Salman Rushdie, screenwriter: Getting around protesters “was like the end of ‘Argo’”

After Iran tried to shut down Rushdie's new adaptation of "Midnight's Children," Sri Lanka's president intervened

Topics: Salman Rushdie, midnight's children, Argo, Sri Lanka,

Salman Rushdie, screenwriter: Getting around protesters "was like the end of 'Argo'"Salman Rushdie (Credit: AP/Rajanish Kakade)

Salman Rushdie is a man at liberty.

The fatwa placed on him by Iran long since having been lifted, the novelist is trying new things, from last year’s memoir “Joseph Anton” to the upcoming film adaptation of “Midnight’s Children,” his Booker Prize-winning novel. Rushdie wrote the script for “Midnight’s Children” along with director Deepa Mehta, and also narrates the film, which is to be released May 3. But that doesn’t mean he isn’t still causing controversy.

The fallout from “The Satanic Verses,” which brought the ire of Iran, led to a shooting delay that could have jeopardized the entire film.

“Midnight’s Children” isn’t even about Iran — it takes on the story of India’s history, from the moment of independence to the Partition between India and Pakistan — an element that Rushdie claims is the book’s greatest legacy, educating Indian Hindus and Pakistani Muslims about one another.

The novel is a massive tome — and it was clearly difficult to winnow down into a film that runs 146 minutes. Rushdie, for decades a literary gadfly, says he was inspired by friends like Kazuo Ishiguro and Gunter Grass. Below, he discusses his influences, whether he’d write about Kashmir, and how the Sri Lankan president saved his film.

What were some adaptations that had particularly inspired you?

Well, as it happens, I thought about that, the question of adaptation and who else had done it well, and badly, a lot. I remember, for instance, that I used to know Joseph Heller a little bit, and I thought that he was always – he would always defend the film of “Catch-22,” which I wasn’t entirely sure that I felt exactly the same way about, so I think – I had this part-time professorship at Emory, and I thought I might – when I began to think about this project, I actually taught a course of adaptation at Emory, where I tried to get examples of good adaptations.

I was thinking about something that we taught, some that we didn’t teach. For instance, I think Scorsese’s adaptation of Edith Wharton’s “Age of Innocence” is pretty impressive. I also thought – I remembered my friend Kazuo Ishiguro being very pleased with the adaptation they made of “The Remains of the Day.” That’s interesting, because the film has a slightly different tone than the book, a slightly softer tone than the book. The book is politically a bit harsher. But I could see them sitting side-by-side and both of them being fully realized works.

And complementary, in a sense.

And complementary. Yeah, I thought of – I mean, the film that actually both Deepa and I thought about a lot when we were making this film was Visconti’s adaptation of “The Leopard,” because of its ability to combine this sort of epic scale with intimacy. We thought that was something we would’ve absolutely loved: we got to be a big Cinemascope movie, but also to be a little chamber movie, and kinda go from one to the other. So Visconti was something we thought about a lot.

So going back a little bit to Joseph Heller: How did he defend the film “Catch-22,” and are you more sympathetic now that you’ve been through the process?

Yeah, he said he thought it was as good as it could possibly have been. I think that was the phrase he used. But he may be right. That’s – maybe there’s not another way to make a film like “Catch-22.” Anyway, I don’t think he was involved in the scripting or anything. I think he was friends with Mike Nichols. But I think that’s what he said – he said it was as good as it could’ve been.

So Grass, for example – Gunter Grass, I talked to about Schlondorff’s adaptation of “The Tin Drum.” And he was very happy with it, partly because they found such an extraordinary boy actor who could embody Oskar Maskerath. But also because Schlondorff had asked him if he could do a very bold thing, which is to beat out the last bit of the novel, because the novel continues for quite a while after the end of World War II into the rebirth of Germany … And Schondorff said he didn’t think there was room to do that, and he wanted to make the film only about the Nazi period. And Grass let him do it, and he thought that it worked very well. So … I mean, I hoped that I would get one of those, have one of those experiences, and that I would find a director to adapt the work with me who would kind of be on the same page.

And it’s interesting because your experience was kind of collaborative in the sense that you worked on the screenplay – a lot of these authors didn’t. I understand that this is probably the most significant, most challenging, screenwriting you’ve ever done. How did it differ from working on novels?

Oh, well, I mean exactly in the way that you say it, because you don’t do it by yourself. And therefore you have to learn to become articulate about what you think you’re doing while you’re doing it. When you’re writing a novel, it’s kind of all your discovery and you’re often confused about where you’re going and you’re wrong a lot before you get it right, and nobody else has to know about that [laughs]. You’re just writing yourself, trying to start things, finding a way, feeling content with something, making it better, moving on. And that process is entirely interior and messy and doesn’t need to be fully articulated.

