Eight years ago, Ritesh Batra was up in the mountains of Park City, Utah to participate in the Sundance Institute’s Screenwriters and Directors Lab, a path that would ultimately lead to his narrative debut feature “The Lunchbox” in 2013. It was there he first met Robert Redford, the Institute’s founder, and while he was thrilled at the opportunity to shake the hand of the screen legend, the director surely thought that might be the extent of their interaction. So it was with considerable surprise when Batra got a call from Redford’s office a few years later to talk about bringing an adaptation of Kent Haruf’s novel “Our Souls at Night” to the screen and an even bigger one when a mere 10 minutes into their conversation, Redford asked when he could get started. Soon enough, Batra found himself in Florence, Colorado, a stand-in for Haruf’s idyllic fictional burgh of Holt, experiencing a little deja vu when they started rehearsals for the drama – and not just because he was standing next to Redford once more or that “Barefoot in the Park” co-star Jane Fonda had joined them. Instead, it was because any jitters Batra may have had in giving direction to such a formidable pair of icons was washed away by what the filmmaker had picked up from the lab Redford had created.
“There was this great circularity to it because as I told Robert, when I was up at the lab at Sundance, it was all about there is a director and you’re shooting scenes from your script and making those scenes work up in the mountain,” says Batra. “It’s [exploring] really what the scenes are about and the emotional needs of the character within all the other [resources] you may or may not have as a director available to you, so [it was like] using the process of the lab on this movie in working together.”
Batra turns out to be an inspired choice to helm “Our Souls at Night,” which sees Redford and Fonda as neighbors who start spending the night together to ward off the loneliness of being in an empty home after their spouses have passed. Adapted with wit and warmth by “(500) Days of Summer” and “Spectacular Now” screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, the film unfolds gracefully, even though the arrangement between Redford and Fonda’s Louis and Addie causes a stir amongst the other septuagenarians in town (among them, Phyllis Somerville and Bruce Dern). However, Batra finds the edge in the material by exploring through Louis and Addie’s tentative courtship how personal history is constructed and reconsidered over time as the two recall their previous marriages, which they remember less romantically than their children (Matthias Schoenaerts plays Addie’s son, Judy Greer plays Louis’ daughter), and give each other the permission to have fun again.
After previously building films around Irrfan Khan (“The Lunchbox”) and Charlotte Rampling (“A Sense of an Ending”) at a similarly reflective age, Batra is able to once again to translate memory into sensation, the sharp pangs of what Louis and Addie are feeling directly connected to what remains important about their experience as all else falls away. While Redford and Fonda look as cozy as one would expect in each other’s company, the director would seem to take pleasure in pushing them slightly out of their comfort zone for “Our Souls at Night,” respectful of their glow as the kind of movie stars they just don’t make anymore, but interested in how they’ve been weathered by all the things that were left out of their control in life. Following a premiere at the Venice Film Festival, “Our Souls at Night” is bowing globally on Netflix and to mark the occasion, Batra spoke about how he approached working with two of the most brightest of stars in all respects, adapting a favorite novelist in the late Haruf, and returning to India for his next film after capturing England and America so precisely in his last two.
Is the role of a director any different when you’ve got two actors who share this kind of history together?
Yes and no. The amazing thing about this movie was that we had a pretty quick and short prep period for this movie — eight weeks before we were shooting in Colorado, and during that period when I was tinkering with the script with the help of the writers, I’d go often to spend the day with Jane reading over the script and I’d do the same with Robert. Then the three of us got in the room for a week before [shooting] and we had the set of the bedroom – and [if] you’ve seen the movie, there are so many scenes in the bedroom — so we had the chance to interrogate those scenes and try to go deeper into the material and just play, which you don’t [usually] get that on movies. Usually with busy actors, you get on a set, you rehearse a little bit and figure out how to do it and go for it, so we had the most wonderful time on this movie trying to really figure out for ourselves what each scene was about.
We made some amazing discoveries together while we were rehearsing, like taking a couple of those scenes off the bed and onto the dressing table, for instance when [Addie] is telling [Louis] about her daughter, and even [changing when the action would occur] from night to day sometimes, and those discoveries we made during the rehearsal period we preserved on set and you see in the movie today. It kept us centered because so many or those scenes are about not just getting to know you, but the things we say to each other and the things we leave unsaid and the things we come back to later.
Has it been happenstance that your three feature so far have all revolved around this age of reflection or is that a theme you’ve intentionally gravitated towards?
