Wes Anderson’s whimsical wheeze, The Darjeeling Limited, is out this week, and to celebrate, D+CFilm has a week’s worth of interviews and features for your delectation. Click here to watch the trailer.
Today, we take a look at the difficulties of filming on a train.
Before he even went to India, Wes Anderson knew he wanted to shoot The Darjeeling Limited on a real moving train – an idea that, at first, sounded as logistically outrageous as it was creatively inspiring.
“You know, typically anybody making a movie that takes place on a train would shoot on a set, but it was abundantly clear with The Darjeeling Limited that this was never going to happen, no matter how many people tried to talk Wes out of it,” muses producer Lydia Dean Pilcher.
“We were going into a region under the auspices of Northwestern Railways, and they had never had anybody come to them and say we need ten coaches and an engine for three months and we’re going to strip them down, build our own interiors and we want to run it on a live track!
“It was unheard of and it involved navigating mountains and mountains of bureaucracy. At times it seemed impossible.”
Yet, still they forged ahead. While the filmmakers wrangled with Byzantine Indian bureaucracies, production designer Mark Friedberg began creating the designs for the train’s interior on paper, riffing on classical Indian trains and the great railway journeys of cinema.
Friedberg and Anderson took a cross-Rajasthan trip on a typical tourist train to get a better feel for them and studying India’s extensive railway history.
The Indian rail system is by far the busiest in the world, with an astonishing 15 million passengers daily. The trains themselves range from sleek, air-conditioned, modern cabins to classical, hand-carved steam engines from another era, with most falling somewhere in between the two.
Once he had become intimately acquainted with Indian rail, Friedberg went to the movies to look at various depictions of trains through the years.
“Ultimately we cross-pollinated the actual Indian trains with luxury trans-world trains such as the Orient Express as well as the contemporary Euro transit trains,” the designer explains.
The final result was a kind of hybrid of East-West design. “We blended Rajasthan-style patterns and the colour scheme of Indian Railways with a sort of modern Art Deco style – but all made in the handmade, Indian tradition,” Friedberg says.
In bringing the train to vibrant life, Friedberg worked closely with art director Adam Stockhausen and graphic artist Mark Pollard, who helped to create the palette and texture of the train, heavily utilising traditional Indian fabrics and prints, and oversaw the local painters who turned the train’s exterior into a grand tapestry of hundreds of hand-drawn elephants. Teams worked in shifts, day and night, to finish the train in time.
Friedberg also worked closely with cinematographer Robert Yeoman who faced his own unique challenges on the train.
“Shooting on a train is always extremely difficult,” Yeoman confesses. “Where do you put the lights? We couldn’t rig anything to the top of the train and no equipment could be more than about three feet from the car due to the telephone poles and trees that practically brushed against the side of the train!
“Luckily, Wes and Mark sensed my predicament and did everything possible to help me. The train was rebuilt so that it was as film-friendly as possible.”
Yeoman continues: “We also built a lot of the lighting directly into the train so that Wes could move more quickly. We lined the ceilings with kinos and parabeams so we could bring up the exposure and we had gels pre-cut that could easily be placed in the window frames so that we could see detail outside the moving train.
“Mark also built the sleeper compartment where the brothers spend much of their time with sliding walls so we could get the camera where we needed. We even built a track in the ceiling of the train’s corridor so that we could move up and down the train without a dolly!”
Yeoman notes that although there was the temptation to use “poor man’s process” – where lighting tricks are used to simulate a moving vehicle – to shoot the train’s night scenes, Wes Anderson eschewed the idea.
“Wes felt that a moving train imparts an energy to the shot that cannot be faked,” explains Yeoman. “Only rarely did we break this rule.”
Once shooting began, the complications of working on a moving train only expanded. Anderson had to literally work around the train schedules, dealing with trains running late and delays on the fly.
Says Pilcher: “Wes always had a plan, always had an idea, as in ‘if this happens, we’ll do that’ so he always kept the energy very high.
“He wanted to move fast and even if we got stuck waiting for a train to pass we would get out a long piece of lumber and start rocking the train to keep the work going.
“Other times if we had to lose our train to let another train pass, we put an old train car with our interior cabin design on a truck and went out to the desert with that.
“The idea was that, no matter what the logistics, we would never stop shooting, ever.”
Posted by Thin White Duke