In 2017, filmmaker Ritesh Batra had two film releases, finished filming the third and launched his own production company Poetic License Motion Pictures. He achieved all of this while shuttling between New York, London and his home in Mumbai. We caught him for a brief chat in Mumbai a day before he sets off to Hollywood for another two months to find out how he does it all.
You’ve had a crazy year. The Sense of An Ending premiered at the Palm Springs Festival in January. In September, your Netflix film Our Souls At Night released. And now you’ve already finished shooting your film Photograph with Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Sanya Malhotra. How do you make all of this look so effortless?
It’s not effortless but each time I’m not making a movie I feel very restless. As soon as I finish a movie I start to feel very antsy. Like I just finished Photograph and now I need to get into the edit. I had a few days so I started writing again. You know when you know how to do only one thing it’s pretty easy. Most people are good at many other things.
I’ve also started my company called Poetic License which has been in the works for long. We managed to pre-sell Photograph and we made the movie with that money. Basically we now owe them a movie they can be proud of. Amazon bought it for the US and different distributors bought it for different parts of the world. Since it is pre-sold we had complete creative freedom. It’s a great model to work on. After this someone who has been assisting me for a while is planning to direct a mini series and then I’ll direct again. But like I said, it’s not that bad when you do only one thing. I just like to read and write and make movies.
You’ve said that you have to spend some time every day just creating and that you prefer writing in the morning. How do maintain your discipline when you lead this nomadic life making movies across continents?
If I don’t write I feel naked. I just need to do it. Also out of all the things I write there are bound to be many pages that are just terrible. And then I just outline, outline and outline. Writing, after all, is just rewriting. You have to invest time in it. Even with Photograph, I was rewriting it during the shoot. All these people invested in it based on the script, but you know it was still not fully there till we started filming.
What’s the one thing you’ve become better at as a director?
You make every film to learn how to make the next one. Sometimes you want to achieve synchronicity between the camera and actors. I’m getting better at handling that whole dance. Some actors are really good at working the camera and some are not. Like in Photograph, I went in thinking I want to find that single shot that tells the story of the scene and we did that quite a bit. I didn’t do that in my last couple of films because they were different movies.
I’ve also become better at dealing with actors, learning what difference lighting makes to a scene. I’ve realised the power of a close-up and how sparingly you should use it. It’s a really powerful tool and you don’t want to overuse it. Another thing I’ve also become better at is just maintaining a positive energy on the set. It’s really important. There’s never any shouting.
You’ve worked with some of the world’s greatest actors. Although you’ve said there’s no space for awe and intimidation on a film set, you must feel some elation when Robert Redford calls you and says make a film for me.
Yes, of course I do! He’s a friend now. He invited me to be on the board of the Sundance Film Festival. It’s a three year-term and it’s very rewarding. We have to attend meetings periodically and I’m trying to figure how best I can contribute. It’s the first time I’ve been on the board of anything. It’s also great to be in his company again. He’s such a generous soul. He’s been a director as well so when we were shooting Our Souls At Night he understood the pressures on my shoulder. He was always more concerned about what I felt and making sure I get what I wanted from him as an actor.
Do you get time to catch up on Indian movies? Is there anything you liked recently?
Of course I love to watch when I get time. But the whole of this year I’ve been shooting and you shouldn’t watch films when you’re shooting your own movie. And the brief few days when I wasn’t making a movie I was just catching up on life. I’ve been between London, New York and Mumbai. You have to pay taxes in all three places so I was busy doing that! In fact the only movie I got to see and really liked was Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson.
What are some of the best practices that you’ve picked up from your time in London and New York that you’d like to implement in Poetic License?
You got to work on the writing. It takes time. Photograph I’ve been writing for a while, even before The Lunchbox released and I was still tinkering with it during the shoot. I got a lovely note from Colin Firth after he watched one of my movies. He doesn’t have to do that. But this means that everybody’s watching your work. You have to be conscious of that and make something of a global standard.