Born in Kansas City and now living in France, Kartik Singh is definitely a versatile artist. In fact, not only is he an actor, but he is also a talented writer, director and producer. His most recent project, Saving Mom and Dad has had 73 film festival selections in 20 countries. Enjoy this in-depth PlanetBollywood.com interview with Kartik Singh, in which he discusses his approach to direction, scripting and casting and much more!
You were born in Kansas City and later moved to France – you’ve done most of your work as a filmmaker in France. How did you decide to move and work there?
Initially, I came to Paris just to do a semester of study. But the place has been such a good fit for me that it made perfect sense to stay. When I think back though, a lot of things prepared my move to France. At a very young age, I saw Le Ballon Rouge by Albert Lamorisse. It left a deep impression on me, and the next year, I began learning French in school. Beyond language, these courses had a strong cultural component, so I saw films like Hiroshima, Mon Amour and Diva while still in junior high! Arriving in Paris, all of this previous exposure to French culture came back to me, and I was able to quickly master the language and put in my application for film school.
You studied economics and international Studies at American University. How did you decide to make the transition to cinema?
At 18, I had a background in performing arts which included high school plays, musicals and choir. But I was also interested in diplomacy, and for that reason coming to Washington DC made sense. However, while at American University, I continued doing plays and taking acting classes. Also during those years, the Satyajit Ray retrospective made its way through North America and I discovered all of his films. Then, I had the good fortune to find work as an extra on a Hollywood film shooting in DC, Forrest Gump. That was an unforgettable experience. Seeing Hanks and Zemeckis work was a truly inspiring and defining moment. I saw that this is what I want to do. Though happy to have finished my course in economics and international studies, it seemed that another path was materializing. This said, I hope these paths of filmmaking and diplomacy will cross again in the years to come. Making films is part of an overall goal that includes humanitarian work and promoting peace and prosperity in the world.
How do you approach direction? You’ve directed people who have never faced the camera before, and you have also directed professional actors. Does your strategy for direction differ for different types of actors?
I think it’s all about understanding what the scene is about. When you have complete knowledge of the scene and the characters, then you have the facts to make it real for yourself as an actor. With imagination, you leap into the world of the film.
Of course an amazing performance can come from an actor no matter what her experience. I always look out for what is going on. Sometimes the actor needs help and I am there to support and guide her. At other times, the actor is doing just fine and does not need anything from me. Also, some actors enjoy a little validation between takes, while others find it unnecessary. My work is about being attentive to each actor’s individual needs.
How much freedom do you give your actors? In other words, do you allow your actors to improvise, or do you prefer to have your actors do things exactly as you tell them to do?
I give them a maximum amount of freedom. For me, it’s all about collaboration. Let’s make a movie together. Together meaning all of our ideas together, moving harmoniously in one direction.
You have also acted in a few films. Do you think your experiences as an actor have shaped the way you approach direction?
It definitely helps. Understanding what the actor goes through is important. It gives me the ability to help her, to give her what she needs in a scene. Also, as a director, I use the same scene analysis that an actor does. I am also looking for what’s important in the scene and how best to show it. Having the practice of scene analysis as an actor may give me that advantage.
With my awareness of acting, as a director, I tend to be very loose with some things. For example, I encourage the actor to make the words her own, even if that means changing them. Whenever possible, I like to set things up so the actor can move wherever she feels like, without being constrained to hitting certain marks. This can be tough for the focus puller of course, but it can also be liberating for the actor.
What do you look for in actors when reaching casting decisions?
It’s funny you ask that, since I am casting a film right now. The casting process is an absurd and often painful one, but it’s the best way that the industry has found for choosing actors. It means there are always many who are disappointed as you can only choose one person for the job. While judging acting ability, I am also always checking out the small things. Did the actor take the time to learn the lines? Does the actor understand the whole piece or just her part? Does she turn up on time and ready to go? When doing an audition, sometimes I will give directions to an actor. In that case, does she take the direction easily or not? Even smaller things like the quality of her headshots say a lot about whether this person is a professional actor. Having professional headshots means that she felt it was important enough to invest that money in herself and in her career.
But there is another intangible thing in casting which I always look for. It’s the a-ha moment. You are seeing candidate after candidate, and suddenly you see one, and it’s the one. Something magical has transpired. And, you know that this is the person for the part. That may not happen with every role, but I have been lucky to experience this several times, including most recently on Saving Mom and Dad. When Joachim came in to read for Maxwell, both Julie (my casting director) and I knew immediately that he was the one. The funny thing there is that I was looking for a balding overweight man, the exact opposite of Joachim.
Do you think those facing the camera for the first time are easier to direct, or do you find it easier to direct those who have more experience?
