Please tell us about yourself

Whether it is conjuring up a fantastical train for The Darjeeling Limited, a telegraph office in Goa for The Bourne Supremacy, Shah Rukh’s getaway plane in Don or even a picture-perfect storm for West is West, Aradhana Seth has created them all.

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What was it like to grow up as the daughter of India’s first woman chief justice and the sister of a literary superstar?

Actually, when I was growing up, my mother was a barrister and my brothers were in school. My father [Prem Nath Seth] studied footwear design in England and worked with Bata for many years. In the early Sixties, we stayed in Digha in Bihar on the grounds of a shoe factory. We grew up with a lot of discussion in the house. My mother liked Western classical music, dad liked Indian classical. We discussed a lot of things at the dining table, where sometimes, dad would place shoes designed by him! We were debating, writing and formulating ideas about the world and ourselves. But we would also do normal things children do, like run after rabbits. Vikram may have been a star of the literary world but to me he was like any other older brother. He read a lot, played the flute and was always very bright.

When did you first realise you had a geographical imagination?

It first developed as a kid when I was playing hide and seek. I grew up in Patna and Kolkata where there was no television and people were always playing monopoly or scrabble or hide and seek or dark room. Finding a space to hide as a kid helped me develop a sense of layout. As a kid I would walk into the house and try and begin rearranging the furniture in my head. Move the chairs here and put a long table there etc. In my imagination I tried to arrange colours and developed the first sense of cinema in me.

What is the toughest part of being a production designer?

The part where an action hero unleashes destruction, smashing vehicles and sets that you have created with so much love. You want to cry and keep some distance. The four houses we built for The Bourne Supremacy were bulldozed and so did the one we created for West is West where Om Puri and his family stayed. That really is heart-breaking

Tell us about your career path. How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and cool career?

Seth graduated with a Masters degree from the Mass Communications Research Center at the Jamia Millia Islamia University in New Delhi.  She first worked as Assistant Director for In Which Annie Gives it Those Ones upon graduation in 1987, where she met Roy (the film’s screenplay writer).  In 1992 she met director Deepa Mehta on the set of George Lucas?Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, and furthered her career as production designer for Mehta’s films Fire (1996) and Earth (1998).  Her work can be seen as Art Director in The Bourne Supremacy (2004).

You talked about doing production design. How did you start off doing that? Was that the job that you really wanted or was your dream job to produce films?

Actually when I first graduated from film school, I did everything–anything that I could do just to get a sense of where I wanted to be. I found that I am very visual. When I walk into a place, I always remembered visually what was in the space and the conversations filter through the visual context of the place.

I realized more and more that I’m attracted to doing design because it’s technical and visual. So, the production designer recreates normally the place in the script. So, it [the script] will say a person walked into a room. But, what room does that person have? Where do they live? How do they think? Do they read? What do they put in their room? The professor in 1920 would be different than the professor in 1940 and the professor in 1960. The professor in China would be different than a professor in India or in the States. So, you’re constantly thinking of what sort of evironment that person is like.

I don’t know if it was a dream job. It’s something that I really enjoy and I like the fact that you have hundreds of people working on a film. You have a script and you plan everything mentally in advance, but it’s physically exhausting. At the end of the day, you have to put it together before everyone comes to the set, except for what’s needed for that day. In documentaries, it’s physically not that exhausting but it’s mentally exhausting–you come up with an idea and then you keep changing it and honing it and it keeps changing, whereas with fiction, the script is there and you work with that.

There is much attention to detail with what you do.

I think it’s really important as a designer to concentrate a lot on the details because I think you can say, “He’s a great smoker,” but what if the ashtrays in the room are empty and there’s no ash? It [the environment] really puts you into the head of the other person. Your room will be different. For instance, each of your rooms will be different [because] it’s also the personality of the person. You work very closely with the director and the cinematographer.

