- LOS ANGELES
Director Anthony Maras, known for his lauded short films, has a lot riding on his feature debut, Hotel Mumbai (Bleecker Street). But any career considerations pale by comparison to the weight of responsibility he felt to do justice to the stories of the victims and survivors of the 2008 three-day siege of Mumbai, India’s famed Taj Hotel by a group of terrorists.
“That responsibility,” affirmed Maras, “was our guiding light,” being true to what happened and as authentic as possible for those who lost their lives, to those who managed to come out alive, and the hotel staff who could have escaped but instead stayed to protect their co-workers and the hotel guests.
“At the same time,” continued Maras, “you don’t want to exploit the situation. It’s a fine line. We didn’t want to make a Die Hard Hollywood film. Our focus was on ordinary people who did extraordinary things. We had to capture the immense horror that these people faced and courageously survived. These were transformative experiences.”
Among those on that alluded to dedicated hotel staff were the renowned chef Hemant Oberoi (portrayed by Anupam Kher) and a waiter (played by Dev Patel, an Oscar nominee for Lion) who chose to risk their lives to protect others. Those “others” included such hotel guests as a desperate couple (Armie Hammer and Nazanin Boniadi) forced to make unfathomable sacrifices to protect their newborn child.
In addition to directing Hotel Mumbai, Maras co-wrote the screenplay with writer/executive producer John Collee who’s experienced penning scripts with directors (Master and Commander: The Far Side with Peter Weir; Happy Feet with George Miller). Maras and Collee spent a year researching the Mumbai attacks. They interviewed assorted survivors, police officers, hotel guests and staff. They spoke in person or via Skype video chats to families of those who perished. They studied recordings of intercepted phone calls between the terrorists and their handlers, read court case transcripts and newspaper accounts, and viewed hundreds of hours of television coverage.
By the time the siege ended--which also included attacks at a popular restaurant, a train station, a hospital, a movie theater, two other hotels and a Jewish community center--more than 170 people from a dozen-plus countries had been killed. Of the 500 people caught up in the Taj Hotel attack, 32 survived. Of the deaths, half were hotel staff members.
Patel’s character of the waiter Arjun, who’s from an impoverished neighborhood, was developed as a composite of several hotel waiters and staff whom Maras and Collee interviewed while working on the script. Maras noted that Patel immediately embraced the role upon reading the script in that he was profoundly impacted by the terrorist attacks given his personal and professional connection to Mumbai. He was in the joyous dance sequence finale of Slumdog Millionaire, filmed in the same train station that just several months later was one of the attack sites.
Arjun, said Maras, represented everyday people who “never fired a gun or threw a punch” but were heroes during that horrific siege.
Maras got the opportunity to make his feature directing debut on Hotel Mumbai thanks in part to his accomplished short film track record, most notably The Palace, which he directed, wrote, produced and edited. Set during the 1974 Turkish invasion of Cypress and shot along the UN Green Line in Nicosia, The Palace had a theme similar in some respects to Hotel Mumbai--and it was a story told masterfully by Maras as evidenced by its international premiere at the 2011 Telluride Film Festival and awards won at 20-plus festivals internationally. The Palace won Best Short Film and Short Screenplay honors at the Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts Awards (AACTAs). This marked the third time Maras received AACTA recognition, having won Best Short for his police drama Spike Up, and nominated for the same kudo on the strength of his first film, Azadi, which delved into the plight of Afghan refugees in Australian detention centers.
Maras gravitated to Nick Remy Matthews as his cinematographer on Hotel Mumbai. Matthews is a trusted collaborator who previously shot The Palace, Spike Up and Azadi. Maras credited Matthews with the ability “to create something out of nothing.” Of Matthews’ performance on his films, Maras related, “If we didn’t have the budget or something else we needed, he would improvise. He’s very much from the Harris Savides school of cinematography--lighting the space as opposed to lighting the shot. He’s more interested in setting the scene rather than composing everything for the shot specifically.” This, noted Maras, translates into Matthews attaining for the viewer “an organic you-are-there kind of quality.”
For Hotel Mumbai, Maras also connected with key artisans whom he worked with for the first time such as editor Peter McNulty and production designer Steven Jones Evans. The former’s work with director Paul Thomas Anderson on The Master and as an additional editor on There Will Be Blood was among the factors that drew Maras to McNulty. As for production designer Evans, Maras admired his work on Ariel Kleinman’s Partisan. “I loved the aesthetic of that film and had a feeling he’d be great,” shared Maras. “He had worked in India before and I liked his perspective. Other people we had in the mix were bringing up disaster films like Towering Inferno. But Steven referenced Michael Haneke’s Cache, one of my favorite films. There was a pronounced understated design in Cache.”
Maras said that the high caliber and artistry of his collaborators helped him meet myriad challenges on Hotel Mumbai, including having to recreate one of the grandest hotels in the world despite film budget constraints. There was also the challenge of matching disparate shooting locations from Mumbai and Adelaide, Australia, for the story. Furthermore, when Australian Film Corp. studios didn’t prove large enough to accommodate the production’s needs, resourcefulness kicked in as production designer Evans pointed across the way to the studio complex’s administration building, which was designed by British architects and had a feel akin to the Taj itself, making it a viable lensing venue.
Among the many others who made key contributions was producer Julie Ryan who’s produced, co-produced or exec produced 14 features, two broadcast documentaries and an international short film over the past 20 years. The alluded to international short was The Palace for which Maras recalled her dealing with “all sorts of trials and tribulations in Cypress. Hotel Mumbai wouldn’t have turned out to be the film it became without her. She has a great head for both line producing and the bigger picture aspects.”
As for the biggest takeaway from his experience on Hotel Mumbai, Maras shared that in order to “make a film that exceeds your vision, you try to surround yourself with the best people you can--people who are better than you are at what they do. You give them the freedom to elevate the work while making sure you’re all seeing the same film.”
Hotel Mumbai made its world premiere at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival and is slated to hit theaters in New York and Los Angeles on March 22. Nationwide release is slated for March 29.