Shekhar Kapur: Various Feathers in his Cap

December 19, 2018
The Indian filmmaker of the Elizabeth movies discusses his love of Heath Ledger, his planned Cleopatra movie and various other projects that he has on the boil.

A champion of Australian talent, Shekhar Kapur directed Cate Blanchett to two Oscar nominations for her performances as Elizabeth I in his films Elizabeth and Elizabeth: The Golden Age.

But when Kapur returned to the 3rd International Film Festival & Awards Macao last week, it’s another Australian talent who occupies his thoughts when he chats exclusively with FilmInk.

“For some reason I’ve been thinking a lot about Heath Ledger,” says Kapur, 73, who cast the young actor in his 2002 romantic drama The Four Feathers, going on to become life-long friends.

“My relationship with Heath was not in the public domain. It was very personal, and I’ve never actually thought about taking that personal relationship into a public space. For me to say, ‘Oh, I was a close friend of Heath Ledger!’, it kind of destroys the intimacy of our friendship.

“For me, it was a very intimate relationship; much stronger than a public image of just actor-director. He wrote to me regularly and I still have our e-mails. He would call me ‘my brother from another mother’. He never described me as anything else. That’s how Heath always wrote to me,” he reveals.

“People like Heath, they are always around that age when they get taken away, 27 or 28. They come already pre-set with a genius which, if you’re Indian, you say is an old spirit from a previous life. It’s like God says, ‘I want you back’. I always told Heath that he was a young man in conflict with himself because he was already old; he had an ancient soul. I told him that this was his conflict and urged him to constantly be careful,” he says likening the late actor to the many musicians who died at a similar age.

“Heath was always in conflict with himself. Part of him was an old soul that understood everything, and the other part was just a young man with a young body. So, there was always this idea of destiny where, ‘OK, fine, we want you back’.

“I shared a very deep, more intimate, more spiritual relationship with Heath, so I’ve always been very scared to take it into the public space.”

Working with Ledger on The Four Feathers, he quickly discovered that the actor’s talent lay in his eyes. “Heath was never going to be in front of a camera without being honest. And honesty doesn’t mean: ‘Look how honest I am!’ Honesty is revealing, and the true revealing of an actor in front of a camera goes far beyond that immediate plot situation of that film; it’s a revealing of his own life so that every word he says, there’s a whole lifetime behind those words. So, Heath was an actor like that.

“I remember always arguing with Bob Richardson, who’s probably the best DOP in the world. I would forever tell Bob, ‘Make sure you see his eyes, because, if you look at Heath’s eyes, he’s revealing himself’. And in his revealing of himself, he’s revealing the universe,” says the Indian director, likening Ledger’s powers to the mythology of Krishna.

“Krishna’s mother realised he was not just another ordinary child when she looked inside his mouth and saw the whole universe. And Heath was a bit like that. When you put the camera on his eyes, he revealed something quite immense, and that’s what made him such an immense actor.

“Otherwise, why today do we still remember him so much?” he asks. “People say he was an angel who came to earth because with anything he did, when you looked into his eyes, he revealed much more than the immediacy of what was happening in the film at that moment. That’s why he was such a great actor.”

Recalling his immediate reaction at the news of Ledger’s untimely passing, he says, “I was upset and shocked but, when I got over the grief of it, then I wasn’t so surprised. I actually almost told him to be careful.”

Admittedly, he’s lost touch with the Ledger family since the actor’s death on 22 January 2008 at just 28 years old. “I haven’t spoken with Heath’s family for a long time for no real reason.”

He thanks us for reminding him, insisting he will reach out to the family right after our interview.

Chatting with Kapur in Macao where he served as both Talent Ambassador and jurist on the Local View Power section, he is delighted that his 1994 film Bandit Queen was screened in the Director’s Choice selection, recommended by fellow juror Phillip Noyce.

Synonymous with British monarchy, thanks to his Elizabeth films, he is excited to see Mary Queen of Scots, featuring another Australian, Margot Robbie, as the celebrated virgin monarch.

“I’m really looking forward to it,” he says. “Unfortunately, it was just released in the UK when I left, and I’ve been travelling ever since.”

Throughout his career, Kapur has been fascinated with history’s powerful women and, for the longest time, has been developing a screenplay about Cleopatra. “I keep writing other things but I’m hoping it will get made soon.”

He plans a controversial re-boot on the Egyptian queen portrayed by so many actresses, including Sophia Loren, Vivien Leigh, Monica Bellucci and Claudette Colbert, although perhaps most famously by Elizabeth Taylor in Joseph Mankiewicz’ 1963 epic.

“I’m trying to re-write history from Cleopatra’s point of view so there’s a lot of research because all we have is history from the Roman perspective and they hated women. The reason they described her as the most beautiful woman in the world and as a seductress is because their generals fell under her, so they had to describe her as a seducer because that’s the only way they could explain her power.

“So, I’m saying that Caesar and Mark Antony were famous because of her, not the other way round. And when you look at history, Rome was a slum compared to Alexandria. Cleopatra was richer; she was a better statesman; a better politician; a better strategist than all of them. But the Romans had a problem with her being a woman and how could a woman be better than all of them? They skewed their telling of history, to make her into a mere seductress; the lover of Caesar and of Mark Antony, a woman who killed herself with a snake.

“But she was so much brighter than all of them. History would have been different but for Cleopatra. So that’s the story I want to tell,” says Kapur who insists he has no particular actress in mind for his post #MeToo take on the legendary Egyptian ruler.

Still musing over a third instalment of his Elizabeth trilogy, he says, “I’m still working on that. I need to have Cate Blanchett ready to do it.” However, he has still not discussed it with his leading lady yet. “I think I have to wait until Cate gets a little bit older. She’s still too young to do it now so I probably need to wait another ten years,” says the director who is currently in negotiations to secure the rights to Amitav Ghosh’s best-selling Ibis trilogy about the 19th century opium wars between Indian and China.

Also at work on developing a big screen musical, ‘Elisabeth’ based on the successful German stage musical about the life and death of Empress Elisabeth of Austria, he says, “I’m almost embarrassed to say how many things I’m working on at the same time. Hopefully they will all fall into place.”

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