Tell us about your work for Bourne Supremacy and Don

Paul is an instinctual director who understands how a small canvas can flow into the big. His genre till The Bourne Supremacy had been bigger independent films like Bloody Sunday [which depicted the 1972 shootings of Northern Irish anti-internment activists by British soldiers]. We were going to build this house in Goa. We designed and built four houses in Goa for The Bourne Supremacy. The houses were in Palolim and we took part of a bridge in Nerul and we recreated an STD booth and telegraph office in Panjim. We were told to make it into a telegraph office by tomorrow. The house had to have flywalls. We had to put structural beams so that the walls could fly and you could take the cameras in. Matt [Damon] endeared himself to the crew and me. At the end of the shoot, we made portraits of him and Franka Potente. The one with Matt has an Enfield Bullet in the backdrop. I gifted it to him since it reminded him of the time he shot in India. He took great care to remove the wrapping paper. He said his mom was a hippie who never threw it away. After the whole shoot had come to an end, at the post-production editing stage, the studio executives called me to Los Angeles for four days to shoot at six locations. We had a corner of Goa, a bit of Rome, Langley, Moscow and remake and match for the edit.

In Don, the operation theatre from where Boman Irani shifts Shah Rukh was all chrome and glass. We even equipped it with a 12-screen monitor for the neurosurgeon.

West is West: For the 2011 comedy film, a sequel to East is East, we created a sandstorm without using special effects. Bags of multani mitti and sand were poured through a sieve. Then we got huge storm fans and people poured sand into them.

The Darjeeling Limited: Director Wes Anderson and Adrien Brody were obsessive about getting the look of the film right, down to the train engine, the dining car and the second class compartment. We had to create a luxurious locomotive royalty would love to ride in. We even painted Starry Night, a 50 X 10 ft mural of elephants, on the dining car’s ceiling.

Your film DAM/AGE is highly political. Has your mother’s position as the first female chief justice in India affected your career as a filmmaker in any way?

She was the first woman high court judge and also the first chief justice of a high court in India. When I was growing up she was a barrister, and then she went on to becoming a judge, and then the first woman chief justice in India.

They’ve been very liberal, actually, my parents. So they pretty much let us do whatever we wanted to do and think whatever way we wanted to. Occasionally, they would get a bit sort of frazzled if we were going off to demonstrate against the government, or maybe against the judicary itself, but I think that they let us do it because I think they realize that by stopping us we would actually rebel. So they talk to us about it and she [Seth’s mother] always stated her point of view. But, she herself is quite liberal, so even though she was part of the establishment, she was also willing to listen and have that interaction at home.

My brothers sort of paved the way for me as well. And, the fact that we had lots of people coming into the house–I think it’s important too; it’s as important to hear the other side even if you’re political. It actually makes you see what is right and what is wrong.

It’s so wonderful that your parents are so understanding.

I think it’s also the key to be able to do any kind of work. I mean, to have people around you actually understand. And if they don’t, they’re willing to argue it out.

You had made documentaries and material for television. Do you want to someday make a Hollywood feature film?

I have to say that because of my production design background, I had always been really happy designing things and I’m much more interested more than I’ve ever been in thinking whether or not I wanted to make a feature film. Whether it’s an independent film or a film in Hollywood, I think it would always be an independent film, just based on the nature of the way I think. But, I have worked on the design of films that are Hollywood films. I worked on a film called The Guru, and I did the production design for Indiana Jones. I just worked on The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Identity and it’s actually the next film, a sequel. I did the art for India on it, and I actually just got back like two or three weeks ago.

It was amazing because we were filming on Goa which is on the ocean. We built a mainhouse and three other houses and modified a lot of different locations to make it into a telegraph office. But the cottage of the film, the opening of the film, we made it from scratch. We took down what was there and we built it right from the beginning. I worked with a designer and a design team from Berlin and we basically got the windows made with Portuguese shell windows and ironwork and the flooring and everything that went into the house, and we dressed the house. And yes, I am actually really interested in fiction and I think that it might be the [right] time after I do this documentary. I’m thinking if I want to make a feature film or not.

What are you currently working on and what are your upcoming projects?

Actually, I am currently working on the documentary right now, and I had been working on The Bourne Supremacy until early in April. I finished the 8th or 9th of April. Initially I thought I was going to work on another film as a production designer in Sri Lanka, but then I decided actually it’s time to do a film that I had been working on, the documentary.

I had been following through call center agents–two girls and a boy. I had been following them for about two years now, from when they joined, from when they trained, to when they hit the call center floor. They’re  becoming like managers now. I decided that when they became managers it was time to start cutting the film. And now I’m actually teaching myself how to. I’m going to do this independently. I’m teaching myself how to edit–to digitize and put things in an order, and then look for an editor.