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With eleven directors from around the world depicting varied interpretations of love over a quick ninety minutes, New York, I Love You is a veritable love letter to our fair city. (What other city, after all, has a heart at the center of its slogan?) “A collective feature film,” New York, I Love You is the second in the Cities of Love series, conceived of by producer Emmanuel Benbihy and set in motion in 2006 with Paris, je t'aime. (Shanghai and Rio are the next two cities with films in development.)
Mira Nair (The Namesake, Monsoon Wedding) was one of ten directors asked to contribute a short film to the project. The rules were simple: 1) the neighborhood(s) the story takes place in must be visually identifiable, 2) the story must have some broadly categorized element of love, 3) each shoot would be two days and two days only, and 4) there would be no fade-to-black at the end of any piece.
Nair was joined by fellow directors Shekhar Kapur, Allen Hughes, Fatih Akin, Brett Ratner, Yvan Attal, Shunji Iwai, Wen Jiang, Joshua Marston, and Natalie Portman, all of whom contributed a piece of patchwork to this quilt of a film. Director Randall Balsmeyer was charged with developing the narrative thread that weaves the various pieces together. The result? The audience is treated to a virtual taxi ride from Central Park to Williamsburg, with many lovely stops along the way.
The high-wattage cast—including but not limited to Ms. Portman herself, Bradley Cooper, James Caan, Julie Christie, Shia LaBeouf, Andy Garcia, Ethan Hawke, Irrfan Khan, Robin Wright Penn, Cloris Leachman, Orlando Bloom, and Olivia Thirlby—have been given roles that celebrate the connections across lines of culture, gender, and age that happen every day throughout the boroughs. The stories range from the pure joy that comes with the spark of meeting someone new in this vast city to the abiding comfort that can be found in an entire life lived together.
Tribeca talked with Nair about her chock-full October (Amelia, her biopic of aviatrix Amelia Earhart starring Oscar fave Hilary Swank, opens next week), her love for her adopted city, and her appreciation of the discipline required to make a short film.
Tribeca: Amelia and New York, I Love You will hit theaters a week apart in the U.S.—when it rains, it pours! How did the New York project come about?
MN: They really wanted me to do Paris, je t'aime, but I couldn’t do it at the last minute because of The Namesake. They came right back to me when they announced the New York project. I said yes immediately.
Tribeca: The neighborhood had to be instantly recognizable, but can you talk about the other parameters?
MN: There were really none, except for the strict one of it being “six minutes only.” Apparently, some of the other filmmakers did not adhere to that… they have more time, and I am a little upset about that. [Laughs.] Mine could have handled another minute or so. But I must say, I love the rigor of making a short film.
Tribeca: It’s kind of like the difference between short stories and novels. You often focus on lines between cultures. How did you find this story?
MN: I found a wonderful Indian writer, Suketu Mehta (Maximum City), and we cooked up a really charming story. I was able to do a two-day shoot before Amelia, and it was great fun.
Tribeca: How did you choose the Diamond District? Do you have experience with the crossing of cultures in that area?
MN: No, but the writer of my film is a child of the Diamond District, and he rejected it from his childhood. And I am fascinated by the relationship Jains and Hasidic Jews have had for more than 50 years in the Diamond District. So he thought about, What if two Orthodox communities, who have worked together for 50 years, could let all the orthodoxy vanish for a few moments? That’s the tale of Natalie Portman with the great Irrfan Khan. Both are united in their different orthodoxies, and in the unique way they are both aligned (hint: something to do with hair), which they discover in the film. Oh, and one of my favorite films is David Lean’s Brief Encounter.
Tribeca: Ah, I see. Star-crossed lovers who can never be... You mentioned Natalie Portman and Irrfan Khan. He will always be Gogol’s father to me, from The Namesake.
MN: [Laughs.] In India, he’s a sexy gangster type—not always like Gogol’s father.
Tribeca: Did you always have the two of them in mind?
MN: The casting was instant. I always had Irrfan in mind, and I know and love Natalie—we’ve always talked about working together. I think I sent her a text message about the piece! And she totally loved the idea, and totally loved Irrfan, and said yes right away. It was a total joy, I have to say.
Tribeca: Natalie also directed a short. Did you talk to her about what she was planning?
MN: I know hers was about a great dancer, and we talked a fair amount about it. But I haven’t seen it yet.
Tribeca: What’s your favorite part of filming in New York?
MN: I’ve lived here so long, I’ve learned that every street corner has a story. Every place I look at has an association that is way deeper than what appears in front of me. Truly, there are layers of character, and it’s just a question of how to orchestrate the chaos. In that sense, it’s like India. In our movie, it was lovely. We filmed in authentic places: the Diamond District and Williamsburg, where the orthodox live alongside the hipsters. It’s authentic, just like New York.
New York, I Love You opens on Friday in select cities.
Amelia opens on Friday, October 23. There will be an advanced screening/fundraiser at MoMA on Wednesday, October 21, hosted by Ms. Nair and Richard Gere, who also stars in the film. Proceeds will benefit Maisha Film Lab, Ms. Nair’s film school in Uganda, and the Indo American Arts Council. Get tickets to this very special event, which will also include a party following the screening.
Amelia is the opening night film at the inaugural Doha Tribeca Film Festival on October 29. Tickets for the Doha Tribeca Film Festival go on sale this Friday, October 16.
Watch the trailer for New York, I Love You: