So were you a director for hire on this?
“They sent the script, and my agent said it was a script about Who Wants To Be A Millionaire. I thought, genuinely, I didn’t really want to make a film about that. Then I saw who’d written it, Simon Beaufoy, because they hadn’t mentioned it.
“He’d written The Full Monty, of course, and I’d never met him but I thought I should read it out of respect, really. I was gone after 10 or 15 pages, that was it. That’s the best way to make decisions, you just know you’re going to do it and you get this kind of amnesia about the realities of making films.
“It’s a bit like what they say about women and childbirth, that chemicals are released to make women forget how painful it is so they decide to have another kid. I don’t know how true that is, but it happens with films. You just forget the reality of it, you just go ‘let’s do it, it’ll be great!’, not thinking what it will actually be like.
“So I did, I rang them up and this producer – Christian Colson, and Simon – and I went off to India to have a look round. And you do a kind of test voyage really, sort of testing to make sure it isn’t a Hitler’s Diaries scenario where it’s going to be all fake.
“You can just tell straight away whether something’s real or not, and it was wonderful. I fell in love with India, I didn’t see so much of it, mostly Mumbai but I absolutely fell in love with the city and the people there. We had an amazing time making it, which I hope comes across in the film.
Outsider in Mumbai – how welcome were you?
“There was no problem at all. They make a thousand films a year. I was a bit surprised, I thought there’d be more of a residue of the colonial past, but actually that’s changed in the last 20 years. They are literally so busy now, getting on with their tiger economy that the British are kind of quaint and a footnote.
“You see these guys at the airport, banging desks, they’re basically British, German and American businessmen banging desks saying ‘this is no way to run an airport! I could run an airport much better than this, you idiots!’. And you see all these Indian people looking at them thinking ‘oh dear, you’re not going to like it here,’.
“And it’s true, in that little microcosm you think ‘don’t behave like that,’, you’ve got to go with it. And if you go with it it’s an incredibly generous place, which helps you and gives you everything you’ll ever want for the film. But you can’t try and organise it.
“It has a pattern that’s like the sea, clearly it’s the ocean but it changes all the time. You can’t predict anything about it, but there is something there, and you kind of go with it and it will give you the film eventually. I had a lot of people helping me do that, we took about ten crew and the rest of the crew were from Bollywood films.
“I got to know them very well and they helped with that, they told me how you’ve got to go with that, really.
Co-director credit for Loveleen Tanden?
“She’s a casting director who’s previously worked on a couple of Mira Nair films. She was initially just a casting director, and then as I worked with her I realised I was going to need her every day. You’ve got to check things every day to be there, and check all the time that you’re not making big cultural mistakes.
“People tend to do what the directors says, even if it’s wrong, you know? That’s useful sometimes, but sometimes it’s tragic as well. So we had her there every day during the shoot and she was particularly involved with the kids, because the little kids don’t speak much English and so we decided to call her the co-director because it felt appropriate.
“But there was another guy as well, the first assistant director was this guy called Raj Acharya, and he was amazing for me. The difference he made was extraordinary, and you try and acknowledge people like that.
Pattern of your own directorial career?
“I come from a place called Radcliffe, which is a pretty small place near Bury – who are top of the second division at the moment, it’s very rare that that happens. So to be able to do this kind of thing is amazing really, so I’m very grateful to have been able to make a few films that people like.
“So I don’t know what to say about that kind of thing. You don’t really think like that, I’m going to Austin in Texas, there’s a film festival there and they’re giving me this achievement award. That’s like a mixed blessing really, because you feel like it’s all over when you get one of those things.
“Obviously it’s very flattering as well. But you don’t really think ‘how did that happen?’ you just try and make each one on its own terms. And yes it’s been quite a few years since you were first here. You can’t really say much more than that about it.
Was it easy getting the Millionaire rights – and the book the film was based on?
“It’s based on Q&A, which is this book by a diplomat called Vikas Swarup. It was a Book at Bedtime about a year ago, I think. People used to ring me up and say ‘I listened to your film last night,’ and it was like ‘what?’. They were listening to it on Radio 4.
