Talking Movies: An Interview with Asif Kapadia

By Jason Wood

warrior-asif-kapadia.jpgIrfan Kahn in Asif Kapadia's film The Warrior, 2001

An extract from Jason Wood's new book of collected interviews

Having won a Cannes Grand Jury Prize and the Grand Prix at the European Short Festival with The Sheep Thief, his graduation film from the Royal College of Art, anticipation was high for The Warrior (2001), London-born Asif Kapadia’s feature debut. The expectations were exceeded by an assured, enigmatic and visually astonishing tale that showed a vision and scope far beyond Kapadia’s relatively tender years. A critical and commercial success, the film won the Alexander Korda Award for Best British Film and the Carl Foreman Award for the Most Promising Newcomer at the 2002 BAFTAs. Kapadia also won the Evening Standard British Film Award for Most Promising Newcomer and the London Film Festival’s Sutherland Trophy.

Jason Wood: Having admired your earlier shorts I was pleased to see The Sheep Thief appear on the DVD of The Warrior. Could you speak a little about the processes involved in making this film and how, if at all, it influenced the approach that you took to The Warrior.

Asif Kapadia: The Sheep Thief was my graduation film from the Royal College of Art Film School. When making it I had no idea what I was getting myself into, but I knew that it would be my last short film and I wanted to push my crew and myself to the limit. If I screwed it up, at least I had done it whilst a student.

The idea came from a story told to me by a teacher when I was about seven years-old. It was an old bible story of a thief who becomes a saint. I love classical tales. I didn’t believe the concept would work if I set the story in Ireland or the Lake District. It needed to take place in a timeless landscape. I had only previously been to India for a week or so, and the idea came up of shooting the movie there, on location, with non-professional actors, in Hindi with a minimal crew.

We hooked up with the students from the Indian Film school in Pune, raised the finance, £25,000 and seven of us went off to Rajasthan with a 16mm, to find a location, cast the movie and shoot the film.

The process of making the movie was the toughest thing any of us had ever been through. We all went a little crazy.

JW: For a first feature The Warrior was an extremely ambitious undertaking. What kind of elements led to your decision to embark on the project and how much depended on your sustaining the confidence to pull it off?

AK: I felt the central idea to The Warrior was very strong, I loved the story and was desperate to make it. There was never a doubt in my head that it would make a great film. Whenever I pitched the tale to people, they seemed to love it too so I really thought Tim Miller [my co-writer] and I had something good.

I was also excited by the idea of shooting something on a bigger scale, with a bigger cast, horses and burning villages. The entire project was a huge leap into the unknown but it was the challenge that excited me.

I was going to learn the hard way but I felt confident as I had confidence in my script, the producer was totally supportive, I had my crew from The Sheep Thief around me, was able to cast the film as I wanted. FilmFour, the financiers were brilliant all the way through. So I felt confident together we would make it work.

JW: The film has a very distinct and distinguished visual style. Was your approach and your aesthetic set in place before you began filming and how much did you allow yourself to respond to the challenging and yet picturesque filming conditions?

AK: I had been developing my style with my shorts whilst at the RCA and continued it with my first feature. The script is written so that the story is told with pictures and with minimal dialogue. I love to use the frame, spend time on the composition, and be confident enough to hold a shot. I don’t like to cut or move the camera unless it is motivated. The idea is for me to tell the story with the camera and not to load the non-professional actors with pages of dialogue.

Of course when you’re shooting, anything that can go wrong will, so you have to be prepared to compromise. In the case of The Warrior, we began running behind schedule, it was so hot, and things were running slow. So we ended up shooting with two cameras on simple scenes and on bigger sequences we had three cameras. That was an education, we had no video assist, the rushes were sent back to the UK and there was a two-week turnaround. So I had to learn to explain in great detail what I wanted from the second operator who was often far away on the other side of the mountain shooting on a long lens. I had to trust my instincts to decide if we had enough to make the scene work or to do the sequence again, which could have involved setting fire to a village all over again.

JW: What cultural and technical challenges did shooting in the blazing deserts of Rajasthan and the snow-capped foothills of the Himalayas present?

AK: There were about 30 crew from the UK, France and Canada, the other 200 crew were from India, so there was an interesting balance of learning to collaborate together. There were also the language issues whilst shooting off the beaten track in rural locations. The European crew had to learn to work with translators.

In the heat the video assists kept blowing up, we went through about four of them, so we were shooting blind. We were in pre-production and casting during the monsoon. When we started shooting the temperature was about 47 degrees in the desert. We finished shooting in the Himalayas in December and were on certain sequences at 10,000 ft under about six feet of snow.

