Jude Anthany Joseph: Had 2018 failed, I would've flown to Dubai
The maverick filmmaker reflects on the success of 2018, filming challenges, executing a behemoth project with multiple actors, and more...
When Malayalam cinema is currently celebrating the blockbuster success of Jude Anthany Joseph's behemoth survival drama, 2018, which put an end to the industry's long dry spell with its Rs 100-crore+ overall gross, I was adamant from the outset that this interview should be a reflection on the film's journey and its captain, without veering off into unnecessary tangents; hopefully, by the time readers finish, they will have gained some insight about Jude, the filmmaker.
Prepping for an interview with Jude is akin to being part of a film he is making. When he has agreed to grant you an early morning interview while engaged in the shoot of a movie he is starring in, you feel compelled to skip your breakfast, so suffice it to say this conversation happened on a tight schedule over three breaks.
But first, let me briefly recap the fascinating journey of 2018 from a film journalist's point of view. When Jude first announced the project with the title 2403 ft., with a stellar ensemble cast and an entirely different technical crew, the initial reaction was uncertainty. Would this project have anything to make it relevant five years later? Is a man known for feel-good relationship dramas capable of executing a project of this magnitude? The feeling got further amplified when there was no news of it later: Are they still shooting it? Did they drop it? Confirmation of its existence finally came when Jude announced the title change; the teaser launch offered a glimmer of hope; the film's theatrical release, much to everyone's surprise, was accompanied by less fanfare. How come a project featuring so many big names didn't opt for aggressive promotions? 2018's extraordinary success, propelled by strong word-of-mouth, proved that loud marketing doesn't necessarily yield fruitful results in this day and age.
Proving yourself with 2018 must've been a trial by fire...
Of course, it's a huge turning point. Had it not worked at the box office, I would've flown to Dubai in search of a job. (laughs) A lot of naysayers were waiting for me to fail. I invested four years of my personal life and career into this. I worked hard to get the returns for it.
The craft behind 2018 recalls what Hollywood filmmakers like James Cameron and Ridley Scott pulled off in the 1990s and 1980s -- achieving a lot with very little. This back-to-basics approach seems to have worked out wonderfully.
Yeah. While prepping for it, I looked up the making videos and reading material pertaining to all these flood or tsunami-based movies. But all of those were humungous endeavours that cost around Rs 600 crores and more, which would be impossible for us to achieve. So the only remaining option was to opt for practical work, mostly. Necessity is the mother of invention, no? We made a plan, and a lot of hard work later, here we are.
We employed VFX in some places, but it was minimal. The sea sequence required VFX, obviously, but the rest are extensions, like the water we see in the distance or on the edge. Everything else is real. When doing a film of this magnitude, we have to do justice to it as much as we can. I mean, when you get such a big opportunity, talented team, and necessary budget, it would look really bad if we didn't do it properly.
Did you take any inputs from the initially announced team?
No, no. Their names were on the poster for announcement's sake, with their approval, of course. They only heard the one-line. There wasn't even a script. But once it was time for us to commence the shoot, they all got busy with other projects. I also realised that the reworked script had little to do with the Idukki dam, so I scrapped the '2403 ft' title. 2018 was more apt.
One remarkable aspect is that you chose to focus only on a certain group of characters rather than include everyone from all departments. There was some criticism about the latter...
Look, I can understand if it were a documentary related to the 2018 floods, but that's not what we were going for. A cinematic approach was more suitable for a film of this kind. We tried to include a lot, but it's impossible, keeping in mind the limitations we had and, of course, the duration. So I decided instead to keep the photographs of people from KSEB, police, fire force, etc. in the end credits because we couldn't overlook their contributions.
How did you navigate the entire shoot around the actors' schedules?
So, we started shooting on May 27, 2022. This is how it happened: After shooting Chackochan's (Kunchacko Boban) portions, we shot Tovino's, followed by a few days' break, followed by Asif's, took a break, shot Vineeth's and Kaliyarasan's, and so on... We designed the entire film in such a way that these characters rarely met because we didn't want to complicate things. The few major combination scenes involved Lal sir, Tovino, and Asif. Even the actors' presence in the airlift sequence required a bit of maneuvering to make it look seamless. Again, it was all planned right, which explains why nobody could figure out who came first or later, even though we filmed each character's segment like a separate movie. Take Chackochan's portions, for instance. The control room portions took three days; his home, one day; and the final hospital scene, two days.
In between, we had to shuffle some characters. For example, Indrans ettan was supposed to play Sudheesh's character, but when the former's date changed, I called Sudheesh. And when another person who was supposed to play Indrans' character because he was physically not up to it, I called Indrans ettan again to play him instead.
Maintaining the weather continuity must’ve been taxing too.