I find it a little bit hard to answer, but in regards to this movie, there were all these things that attracted me to it. Kent Haruf’s work [was one] — this is the last novel he wrote, but I had read “Benediction” and “Plainsong” before — because it’s so simple. It’s very easy to do simplistic. But it’s very hard to do simple and that was the challenge of this movie, and just to honor Haruf’s work and have it be simple attracted me to it. And I had a great time working on it because I shared a room with my granddad growing up. He lived with us for the first 18 years of my life and the last 18 of his, so he was sometimes my best friend…sometimes it was a little annoying to have an older person in the room with you. [laughs] But I had a great time on this movie imagining him getting a second shot at sharing the burden of life with someone. He was also very civil and very dignified, just like Robert’s character in the movie, so that attracted me to it. But you know, I don’t spend a whole lot of time thinking about myself. [laughs]
Given the nature of Haruf’s work where there was some intersection between the novels, did you find yourself adapting the author as much as “Our Souls at Night” specifically?
We found ourselves during the preparation and rehearsal period getting closer to the novel. Scott [Neustadter] and Michael [Weber], the writers, and I had a lot of discussions about how far we could depart and how close we could get to the novel. When Matthias Schoenaerts came on to play Gene, we had wonderful discussions [about not] making Gene a crass character because he brings in a lot of push and pull of the story vis a vis Addie [Jane Fonda’s character], and it was really about how Gene can make her reflect on herself rather than how Gene can present himself as a victim to her and to the audience. In the novel, Gene’s character is pretty brazen and forthright in his complaints. So there was a very fine balance in that, but I think Matthias, both in our prep and onscreen, helps make this more complex and really serve the adaptation [because we could] leave a lot of those things unsaid, [which] in a funny way I think brings us closer to Haruf’s work, being a little bit understated and simple.
That extends to the film aesthetically, where the highest compliment I could pay is that it resembles Ozu in how dynamic it is visually while seeming relatively straightforward. Was there anything specific you abided by in creating that style?
Ozu is a good reference to this film, especially because Stephen Goldblatt, the [cinematographer] and I had a wonderful collaboration and early on we decided that we’re only going to move the camera when the characters moved. Also, we only were going to start blocking the scenes with movement later in the story, like when they go camping or when it makes sense – like when they go to the restaurant. But we were pretty locked in and on sticks because we wanted to make the actors – these characters – the primary instruments through which we tell the story, and the camera is of great assistance with that if it’s showing them. We stuck to those simple rules and then every now and again, you break that rule if it’s a good reason when you’re on set and making the movie, but it served us well on this story.
Did you get something special from actually shooting in Colorado, where the novel took place?
Yeah, we did because the local and the specific really seep in to the story so I was mostly interested in shooting there not just for the landscape — [though] it’s a very striking landscape over there and there’s a diversity of landscapes, but we stay away from the diversity of the landscapes until we really go out with the characters and discover them through the characters — but because of the people. All the day players that you see in the movie — all the people that have one scene or a couple of lines [like] all those men at the coffee shop — they’re all locals. They’re not really actors. They’re local people from this town called Florence, Colorado where we shot much of the main street scenes.
There’s a group of guys who meet for coffee every morning in a cafe in that town, so we went up to them and said, “Would you be in this movie?” And we workshopped for a couple weeks and rehearsed these scenes with Robert Redford and Bruce Dern and [told them], “You’ll have things to say and things to do, but you really just have to be yourself,” and I knew just getting those people there – not just their faces, but also their reactions to that situation in the movie, was priceless to the movie. Even in church with the townspeople, we had actual people from that town and it was just tremendous to talk with them about how the story that was similar to this story that had happened and just bring in certain parallels. The old guys in the cafe would tell me about somebody in their group who had an affair and how everybody in town reacted to that. [laughs] It was pretty amazing. That town opened its arms to us and really took us in and I really appreciated that.
You’re returning to India for your next film “Photograph.” Do you feel it’s important to go back at this point in your career?
Yeah, I want to keep telling stories in India. That’s important for me personally to tell stories from where I am, particularly Indian stories [because of] the fact that we have a very big local industry that serves us and [Indian films] don’t travel as much. It’s how economics work and we tend to be very esoteric in our storytelling in India, so that’s important to tell Indian stories to a wider global audience. I’ve [also] been wanting to make this movie in India for a long time, right after “Lunchbox,” and then I went out and did things in other countries and I thought it was a good time for me before I step into something else to go and make this movie in Bombay, so that’s what I’m doing now.