As befits a movie about unusual outcomes and chance encounters, Bharat Nalluri took a roundabout directorial journey before arriving at the screwball comedy of Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day. The India-born director has an unusually varied filmic background, having helmed no-budget zombie movies, marathon second-unit shoots on huge studio monster movies like Alien vs. Predator, and politically-charged BBC television drama. But like the eponymous heroine of his latest film, Nalluri refused to be pigeonholed, and when he was sent Simon Beaufoy and David Magee's adaptation of Winifred Watson's 1938 novel, he jumped at the chance to bring the visual energy of his previous work to something decidedly more warmhearted. I talked to Nalluri about 1930s' British photography, his director's "pitch," and directing Amy Adams in the film's climactic nightclub number.
How did you wind up directing Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day?
I was born in India, and at the age of six I was brought to the north of England, to Newcastle. It was the home of Ridley and Tony Scott, and it looked like Blade Runner—in fact, you can see the direct influence of where Ridley Scott was brought up in that film. My dad was a professor in hydrology - a civil engineer. I was a runner on Stormy Monday, Mike Figgis's first movie, and in 1994 I raised $100,000 from a bunch of local dentists to make a genre movie called Killing Time. Neil Marshall, who is now directing films like Doomsday and The Descent, was at film school making zombie movies, and I said to him, "Do you want to come edit a movie I'm trying to get together?" We wrote it in a week, we raised the money in a week, we shot it in three weeks, we edited in another week, we sold it Columbia TriStar and it did really well on video. Off the back of that, we made another genre film financed by Channel Four. And then I got a phone call from Bob Weinstein and Ed Pressman asking me I wanted to make the third movie in The Crow franchise. The Crow: Salvation does really well on DVD, again, and they asked me to do more stuff, and that's when I said, "No, I need to step back and assess what I want to do." It was great fun making these action movies. I learned a lot from them, but I wanted to do something else.
In America it's often very hard for directors to move out of genre filmmaking. They get typecast and financiers don't believe that they can tell other types of stories. How did you avoid this?
Well, what happened next was that TV came along. The best writers in England are working in TV. If there are really successful, like Peter Morgan, they wind up in Hollywood. I wound up with an interesting group of people directing interesting television—a series called Life on Mars, which is a smash hit in England. It's kind of an existential cop show, like those ITC series like The Prisoner. I worked with some great actors, and that show lead me to an HBO project called Tsunami: The Aftermath, a human drama about life lost after the tsunami hit the west coast of Thailand. After that I purposefully sought out something completely different, and Miss Pettigrew—a great, fun romantic piece turned up on my doorstep.
When you first met with the producers, what was the vision of the film you expressed to them, and how did you pitch yourself?
With Miss Pettigrew I want people to walk out of the theater having had a few laughs, shed a few tears, and holding their loved ones a little bit closer for half an hour afterward. If thought if I was able to do that, that would be fantastic, but I'm also usually driven [in my films] to achieve some kind of grayness in the characters—there's always something a little bit darker in their backgrounds, a little bit of pathos. I think some fear of loss always has to be there in great comedy to give it the weight. Chaplin was a genius at that. There was all this great slapstick [in his films], but it was always tempered with pathos. The original script [of Miss Pettigrew] was set in 1938, and I suggested shifting it to the day that World War 2 was going to break. That became our magical day, which was great in terms of drama and theatricality and an over-the-top quality—the day World War 2 breaks! It just sits there as a nice subtext, but it also sets up the [the film's commentary on] the different generations. Frances and Ciaran's [characters] are of the generation that remembers World War 1, and everyone else is dancing on the Titanic. They don't see the iceberg coming, but they're having a great time. That was my pitch.
Whenever you make a movie set in a particular time period, you are not only commenting on the time period but also, implicitly, on the films of that period. Were there particular filmic inspirations for the kind of fast-paced, almost screwball comedy you have achieved in Miss Pettigrew?