Oh, man. That required extensive pre-production work, without which it would’ve been a nightmare. We had to pay strong attention to the rainfall intensity (drizzle to heavy downpour); when we need the wind, when we don’t. In the drizzle situations, we had to be careful not to do the opposite. And, of course, no sun anywhere. These are all minimum efforts, you see, not, as they say, some ‘brilliance’. When you become aware that your work will become part of history, would you let your mistakes devalue you?
I presume the pandemic-induced delay must’ve been a blessing in disguise.
Indeed. The shoot was supposed to start in 2020, but the pandemic pushed us back two years, which meant a lot of time to rework our material.
How many drafts did the script take to get to the final version?
Over a dozen, to be precise. We retained a lot from the first draft in the final. However, there were some changes with regard to the narrative style and shot divisions. With the improvisations, I would say the 14th draft is the final.
The performances are a mix of realistic and cinematic. Wise choice, in retrospect.
Each film demands its own acting style, man. Some demand a realistic treatment, while others demand a more cinematic approach. 2018 required a blend of both, depending on the situation.
The one unifying factor in all your films is human relationships.
I’m simply following the examples of all the great filmmakers who came before us. You need relatable emotions for the common man to connect. The spectacle alone won’t do; it’s not enough for the people to say, “Oh, the shots are nice.” The remark about the shots should only remain in the mind, but the loud one should be about the overall scene. “Oh, what a great scene!” See what I mean?
You opted for a balanced treatment where every character’s fate is unpredictable. Were you concerned about how audiences would react to certain endings?
Even if they found it predictable, it would be fine with me. I heard someone tell me they saw someone taking a screenshot of a climax scene, and I said it was okay because it won’t affect our film. 2018 is not about some suspense or twist. Most people would have gotten an idea in which direction the film was heading when considering what’s unfolding on the screen at a given moment. Besides, what’s new here that one hasn’t read about in the newspapers before?
You know, after watching the film, Fazil sir told me he liked how we showed the death of one of the main characters. For me, the basic reasoning behind it was that we should convey the pain of the person who lost their loved one and, in doing so, take audiences back to the memories of 2018—they should start wondering how many such incidents must’ve happened back then, what kind of losses people experienced... That’s why the tagline ‘Everyone is a hero’ creates more impact.
Of the flood and airlift sequences, which was the toughest to accomplish?
The flood sequences weren’t too challenging because we had already rehearsed them quite well. The airlift sequence was the most difficult because the shot divisions were tough to do. It took eight nights to finish; the peace and happiness we felt once we finished it were indescribable. The water portions were actually fun. We were occasionally joking around, like during that lizard scene.
What about the one with the snake?
I almost got to the point of deleting it. What really happened was after shooting all the most complicated sequences, shooting it without a real snake was not thrilling. I told the team let’s scrap it, but our cinematographer (Akhil George) insisted on shooting it because we came this far anyway. He suggested removing it only if the VFX didn’t turn out well, but thankfully, it did, and I decided to keep it in.
Was there a moment where you felt you could’ve done a better film with a bigger budget?
Absolutely not. The budget we got was more than enough. (laughs) Here’s the thing: We have a certain kind of market in which we can sell a particular product, and only if you are confident you can do that should you make it. Otherwise, don’t. What’s the point of making something that costs a fortune and nobody buys it?
There is a general perception that you’re difficult to work with. Is it true?
You see, my biggest problem is that I’m very direct and sincere. So I expect the same in return. It’s upsetting when someone, instead of telling something to you directly, goes behind your back and tells it to someone else. But, later, I would realise it’s a misunderstanding, and when it gets solved, I don’t tend to keep it in mind and then use it against someone later. Maybe these people would’ve gone through a bad experience in the past, which explains their bad manners.
Transparency is very essential. On my set, I give everyone the freedom to say anything. You don’t like something? Say it. When I have a problem with an actor’s performance, I go close to say it in their ear instead of humiliating them in front of everyone else. And when you do the former, people are fine with that. What’s the point of acting like you’re making something massive and groundbreaking, but you only want to take a few people with you? How does that work? Why bring our egos into the mix? We can’t be too attached to anything. Sometimes you have to let go of some things.
What’s next in the pipeline? Something bigger?
I don’t want to immediately jump into something bigger just because 2018 worked. I need to sit down and ponder carefully and peacefully about my next. I want to put in the same kind of effort I had put in 2018 but with a different kind of material.
There will be lots of producers after you wanting you to do this and that, but if you fall into that trap, it’s going to affect you badly. Of course, we all want to succeed, but I always believe that the lessons from our failures teach us the best; what we are doing now is the cumulative result of everything we did before, including failures. So we have to proceed with much caution.
Where do you find your creative spark?
I find it everywhere. I try to learn from anyone I work with. It could be a film I act in or direct. I always want to get better. I’m not saying this as someone who thinks highly of himself, no. But, compared to what I did or was before, I can definitely say I’ve become much better. All of us should strive to better ourselves further.