Indian-born director Mira Nair became fascinated with Amelia Earhart
"For me, she was a person on a postage stamp," the filmmaker said in a phone call from her New York production office. "That was it.
"Of course I learned about her when I came to this country to study. But I only really began to understand her in an emotional way when I was hired to make this movie about her. Then I looked at all the newsreel footage, and that's what really got me hooked."
What she saw, Nair said, was a woman who kept her eyes on what excited her: flying.
"And though she was living in the public eye — always getting medals and climbing in and out of airplanes while camera crews recorded it — there was a consistent humility about her.
"Humility, you know, is not a particularly American sensibility. But here was this woman who had enough madness to dream big, to achieve her goals systematically, but also to achieve them with humility and to go through life with a kind of grace."
Nair said she hoped she captured some of Earhart's spirit in "Amelia," the biographical film starring Hilary Swank that opens Friday.
Nair's directing career has covered lots of ground. She has made movies about Indian slum children ("Salaam Bombay!"), about Cuban exiles in Florida ("The Perez Family"), about Indian transplants in the Deep South ("Mississippi Masala") and even about classic Hindu erotica ("Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love ").
"Life is short," she said. "You can't repeat yourself. What's the point? It's all about stretching and enjoying new things."
"Amelia" is her first film about a real historic person, and she found it particularly challenging.
"I must say it was my most difficult film. I wanted it to reflect Amelia's epic story. It's daunting to make a biography of an iconic person in a flesh-and-blood way. In Amelia's case, she's very elusive, and it was hard to capture that enigma and her non-hysterical sense of cool."
Earhart's many accomplishments so popularized flying that she was a major force in the establishment of commercial aviation, Nair said.
"But she wasn't a flag waver. If you asked why she flew, she'd tell you it was for the fun of it. I love that plain-talking Kansas speak."
Earhart was taking to the skies at a time when aircraft were primitive.
"These airplanes were tin cans with doors fastened by a simple latch. You could fall out of one of them if you weren't careful. We didn't exaggerate that in the film. She risked her life often."
Earhart's private life was groundbreaking, too. Her marriage to publisher George Putnam (played by Richard Gere) was way ahead of its time.
"If you were to read aloud today what I call her 'pre-nup,' it still would be considered iconoclastic. We filmed it word for word — in fact, whenever possible we tried to use Amelia's own words as dialogue. She had such an interesting turn of phrase."
"Amelia" was shot all over the world, but especially in Canada and South Africa.
"We filmed in Halifax, Newfoundland, in the very spot where Amelia took off for her solo flight across the Atlantic. It was very important for me to have this reality.
"We found that much of the art deco architecture we needed no longer exists in the U.S. But in Africa entire airports are in the art deco style. The '30s were a very exciting time in design, architecture, cars, fashion and airplanes. I fell in love with the look."
There are numerous theories about how Earhart died; no trace of her plane was ever found. Nair said she preferred to concentrate on what we do know rather than conjecture.
The most fulfilling day on the set came with the scene in which Earhart, in an attempt to be the first to fly around the globe, realizes she's running out of fuel in the middle of the Pacific.
The sequence was based on 1937 recordings made by the crew of a Coast Guard ship who could hear Earhart's radio transmissions. Unfortunately, she could not hear the sailors, and they were unable to guide her to a safe landing on a nearby island.
"Listening to that recorded transmission, I really felt the power of Amelia's last minutes before going down," Nair said. "The film represents exactly what's on the recording. She was running out of fuel with only the ocean in front of her.
"At that point I imagined myself as her. I wondered what she would be thinking and feeling.
"I don't shoot much, usually three takes. After the second take of that scene I told Hilary, 'We've got what we need. Now just fall apart for me. There's nowhere to go but into the water. Let it go. Let the self-possession go.'
"And Hilary delivered. I refer to takes like that as 'calling one for love.' You'd be surprised how often that's the take that ends up in the movie."