Shekhar Kapur on Working With Lily James: ‘We Were Sharing WhatsApp Messages About the True Nature of Intimacy, the True Nature of Love’ (EXCLUSIVE)

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After exploring a multitude of genres, renowned filmmaker Shekhar Kapur (“Bandit Queen,” “Elizabeth”) has turned his hand to a romantic comedy with Working Title/Studiocanal production “What’s Love Got to Do with It?”

The film follows documentary-maker and dating app addict Zoe (Lily James), for whom swiping right has only delivered an endless stream of Mr Wrongs, to her eccentric mother Cath’s (Emma Thompson) dismay. For Zoe’s childhood friend and neighbor Kaz (Shazad Latif), the answer is to follow his parents’ example and opt for an arranged (or “assisted”) marriage to a bride from Pakistan (Sajal Aly). As Zoe films Kaz’s journey from London to Lahore to marry a stranger, chosen by his parents, she begins to wonder if she might have something to learn from a profoundly different approach to finding love.

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Kapur says that it is the character of Zoe that drew him to the project and the fact that dating apps have provided “true power for women” but also cause confusion at times. “If you’re getting addicted to dating apps like the main character played by Lily James – what is she looking for?” asks Kapur.

The filmmaker was in the Himalayas during the pandemic lockdown and the actor was in London. “We were just sharing WhatsApp messages about the true nature of intimacy, the true nature of love, we didn’t even talk about the script. And then when we met, we went through [the script] and that’s how she came to the film,” Kapur said.

“It was something about the modern day approach to love and intimacy, because love and intimacy has been something that is so time immemorial – that’s what human beings look for, they’re looking at love and intimacy in in the context of a huge social media movement. That was why I came to the script,” Kapur adds.

“I wanted to get deep into Lily’s character as much as the film allowed me, to understand what is it that drives social media, what drives dating apps. And the funny thing was, when I was in the Working Title office, I asked ‘Who’s on dating apps?’ And of course, everybody looked at me like I was stupid, because there was nobody that wasn’t. It was that phenomenon that I wanted to go and examine, not because I wanted to do a romcom,” Kapur said.

The filmmaker says that he didn’t look at the script as a romantic comedy, but as a family drama. The film is written and co-produced by Jemima Khan (“The Case Against Adnan Syed”) and is informed by the time she spent in Pakistan when she was married to Imran Khan, former cricket captain and later former prime minister of the country. Kapur said that as a South Asian himself, he knew the milieu and characters, who felt real, but he understood the universality of the film’s theme.

“What I wanted to do with this film was to get people over the fact that they’re Asians. I wanted people to say, well, they could be Chinese or a Jewish family in New York or an Italian family, it will be the same thing,” Kapur said. “I knew that for this film to become relevant, any culture watching this film should be able to see their mother, their family, their grandmother, their own, whichever country you’re from, in that story, in that family.”

Kapur said that the way to achieve that result was to not direct the film like a romcom, adding that in the most successful traditional romcoms, the actors acted in a “romcom way.” “I just wanted them to be real. So all my rehearsals and all my workshops with the actors were just about, let’s just find the characters in yourself. Don’t act as if it’s a romcom,” Kapur said.” So whether it’s Lily or Shazad or Shabana [Azmi] or Sajal, I kept saying, ‘Reveal yourself, find the character in who you are as an actor.'”

The director’s aim was to get people to stop looking at the characters as Muslims or as Asians, but as “absolute human beings,” he said. The filmmaker said working with Azmi, who starred in his debut film “Masoom” (1983), was like the experience “had never stopped.” On Thompson, Kapur said that she created lines and extemporised causing the crew to be in splits. As for James, Kapur says that he was warned that the actor could be “tough and difficult.” After a couple of days of shoot, James approached Kapur and asked for an honest appraisal of her performance. Things changed after Kapur said that he didn’t particularly like what she was doing.

“Lily’s performance was quite remarkable in the way that she actually managed to go on and portray, and be honestly, Zoe – the Zoe in Lily came out,” Kapur said.

Kapur said that there was a “heightened sense of urgency” while making the film as it was filmed in London at the height of the pandemic and people were dying in droves across the city. He wants post-pandemic audiences to come out of watching “What’s Love Got to Do with It?” with “a tear on the cheek and a smile.”

“I want them to come out and desperately want to hug someone,” Kapur said.

“What’s Love Got to Do with It?” debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2022 and opened the Red Sea Film Festival. It has had a successful theatrical run in the U.K., Australia and several other territories.

Shout! Studios is opening the film theatrically in the U.S. on May 5.

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