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Melissa Mathison - From ET to Kundun
by Erin Free

Upon release, Martin Scorcese's Kundun drew fire from the Chinese government, who invaded Tibet in the 1950's and have sought to squash any support for the liberty of the Tibetan people ever since. Disney, the studio that financed the film, took a major body blow from this attack and never really got behind the film like they should have, ultimately leaving the film high and dry on Oscar night when it should have soared. Melissa Mathison, Kundun's writer, talks about her work on this epic, if beleaguered, film.

The arrival of any film by one of the modern cinema's greatest artists is always a major event. But couple that with a healthy dose of controversy and you've got something even more. Martin Scorsese is no stranger to trouble. Praised for his artistry and knock-down cinematic brilliance, he has also been dragged over the coals for his use of violence (Taxi Driver), alleged misogyny (Raging Bull), amorality (Goodfellas) and stylistic overkill (Cape Fear). He also brought down the wrath of God (or his alleged followers at least) with his truly stunning adaptation of Nicos Kazatsakis' incendiary novel The Last Temptation Of Christ. With crazed fundamentalists tearing down movie screens and calling for his head, Martin Scorsese became a cause celebre after depicting Christ as a man.

With his epicfilm Kundun, Scorsese has created a contradiction in terms: a masterwork of astounding beauty that has created something of a fracas around the world. This is a composed, highly intelligent depiction of the life of His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, the exiled spiritual leader of the people of Tibet. Using his characteristic visual flair and storytelling skills, Scorsese has moulded a film that works in both the emotional and political arenas.

Kundun created a minor controversy in Australia. Roadshow, the country's major distribution company, had first option on the film's local release but declined to pick it up. Citing its lack of commercial potential, they politely passed (could it have been that they own cinemas in China?). It took the smaller and more daring distributor NewVision to realise that any Martin Scorsese film has some commercial potential.

The writer of movies such as The Indian In The Cupboard, The Black Stallion and The Escape Artist, Melissa Mathison is also something of a Hollywood figurehead: she was the mind behind E.T, one of the most loved films of all time, and is married to Harrison Ford, who needs no introduction. Over the din of traffic noise, Erin Free spoke to Mathison in New York.


EF: How did you approach the writing of the script?
MM: I buried myself in research, and I loved it. I had to learn about the people, the religion, the history and it was all quite fantastic and tantalising. I read everything I could find on Tibet and this went on for a couple of years. So that was the basis. I also did interviews with lots of people, including His Holiness, the Dalai Lama.

EF: So you actually worked with him on the script?
MM: Very closely. It was wonderful. I would send him questions and his secretary would fax me back the answers. I took a couple of different drafts at different times to India and read through them with him. You could imagine what a pleasure it was. He's the greatest person I've ever met. He really is. He's a wonderful, genuine, funny, warm, intelligent man. The deeper I went into the metaphysics, the more aware I was of who he is in his culture's history. It's pretty inspiring and he's a pretty awesome man.

EF: Has he seen it himself?
MM: He saw it about two weeks ago. He was in New York and so we finally got to show it to him. He was very still throughout the movie. He's only seen two movies, and I don't think he's ever been to a movie theatre. He sat very still and he laughed at a few things. He was very quiet and very riveted. But he wasn't riveted like a regular movie-goer and he wasn't quite riveted like someone whose life was on the screen. He was somewhere in the middle.

EF: It must have been quite painful for him..
MM: I think there are moments which he was moved by. I think he was looking at it in a more objective way, and from a distance. Of course, it can't be the way he truly remembers it. He said that it brought up sad feelings and happy feelings.


EF: How was the whole project set up? Did you take the script to the studio or did they have an idea to make a film like this?
MM: Trust me, nobody wanted to touch this... I had just become fascinated with the story of his life. I thought that it would make a wonderful movie, and I started working on a script on my own. I got permission from His Holiness to write it, and then after that, I sent it to Marty Scorsese. He wanted to do it and he was the power that got the movie made.