I think everybody is different. It’s hard to have a hard and fast rule here. But I also believe that experience or not, good preparation is a key ingredient in creating a performance.
How do you come up with an idea for a film? What inspires you—for example, do you write scripts based on experiences from your own life?
Usually, it is from things going on in my life. Not things that I am presently dealing with, but things which I have had time to digest a little. Even if it does not come directly from my own life, it is inhabited by bits and pieces of life. Certain characters end up looking like people, or a blend of two people. A lot of times I like to add bits of back-story from my own life—just as a way of making it personal and meaningful for me.
How do you deal with writer’s block, especially when you have a deadline to script a film?
I have issues just like most writers. I try to do something good for myself—I will take a walk or take a shower. Whatever I do, I make it something that will not engage me. I avoid making phone calls, watching television and reading. I open the laptop and sit there. And, even if nothing happens, I stick with it.
Are there any actors and actresses you really would like to direct in the future?
A good actor will bear his soul and show us his spirit in every frame of a film. That kind of actor is the one I want to direct in the future. Of course I have my favorite movies, but these are movies that are important to me as a movie lover more than a movie maker. So, for example, even if I loved Kevin Spacey in so many of his films, that has little bearing on whether or not he would be right for whatever I am working on. It just remains kind of like admiration. If there is a part that he would be perfect for, though, it would be different.
What are some of your favorite films? Who are some of your favorite directors, actors and actresses?
I love epic films like Gandhi, Lawrence of Arabia and Mughal-e-Azam. I also love character driven works like Hannah and Her Sisters and Remains of the Day. The American Indie scene appeals to me a lot—films like Little Miss Sunshine, Boys Don’t Cry and Sideways. Finally, I love movies that are made to elevate the viewer—films like Antwone Fisher, American Beauty, Shawshank Redemption, Whale Rider and Once There Were Warriors. My favorite directors are Clint Eastwood, James Gray and Ashutosh Gowariker. My favorite actors include Paul Giammati, Antonio Ferreira and James Gandolfini. And, Hilary Swank, Angelina Jolie and Antara Mali are my favorite actresses.
Tell us a little bit about your latest film, Saving Mom and Dad.
I wanted to tell a story that resembles how I saw life growing up in a Sikh family in the Midwest USA. I felt that with this material, I had the potential to make something that could have a resonance with people.
How did you decide to write and direct Saving Mom and Dad?
I ran into my old fourth grade teacher and we had dinner together, some twenty years after knowing each other. This meeting triggered a lot of memories for me. But, nothing came of this for some time. As a writer and filmmaker, I was not ready to delve into this type of a film. I continued honing my craft, making short film after short film, mostly comedies, seven in all. They are supposed to entertain, but they don’t have a deeper dimension. I had a blast making them, though. Then about six years down the road, while looking for good material for another film, I suddenly remembered this story. The timing seemed right. I had acquired the skills and confidence to do something with this story.
Was it difficult at all to direct Aditya—the child who plays the role of Ravi in Saving Mom and Dad?
When working with someone who has never acted on camera before, there is a lot of preparation involved in getting the actor ready to perform. This whole process was so much fun. It was a joy to direct him. He was a fantastic inspiration throughout. He just went for it, without any hesitation. He is exceptionally bright and gifted. I had such a great time getting to know him throughout the process. I feel sad now, because he moved to Tanzania after we finished shooting, and I am still in Paris. Hopefully, I will catch up with Aditya and his family during his summer vacation.
How do you feel about film adaptations of other films and novels?
A good film is a good film, no matter what its source. Many of the greatest films came from books. The Godfather and Doctor Zhivago come to mind, but there are countless great films that have come from novels. Now that I think of it, one of my all-time favorites, Pather Panchali, is an adaptation. Often great novels make bad films, but mediocre novels can make amazing films.
As for films that are remade, usually the remake is not so good. It often seems like Hollywood has been lazy in its search for material. Rather than find new works that are truly in touch with what people are going through today, they adapt old TV shows or movies. I cannot think of a single one that I have liked. I saw the ads for Get Smart recently, and I just thought, ouch.
How important do you think being original is as a filmmaker?
It is important to be original because with that fresh point of view, you truly captivate the audience.
Or, is originality not just about the concept of a film, but the overall presentation of it?
I think the audience responds on a deep level to points of view that are unique. A big part of being original is born of a filmmaker finding her own voice. And, making movies that bring out that distinct voice in all its peculiarities.
Are you working on any films these days?
I am working on a feature-length version of Saving Mom and Dad, and I am currently looking for partners for this. My producer will be taking meetings in Toronto at the festival this September. We would like to make the film in North America next year.
Amanda Sodhi is VP of Business Development and a Staff Writer for PlanetBollywood.com. To learn more about Amanda, visit http://muweb.marymount.edu/~a0s81566.