"Shooting a movie is like going on an adventure," says director Shekhar Kapur. Of course, you have to keep in mind that his most recent movie is "The Four Feathers," an epic of war, honor and friendship that takes place largely in the deserts of 19th Century Sudan.
"We were unprepared for what the desert had in store for us," Kapur commented during a recent stay in San Francisco, shining a but-that's-a-good-thing smile through the slightly graying beard on his rugged yet inviting face. But the more you know about the man, the more his enthusiasm for "shooting from the hip" makes sense.
Known in the Western world mostly for directing 1998's Oscar-nominated English monarch biopic "Elizabeth," Kapur grew up in Pakistan and started his film career not in Hollywood, but in the insanely prolific Indian film industry, popularly known as Bollywood. Having learned to "set up a shot, consider it, shoot it, then shoot close-ups" in rapid succession, the director found the challenges of desert filmmaking exhilarating.
"The Four Feathers" stars Heath Ledger ("A Knight's Tale," "Monster's Ball") as an English army officer who resigns to avoid seeing combat in the Sudan. Branded a coward by his closest friends, he has a change of heart and goes to Africa alone to earn back his honor rescuing each of his accusers in battle, disguised as a munitions-hauling Arab servant.
Kapur says his stars and crew came to appreciate the controlled chaos of making this film. "When you are shooting in a panic all the time because you're letting control go," he grins philosophically, "you become like mountaineers tied together by bonds of friendship and trust. Once you develop that, you start moving in harmony. That's what I think happened on this film."
This harmony didn't always extend to the picture's producers, however. With a laugh, the director says he was "constantly fighting" with the money men.
"The studios kept sending more producers because they were worried about what was happening. But what answers could I give except 'Don't worry' when you're just shooting by your instincts?"
Another challenge the African dunes presented for Kapur was maintaining continuity. Dust storms and rain "can not only wipe out your set, but change your landscape," the director laments. But he insists they can also be a blessing. When the dust kicked up on them during a day of battle filming, Kapur says he wouldn't let anybody run. He thought, "When was the last time anybody shot in a dust storm? I needed a dust storm. Everybody come back here!"
The sands did give him a scare one time, however -- when he was forced to sleep out for a night.
"In the desert the sun goes down like that," he explains with a snap of his fingers, "and you realize you're four hours into the dunes because you've been looking for the best dunes all day."
"I got lost one day. I just walked slightly in the wrong direction, it got dark and I got lost," his story continues. "I heard people shouting for me. But you think they're just across one dune and you go to the top, then realize the voice is...bouncing (from somewhere else)."
Kapur wasn't reunited with his cast and crew until the next morning.
Another "Four Feathers" adventure Kapur recalls a little chillingly had to do with respecting the native people where they shot the film -- quite a contrast to the colonial attitudes depicted and disparaged in the movie. The director wanted to remove a bunch of jutting stones from a hill while setting up a scene. "Then I noticed a Bedouin woman coming in (to the area) and doing something at the stones. It was an ancient Bedouin graveyard -- and I was about to give the order to throw all the stones away. We would have all been dead."
On the related subject of the picture's anti-imperial undertones, Kapur says he tried to keep a balance between condemnation of colonialism and making the individual characters in the English army sympathetic. Was that a particular challenge?
"Yeah, there was a challenge in convincing the studios I could do it," Kapur laughs. "It wasn't about my beliefs. You can't make a film today and say that colonization is fine. Who in this (modern) world is going to say that colonization is a good thing?
"Yes, my family came from a country that was colonized. My family was part of the freedom movement. I lost an uncle that was shot. My grandfather was arrested. My mother had gone demonstrating against the British from since she was 10 years old. So yes, I was going to make an anti-colonial film. But the big fear was that in doing so, the main themes of love, honor and friendship might be undercut.
"But I said, 'It will only undercut them if my actors don't play it right.' And they did."