EF: Did you have major problems setting up the film?
MM: People were not interested in making this movie. Marty finally went to Disney with it. He has a deal with them for a couple of movies, so that's basically how he got the movie made. Then Disney got attacked by China for making the movie. They stood up for us, but they were not thrilled about the whole situation. I don't think we received the support that we would have all wanted to receive. Disney did stand up for us, but they never saw the movie for what it was worth by itself, regardless of their problems with China. Corporately, I don't think it was something they could ever get 100% behind. It was too dangerous for them.


EF: Apart from him being a brilliant director, what made you go to Scorsese?
MM: I know that he has a real broad and sincere interest in world religions and cultures. So I thought he'd be interested in this idea and I also know that destiny is important to him and I thought he would understand the intricacies of the male society, because most of his movies are about that. I just felt like it actually touched on a lot of the themes of his movies, which are all about staying true to a code, whether or not it's one that we would adopt. I thought that anyone who can understand the birthplace of violence, the way he does, should also be able to understand the birthplace of non-violence. And I think he did. He shows it in a very subtle but powerful way.

EF: How do you think it fits in with the rest of his work?
MM: The other night they honoured him at Lincoln Centre. They showed all these different clips, and to sit there and see this guy's body of work...The last clip was Kundun, and after you've seen these incredible moments that have become almost pop culture, at the end there's this movie that was way off in a very different direction. It almost looked like an aberration for him, but in a way it seemed like a fulfilment of all the things that he'd done. It's really interesting to see in this line-up. (laughs)

EF: How did you work with him on the film. Did he work with you on the script?
MM: We worked for a couple of years. We would get together, he'd have some ideas, I'd have some ideas, we'd talk through them, I'd go off and write some scenes, send them to him. Basically the typical way you work with a director on a draft. He relied on me for the history and the culture and the people. He assumed that I was going to provide him with that. He was always pushing it in the area of style and storytelling. He was being the movie maker and I was being the writer. He was always looking at how to tell the story in pictures.


EF: Was there any studio interference?
MM: I don't think they quite understood what the film was. Until they got into trouble and they became aware of what we were doing. You always dread the day you get the studio script notes, but I think because of their respect for Marty, their notes were very few and quite intelligent. But there was never any request on their part to change the film.


EF: How did Seven Years in Tibet affect your film?
MM: We had been working on this movie for years before Seven Years in Tibet started up. So we knew about it, we knew they had Brad Pitt, we assumed they were taking a different route than we were.

EF: In Seven Years in Tibet the Brad Pitt character is shown to have such an amazing influence on the Dalai Lama's life, but he doesn't appear in your movie. Was that a conscious decision?
MM: It was a decision made even before we knew they were making Seven Years in Tibet. Heinrich Harrer is a beloved friend of His Holiness, but I haven't seen Seven Years in Tibet and I don't know if that's exaggerated in terms of his influence. But he only knew him for about a year. I tried to put him in the script a couple of times but he just kept popping up like a red herring. We were trying to weave this Tibetan thread and to throw in this character who came and taught him English, was his friend but then left, interrupted the story. It kind of got dropped in a couple of times as a vignette but it didn't work. He was a friend, he liked him, they had fun together and he taught him English. But he didn't alter the course of Tibetan history.


EF: Was it ever considered that the film wouldn't be in English?
MM: No. First of all, we were asking a lot of any audience to go see a movie with all Tibetan people in it anyway. If it was in Tibetan, nobody would go. And it's been a conceit of movies for a very long time that you speak in the language of the filmmaker. It hasn't really bothered anybody. There's no reason why Americans should make a movie that is entirely subtitled in another language. It's crazy. I don't think it's watchable for the rest of the world.


