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Shambhala Sun | January 1998

The Making of Kundun 1

For Melissa Mathison, best known for her screenplays for ET and Black Stallion, writing Kundun was a labor of love and a surprising spiritual journey. She talks with media consultant Angela Pressburger about "pitching" the Dalai Lama, recruiting Martin Scorsese, and diving into Buddhism.

Angela Pressburger: What was your personal experience of Buddhism before you started on Kundun?

Melissa Mathison: Zero. I had studied the world religions in college, but the motivation for writing this script had nothing to do with Buddhism at all.

Angela Pressburger: So the original motivation had to do with your interest in children?

Melissa Mathison: I was intrigued by the story of this boy who was destined to have such an extraordinary life. I wasnít interested in Tibet and I wasnít interested in Buddhism; it was simply a fantastic story of a child who was discovered and groomed to take over his country and then was handed it at the worst possible moment of its history. It appealed to me on an emotional, dramatic level; it couldíve been a story of a Samoan boy, for all that it mattered in terms of what attracted my interest.
Originally I wanted to write it as a childrenís type of movie, but the story and the complexities of his life were much more adult than you could possibly tailor for a young audience. As I started reading and researching, all the other attributes of the story became more important to me. The more I learned, the less it became a childrenís movie.

Angela Pressburger: How did you approach the Dalai Lama with the idea?

Melissa Mathison: After I had done enough research to feel that I wasnít going to make a complete fool of myself, I sent a letter to His Holiness outlining what I wanted to do and they sent a letter back sounding interested. Then His Holiness was in California and I arranged to meet him. I had already forwarded a treatment of the movie and his advisors had read it. We had an audience and I pitched the movie to him, and he said yes.

Angela Pressburger: How do you "pitch" a movie to the Dalai Lama?

Melissa Mathison: It was sort of funny. It was a much nicer meeting than they usually are, and may I add, heís much more intelligent than most people youíre usually pitching a movie to! I just sat down with him at this hotel in Santa Barbara, and my husband [Harrison Ford] was with me, and people who now I know so well were with His Holiness. I proceeded to say what my ambition was for the film: that as well as a history and a biography of him, I wanted it to cover the stages of life from infancy to young adulthood; that within the context of his upbringing and Tibetís history, it was a microcosm for the ages of man, the ages of child. I expressed it that way and he thought it sounded interesting, fine. He was just very sweet and funny, and said, "Okay, if you think this is a good idea, you can go ahead and try."
He invited Harrison and me up to Santa Cruz where he was going to be on retreat, and I spent a couple of days in a row with him just talking and asking him stories about his life. He invited us to come and visit him in India, and as soon as I had a first draft ready, we went to India and I went through the script with His Holiness and got his corrections. I spent a lot of time in Dharamsala interviewing people. Also, we went to Tibet. The story got deeper and deeper, and my knowledge grew, and I was able to make it more detailed and interesting.

Angela Pressburger: Did you start to meditate yourself then?

Melissa Mathison: No. The course of this was movie, Tibet, Buddhism, in that order. So my interest was growing in Tibet at that stage, the tragedy of Tibet and how we could help Tibet. That was was the first step for me, after starting to write.

Angela Pressburger: How did the content and the emphasis of the movie change as your interest shifted and deepened?

Melissa Mathison: Well, as I said, it matured from my idea that this could be a movie for children about a child. It matured in terms of audience and so the whole concept had to become more profound and more descriptive.
My interest in Tibet, the realization of the tragedy of Tibet, made it emotional in ways I had not expected it would. It became emotional not just about this boy, but it became emotional for the whole country. Then, because the upbringing of the boy was all about Buddhism, I had to dive into that. I had a number of wonderful people who I could call upon and interview, but I didnít take on a Buddhist teacher to help me. I just sort of dove into it myself. My understanding of the dharma influenced my writing. because what we had to do was make the teachings obvious in the life of the people: you donít just hear about the dharma, you see them living it.

Angela Pressburger: What were the factors that influenced you personally as you made the progression from the boyís story to Tibet to Buddhism?

Melissa Mathison: First of all, meeting the Tibetans. I mean, youíre sunk once you meet these people, theyíre the kindest people Iíve ever met in my life. The people themselves alter you with their kindness. Going to Tibet was a pretty shattering experience. And Iíve been privileged to spend an awful lot of time with the Dalai Lama, so when I would sit down and ask, how does this description of the Four Noble Truths seem to you, it was sort of like working with Einstein or something! [Laughs.]

Angela Pressburger: At what point did you decide it would be interesting to ask Martin Scorsese to do this picture? I mean, the person who did Taxi Driver and Raging Bull is not your obvious first choice.

