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Q&A: Nicolas Saada Opens Up About Stacy Martin Starrer ‘Taj Mahal’

PARIS — Variety caught up with Nicolas Saada, a former French film journo at the prestigious mag Les Cahiers du Cinema and a screenwriter who made his directorial debut with “Spy (es).” For his sophomore outing, Saada is tackling the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attack with “Taj Mahal,” a psychological thriller toplining “Nymphomaniac” star Stacy Martin as a young woman who was trapped in one of the suites of the hotel during the assault. Sold by BAC Films and produced by Patrick Sobelman at Agat Films, the $8 million film is based on the true story of one of the survivors, taking place over one night inside Mumbai’s Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, which was seized by terrorists who took guests hostage.

Variety: What made you want to make a film about this terrorist attack in Mumbai? 

When I was promoting “Spy (ies),” I lived the Mumbai attack minute by minute. And it happened that I heard about a young woman who had been trapped in a bedroom of the Palace for a whole night and was able to survive the ordeal thanks to the support of her parents, who were outside trying to hep her out. It was very compelling to hear about such a young woman who was exposed to questions like “Am I going to survive tonight?” I met and asked her if I could interview her to make a movie about her story. And that was the starting point.

Would you say that it’s a disaster movie? 

It’s an intimate disaster film. We deal with the event, but it serves mostly as a backdrop, and the action is focused on this character’s point of view and what happens to her. It will definitely be stylized. We used a Red camera and shot with Leo Hinstin, the d.p. of “The Coup” and the sound engineer of “Holy Motors.” The sound design will be very particular. I want it to be as emotionally moving as intense. The fact that the story is based on real events gives a framework, but at the same you can be creative. But it’s not all a docu-drama.

Why do you think so many recent French thrillers have failed at the box office? 

I’m not sure. But “Taj Mahal” boasts a strong female character, and is very driven by women — you have Stacy Martin, Gina McKee, Alba Rohrwacher all playing important roles. I think that gives the movie a different dimension. I collaborated on the script with Florence Seyvos, who worked on the screenplay of Noemie Lvovsky’s  “Camille Rewinds.” I wanted to have the input of a woman because it’s a film about a teenage girl. My producer, Patrick Sobelman, was also really involved. I am very proud that Stacy Martin is in the lead role. I hope this film will show her range as an actress.

How was your experience directing Stacy Martin? 

I met her a few months before the release of “Nymphomaniac.” It was a blessing to meet her. She’s extremely talented and very insightful, well read. And the fact that she’s Franco-English is a big plus. That allowed me to shoot the film in French and English. In a sense, Stacy’s bicultural background is part of the film.

Are you a fan of genre films? 

Yes, but not pure genre. “Taj Mahal” is not a pure genre film; it’s a drama with genre elements, a bit like Paul Greengrass’ movies. And to take another example, a film like “A Hijacking” is inspiring because it’s based on a real story but it’s not a docudrama, it’s a true fiction. Soderbergh is a director I really admired because his movies blur the line between drama and genre. I love the way he approaches material in “Che” or “Contagion,” for instance. It’s realistic, gritty and stylized at the same time.

How challenging was it shoot a film in India?

It’s partly shot in Mumbai. It’s tough to shoot there, but it was essential to film at least the exteriors on location. We were lucky enough to find a great co-producer in India, Guneet Monga, a very well-established producer whose credits include “The Lunchbox.” Guneet helped us find and secure the best locations. We shot the interiors at the Epinay studios — our production designer, Pascal Leguellec, did very impressive work.

Looking at your previous film and this one, it seems that you’re mainly interested in movies that have a global scope, either in terms of plot, geography or characters.

It’s true. The first film that I directed, “Spy (ies),” was already partly in English. We had a French cast and an English cast. And there is “Sleepless Night” (“Nuit blanche”), which I wrote. It’s an actioner arthouse hit, and there is a remake in the works (Warner Bros. picked up remake rights). The director Frederic Jardin and the producer Marco Cherqui will make me read the next draft of the U.S. script when it’s ready, but I’m not involved in it.

As a journalist and a filmmaker, how do you perceive the recent Paris attacks and how do these tragic events impact you? 

It’s a reminder that we live in a strange, dangerous, ruthless world. As filmmakers we have a responsibility to address and reflect on issues and events that matter in one way or another. We can’t turn a blind eye. What interests me is to share an intense experience with audiences, keep them on the edge but also get them thinking about how they relate to the world and to other people.

I know you’re in the middle of  editing “Taj Mahal,” but are you already working on your next project? 

I’m developping with Claude Chelli at Capa Drama (the outfit behind “Braquo”) a thriller miniseries with a French and American cast. It´s called “Thanksgiving,” but my main focus at this point is “Taj Mahal.”

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