“It’s very different, if you ever read the book, you’d be amazed at the job that Simon did adapting it. It has a funny history, the show. The film is produced by a company called Celador Films and the guy who runs that company is called Paul Smith, and he set up Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, and made himself a millionaire by the success of the show.
“He then sold it for God knows how many hundreds of millions, and used the money to set up this film company. So ostensibly it’s completely separate, though he clearly kept some goodwill and the ability to use the theme tune, the format, the design of the show and things like that.
“In India it’s called Kaun Banega Crorepati? which we weren’t allowed to use that moniker on our film, because they thought it might feature the show in a very bad light. But we were able to call it Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?, so there’s a slight distance from the Hindi version and there’s obviously a slight distance from the English version because it’s set in India with an Indian host.
“That’s how it happened really, but again for me – in the way that the kid is not that bothered about the money really, he’s obviously on there for other reasons than the money.
“I felt about it like that as a director, I wasn’t interested in the show to be honest. I was interested in the scene in the toilet, when he gives him the wrong answer. That was the kind of thing I as interested in rather than the show itself.
Parallels with Millions here? Was it easy to persuade the actor to dive into the, presumably make believe, cess pool?
“It’s a real shithole, but we dropped into it a round tank which we filled with a mixture of peanut butter and chocolate. So actually you could lick him. Whenever you say that people go ‘urrgh’, it’s amazing really what people’s imaginations do.
“He was pretty cool about it, actually. He was pretty good about it. I don’t think this would have been the film it is if I hadn’t made Millions. They’re films that I love making, particularly because the kids are involved. I love behaving like a kid on the set, I like the kind of energy that you get from that.
“And having them around gives you a good excuse, people think ‘why’s he behaving like that? He’s a grown man, he’s meant to be in charge of us, he’s meant to be making decisions? But he’s off playing games with the kids,’. But you’ve got a good excuse when they’re the leads of the film.
Where did you find the two younger lads at the start, and how was it directing them?
“There are three at the beginning, the girl and the two boys. One of the boys, Azza who plays young Salim, is a real slumkid. It’s funny, the word slum, it has a very pejorative sense here but it’s not like that there.
“They are very poor, and they do get cleared away sometimes by the authorities, but they’re very proud, the people who live there, and very resourceful. These slums are full of industries, like the big place Dharavi where we filmed a lot of it, there’s a huge community of industries. It’s an enormous employer of people and it’s so organised.
“They value that sense of community more than they value bricks and mortar. So in a way the word slum has too much of a pejorative sense, but those kids came from there. And the other kid who plays Jamal as a young lad, he’s a middle class kid so he spoke a bit of English.
“The other kids tend not to speak English until they’re eight or 10 really. We originally went there thinking we’d do the little kids in English as well, but it was clear right away that that would have been fake, because the kids just don’t speak English.
“And as soon as they started doing it in Hindi, we got Loveleen my co-director to translate it into Hindi, and as soon as they started performing it in Hindi it came alive, so we did that. But it’s weird directing stuff in a language that you don’t really understand. That’s a very odd sensation.
“You think you can judge things but you can’t quite, and also things don’t directly translate, you think there’s an easy way of translating things directly, but they don’t. You have to find a substitute for it and things like that.
“So for instance they’ve got this wonderful expression, when you say you’re hungry you say you’ve got rats running round you time. It’s wonderful, stuff like that.
Music, and help from tourist office?
“We prepped for about three months and then shot for about three months, November, December and January basically. Everything has to be vetted by the Indian authorities and you have to be quite creative in the way that you present the material to them sometimes.
“Some things you can be surprisingly honest about, so for instance we told them that there was a torture scene involved in the film, at the beginning. They said that was no problem providing there was no-one above the rank of inspector involved. That tells you it kind of goes on quite a lot, that everybody’s sanguine that anything worse than a motoring offence you’ve got a 50-50 chance of having a bit of electricity to help your confession along.
