Hollywood is no stranger to foreign filmmakers leaving their marks in the world of American cinema and Academy Award nominee Vinod Chopra is the latest filmmaker to do just that! An acclaimed Bollywood director, Chopra has now set his sights on American cinema. While he may not be a household name in The States, this breakout film has certainly put him on the radar. It is also important to note, Chopra is the first Bollywood director in history to write, direct, and produce a mainstream Hollywood film. Set in the shadows of the US-Mexico border gang wars, ‘Broken Horses’ is a gritty, epic thriller about the bonds of brotherhood, the laws of loyalty, and the futility of violence. Having left town as a child after the death of his father, young music prodigy, Jacob Heckum (Anton Yelchin), returns to his desolate hometown after years only to discover that Buddy (Chris Marquette), the child-like brother he left behind now works for a drug gang. The gang’s ruthless leader has twisted his simple mind and manipulated him into a killer… a surrogate son who blindly does as he is told. He is unable to convince Buddy to leave his new fraternity. Drowned in guilt for having abandoned him, Jacob quickly realizes the only way to save Buddy is from the inside out. The film is a bold introduction from this accomplished director. James Cameron and Alfonso Cuaron have supported Vinod calling his film “an artistic triumph” and “overwhelming” respectively. Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with Vinod Chopra as her visited New York City to promote the film. In the interview he discusses his early years, his influences, breathing life into ‘Broken Horses to life and what the future might hold for him in cinema.
What made you pursue a career in filmmaking? Was there something that really intrigued you early on in your life about film?
You know, I come from a very small town and I learned about everything when I was about 16 years old. I can tell you, I used to look at those big posters at the small cinema hall in the town called The Palladium. I just wanted my name on those posters! [laughs] It was as simple as that! It was a complete childhood dream or fantasy that one day my name would be on those posters. I let that fantasy overrule all of my rational senses! I just followed my fantasy and here I am talking to you in Hollywood!
Who were some of your influences as a filmmaker, both as a boy and today?
This is a very complicated kind of a thing. When I was in Kashmir, all I could see were Hindi movies. At that time, there were filmmakers from India like Guru Dutt, Bimal Roy and Mehboob Khan. These were the people who influenced me. Then when I went to The Film Institute, I suddenly saw Orson Welles, Federico Fellini and Francois Truffaut and I was blown away! I didn’t even know cinema like that existed. It has been a crazy influence beginning with filmmakers only from India, because that was all I saw, and then suddenly realizing a whole new world exists! Then I became influenced by this new world. I think that is why my work in cinema has a strange originality. It is really from two different worlds in a way.
Filmmaking is not an easy profession. What has keep you inspired through the years?
It really boils down to it being a story I want to tell or not tell. For me, because cinema has been a childhood passion, I will never make a movie that I don’t believe in. Now, after “Broken Horses,” I have some really big studios talking to me about what might be my next movie but I am not going to pick up a script that they give me and say, “Make this in India because it will make a billion dollars.” I don’t care. I have made enough money in my life and I have never made a movie that I don’t believe in and I will not do it even now. What really pushes me is the script and a story that I want to tell! If I can in some way touch people’s lives or in “Broken Horses” bring families together and make brothers love each other. If I can convey that, I will be very, very happy. For instance, the last film I did in India was called “PK” and it was about religion and was, of course, the biggest hit ever in India. I was making a point that if you follow religion blindly, there will be nothing left on planet Earth except for shoes because everyone will kill everyone. That is what drives me, conveying a point of view to an audience. I find it very inspiring.
What made “Broken Horses” the film to introduce yourself to American audiences?
I don’t think like that, Jason. I don’t plan and think, “Is this the right film for me?” Maybe it isn’t! Maybe I should have made “Slumdog Millionaire” a big hit, you know? I basically go with what I feel like doing and what I feel is the right thing for me to do at the moment. I have never thought too much on, “Is this the right thing for me?” I don’t think like that. I just do what I believe I must do and leave the rest to the Gods of Cinema, so to speak!
What sparked the idea for the story of “Broken Horses” and got the ball rolling?
You know, it is loosely based on a cult movie I did in India called “Parinda.” It was me and my writer, Abhijat Joshi, traveling on a train to Boston when we said, “OK, let’s try to adapt ‘Parinda.'” That was because I had recently seen Martin Scorsese’s “The Departed” and I thought the original Korean film was much better. That is how it all started. It was inspired by that but it has gone somewhere that was very different. When we made Buddy Heckum slow, which was in the fourth or fifth draft, I realized the film was going far beyond the original concept.
What did you hope to accomplish as a director that you might not have attempted before in the medium?
This was the first time I danced with this art form. You see, when you make films in India, they are slightly loud, over the top, people sing and it is a completely different art form. Alfonso Cuaron (“Gravity”) said to me, “This is such a smooth transition to an American movie.” It is very different. James Cameron also praised the film sky high when he saw it. He said, “How did you storyboard this film?” I said, “James, I didn’t do storyboarding. I just worked with the actors.” He couldn’t believe it! [laughs] For me, this was a completely different art form and it isn’t the same thing I have done in India.
What was the biggest challenge you faced on the project?
For me, the biggest challenge was, in the beginning, the prejudice that most Americans have for Hindi cinema. Like I said, the films are loud and over the top. That was a problem when I first came here. But now, most people who have seen “Broken Horses” have loved it. More actors, stars and studios want to work with me, so it is a totally different story than before this film.
Was it difficult to get the right mix of actors to flesh out these detailed characters in the film?
I was fortunate that I was not only the writer/director/producer for the film but I was also the chairman of the studio that was doing it so I could make many bold decisions. For example, when I felt Vincent D’Onofrio was the right actor for the part of Julius Hench, I knew at that given moment we had another name that would help me market the film much easier. I stood by Vincent and said, “No. He is the right actor for this role.” I could make those bold moves because it was my money and my studio. I was totally hand-picking these actors. Chris Marquette was perfect for the role of Buddy and on and on with all of these guys in the film. I was fortunate that no studio head was telling me what to do!
Being as involved with the world of cinema as you have been through the years, what had the biggest impact on you as a filmmaker? Also, what has you most excited for the future?
Let me tell you, when James Cameron saw my movie and started clapping in a dark theater, that was very inspiring to me. That really pushed me and inspires me to go forward and make my next project. My next project will again be a movie that I really want to make but maybe it will be a huge film like “Lawrence of Arabia” or something huge like that. It is also inspiring when people like James, Alfonso or many others are raving about the film after a screening. What happens when people like what you are doing, it inspires you to go even further. That is what “Broken Horses” has done for me and it has been a very satisfying journey.
Many young filmmakers and creatives can look to you as an inspiration. What is the best lesson to be learned from your story?
Create excellence and success will follow. That is the bottom line and it is that simple.
Thank you for your time, sir! I wish you continued success!
Thank you, Jason! Thank you so much!
Released by Vinod Chopra Films and Reliance Entertainment, ‘Broken Houses’ hits theaters on April 10th, 2015 and stars Vincent D’Onofrio, Anton Yelchin, and Chris Marquette.