The biggest compromise came with the end of the film in the mountains, I had written a big climax to the film in a holy lake with a cast of thousands. In this scene the Blind Woman was supposed to in a sense ‘see’ the Warrior washing away his sins in the lake. Unfortunately at 12,000 feet in December it was too cold for anyone to go in the water. The location was on top of a mountain, a four hour drive up a narrow track, there was no electricity, hot water or anything up there and we ending up spending the night as it was not safe to return down the track after dark. So from a cast of thousands the scenes became a cast of one with only the Blind Woman in it.

JW: When the film was released critics – who universally praised the film – were quick to offer comparisons with Kurosawa. Flattering I’m sure, but was he in any way an influence? Also, knowing how cine-literate you are would you be prepared to divulge directors who have in any way informed your work?

AK: It’s an amazing feeling to see people mentioning The Warrior in the same sentence as a cinematic god, but generally the comparison was used as a short hand to explain to the audience the type of film it was.

To be honest before we wrote the film I had not really seen any Kurosawa films on the big screen, they have only recently been re-released in the UK. I love Kurosawa’s films but I would say the movies and directors that really inspired me were Tran Anh Hung’s Cyclo (1995), Zhang Yimou’s The Story of Qiu Ju (1992), Bresson’s A Man Escaped (1956), Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) and Psycho (1960), Kenji Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu Monogatari (1953) and Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (1968).

When I first saw Cyclo at film school, it was like a light bulb going off, the director was Vietnamese, he had studied at film school in Paris and it was a European film by someone who understood the Vietnamese culture. It was his second movie, he shot it with a mixture of professional and non-professional actors on location. The movie was a huge motivation for me to shoot The Sheep Thief in the same way. In the end I met my producer Bertrand Faivre, who worked for the French company that made Cyclo and La Haine (1995).

JW: Apart from directorial influences, I believe that a Japanese folk-tale given to you by your writer was also a foundation for the film. How closely did you stick to this tale and what particular elements inspired you?

AK: My co writer Tim Miller had travelled in Japan and is a big fan of the culture, he pitched me something he had read in a book of Japanese tales, it was a four line footnote:

A young Boy training to be a samurai, was bought before the Shogun, shown a severed head and asked if it was his father. The Boy knew it was not his father but to save his father’s life he lied and said it was. To prove it, the Boy pulled out his dagger and killed himself. He would rather be dead than live with the shame his father had bought onto the family.

I thought it was such a powerful scene that posed so many questions, I decided that this would be the opening of our film. We would then cut to the father and follow his journey, revealing along the way why he was being pursued, by whom, who was the dead guy etc.

In the end the scene comes 30 mins into the movie. The only thing we changed was that the one of the warriors killed the boy, rather than him killing himself. This kept alive a strand of tension during the story.

JW: I wanted to briefly ask about the casting process. You work largely with non-actors in the film. What challenges and benefits does this bring?

AK: I spent a lot of time on location looking for actors - I like to use local people, from the area where we will be shooting. I like the naturalism and truth I get from the non-professional actors, the feeling I get by just looking at their faces, the way they carry themselves. An actor from the UK would just look wrong in the middle of the desert. Non-professional actors also get across so much information without saying a word.

The Thief character was a real street kid; he had lived rough on a train station platform from the age of seven. I learnt so much from him, rather than the other way around. The difficulty is that you need to make sure the actors don’t get bored, so you don’t over rehearse. I would often shoot the rehearsals, just in case it was the best take.

I try not to give the actors marks or expect them to be in the perfect position for the lights. The focus puller has to get the image in focus, the operator deal with the frame, I have to tell the story with the shots and in the cut. The actors just have to ‘be’, the audience need to believe what is happening to them.

JW: Conversely, Irfan Khan is magnificent in the central role. How did he come to your attention?

AK: I worked with the casting director who did Shekhar Kapur’s Bandit Queen (1994). It was the one Indian film that had the texture I was looking for. As soon as the casting director Tigmanshu Dhulia read the script he recommended Irfan. I met him and he had these eyes and a real presence, he was so brilliant. We never considered anyone else.

JW: In retrospect, how would you attempt to sum up the experience of not only making the film but seeing it so well received critically?

AK: I’m really proud of the movie. The best thing is trusting your instincts from beginning to end, no matter how crazy it seemed on paper as a first film, I wanted to make the movie and just kept at it. I feel really lucky to have had the chance to make the film I wanted to make when I did, considering what is happening in the British Film industry right now. It would be close to impossible to get a film like The Warrior financed in the current climate.

JW: Having had time to weigh up you next move are you able to divulge what we can expect to see from you next?

AK: I’m working on a few screenplays; a ghost story set in samurai Japan, a dark love story set in the UK and a siege movie I’d like to shoot in Mexico.

This extract is taken from Talking Movies: Contemporary World Filmmakers in Interview by Jason Wood, published by Wallflower Press in October 2006. More information about the book and all other cinema and the moving image titles is available from