“But other things, like kids nicking things, they don’t like that at all. So there’s no thieves. You have to be quite creative in the way you present it. We did get a lot of help, we had a company called India Take One Productions, who were our local guys who did everything really.
“There is a lot of back handers going on, which you’re not meant to own up to but it does go on as anybody who’s been there will know. It’s a very creative economy, the way things work.
Taj Mahal scene?
“The Taj was interesting, obviously we went there and we had an interesting little scenario where they were going to nick shoes. It was fun really, to show how resourceful they are, given the hand that they’re dealt with by life. They get on with it.
“They weren’t very keen on that, when they figured out eventually that we weren’t there just to photograph the Taj, that we were telling a little story in front of it. But we managed to get away with it, and we managed to get home safely. That’s all I can say about the Taj, to be absolutely honest.
Availability of local actors?
“They are extraordinary, the actors, because there are so many films made there. When you work in the west with an actor, it doesn’t matter whether you’re working with a fairly ordinary actor or Leonardo DiCaprio, most of those actors are out of work most of the time.
“And when you get them for a film you’ve got them for the film. In India every actor is working on at least half a dozen films at the same time. So they’ll tell you when they’re available. You might say ‘hey Irfan, we’re doing a big scene on Tuesday,’ and he’d say ‘I’m not available Tuesday. I can come a week on Thursday for you,’ and of course Anil is not available that day either.
“So the first assistant director is juggling a number of mobile phones, with different people on the different lines, and he’s negotiating with other first assistant directors on other movies about releasing Irfan on a Tuesday instead of a Thursday. And it goes on like this, again, a bit like the whole process, you have to go with it.
“You can’t start banging tables about it, you just go with it. Eventually you turn up, finish the film and it’s done, everybody’s in it and they’re all there. You get there eventually.
How will the film be promoted in the US?
“I always thought, until we went to Telluride and Toronto, my personal instinct was that it would work in Britain. It would be hard work but it would work as a story because of the connection that we have with India, and we’ve got this kid in it, Dev Patel who people know from Skins.
“I thought there were enough connections that you’d feel it working. I thought it would never work in America. But you underestimate how much they love, and how much they’re tied into the underdog story. They really connect with that.
“They don’t have much connection with India, although there are large groups of Indians in certain cities like Toronto. But it’s amazing the way it took off. It was originally with this company called Warner Independent, and they were closed down by big Warners and this little film – which it is in their terms – they thought it wasn’t worth spending the money on promoting it.
“So we thought we’d lost our distributor, but fortunately the guy who runs Warners sent it to this guy at Fox Searchlight, Peter Rice who specialises in this kind of film. Last year they did Juno, they did Last King of Scotland, they do the odd films that are low budget and can break out a bit.
“They’ll market it very aggressively, they’ve just brought the release forward to November 14 in America now, I’m going off there at the end of next week to start promoting it. You just go around cities talking about it and doing Q&As and radio stations and stuff like thought, you have to work very hard really in the hope that it will peak through.
Final scene with the Bollywood dance scene?
“You can’t live and work in Bombay and not dance, you’ve got to dance. It’s so natural. We originally had 5,000 people doing the dance, but that was in theory. It gradually got cut to 3,000 then it got cut to 1,000 then it got cut to 500 with 50 good dancers at the front.
“Then it’s 300 with 28 good dancers at the front, and it goes on and on like that as they whittle it down. We did that scene over three nights at the station. That’s VT [Victoria Terminus] station, a very famous station which is only really available between two o’clock and four o’clock in the morning, you only get two hours there.
“So we had to over three nights, because otherwise it’s heaving with people and trains. So that’s what we did, and stuff like that. That’s what we did, we had a great guy choreographing it, and it was tough for Dev, because Dev didn’t dance really.
“He always felt like he was in his pyjamas, that was his expression, when he was dancing, because although he’s from an Indian background he’s from Harrow, he’s a Londoner. You don’t dance, it’s pathetic!
