Aatma is a nightmare set in a fairy tale: Suparn Verma
He started his career as a scriptwriter for the 2002 film`Chhal`and has since written and directed films across genres spanning comedy, thrillers, action and more. ” I always like to write my own scripts because somewhere you have already seen the film, heard it, while you are writing it,” says writer – director Suparn Verma. Suparn is now all set to evoke fear in audiences with his latest horror venture, ‘Aatma’. The film which deals with an emotion that every person fears the most, losing a loved one, is also going to be the first horror film in India to use Dolby Atmos sound.
In a candid chat with Pandolin, Suparn talks about his concept that does away with cliches, roping in international artists to achieve his vision, how innovative writers are finally getting their due, the experience of working with a child artist , why he enjoys writing his own scripts and the making of Aatma. [pullquote_right]Aatma is a film in which I take your heart and squeeze it with fear and then wring it for all the emotion it has.[/pullquote_right]
How did the concept of Aatma come into being?
I wanted to make a film where the fear was more real beyond just ghosts or spiders or snakes. And the emotion that we truly fear the most is losing our loved one. So I used that as the basis for Aatma. I wanted to have a very real setting and when I say real I don’t mean making it in first person but actually making it as real as possible in terms of the set up, the characters, the situations and so on. So I took the story of a troubled marriage in which the child is caught up in between and the reason they are held together is because of the love of the child. Now in this marital politics scenario, if you have a father who has passed away but has come back for his daughter, the fear gets amplified and the entire space changes drastically. That is how Aatma began.
Would you call Aatma a horror film or a psychological thriller?
Aatma is a film in which I take your heart and squeeze it with fear and then wring it for all the emotion it has. It’s a film that will scare the pants off you and at the same time leave you emotionally overwhelmed. Horror itself is a very wide genre; it is also a borderline thriller and a mix of so many things. Horror is finally fear, fear which is evoked. So emotionally also I’ll evoke fear and create it in other ways as well.
Filmmakers have been experimenting with various psychological concepts – split personality, dreams etc. What in your opinion can be attributed to the evolution of this genre?
I think we have more educated people with more money today. Also India is a young nation, the youngest on the planet. All the young kids have money in their hands and they want new stuff. They are exposed to many more ideas, be it through internet downloads or through TV channels which dub a lot of foreign films. So you cannot just rehash stuff as they have already seen where you are sourcing it from. Luckily we have always had a lot of stories; it was just that people were not putting money in it. But now the scenario has changed, people are also putting money on new ideas, new writers and giving the writers the due that they deserve.
How was the process of shooting Aatma? What is the kind of look and feel adopted? Which camera have you shot the film on?
We have shot digital on Arri Alexa. I wanted a very European look to the film, so I got a DoP, Sophie Winqvist, from Denmark, and my gaffer, Martin, from Germany. I spent over a month and a half only on the sound design of the film. This will be the world’s second film and India’s first horror film to have Dolby Atmos sound. It is a 94 minute film with no songs and tells the story as is.
In terms of casting I wanted really good actors so we not just have Bipasha Basu and Nawazuddin but Jaideep Ahlawat, Shernaz Patel, Tillotama Shome, Darshan Jariwala and a child prodigy Doyle Dhawan. Also the VFX really pushes the boundaries. You will not be able to figure when the VFX starts, when it gets over and what is real and not. I think we have a unique film, and right from the trailer itself, the audience has been able to smell the film for what it’s worth.
The palette of the film is as is seen in the trailer. There is a lot of light in the whole film but at times there is darkness. It’s a mix. In terms of colors, we have a lot of saturation, a lot of high contrast images. My entire brief to Sophie was that I want it to be a fairy tale world where a nightmare unfolds. Be it the look, the sound or music, it is just that. It’s a nightmare set in a fairy tale, which is what Aatma is. However, I’ve completely avoided cheap thrills like odd camera angles, bad background music, sound effects, ghosts with white skin etc and all such cliches.
Sound and visual create the entire tapestry of the complete film. The more you invest, the more you create and paint, the more beautiful it gets.
What is the expertise brought to the table by Sophie Winqvist and how was your experience working with her?
In terms of aesthetics, we see it in a different way and they (international artists) see it in an altogether different manner mainly because the light and exposure that they have is very different from ours. For example, we were grading for a day for night shot and Sophie asked me what time is the shot set in and I said 8.30pm. When I saw the cut of the shot it looked like 5.30 pm in the evening since there was still a lot of light because in Europe you never have a night that is black.