EF: How did you work with the actors?
MM: Nobody's an actor or has ever acted before. They're all Tibetan, except for the Chinese characters. We had this incredible casting director named Ellen Lewis who went to India and started searching. She's done all of Marty's movies and she's noted for her casting of non-actors. Great faces and great characters, and people who can just pull it off. She has this innate talent and ability to tell whether a person can actually emote.

EF: So how did Martin Scorsese work with these non-actors?
MM: Many of the roles in his movies are played by non-actors. He has an ability to guide people through it. He's very gentle and caring in the way he talks with them and explains things. I think he'd be the first to admit that there was something so innately emotional and profound about the way these people were telling this story without him even saying a word. It was all on their faces because it was their story. It meant so much to them. I think it's very apparent in their performances.

EF: Did he take much feedback from them?
MM: He knew what he wanted, how to ask for it and how to guide them towards it but he really relied on them, certainly with anything ritualistic. Any of the motions, the movements, he relied on them to know how to do that. But there's just wonderful body language. You couldn't get an actor to get that right. It would take years of living with Tibetan people to get that. He just let them behave, let them be. It was never hard to get the performances.


EF: When you were writing the script, did you ever think of the movie as an instrument of change or did you just look at it as a moving, emotional story?
MM: More the latter. I think it's kind of pretentious or presumptuous to think that you could actually affect anything with a movie. Certainly, I hoped that people would be moved by this truth and maybe want to get involved on some level. Which I think is actually happening. I have so many teenagers coming up to me and talking about it with me. It's very fulfilling to feel that it worked on that level but it was never the ambition of it. I think when you set out to make a political statement through a movie, you're in big trouble.

EF: But it will be interpreted in some quarters as a political statement.
MM: This will last as a piece of Tibetan history and we did tell the truth. This is the true story. We didn't try to pull any punches, we didn't try to exaggerate, we even gave the Chinese a fair shake, and it will last in that way. It's a piece of history for the Tibetans. Tibet doesn't exist like that any more. For them it means a lot. Most of them never saw this life, and to see it recreated is something for them to hold on to.

EF: Do you see the change. What with this, Seven Years in Tibet and the Tibetan Freedom concerts?
MM: I think there's definitely a broader awareness. I even notice that Apple computers are doing a campaign featuring the Dalai Lama. Of course, they're not going to use that image in Hong Kong...

EF: Did he give his permission for that?
MM: Yes. He is becoming better known, which is not something he's crazy about but he is the voice of Tibet. So for him to have more recognition is for Tibet to have more recognition. People now know him, they identify with him, they like him, and I think there's no question that movies are powerful and that type of publicity is powerful. That's all for the good because he's worth knowing. There's no bad side to the Dalai Lama. (laughs)

EF: He's become quite feted in Hollywood. Is there any other projects about him on the way?
MM: Not anything I know about. It wasn't like either of our movies were enormously successful, so I don't think there's going to be a whole slew of Tibetan movies. (laughs) I don't think there even should be. But I think this one particular window has been opened for the Tibetans that gets their issue out there a little bit.


EF: Is Martin Scorsese doing the Dean Martin movie?
MM: I'm not sure. I know he's been working on it but I don't know what's next. He's got a few things in the works.

EF: What about yourself?
MM: I'm puttering around with this little idea but I'm mainly being a mother at the moment. I've been working on Kundun for so many years, it's nice not having to do anything for a while.


EF: Do you ever get harassed to come up with a sequel to ET?
MM: No, because the only person who could harass me about that is Steven Spielberg, and he doesn't. We agreed, as we were making the movie, that we would never make a sequel. So neither of us have felt the need to ask the other one if they'd like to change their mind. The sequel thing gets insane doesn't it? In my mind it was a perfect little movie and why would you want to horse around with it?

EF: Do you feel the legacy of the movie?
MM: Definitely. I loved it but I haven't seen it in a while. It still stands out twenty years later. It's a wonderful little movie. It was a powerful movie, and it's hard to know exactly where that power came from.

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originally posted: 05/24/99 04:07:21
last updated: 05/24/99 04:12:24
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