With Midnight’s Children, author Salman Rushdie brings his 632-page, Booker Prize-winning novel to the big screen. Directed by Deepa Mehta, known for the Oscar-nominated Water, the magical realist drama follows the story of two boys – one poor, one rich – both born on August 15, 1947, the night of India’s independence from Great Britain. Switched at birth by a socialist-leaning nurse, their young lives parallel the birth of modern India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. In anticipation of the film’s April 26 opening, Rushdie spoke with Rolling Stone about the challenges of screenwriting, the influence of Quentin Tarantino, and his reluctant addiction to Game of Thrones.
Did you feel comfortable writing a screenplay?
I’ve written screenplays before, they just haven’t been made. There was an idea to make a movie of my novel The Ground Beneath Her Feet, but it didn’t come to anything. I actually spent my younger days writing advertising commercials, and I’ve written a lot of very short scripts, too. My way of writing a screenplay is you close your eyes and watch the movie in your head, then you open your eyes and write it down.
Have you wanted to adapt Midnight’s Children for a while?
No. In fact, I hadn’t been thinking about it at all. It was a happy series of accidents that brought it into being. But if I were to do it again, I’d prefer to write original material for the screen, instead of adapting.
You also helped adapt the book for a Royal Shakespeare Company production. How was that project different from this one?
The stage version wasn’t that much help in the end. The way the novel is written, Saleem, the hero, narrates the story retrospectively to a woman who works in the pickle factory where he’s ended up. On the stage, you can do that. But on screen, I thought it would seem intrusive to constantly cut back to a couple of people talking. It would break the audience’s emotional connection to the story. So I had to completely rethink it for the screen.
What movies were you thinking about when you wrote this treatment?
The great [Luchino] Visconti film, The Leopard. It also has this quality of epic action and revolution, combined with a very intimate family story at its heart. We thought we needed to find that tone of voice, one that allowed us to move from intimacy to epic. Another was a great film by the Japanese director Kenji Mizoguchi called Ugetsu, which means “ghost.” That gave us some clues on how to handle the magical realism part of the story. The thing that is interesting about Ugetsu is that the ghost isn’t treated in a ghostly way. The ghost is treated as a character. We thought there was a clue there. If we had these magic children, when they appeared, they would have to behave – and be shot – to look like a real group of children.
You’re no stranger to appearing in movies, too. My favorite is your cameo in Bridget Jones’ Diary.
You know, acting was always my unscratched itch, when I was in college and even afterwards. It was the only other thing I seriously thought about doing with my life. I probably made the right decision by not going that way, but every so often, that itch does recur, and if I have a chance to scratch it, I will.
How much were you influenced by Indian cinema?
We both, Deepa more than I, are steeped in Indian cinema, and it did help us with the casting. Siddharth, who plays Saleem’s alter ego, Silva, and the actor Shriya Saran, who plays Parvati the Witch, are big stars in South Indian cinema. The boy who plays the younger Saleem, Darsheel Safary, was somebody that I saw in the Aamir Khan movie Like Stars on Earth a couple years ago. There’s a scene in the film where Saleem follows his mother to this café, and while he’s watching her, on his right, there’s a giant poster of the movie Mother India, which is a deliberate reference to that iconic film, a kind of Indian Gone With the Wind. In some ways, our film is about Mother India, too.
Did you vising the set and watch dailies?
No. At that time, Deepa and I developed a relationship of real trust. I just said to her, go make the film, and I’ll see you in the cutting room.
Which scenes were the most difficult to write?
The last third of the film gets dark – there are some violent interrogation and torture scenes. Those were very tough to write. Oddly, the solution I found was to write the dialogue of the torturers almost like black comedy. There’s a little touch of Quentin Tarantino in there, a little bit of Reservoir Dogs.
Your next project is The Next People, a Showtime science fiction series. Where are you with that?
I did three drafts of a script, and they declared themselves to be very happy. But at this point, there is no green light, so we just wait.
Are you interested in a career move towards television?
The sixty-minute drama form has become very rich. There is so much good work going on in that area, almost novelistic work. I’ve been tempted, but we’ll see.
Which shows are your favorites?
I have to say, that after some initial resistance, I’m now a complete Game of Thrones addict.
Who is your favorite character?
I’m very proud of the fact that we got Charles Dance into Midnight’s Children to play William Methwold. We actually have the head of the Lannister dynasty in our movie!
What’s next? Are you working on another novel?
I’m just beginning one. I’ve got a fish on the line. I just hooked something, so I’m trying to reel it in to see how big it is.