Slumdog Millionaire owes its eight Oscars, 64 other wins and 28 nominations to Benjamin Button.
Thanks to David Fincher and Brad Pitt, cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle won an Oscar, a BAFTA, an ASC (American Society of Cinematographers) Award, a Golden Frog (from Camerimage) and a New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Cinematography and a few other nominations for his inventive collaboration with Danny Boyle.
The story goes that Danny Boyle and Anthony Dod Mantle hadn’t actually met to work on Slumdog Millionaire.
“We were going to go to America and do a studio film, a very interesting film… It consisted of certain technical ideas and methods very similar to Benjamin Button. So when we were going to lose the race, the producers pulled on us… And Danny said: Don’t worry, I’ve got something interesting. It’s called Slumdog Millionaire,” recalls Anthony Dod Mantle, over a cup of tea, sitting here in Chennai, a few days before the Oscars.
He had just missed the Oscar luncheon because he had taken up an assignment with Still Waters Films for filming a television commercial on a social issue (based on “a horrific real life incident”) for the launch of a new TV channel.
“I had missed the premiere here in India and had missed joining the team when the Oscar nominations were announced because I was in the middle of the post-production for Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist. So, when Preeti from Still Waters called me out of the blue and said they had an idea – a slightly socio-political issue, something that happens a lot in your society, I agreed to do it since it gave me a chance to come back to India again,” he explains.
He has had a couple of 20-hour-day shoots in Chennai and was spending his last evening in the city before the award harvest – the BAFTA, the ASC and the Oscars were all stacked up for the fortnight and what a month it turned out to be for him.
But then, this is man who had already picked up awards for ‘Last King of Scotland’ and ‘Dogville’ and was one of the integral technicians behind the Dogme film movement of the nineties. He wielded the camera for the very first Dogme film, Thomas Vinterberg’s ‘The Celebration’ and Soren Kragh Jacobsen’s ‘Mifune’s Last Song.’ And for all that record, he’s a picture of humility when you tell him he’s a favourite for the Oscars especially because Slumdog Millionaire boasts of the most inventive cinematography in recent times.
Was it true that he shot a major chunk of the film using a digital still camera?
“Yeah, a still camera. I had this idea last year when Danny and I started talking about the energy and the vibe of the slums and we wanted to explore digital. We wanted the best and the best wasn’t available. There was a certain vividness and an amazing texture about Mumbai and I wanted to bring that out as much as possible.”
Anthony did his research taking pictures with his digital still camera and realised that he could capture a lot of detail. And since there weren’t any cameras that would shoot enough frames to make it look like a moving image, he had to get one invented.
“I developed it with Canon and it became an integral part of our language. Danny fell in love with the digital camera. It becomes a part of our body and it creates a weird sense of space. I had a gyro about the size of my telephone attached to it so that you can adjust it for smoother moves. With the gyro, we could make swishing movements without the handheld wobbling and explore these long narrow spaces a Steadicam couldn’t go to.”
Danny and Anthony had sought help from Anurag Kashyap after watching Black Friday and even hired his Steadicam operator Suneil Khandpur for a few days but they couldn’t risk sending him in to film recklessly with all the metal jutting out in those narrow lanes.
“Once you’ve read the script, you don’t come in for any other reason other than the fact that it’s a heartfelt Dickensian story about how there’s potential in everybody. The reason we used the high-speed cameras is to capture the energy – the run for your life, the run for the girl – the chase. I wanted the audience, early in the film, to physically feel it.”
Soon, the originally planned 25 per cent of digital component turned 60 per cent and only 40 per cent of Slumdog was shot on film.
“If it was done wrong, it would’ve become an effect. It would’ve become a style film and we wanted to focus on the performance and the definition. The equation worked. We experimented because of emotional reasons, not intellectual. How can we come close to the kids? How can we move past them on the street? How can we make these young actors forget we are filming?”
Anthony is full of anecdotes.
Though they shot most of the establishing scenes on location, they had to build some sets but only to make it easier for their actors. “In the edge of Dharavi, you could see children playing and swimming in that water. But we couldn’t throw our kids there. So we had to build and create a square with the washing area with clean water. And, for that toilet scene where he had to jump into the trench, our designers and builders went there… the edge of the Juhu slums, there are a thousand people there every morning. So we had to get in there, camouflage it, cover it up and then put the peanut butter for the kid to jump into it.”
And there’s the infamous Taj Mahal controversy that made him hit the headlines of a daily that printed his photograph blurred with a nasty headline about film crew attempting to steal the jewel of India. So when he recently read a review from the same paper that described the film as “a homage to life,” he wanted to put both the articles together and frame it as one picture.
Though they had permission to film, the local pressure was mounting. The tour guides were unhappy and Anthony had to shoot a few scenes on the sly with the digital camera with the kids. “Like the parts where they are nicking shoes, counting the money, shots of the guards… basically, just to get the production values in place because we couldn’t recreate the Taj Mahal. That would be expensive for a film of this scale.”
It was the transition from everybody’s favourite little kids to the older kids working at Taj Mahal that he considers the most fragile portion of the film. “We knew the audience would miss the innocent kids who are so lovable and so it was always a challenge to make that transition smooth.”
If you’ve seen Slumdog, you would think he loves those Dutch angles. Or at least I thought so.
“That’s more Danny than me,” he laughs, almost embarrassed. “I have an ongoing debate with him. I come from the Kieslowski’s school of filming – thoughtful, intellectual and spiritual cinema. I am influenced by Bergman and Fellini and I should have a reason for moving the camera anywhere in the room. But Danny does like his shots. Look at The Beach or Trainspotting and he’s quite… commercial. And in this film, I could see where he’s coming from with these damn Dutch angles and of course, I had to do it and it almost subconsciously became our language.”
I wonder aloud if he would go back to the low-budget Dogme days.
“I had made enough films at that phase that I was beginning to get into auto-pilot mode. I am not the least bit interested in going back to any style. Things die. Dogme died because it became a brand and people got greedy. For me, it was another slightly radical move back then.”
How would he describe his latest film ‘Antichrist’?
“‘Antichrist’ is a kind of camouflage homage to lots of different methods that Lars Von Trier had incorporated in his films. From the highly sophisticated, hi-tech complicated things to the roving hand-held camera which I have operated in the whole film… So, it’s a mixture of the most controlled, designed and some extraordinary, painfully managed moments. It’s a very dark, disturbing story and very different from Slumdog.”
What next after winning the Oscar, I ask him. (This interview was done a few days before the Oscars) “Stop it. I am completely unprepared. Right now, I’m just thinking about my next couple of months. I don’t believe I’m going win. I didn’t think I was going to be nominated. I always believe every time I make a film, it would be my last. I think being humble is important. So when you ask me, I’m honestly flattered. If I’m trying to be objective… Yes, you’re right about us being inventive. I think we’ve explored, I am a kind of an explorer. We owe it to cinema to keep exploring and I’m really pleased if you like it.”