The Waiting City is about a couple whose lives are changed after adopting a baby in India. Brendan Swift finds it also changed the filmmakers involved.
Keeping the cameras rolling when you’re filming entirely on location in Calcutta, India, with a budget under $3 million, is no mean feat.
So it’s no surprise that local crews occasionally turn to divine inspiration for help.
“At the start of every day they bless all the major pieces of equipment,” The Waiting City cinematographer Denson Baker ACS says.
“We had two guys who would come around with coconuts with incense burning on top of it and they would wave it in front of each of the cameras, over the dolly, and then wave it in front of each of the crew members.
“And we would pass our hand over the smoke… that was our blessing which kept our cameras rolling. It seemed to work for us.”
The Waiting City may be an Australian film but it has India at its heart. The story of an outwardly happy Australian couple, who journey to India to collect their adopted baby, had its genesis with writer-director Claire McCarthy several years earlier.
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Denson Baker on the set of The Waiting City
In 2002, she travelled to India with her younger sister Helena and ended up doing volunteer work with Mother Teresa’s sisters (which ultimately led to her own documentary Sisters).
“I met a lot of couples there who were trying to adopt kids,” McCarthy says. “I just became really interested in their love stories and why they were there: why were they at this point in their lives so desperate for children?
“More importantly, what was happening to them while they were trying to meet the children. What was going on between them. That was kind of the inspiration and when I returned to Australia I interviewed a lot of couples, not just from India, but from other countries.”
The film also marks the feature debut of producer Jaimie Hilton, who had previously produced dozens of music videos and television commercials.
“I’d been watching Claire for a number of years – we were close friends,” he says.
“I thought Calcutta – sounds like an adventure. She showed me the first draft and I agreed to attach myself and come on board and go through the development process with her.”
With Radha Mitchell (who plays high-powered lawyer Fiona) and Joel Edgerton (cast as her musician husband Ben) signed up, fund raising was relatively painless.
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Joel Edgerton in The Waiting City
The Producer Offset provided about 22 per cent of the budget (slightly lower than the typical post-cost level of 35 per cent) due to the amount spent in India, while the film also received support from Screen Australia, Screen NSW, as well as post-houses Spectrum Films and EFILM Australia.
“The Offset really gives Australian producers a whole lot more than other independent producers around the world have in terms of bargaining … we’re essentially sitting on 35 to 36 per cent of our budget which is quite amazing even at a pre-script stage,” Hilton says.
The 32-day shoot began in late-2008 after McCarthy and Baker had undertaken several research trips, including shooting a music video on Super 16 and compiling a lookbook of locations containing more than 6000 photographs.
Some of the footage which appears in the film was captured during one of the trips – the time of year known as Durga Puja when the city celebrates the Hindu Goddess Durga.
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Claire McCarthy and Jaimie Hilton at the Sydney Film Festival
Baker, who recently finished filming drama Oranges & Sunshine on 35mm stock, used softer Cooke S4 lenses with the digital Red One camera to achieve a particularly cinematic look. The workflow was managed by EFILM.
“For me, regardless of what format you’re recording on, it’s more about the storytelling and creating the atmosphere and lighting, rather than the technology behind it,” Baker says.
“We used a lot of smoke and atmosphere … the real key to it is the way you light it. I lit it in a similar way I would light a film, possibly with a little less contrast, just so all the detail is there.”
The film’s emotional drama has had more than a passing effect on those involved. Mitchell and Hilton are working on an adaptation of the Sarah McDonald book Holy Cow, which will explore different aspects of Indian spirituality.
“It’s great to be part of an emerging trend of a cultural exchange with India but particularly in a time of troubled relations at home – with violence at home in Melbourne etc,” Hilton says. “It’s just a really positive thing to be a part of and a new emerging cultural exchange between Bollywood and Hollywood.”
Meanwhile, Baker and McCarthy cemented their own relationship.
“I thought if we could do a feature film in Calcutta together, we could do a marriage together,” Baker says. “Doing a feature was the ultimate test – and we both passed.”