They are exposed to different light, think in different terms and so their temperament of color, be it warm or cold, is very different. Hence the palette of colors used in European films is very different from American films and that is the template I wanted. I didn’t want an American look or an Indian look.
In terms of shot taking, European films have lesser shots and longer takes; here at times I wanted long shots and shorter takes. That is something that we both married in terms of the process.
What was the essential brief to lead actors Bipasha Basu and Nawazuddin Siddiqui? How was it working with a child artist – Doyle ?
I wanted a natural look so I asked the actors to be themselves and be emotionally correct. Even the makeup and look of the cast is kept natural and Bipasha is sans makeup in the film. Also I wanted the acting to be toned down, not theatrical or over dramatic. With Bipasha and Nawaz, their scenes are very harrowing, emotionally intense and they would end up breaking down on the sets. At times it was very tough as I took them in such an emotional zone where I wouldn’t want to go and nor would they. But they trusted me and the results are for everyone to see.
It was very challenging working with the child artist because you have to go as per the child’s diktat. If she feels like sleeping, she will sleep, you cannot force her to keep awake. There were times when she was in a mood to do only one line at a time or she would pretend to have forgotten all the lines. At times she made me prompt her from behind the camera. So there were those games that we had to play. It is not easy, animals and kids are the toughest to work with. But the performance that she has given is exemplary, completely outstanding.
Can you tell us about the role of music in the film?
There is not a single song. The background score of the film is done by Hitesh Sonik and the original theme has been composed by Sangeet and Siddharth. The sound design by Nimish complements the background score. We didn’t want a background score overlapping the scene and the sound design getting lost in the process. So it has been an interesting marriage and we had to spend a lot of time working on it. At times what seems like music is actually sound design and what seems like sound design is music. So Nimish and Hitesh have worked in unison, I was the umbilical cord between them to keep it seamless.
Yours is the first Indian horror movie to have used Dolby Atmos surround sound. How has the outcome been and what is the future?
With Dolby Atmos you get 4D sound, it’s a new thing happening in India. I didn’t shoot my film in 3D because I didn’t want the barrier of a glass coming between you and your emotions. A 3D glass somewhere reminds you that you are watching a film; you’re in it but not in it emotionally. And here it was a more intimate film so it would have been cheating the audience by saying 3D. But with sound I could create that play. There are limited Dolby theaters right now but the kind of sound we have, it is going to be really unique. I think Dolby Atmos is the way to go. Sound and visual create the entire tapestry of the complete film. The more you invest, the more you create, the more you paint, the more beautiful it gets. But don’t use it only as effects, if it is not required don’t use it.
Please tell us about the editing process and your collaboration with Hemal whom you’ve worked with on several films?
Hemal has been the editor in all my films. What he brings to the table is that he is a collaborator with me in terms of storytelling as well. It’s not just about cutting the scenes right but also creating the write narrative and that’s what I enjoy doing with him. We cut out our dearest scenes, dearest moments but don’t hold anything above the film. The film comes first and we put it together accordingly.
[pullquote_right]The sound design complements the background score as we didn’t want a background score overlapping the scene and the sound design getting lost in the process.[/pullquote_right]
What are the challenges of coming up with such a film?
I wanted everybody’s conviction, be it my producers, my actors etc. When you are trying to do something new you need to challenge yourself as a writer and once you have done that you have to be convincing enough to others to challenge themselves in their thinking process. That takes some energy and effort. But the last bit was only the child artist, getting her to perform well and she has done a splendid job at it.
Is it an advantage to direct a film that is your own brainchild?
I always like to write my own scripts because somewhere you have already seen the film, heard it, while you are writing it. It comes from within and lives with you. And I am constantly creating. Even when I’m directing, I write something, delete something, sometimes you realize that a particular scene doesn’t need to be shot at all because you have already conveyed it in the previous scene. That’s a decision you can take without consulting anyone as you are the writer yourself.
Would you call yourself a methodical or spontaneous director?
I prepare everything in advance. On the sets, I know what I want to do, the camera angles etc. At times when something magical happens you need to capture that immediately, you cannot be rigid about it. I also like new ideas; I like all my collaborators to come up with new ideas. The main job of the director is to say the right yes and the right no. I do my homework and then go with the flow, so yes; I am a mix of methodical and spontaneous.
What are the other projects you’re working on?
I’ve already started writing Aatma 2. There is also a 3D animated horror film that I’m working on and should be out by the end of the year.