Vanity Fair is not, director Mira Nair notes, a "stuffy frock movie." It is, rather, what you'd expect from the force behind cross-cultural films such as Monsoon Wedding: Pigs run through London, flies buzz in India. Potent stuff for modern globe-trotters who fill their lives with work. Nair told Fast Company how she fills her work with life.
Fast Company: Why does this story resonate?
Nair: Thackeray asked, Which of us, having achieved our desire, is satisfied? That aspiration for more, America has excelled in marketing that. And we don't answer the question, Where will it take us? Thackeray gave us a mirror of his society. I've tried to look past the facade and get into pigs, and wigs coming off, to show that upper classes look as coiffed as they do only when supported by coalmongers and apple sellers. That hasn't changed.
FC: How do you direct so many actors at once?
Nair: Gabriel Byrne said this was the only film he'd seen in which the director explains as much to the extras as to the actors. In a scene with 300 people, I wanted to explain everything. Your eye can go to anybody, and therefore everybody in that frame needs to be fully engaged in what we're trying to do.
FC: What is your job description?
Nair: My work as a director is to make everybody bloom: to cast for strengths of an actor, mine the strengths, and then maximize them. Casting actors is both intuitive and informed. Then I see what will work and encourage them in the direction of what's working. I love them into it. They're like sponges: The more attention you give, the more they shine.
A version of this article appeared in the October 2004 issue of Fast Company magazine.