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The Kite Runner - interview with Rebecca Yeldham

Australian born producer Rebecca Yeldham has been through some wild filmmaking when shooting The Motorcycle Diaries in deepest Peru, but that now seems tame after “the wild ride” that was the making of The Kite Runner in even deeper Western China, she tells Andrew L. Urban.

From the start, the question of where to shoot The Kite Runner loomed over the production. The story would require the wholesale re-creation of several disparate worlds that no longer exist, including the vibrant Kabul of the 1970s – steeped in the thrilling and exotic atmosphere of many cultures freely co-mingling -- which was all but eradicated during the Soviet invasion; and the Taliban-ravaged Kabul of 2000, at a time when the repressed country had become a dark shadow of its former self.

"the utterly unique Silk Road frontier town"

But where could the filmmakers possibly find the landscapes, architecture and settings of 3,000 year-old Kabul, the utterly unique Silk Road frontier town, in a place also capable of handling the logistical needs of a major film production? Producer E. Bennett Walsh spent a year exploring some 20 different potential countries, but the surprise answer turned out to be Western China. But it should have been obvious: Walsh sent back photographs that revealed a majestic and haunting desert landscape between the ancient cities of Kashgar and Tashkurgan. They were starkly reminiscent of Afghanistan, which not coincidentally, it borders. Walsh was no stranger to China, having brought Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill Vol 1 to shoot in that country, but it was in far-flung Central Asia, in the vast, sparsely populated Xinjiang Province, where he had never shot before, that he found the elements needed to realize Marc Forster’s vision for The Kite Runner.

“It was wild,” says Rebecca Yeldham, the film’s Australian born producer, while on a promotional visit to Sydney. “I thought I’d seen ‘wild’ in the wilds of Peru when we were making The Motorcycle Diaries … and none of us realised that those Kill Bills were staged movies, not shot entirely on location like this film. Here we are in high altitudes on the border of Pakistan with a lot of lovely local people who were very eager, but no experience … and no infrastructure.”

It was 2003 and Yeldham had just joined veteran producer William Horberg (Sliding Doors, Talented Mr Ripley, Breach, Cold Mountain, Death At A Funeral) in a new production outfit based at Dreamworks when New York literary agent Jody Hotchkiss rang to enthuse about Khaled Hosseini’s then soon-to-be-published novel, The Kite Runner. “His voice almost quivered as he spoke about it, and he seemed to have been deeply moved by it, so I asked him to send it overnight and I read it in one sitting, tears streaming down my face…” Even so, if it hadn’t been their honeymoon period at Dreamworks, the studio may not have agreed to what was a risky movie proposition: a story set in Afghanistan about two childhood friends who break up and are separated. Hmmm. How much did you say you wanted?

But when Hotchkiss realised Yeldham was keen, he was smart enough to start a bidding war for the film rights, which, needless to say, helped cement Dreamworks’ interest. Then came the hard part.

Based at a camp two days flying from Los Angeles and a day from Beijing, the production was anything but easy. “Luckily, Marc Forster is very calm … he has a zen-like quality that defies frustrations,” says Yeldham, “like when we asked for 250 extras and 50 turned up … and half of them are children instead of adult males. He somehow made it work.”

"a melting pot of cultures"

This far-flung section of the fabled Silk Road (once the link between the Roman and Chinese Empires) is today a vibrant Islamic centre within Chinese society, where Indian and Persian influences abound. In the desert oasis city of Kashgar, a melting pot of cultures and colorful bazaars lend magic to a terrain that varies from the arid moonscapes of the Taklimakan Desert (which ominously means “enter and never leave”), to the dizzyingly high mountain ranges that surround it.

Still, bringing a feature film production to this remote area would be no easy undertaking. “Once we decided on China, there was an enormous amount of scouting and location work to actually come up with a plan,” says producer Walter F. Parkes. “That was as exciting and harrowing a ten days as I ever spent scouting a location. I don’t think I’ve been to a place that felt more foreign. There were moments, particularly when we would visit markets outside the main city, that you honestly felt you stepped into the 18th Century.”