Melissa Mathison: Well, it was to me. You see, thatís where I differed from everyone else. He was always the first person on my list. I had met Marty a couple of times. I grew up a Catholic, he grew up a Catholic. I knew he had actually studied for the priesthood at one point and I knew that he was really interested in the spiritual. I didnít have a clue that he had any interest in Tibet, but I just knew that whether or not he wanted to make this movie, he would understand what it was about.
Well, Marty is, of course, a great movie buff. He loves old documentaries and newsreel footage and he immediately told me how he remembered as a child seeing this footage of Tibet, footage of the Dalai Lama escaping, and how he was always intrigued, as we all are, by Tibetóthe magic and the mystery of it all. Then he read the script and, to my great delight, he said he wanted to make the movie. He understood the destiny of the boy, basically a child carrying the destiny of his people. Itís a pretty grand subject. It all appealed to him.
Then it took us three more years to get to make the movie! [Laughs.] He had no time, so I had to become the pushy person and convince him not to do something else but to do this movie. Then he had his own contractual dilemmas he had to work out, so it was always slowóslow and difficult. We worked together now and then for a couple of years on different drafts, and then finally he was free to make the movie.

Angela Pressburger: Seven Years in Tibet is more of an action film and Kundun has a poetic approach and is more atmospheric, from what Iíve heard.

Melissa Mathison: Well, ours is a non-action film! [Laughs.] Marty and I have always joked that weíve made a spiritual adventure movie, and I think in fact we have. Itís quite rousing, but it is about nonviolence. There is no violence in the movie.

Angela Pressburger: What genre of movie do you think Kundun is?

Melissa Mathison: With all humility, I think weíve almost created a new genre. It doesnít compare with any movie Iíve ever seen. So I donít know what you would call it, but I think spiritual adventure movie is about right! Itís a biography and yet itís more intimate. Itís an epic but itís an epic thatís internal and subjective. Itís about a people and yet you hardly ever see the people. Itís unique.

Angela Pressburger: How do you think the film will affect people in the West?

Melissa Mathison: In screenings it has a very profound effect on people in the audience. Itís hard to describe what goes on, but they are numbed by it. Not in a grief-stricken way; theyíre sort of numbed in an introspective way. People donít move at the end. They just stay in their seats; nobody leaves.
I think itís audacious even to think it will be good for Tibet, but I think you are left at the end of the movie thinking, there should be a solution to this, what can I do to help?
Weíre not trying to turn anybody into Buddhists, thatís not our agenda. I canít imagine a worse idea for making a movie! We were just trying to make a good movie, but I have been told by audience members that it sort of demands that you examine your own life. So thatís pretty nice!

Angela Pressburger: Do you think that the uniqueness of this movie and perhaps part of its power has come from using Tibetan nonactors.

Melissa Mathison: You never think, after the first five seconds of this movie, about whether these people are actors or not actors or anything: they are so true, they are so truly displaying their own feelings and their own sensibilities about this story, which is their story. Itís not like a documentary at allóit is absolutely a feature filmóbut you donít stop and think, oh, I wonder if theyíve ever acted before. You just go with it. I mean, theyíre wonderful; everyone in this movie is fantastic.

Angela Pressburger: Theyíre presenting something that is very, very deep within them.

Melissa Mathison: They are. We witnessed it in the making of the movie, because people would walk into this room that was supposed to be the Potala and pray or weep. It was a very moving experience for the Tibetans. It comes from within them and nobody else could have possibly done it. You couldnít hire an actor to play these parts. Nobody could have done it the way these people did it.

Angela Pressburger: Initially you must have thought of it as a movie with big name stars.

Melissa Mathison: No, never. One of the first things Marty and I agreed on was that there would be all Tibetan people. You couldnít use movie stars. I mean, first of all, who? And what kind of make-up do you put on them to make them look like the Dalai Lama ? [Laughs.] There are four or five Chinese actors, but you couldnít bring in, you know, Harrison Ford to play one of the parts.

Angela Pressburger: But without the big names, this must have been a difficult movie to get financed and produced.

Melissa Mathison: This was a really challenging movie to get made, thereís no question about that. There are no big stars, it all takes place in Tibet, itís the story of the Dalai Lama, itís a "religious" film.

Angela Pressburger: In the end, do you think it will be a movie that lots of people will want to see?

Melissa Mathison: I have no idea. I do think that itís such a fantastic experience watching this movie, itís so moving and so good, that word of mouth will bring in people who would not have thought they had any interest in seeing a movie about the Dalai Lama or Tibet. My guess is that itís going to be a surprise who the audience turns out to be, because I think it will attract people we would never imagine.

Angela Pressburger: As Schindlerís List opened the idea of the Holocaust to a huge number of people who had never really thought about it, especially younger people, I wonder if Kundun might have some similar effect.

Melissa Mathison: I hope. The thing that will be interesting about this movie is that itís not over. The Holocaust is over but this is a story thatís not over for Tibet, and it will be interesting to see if that creates action. Thatís not the motivation for making the movie, but the Tibetans are certainly hoping that, and Iím hoping that.

The Making of Kundun 1, Angela Pressburger, Shambhala Sun, January 1998.

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