Brad Pitt and Shah Rukh Khan bro-ed out, talked about the future. And we were there
Asking two of the world’s biggest movie stars talking about the death of movie theatres should have been a taboo topic. But when Shah Rukh Khan and Brad Pitt sat across each other in Mumbai on Wednesday, that was the question on everyone’s mind.
Hope has always been a constant theme in both stars’ films. So the conversation, free-wheeling and spontaneous, was as much about looking at the future as it was about burying the past.
Pitt’s new film, the David Michod-directed war satire War Machine will be released on Netflix on Friday, and barring a catastrophe, it is expected to be their biggest film yet. But perhaps as a sign of things to come, it will never see the inside of a movie theatre - at least commercially.
“With the business model for the studio system in Hollywood, they just can’t make films like these anymore. Print and advertising is so expensive. From a viewer’s perspective more films are getting made. It’s a renegade new resurgence of filmmaking,” said Pitt, who seemed most at ease talking about his work, and the transitional phase his career is currently in.
“As I get older, (acting) is a big commitment. There are long days. It’s a big time away from family. More and more I find myself concentrating on the production side. And I find it really rewarding to open doors for filmmakers,” he continued. “Often a gamble is where it pays off. We’ve been able to do that with our production company.”
Pitt has been dropping these hints for a while now. In his grand return to the limelight post the publicity surrounding his personal issues in September, he told GQ that he doesn’t consider himself to be an actor anymore. His focus now lies on his production company, Plan B, which has produced several Oscar-winning movies, including 12 Years a Slave and the 2017 Best Picture winner Moonlight. Dede Gardner and Jeremy Kleiner, Pitt’s producing partners and Academy Award winners were also in attendance.
But that’s not how Shah Rukh first remembers seeing him. All he remembers is an actor whose performances inspire him. “I found you amazing in 12 Monkeys,” he said, referring to Pitt’s 1995 mindbender of a movie directed by Terry Gilliam. “You were mind blowing in that film. That’s when I became a fan of Brad Pitt.”
This gave Pitt an opportunity to talk about the only thing he seemed truly excited to talk about – movies. “I locked myself in a room for a couple of weeks for 12 Monkeys, and just went crazy with it.”
But the world - including the world of the movies - is in flux. And that’s what the two were there to talk about. How does a star adapt to the rapidly changing landscape of film? How does he stay relevant to his fans and attract new ones along the way?
And as excited as Shah Rukh was about the future, he was more worried for Bollywood. Taking Pitt’s visit to India as an example, we can see how our country’s moviegoing behaviour has changed in recent years. We’re now a global market, our stars are performing in international films, and the appetite for Hollywood cinema has only grown.
“If we don’t adapt ourselves in terms of marketing, visual effects, scriptwriting and professionalism, we will be overtaken,” declared Shah Rukh. “If we do not learn from Hollywood, there is a real fear. Spider-Man does as well as a Hindi film, so we have to adapt. Scripting especially. If we don’t do that, we’ll have an issue over the next 20 years.”
“We have such wonderful stories to tell but we aren’t telling them well enough. We treat our stories like fads. Singing and dancing has to be a part of Bollywood movies, if only to keep Brad away from our movies.”
But don’t expect Pitt to dance his way into a Bollywood musical anytime soon. “I can never do a Bollywood film because I can’t dance,” he said. To which Shah Rukh quipped, “Oh, we’ll make you.”
What Pitt can do however, is play over-the-top characters, consumed by the system, deluded by their own vanity and hubris. And Stanley McMahon, his character in War Machine is a great showcase for his underrated comedic talents.
But a shadow hangs over the film. It has been sucked into controversy for being a Netflix picture, and for a film to open with that familiar ‘dah-dum’ is apparently something that could get you booed now.
But let’s catch you up first.
Only a few days ago, at the ongoing 2017 edition of the Cannes Film Festival, one of the two in competition films produced by Netflix had its world premiere at the hallowed Grande Lumiere theatre.
It was an important screening, eclipsed, as most films in Cannes are, by controversy. Okja, directed by cult South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho became the first Netflix original film to be considered for the top prize at Cannes – the Palme d’Or. But before it got booed by the famously snooty French crowd for belonging to a club whose inclusiveness is often mistaken for exclusivity (the streaming service crossed a hundred million global subscribers recently), it spurred a polite quarrel between jury members Pedro Almodovar (the head) and Will Smith (who has a finger in Netflix’s pie).
Almodovar vowed to never award the festival’s top prize to a film that won’t be released theatrically. “(As long as) I’m alive,” he declared, channelling Penelope Cruz from one of his own movies, “I’ll be fighting for the capacity of hypnosis of the large screen for the viewer.”
Smith, whose new film Bright (directed by David Ayer and featuring a sword-wielding ogre as a supporting character) will begin streaming in December – overtaking War Machine as Netflix’s most expensive film – offered reason (similar to what Shah Rukh said in Mumbai), “I have a 16-year-old and an 18-year-old and a 24-year-old at home,” Smith said. “They go to the movies twice a week, and they watch Netflix. In my home, Netflix has had absolutely no effect on what they go to the movie theatre to watch. . . . Netflix has been nothing but an absolute benefit. (My kids) watch films they otherwise wouldn’t have seen. It has broadened my children’s global cinematic comprehension.”
But how does War Machine’s David Michod, a filmmaker who excels at making expansive entertainment – his Mad Max homage The Rover positively demands to be projected onto the biggest screen available (whether or not people turn up is another matter), deal with this? How does he wrestle with the reality that his new film will be seen predominantly on tiny, pocket-sized screens?
“I never knew how I would get to make the movies I wanted to make. But then this Netflix window opened up. War Machine is exactly the kind of movie the traditional Hollywood studios aren’t making anymore. I just feel lucky I didn’t waste my time going to film school,” he said, joining Pitt and SRK on the stage. “All the Cannes talk is tectonic plates crashing into each other. It’s a transitional period. I’m less concerned about where my movies play. I believe great art comes from freedom, and that’s what Netflix provides.”
When we asked Netflix CEO and co-founder Reed Hastings the same question in March, back when he first announced a deal with SRK’s Red Chillies Entertainment, he had a similar, suspiciously-quick retort. Hastings swatted away our offer of rival service Amazon Prime’s release model as an example, and the successful manner with which it played out last year – their Manchester by the Sea was one of the most acclaimed films of 2016.
“But how many people have seen it?” he asked, which is fair, and we should know, considering the film didn’t get a release in India. Netflix, on the other hand, prides itself on day-and-date release for its 100 million global subscribers. And with an increasing number of auteurs joining its ranks – before Michod, there was Ava DuVernay, Cary Fukunaga and Werner Herzog – the studio system is under attack. And now the Netflix army is bringing in the big guns.