When Addie Moore (Jane Fonda) walks up to Louis Waters’ (Robert Redford) and suggests that they start to live together after sundown each day to “get through the night”, Waters is flummoxed. The octogenarian widower has not expected such a proposal near the end of his life. The next night, Waters is in Moore’s bedroom and thus begins a short-lived but fulfilling romance in Ritesh Batra’s Our Souls at Night. Based on the novel of the same name by Kent Haruf, the film is available for streaming on Netflix.
Our Souls at Night is Batra’s third film to deal man-woman relationships and longing and nostalgia after The Lunchbox (2013) and The Sense of an Ending (2016). Batra is in India scouting for locations for his next movie, starring Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Sanya Malhotra. In an interview, Batra spoke about working with Redford and Fonda, his filmmaking inspirations and working across film industries.
You are much younger than the average age of your protagonists. What draws you to stories of old people?
When I was young, I spent a lot of time with my grandfather while growing up in Bombay. We shared a room together for the first 18 years of my life and the last 18 of his. So sometimes he was my best friend, sometimes he was an elderly person I could talk heart to heart with. I got to see him from close quarters going through things I did not understand completely. Maybe, it has got something to do with that.
My grandfather had a lot of quiet dignity and he was very civil in the way he spoke to people, which is how I asked Robert to be for his character. He spent 30 years as a widower. So I had a good time making this movie, imagining him get a second chance where he makes a connection with someone.
Redford and Fonda have known each other for years and this is their fourth film together. How were they as colleagues?
They are great friends. That helped a lot. A part of the challenge regarding this movie was that the characters don’t know each other and they slowly get to know each other. For them to pretend that they are strangers was difficult in the beginning. But they are masterful actors and played off each other wonderfully. Before shooting, the three of us got in a room together for a week to rehearse. It was a great time just to work through a scene with them.
How did ‘Our Souls at Night’ happen?
I had read the novel by Kent Haruf. His book Benediction is a particular favourite of mine. One day I got a call from Robert’s office. Robert had seen The Lunchbox and he wanted to speak to me about a possible adaptation of the book. We had a wonderful conversation and then we did rewrites on the screenplay and slowly one thing led to another and we were on a set 10-12 weeks after we spoke.
Nostalgia is a theme you keep coming back to.
When I was growing up in Bombay, I thought it was wonderful. I mean it still is, but I don’t see how exactly. I have a nostalgia for the way things were. Collectively, the builders, politicians and bureaucrats destroyed Bombay.
I think when you leave a place, you become a foreigner, and you come back, you remain a foreigner. That works well for me. I like to be a foreigner. I enjoy being an outsider.
You have made films set in Cairo, Mumbai, London and now Colorado.
The setting matters a lot. The more local something is, the more universal it is. So it’s best when a story is local, rooted and set in a specific place.
For example, The Lunchbox can happen in no other city but Bombay and because, it was so rooted, it travelled far and wide. In Our Souls at Night, we cast local actors from the town – in the scenes in the cafe, for example. We rehearsed with them, got to know them better, put their experiences into the script and the story became more rooted.
Sometimes, it can also be distracting. I once spent a lot of time trying to write something local and specific but then I lost what I was really trying to say.
What is easier: making film from your own story or adapting someone else’s work?
It is much easier if you have written something. If something is coming from me, then I can understand its rhythm at a deeper level. In case of an adaptation, you got to rewrite and reinvent and make the story your own while there is a lot of push and pull of the original book itself and other forces involved in the process.
That said, I really enjoyed adapting Haruf’s writing. His books are about honest, dignified, generous people. About the struggles of regular ordinary folks. Some people can go on because they have got the gift of life while most do it for their family, children or friends. The courage that it takes to plod along an unspectacular life – we don’t see that too often in cinema and so, it was quite exciting to put that on screen.
You make switching between film industries and making movies look easy.
If you want to do good work, this is a very, very difficult business. Finding the right material to invest yourself in is difficult itself. And sometimes it works. Sometimes, it doesn’t. When it doesn’t, coming to terms with that is difficult. The good thing is that your work is always out there in front of people.
I worked as a consultant at Deloitte after graduating in economics for two years. I did not enjoy it. My work was not there in front of the public to be enjoyed and critically evaluated. Now, I can learn more and keep getting better on the job.
Filmmaking is very interesting. Robert has been doing this for 50 years. So many years of great work, reinventing himself constantly, choosing material and collaborators – that’s a skill you develop over time. You may have a story in you but to find the right people to work with in the right space takes time and skill.
Will you ever make films in a different genre such as, say, science fiction?
All movies are about relationships. If a movie is about a guy alone on an island, then it’s about his relationship with nature or with himself. The science fiction films we love are all about relationships.
I am not interested in what you call genre filmmaking, but I would rather work across different genres. I am not interested in making a horror film or a thriller. A romantic comedy, sure. I like movies that are cross-genre. At the Sundance lab, which I had the privilege to attend, all the seven other directors selected along with me were making films set across genres, like a drama meets comedy or a romantic thriller. While making The Lunchbox, for instance, I subverted certain conventions of the rom-com. Conventionally, a meet cute is when the boy and girl meet. In The Lunchbox, the meet cute happens through words on a page. Ila and Saajan never meet.
Do you see yourself breaking out to become an international filmmaker like Ang Lee or Denis Villeneuve?
Five years ago, the conversation around The Lunchbox would be that the movie made x amount of money outside the country, as if making a movie is a way of taking a hat around the world and collecting money. That made me angry. Filmmaking is not about these things. It’s about getting better at what you do and the things you experience daily.
For example, while working on Our Souls at Night, I worked closely with screenwriters Scott [Neustader] and Michael [H Weber], who came with their knowledge of screen structure. We became great friends. And then Robert and I would sit down and talk a lot even about other characters in the film. We were kindred spirits. So these things inspire me.
We should aspire to tell stories about ourselves to each other. If we don’t start leveraging what we have around ourselves and tell good stories to our people within and outside this country, we will lose our audience. I put all my energy and drive into the stories I tell. That’s all.
Where do you find yourself in the debate around theatrical viewing becoming a matter of the past?
Ten years ago, when I was at film school, it was a scary time to be making movies as audiences were not going to the cinemas and people were wondering how distribution could be revolutionised. And now that change has come with the help of technology. The last two-three years have seen a big change in the way people are consuming and binge watching content. For people in their early 20s, it has been like this forever. But for me, it’s quite interesting.
At the same time, I value the theatrical experience and I hope it survives in a place like India where people go to the theatres more and more. What stops them are things like traffic, parking and bad content.
I think the old and the new always find a way to live together. Content that cannot be produced on digital platforms will make their way to the theatres. Radio is not there anymore. But now, we have NPR.
Everything comes with its own set of gifts. I shot Our Souls at Night on a 16:9 aspect ratio because people will watch it on screen in their homes. So that aspect ratio helps. I shot The Lunchbox in widescreen. I will shoot my new film on widescreen too because then you can get closer to the characters. From where I am standing, I only care about how people are going to watch it and for that we need to embrace everything – the old and the new, analog and digital, theatres and the web.