New York-based filmmaker Dev Benegal will give the Screenwriting workshop in January of 2020. Learn more in this exclusive interview with Under the Volcano.
What books are you currently reading?
I write and direct my films, which means I’m always reading books related to my current projects and research around them.
In my childhood I’d have a small pile of books by my side and that continues.
I’ve just finished Pico Iyer’s Autumn Light, about his life in Japan, which reads like an Ozu film. Naturally I’m drawn to that and loved it.
Geoff Dyers book Broadsword Calling Danny Boy on the film Where Eagles Dare It’s one of those three rather forgettable films from Hollywood that defined growing up in India. Dyer’s But Beautiful is amongst the best on jazz. So anything he writes I get my hands on.
Joshua Sperling’s book on John Berger, A Writer of Our Times and Talking History, a conversation with the historian Romila Thapar, are amongst the non-fiction. I read anything by her and about her. She is the foremost historian and intellectuals of our times.
And I’ve finally begun Killing Commendatore by Murakami Haruki.
What was the last film that impressed you?
Zama by Lucrecia Martel. It’s stunning and I’ve seen it a couple of times. It’s abstract, yet real—both a work of art and pure cinema. The film looks at colonialism and the bureaucrat/functionnaire, which is so close to my world and the issues that find themselves in some of my films too.
Which films do you return to again and again and why?
Edward Yang’s Yi-Yi. Without question. It’s a film I wish never ends.
Fellini – 8 1/2. Before I begin any film I sit and watch it.
Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove. Why? Because, Kubrick and I’ve seen 2001: A Space Odyssey about 96 times.
Visconti – Leopard, La Terra Trema, Rocco and his Brothers.
Yasujirō Ozu – Late Spring and Early Summer. To see Setsuko Hara.
Welles’ Magnificent Ambersons and Touch of Evil.
Which books have been important to you over time and why?
Don Quixote. It lies by my side and I dip into from time to time. For me it is one of those works that never date. I find myself discovering something new every time I open a page to read.
It’s one of those books which takes more than a lifetime to understand.
Which three directors, photographers or scriptwriters, dead or alive, would you like to have coffee or drinks with? Why?
Stanley Kubrick once famously commented that when directors sit around a dinner table they either gossip or discuss technique (which lens did you use, how did you take that shot and so on.)
My imaginary dinner would ironically not be with the directors who inspired me at an early age—Welles, Kubrick, Godard—but the ones I discovered later who left an indelible mark on me.
Around this imaginary table: Edward Yang, who infamously forced me to eat a “100 year-old” quail egg to mark our friendship; Larissa Shepitko, whose film The Ascent (Voskhozhdenie) I can never forget; Yulia Solnetsva, whose vision and oeuvre left me stunned not to mention the way she took on Stalin with her work.
In my imagined dinner Yasujiro Ozu would be observing us and I could lean across for the occasional wisdom and insight.
In the shadows—Fellini and Visconti.
And lurking in the background, Buñuel would be stirring his martinis. Every once in a while I’d sneak over to hear him extol that the secret to filmmaking lies in making a good martini.
Do you have a secondary passion or talent that might surprise people to know about?
Photography. I’ve become a bit obsessive about that. Perhaps because I missed out on making photographs of some of the masters I apprenticed with. And that obsession has led to something unexpected, which is a series of cinematic installations I am working on. That surprised me.
If you could offer three tips to scriptwriters what would they be?
1. Stay away from all the books that tell you how to write a screenplay.
2. Observe life around you—people, voices, sounds, looks, gestures. A screenplay is about the details of life.
3. Learn to Listen.
3 1/2. A movie lies in the white spaces between the words. While you are writing the words, at the same time you must also discover the white spaces between them.
What was your moment of greatest despair as a scriptwriter and how did you get out of it?
The Portuguese writer Antonio Antunes wrote,“My country is the country of Chekov, Beethoven and Velasquez. Writers I like, painters and artists I admire.”
Screenwriting and directing are all about waiting, waiting and waiting. And there are moments when one doesn’t know where it’s all going. In those moments I take shelter in “my country.”
It seems to be working.