“But we got him out there and he started doing the dancing, he learnt the basketball move, that’s the one you can do that’s easy. Pretend you’re just bouncing basketballs. So we just did it really. They’re great dancers, all of them, they loved doing it. They feel it, you can see in their hands, with the expression, how much they loved doing it.
“We had this amazing musician who did the music for us [Rahman], he is a serious superstar. If you can imagine Michael Jackson, Tom Cruise and Bruce Springsteen rolled into one, that’s this guy in terms of India.
“He’s called AR Rahman, a beautiful, modest man who is so famous it’s unbelievable. The music just pours out of him. I love him because he just does stuff. He’ll do anything, it just comes to him. He’s a very special guy. That last song is called Jai Ho, with a Spanish thing in it.
Trainspotting links, with the energy and the running sequences?
“And there’s two toilet sequences in it as well. I know. I couldn’t cut it because it’s such a great scene, but it is another guy escaping down a toilet in one form or another. It is weird trying to explain to Americans why it’s essential for British films to have scenes in toilets, because we are the only nation that seems obsessed, in every film we make, to have a scene in a toilet for some reason.
“I don’t know, you sort of feed off the story and the people and the circumstance. I wanted to portray it like I saw it, like I found it, and it felt like it had this incredible energy that’s coming at you the whole time. Everything changes all the time.
“Nothing is the same when you go back to it the next day, it’s completely changed for some reason. It’s because it’s just people, there’s nothing really there in terms of buildings and things like that, although it’s beginning to be turned into a corporate place now.
“But it’s the people, and this energy that comes off them, it’s extraordinary, their resourcefulness. I just tried to portray it like that really. I found that same energy in the book of Trainspotting as well, and the people that we met when we made the film. So I suppose there is that kind of connection, in a way.
Simon Beaufoy feels he’s finally left The Full Monty behind with this, similar feelings for you?
“I don’t know, I never think of them like that. I don’t feel that connected with Trainspotting because everybody loves it so much, it’s the ones that people don’t like so much that you get protective about and try and help a bit, like Life Less Ordinary. So I never feel like that about them.
“And when you see ups and downs on films, you become quite sanguine. You get it from being in India as well, you get this sanguiness from these extremes that go on in the business and in everything really.
“And so you kind of just go with it. You’re lucky to be able to make them, to raise enough money to make them. And then to able to make them with people you like making the films with. Then you get to bring them to places like this and see you guys. It’s not a bad job really.
Colour palette of the film?
“The colours are extraordinary, there are so many things. They’ve been recycling in India forever, we’ve got into it in the last five years, but they recycle everything. The whole point about employment there is that everything they throw away, you think ‘why are people throwing things away?’.
“The reason they throw them away like that is because there’s a whole other band of people who pick them up and take them somewhere to recycle them. When you look closely there’s this complexity there, and the way it works is absolutely extraordinary. We just tried to capture that really, it wasn’t trying t find beauty in the ugliness, it was trying to show it as it is.
“So we filmed a lot of it in the slums, whereas Bollywood films in studios recreate things, we tried to do it in the real places themselves. We didn’t dress stuff, we didn’t add to stuff, we tried to show it as it was really, as much as we could.
“If you go there I hope you’ll think that we captured a bit of it. You can only get a little bit of it, you don’t get it all because it’s infinite. And horror as well as extraordinary resourcefulness and beauty as well. It’s all there, and you have to find your own way of getting your head around it.
Do you have any ambitions to make a musical, does the ending of this count?
“I do love stuff like that. I’ve done it on a stage, I did a stage show at the RSC with a couple of numbers in it. I did love doing them, it is a dream to do a musical because it is the most difficult thing to do an original musical in the modern day.
“So yeah, it was fantastic to let loose and do a musical number like that. We thought at one point about putting it inside the film, moving it there, but we couldn’t. It felt like that was the place for it in the end, to put it at the end there like. But yeah, you still harbour after doing that really, if you could. I do love music so much.”