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Nicolas Saada • Director

“Reality is an idea, a fantasy that people have when they watch a fiction film”


- French director Nicolas Saada is screening his second feature, Taj Mahal, in the Global Cinema section of the Film Fest Gent

Nicolas Saada  • Director
(© P Grandsard)

French director Nicolas Saada is presenting his second feature, Taj Mahal [+see also:
film review
interview: Nicolas Saada
film profile
, at the 42nd edition of the Film Fest Gent. The movie was also screened at Telluride and in the Orizzonti section of the Venice Film Festival this year, where it was warmly received by both the audience and the press (read the article). The film recounts a highly intimate and personal experience against the backdrop of a dramatic event that had a global impact: the terrorist attack of November 2008 in Mumbai, at the luxurious Taj Mahal hotel.

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Cineuropa: Back in 2008, you came to know about this story from a personal experience; what attracted you to it?
Nicolas Saada:
A couple of weeks after the attacks, I was having dinner with some friends of mine, and one of them said his niece almost died in that hotel. He told me the whole story, and I was very impressed by her attitude and courage; I thought it must have been a life-changing experience, and it was a story that should be told. In the beginning, the most important thing for me was to have her permission to tell the story, so after she agreed, we met for an intense interview, where she detailed everything that had happened that night. I decided not to interview her parents, so I could present her vision clearly and enable the audience to be with her at every moment. Then I wrote the script, which was 80% based on what she told me, and finally I finished a prologue and an epilogue.

Where does the fictional aspect come in?
It comes from the way you treat each moment and play with time. As a director, when you film something, it is always fiction. Reality is an idea, a fantasy that people have when they watch a fiction film. Any genre film is an illusion, it’s creation, and there was already a lot of cinema in what she was telling me. The events, and how they unfolded, were so mechanical and precise that I almost had no adjustments to make in the script; it could have been written for a fiction.

You really wanted the audience to step into her shoes.
It was important for me that the audience could empathise with her. To me, this girl was the epitome of someone who is young today, regardless of her origins or social situation. It was interesting to portray someone who is lost, worried, a bit insecure, and is suddenly put in a situation where she has to make big decisions, to act with awareness and maturity. So this girl’s experience is as valuable as anybody else’s. It is not the backdrop that makes it any more or less interesting; it is the experience itself. That happened to a lot of people across the city that night, and I wanted to reflect the universal aspect of it. I was really lucky because the three main actors were wonderfully aware of the purpose of the film, which was not to make a political statement, nor to recreate the attack; it was about telling the experience of this girl, and I knew Stacy Martin was the perfect person for the character.

How was it shooting in Mumbai?
It was the toughest shoot possible. We had 35 days to make the film, and each day was an adventure. In the pre-production phase, we realised that we had to film the front part of the hotel and the exteriors in Mumbai, but we were not allowed to film inside the Taj Mahal. Because of that, we had to recreate it with different locations, building stages and working with CGI techniques. We shot in India at the beginning, and every day there was a constant sense of danger. We didn’t know how people were going to react about the film, and we were worried about it. Eventually it worked out perfectly, but it was a tense shoot.

How could you maintain the calm and constant pacing of the movie in such an atmosphere?
In fact, I think I love music even more than film, and that helped me to make this movie work rhythmically. There was something very musical about it. The opening is like the silence before the orchestra, where I can softly play different instruments until the big crescendo. I wanted it to be really melodic.

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