When Marc Forster saw Kashgar, he knew, that despite the obvious challenges the location would create, he had found the production’s main home. “I’d seen lots of photos of Kabul in the 1970s and, after visiting Kashgar, I knew it was right. It had everything we needed to make it real and authentic including the architecture, landscape and scope, as well as the extras,” he says.

Old Town Kashgar would ultimately serve as the prime location for most of the scenes of Kabul in the 1970s and in the year 2000, while the side streets across from the impressive and massive Id Kah Mosque stood in for Pakistani streets in Peshawar including Rahim Khan’s tea house. Constructed in 1442, the mosque is one of the largest in China, able to accommodate 10,000 worshippers.

For the dangerous escape of Baba and the young Amir from Afghanistan to Pakistan, as well as Amir’s journey back again decades later with Farid to rescue Sohrab, the production shot on locations along the famed Karakoram Highway, the highest paved road in the world, which weaves precariously through some of the most breathtaking mountain passes in the world. Additional scenes were shot at Karakul Lake at 13,000 feet of elevation, where cast and crew were housed in yurts, the typical tent-like homes of that area.

The smaller city of Tashkurgan, known as “the Stone City” for its 2,000 year-old ruins, became the setting for additional street scenes of Kabul in the 1970s as well as the haunting Kabul Cemetery, which Amir visits so movingly on his return. In addition, the production filmed for two weeks in Beijing -- which momentarily became San Francisco. Three hours outside of Beijing, the production shot the terrifying scene of a Taliban stoning in Kabul’s Ghazi Stadium at the Baoding Stadium with 1,000 extras filling the seats.

After shooting nearly three months in China, the production moved on to the real San Francisco where they filmed the kite scenes that bookend the film at Berkeley’s Cesar Chavez Marina Park.

"telling a universal story that was important"

Keeping the entire production focused and tightly knit in the midst of long journeys and profound culture shock became a key component of the production. “I think the story was what kept the cast and crew going,” says E. Bennett Walsh. “When things got hard, people knew they were telling a universal story that was important. Knowing we had something very special kept us together through the hard patches.”

“Shooting in these areas, you had to be open to the idea that anything could happen at any moment,” acknowledges Forster. “You had to be open to altering plans very quickly. It was the first time I felt pushed to the edge as a filmmaker because at times I wasn’t sure what was going to happen tomorrow.”

Intent upon leaving no negative trace on the local populace wherever the production travelled, Forster was thrilled at the cooperation that greeted the production at every turn. “It’s pretty amazing the impact the film had on areas where people hadn’t seen movie cameras, let alone too many Westerners. There was a lot of curiosity, but overall they were just very welcoming and warm.”

With over 28 countries represented on the cast and crew, the languages spoken on the set spanned from English (from the US, UK, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa) to Dari and Pashto, Farsi (from Iran), Urdu (from Pakistan), Uighur (from Xinjiang Province), Tajik (Tashkurgan), and Mandarin and Cantonese Chinese, in addition to German, Spanish, French and Italian. It was sometimes only through charades that communication and collaboration somehow kept flowing.

Says Yeldham: “It did provide great humour at times, as you witnessed a Swiss director communicating to an Afghan Dari interpreter as well as to his 1st AD who is American and to a Chinese AD who speaks Mandarin, who is communicating to an AD who is speaking Uighur, who is communicating to extras who maybe only speak Tajik!”

"a love letter to the country that they’ve lost"

And without doubt, the most rewarding aspect of the whole experience for Yeldham was the reaction the film elicits from Afghans. “Afghans in the US have responded very positively; of course the Kabul depicted in the film doesn’t exist anymore, but they recognise it as an authentic depiction and are deeply moved. They see the film as a love letter to the country that they’ve lost.”

Published courtesy Andrew L. Urban
January 17, 2008


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