We didn't look at any specific films, but we looked at lots of photographers. There's a famous photographer from the '30s in London named Madame Yevonde [Yevonde Cumbers]. She worked with this fantastically stylized, high-end, surreal kind of bright color - a world of full-color graphics. She was our starting point, and we experimented a lot in pre-production with [shooting] reversal stock, but it went a bit over the top. It [looked] too much like The Wizard of Oz. But [those influences] bled into the film in terms of its production design and costumes. If you look at the film and a Madame Yevonde photo now, they look completely different, but one led into another over the course of three months of pre-production. If the movie is a homage to anything, it's probably a homage to my Sunday afternoon TV viewing growing up with my family. Switching on the BBC2, there was always some movie like Casablanca on, and over many years they all infused into the back of my head. This movie was a great way of getting them all out. As for the song sequence, I come from a Hindi background, and we always had Bollywood movies playing. The glamour in this movie has probably been influenced by [those films], but it's not done in a direct, "this is what I've seen" kind of way.
How about your shooting style? That's one area where I thought of your background in action film. The camera seems especially mobile, and the cutting can be fast-paced.
In terms of the camera style, there's something that intrinsically happens when people talk at that kind of machine-gun style pace, and that's why screwball comedies from the '30s have that kind of camera style too. You just can't be too staid. Instinctively as a director you start placing the camera to mirror the dialogue and the way people are moving in and out [of the frame]. I knew [the film] was going to need a lot of coverage if I was going to deliver that sense of urgency, but other times we just left things alone and let the actors do their thing.
What was your direction to your actors when beginning this film in terms of bringing them into both the world of the movie as well as prepping them for the energy and pace of the dialogue?
Well, of course we talked about script and structure and the characters' journeys and arcs. But the subtext when talking to Frances [McDormand] and Amy [Adams] was about the position of women in the world [of England in the late 1930s]. When we first meet Frances she's been sacked and has gone to the employment agency. You know that she's not going to get work again because she's been sacked previously, and she winds up in the soup kitchen. In 1939, that's utter devastation. If you end up in the soup kitchen and wind up sleeping in the railway station, you probably die young. That is really the subtext. In terms of rhythm, yeah, we talked about it a lot because there's a danger that [the dialogue] can get so explosive that people get lost. But because they are such good actors, you can always see [the drama] in their eyes. They're delivering the drama even if you're not sometimes following the dialogue. It sounds ridiculous, but that's what good actors do.
Tell me about the choices you made—in music, in staging—during the film's climactic nightclub sequence when Amy Adams sings "If I Didn't Care."
The film is set in 1939. Everybody then went to see Noel Coward [musicals], but I thought, let's get away from that. Let's make this the cutting-edge nightclub in London. It's not pure jazz that's played there, it's jazz-blues, which really didn't arrive in London until years later when the [American] servicemen arrived. The Ink Spots had a big hit in 1939 with "If I Didn't Care," and I asked my composer and arranger, Paul Englishby to make the song blues-ier, because I think the blues has a stronger emotional pull between people. In the script, Amy's character just sings the song, but I thought that in the middle of the song we needed to have a moment when Amy's character breaks down and Lee [Pace's pianist character] comes in and bolsters both her and their relationship. That's the crescendo. If you listen to the score, violins kick in, but there are no violins being played by anyone in the [on-screen] band! It's all done subconsciously—a magical moment where we go into their world. I also suggested that we put them on a turntable. We don't show the turntable or the stage revolving, but in the shot, we push in and they are magically turning around.
What about directing Amy's vocal performance?
I wanted her to be a bit weaker, and to have the emotion [of the moment] hit her a bit harder. Amy is a very good singer, and to get a great singer to sing badly is really hard. She was like, "Are you sure?!" The choice of her not hitting the high note at the end was very specific. I said, "You need to break on that," and I think it works really well.
In addition to screwball comedy, the film can also be placed in the genre of the domestic servant movie—films ranging from Remains of the Day to The Nanny Diaries. Did you think about the conventions of this genre when making Miss Pettigrew?
No. I'm a bit old fashioned. I just like underdog stories and stories about the imparting of wisdom from one character to another. That's what attracted to me. And, I'm a born romantic in the end, so I was just trying to follow the old adage, "Follow your heart, not your head," which I don't think can be said enough, really.