When you’re collaborating with someone on the script, you have to be able to say why you’re doing what you’re doing in a way that the other person will understand. And that sometimes means you have to problem-solve in this fuzzy area where you’re just stumbling toward something. Which I think is an important part of the creative process. You can’t be required to become unfuzzy too early. But fortunately, because Deepa herself has written so many screenplays, she understands very well what that kind of … temporary nature of an early draft. You say, “Let’s just – I think it’s around here somewhere,” but having to speak out the process of making is something very different for me.

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It also probably helped to have the novel of it — or maybe it doesn’t, if you’re attached to it –

Yeah, I dunno, I probably – I would like to – I think I can’t properly answer the question until I have the real experience of writing the screenplay. Which I must say if I were to do something again in the movies, that’s what I would like to do. I’d like to do the thing I didn’t do. Take material and write directly for the screen. I’m not sure.

I mean, of course the novel helped because, first of all, there’s so much material there. You could always go back and find something that works, even at the level of language. The dialogue in the novel is not always directly usable, you know, but it gives you a clue about how to write the part. So all of that is there, but then of course there’s the other side of that. The problem is that the novel is great and the screenplay is great and what do you do about that? And with an original screenplay, you don’t have that problem with an adaptation, of how you do justice to the material. But on the other hand, you don’t have the original to lean on, so you get some things that are beneficial and some things that are worse.

I’m wondering as well the degree to which this film and your name attached to it hindered the literal process of making it.

Yeah. No, I think – to put it another way, I don’t think we’ve got it made financially. I think that, to put it in the most crudely commercial, having me write the screenplay was the most necessary element of getting the money.

Right, but then when you’re shooting, and I know the fatwa has been lifted many years ago, but did that affect –

There was one hiccup. There was one hiccup. I was very surprised – it really came out of left field. We weren’t expecting it. The Iranian government for whatever reason called the Sri Lankan ambassador in Tehran and some functionary in the foreign office of Sri Lanka revoked our permission halfway through the shoot. Fortunately, it only lasted two days, because before we started shooting, [producer] David Hamilton and I actually got formal permission to shoot from the president of Sri Lanka.

At this moment when the right to shoot was revoked, the president, it so happened, was out of town. And he came back two days later and he said, “This is crap,” and he allowed us to go ahead and make our film. So fortunately it was just a hiccup, but it bewildered me, because after all, this wasn’t a film of “The Satanic Verses.” This was a film of “Midnight’s Children,” which Iran has never shown any interest in, ever. So I think it was just this whole someone repeating something, “let’s fuck with him.” It was just as crude as that. But fortunately, they only fucked with us for two days.

What a relief.

But I must say that after that – you know, it puts you on edge, and we were very happy when we managed to [complete] the photography. In fact, I remember this funny moment when I was here in New York and the last reels of film were being put on the plate to leave, to come back to Canada. And I kept saying to Deepa, “Will you please tell me when the plane takes off?”

It was like the end of “Argo.” The moment that I heard that the reel was off and the plane was in the air, I thought, “Oh, you know, OK, now we’ve got something. Now the film belongs to us and nobody can stop it happening.”

It’s not always a top story in American news, but it’s kind of simmering under the surface, the struggle between India and Pakistan, and I’m wondering to what degree has that changed in your perception since writing the book. Do you think that “Midnight’s Children” changed at least the way people view the clash?

Well, I think the great thing about the book coming out when it did is that just at the level of information, I think for a lot of people in the West, information about south Asia they didn’t have. They just weren’t informed and they weren’t receiving it. A lot of the things that interested me about india and Pakistan is that by that time, countries have begun to drift apart. They’d only elected my parents’ generation just before the Partition.

There was a lot of knowledge across the border – Indians knew what Pakistan was like, and vice versa. And as the generations unfold, that knowledge was beginning to disappear, and these countries were still strangers to each other, and each of them were being fed clichés about the other, stereotypes about the other.

But because I had grown up in this way and I had spent time in both countries, I found a lot of people in India were interested in a potrait of Pakistan, and a lot of people in Pakistan were interested in a portrait of India, so in a way it explained the countries to each other at that time. Now I think what’s happened is Pakistan is in much worse shape than it was, in a much darker place, much more violence, much more criminals, a much more dangerous place. And the subject of Kashmir has been the devil by the fact that both sides have behaved very, very badly – that Indian security forces have been in trouble with their crimes against civilians. Then, on the other hand, you have this violence across the border, and oppressing the people in another way. And so you have Kashmiris caught between a rock and a hard place, and that situation is absolutely worse than it was when I wrote.

Is that something that you’d be moved to write about again?

I did. I mean, “Shalimar the Clown” is my attempt to do it. That’s at the heart of that. Kashmir is really at the heart of that book. So that’s as much as I think I can do.

Daniel D'Addario is a staff reporter for Salon's entertainment section. Follow him on Twitter @DPD_

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