents from one of the terrorists, looking at where he came from, how they were set up in all that stuff by their handlers. Most interestingly, we had access to the real time recordings that the gunman had. That was something that was really chilling, because you had play by play commentary of what they were being told to think, as it was happening. It was chilling. Another thing to take away from this is not just the work of the Taj staff, but also the people of Mumbai. In the case of the Taj, they opened the first of the bombed out restaurants within three weeks of the attack. They restored the whole thing and had it up and running as soon as possible, as a symbol of defiance. For me, one of the most beautiful things throughout the entire process of making and showing the film was having the chef at the world premiere at Toronto. To have see that, and to see people watch and get a sense of what he went through, as a filmmaker you couldn’t wish for that. It was a surreal experience.