The dark side of Mowgli: In conversation with Michael Seresin

Cinematographer Michael Seresin on why films ought to reflect the darkness in real life and how Mowgli will be a fresh take on the beloved character

Updated - September 02, 2018 11:35 am IST

Published - August 31, 2018 03:20 pm IST

A preview of the upcoming retelling of our beloved childhood character, Mowgli, begins with a disclaimer of sorts, warning audiences that the film is the darkest take on the light-hearted classic yet. The rest of the trailer paints a landscape, polar opposite to what the world has seen of the Rudyard Kipling creation — exploring themes of survival, betrayal and acceptance. How does one re-imagine a tale so imbibed in common memory? “People think of Mowgli as just a children’s film. It’s an intelligent film that might make people think, ‘What are we doing to our planet?’,” says the film’s director of photography, Michael Seresin.

Dark undertones

Directed by Andy Serkis, Mowgli centres around the forest-bred man-child who finds himself fascinated by the jungle’s newest encroachers — human beings, thus putting to test the titular character’s loyalties with the animal inhabitants. “I think the biggest sword hanging over our heads was Disney because of its association with the film being proudly happy, light and sing along. But if you think about it, Mowgli is a pretty dark story,” he says. For the cinematographer, now 76, the story draws parallels with what is happening in the animal world today. “Beneath it all, the film is a documentary. There are plenty of dark stories out there, so they should be there in the films,” explains Seresin, known for hits like Gravity and Angel Heart .

Art vs commerce

Seresin, whose camera work is known to be dark and layered, likes to be associated with films that challenge one’s imagination. Take for instance the 2017 thriller, War of the Planet of the Apes (WTPA). “It was a powerful film — unlike those where people walked out of the cinema and asked, ‘where do you want to go for a hamburger?’ At the risk of sounding pretentious, I do like that it made people think.”

According to the BAFTA winning cinematographer, a number of reviewers treated it like a small art film rather than a blockbuster. For him, every money-making film, irrespective of the genre, is a boon to the industry. “If a film makes money, more movies can be made and there’s more work for everyone,” he says.

Artistic synergy

With a career spanning more than four decades, Seresin is acclaimed for his collaborative work with British film director Alan Parker, for films like Midnight Express and Angela’s Ashes . For him, it is crucial that the synergies of a cinematographer match with those of the director. “This comes from a shared overview of the film, its story and the aesthetics, be it shapes or body language.” Similarly, the decision to work with Serkis on Mowgli predominantly came from the camaraderie the duo shared right from when Serkis played an ape in WTPA . “I would have never discussed his role and performance as an actor because that’s not appropriate. Whereas as a director, I’m discussing the film with him everyday,” he says.

Going ahead

Seresin has sat on the director’s seat just once in his career, with the 1988 drama, Homeboy . Will audiences get to see another side in this directorial venture? “Who knows? Directing wasn’t easy, but I have another project in mind, which I keep revisiting,” he says. He hopes to get started on a script by actor Gary Oldman based on the life of English photographer, Eadward Muybridge. “The script is brilliant and I hope to do something smaller for a change.” As for the cinematographer’s wine ventures at Seresin Estate, he believes it keeps his social exposure rich and varied. “In the wine world I could meet a philosopher, a cab driver, a fisherman, a poet even. Whereas with films, you only meet film people. At dinner in the wine world, everyone brings something to the table. Cinema is a lot more selfish,” he concludes.

War of the Planet of the Apes will air on September 6 at 3 pm on Star Movies

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