Matthew Leutwyler Interview : The making of State of Siege 26/11

Matthew Leutwyler Interview : The making of State of Siege 26/11

More than a decade has passed since the militant attack on November 26, 2008, in Mumbai. 165 died in the shocking attack which almost instantaneously created nation-wide panic and outrage. In retrospect, we remember the tragedy as a failure of our country’s security apparatuses, but on a better note, also a strategic take-down of the perpetrators by the joint forces of the Mumbai city police and the National Security Guard, an elite counter-terrorism force in the country. State of Siege: 26/11 on Zee5 takes us back to the exhausting three-day siege, recreating the attack as it took place across various locations in Mumbai – the iconic Leopold Café, the Chhatrapati Sivaji Terminus railway station, Cama and Albless Hospital, Chabad House and finally, the Taj Mahal hotel in Colaba which provided for some of the most thought-provoking imagery from the incident.     

For a tragedy which so profoundly affected the nation, it is a testament to American filmmaker Matthew Leutwyler’s skill and vision, that he was able to tell the story on-screen in spite of being an outsider. “I remember the event in real-time, but of course, it hasn’t affected me personally. Our show is based on Sandeep Unnithan’s book Black Tornado: The Three Sieges of Mumbai which talks about how the NSG saved so many lives in spite of limited sources, equipment and funding during 26/11. But I read the book just before we started production.” According to him, it was Matthew’s interest in travel and international politics that helped him delve into the local perspective. “It helps to be aware of what’s happening around the world. But I tend to talk to people on my travels a lot. Perhaps somewhere that’s played a part in my ability to tell a story which isn’t unique to me. It’s just a matter of luck that I didn’t feel alien when I was hired to direct State of Siege because I was already familiar with the story.”

“If the story is based on true events or has more international appeal, it would automatically call out to me. I love it when you watch a show or a movie, in that moment you’ve liked it or hated it. But a few days later, maybe it’s got you to learn about something new or research a world event. I’m hoping that with State of Siege, people who aren’t necessarily familiar would want to know more about India and Pakistan’s relationship. That’s the next level. At the end of the day, it is all about stimulating conversation.” He continues, “it’s so tragic to know about how young minds are being fed with the idea of fanaticism and being bred into becoming terrorists. That’s a discussion which requires a lot more nuance which the show that only be a point to take off from, should people want to have it.”

Matthew’s ‘hiring process’ was rather unique as well. He was scouted by Abhimanyu Singh’s team at Contiloe Pictures. For those who are unfamiliar, Singh has been one of the most prolific TV producers in the country for over two decades. Says Matthew, that Singh had a distinctive visual style for the show in mind but he was able to put forth his ideas via a skype call. Not only did he pull images from his own portfolio but he also used photographs from magazines as reference points to the kind of lighting and placement that he envisioned. Cinematographer Richard Henkels was also brought on to the project by Matthew’s recommendation. He was one of the directors of photography in his shortlist. All of this happened before Matthew arrived in Mumbai for the recce of the locations.

But he shows immense gratitude towards Singh, who was instrumental in helping him prep during the pre-production stage. His team put together all possible interviews, accounts and archival footage for reference. There were lots of photographs to look at. And Singh had some first-hand knowledge to share about the incident as well.

One of the people who were critical in making the show what it is was Lt. Colonel Sen (Retd.) who served as an advisor on the show. Colonel Sen was the second-in-command in the during ‘Operation Black Tornado’ and was instrumental in executing the mission in 2008. “Colonel Sen’s presence also helped us in taking our own work seriously.” Initially, Colonel Sen was brought on board to ensure an accurate portrayal of the NSG as per protocol. Over time, he became ‘more of a collaborator or partner.’ “He’d actually give ideas by being on set listening into the script discussion, correcting errors and enhancing the scene.” It wasn’t always possible to tell the story as it happened. So, the two men would brainstorm over ideas of how to integrate drama into a real-life situation, evoke the right sentiment, while also making it palatable in terms of screenplay. “By the end of it all, he started thinking more like a filmmaker.”

Arjan Bajwa, who plays the head of the NSG unit in the show, was also one of the people who contributed to the collaborative attitude on set, by sending in photographs which he felt relevant to building on his character and giving ideas on what he could do better or differently. “You never know who can give you a good idea on set, so you should always be open to them. But with a sense of control, of course. You don’t want to be bombarded by them either. It’s a real balance to even be able to say ‘alright, I’m doing fine’ or ‘yes, sure… I’d love to hear more.’ Though it was nice to have a few people I could go to and share my own ideas with.” Matthew says that acknowledging that filmmaking is a collaborative effort also helps in ensuring that the crew and crew feel that they’re part of something larger and feel respected for their input.

In a nutshell, State of Siege: 26/11’s finale episode is successful in making something feel more thrilling when the viewer is already aware of the true story. At the end of the gruelling three-day attack, the last of the militants are cornered within a kitchen basement at the Taj Hotel. Their confidence, however, hasn’t diminished. At this point, a small team within the NSG strategically infiltrates itself into the area to take them on, one by one. It is not just one of the most action-packed sequences of the show, but also the most dramatized. Matthew says it was the most difficult to shoot. The temperature control in the kitchen was just the base issue. “It was very demanding on the art department. The walls had to be tiled and painted in a certain way, and it all disintegrates the shootout. The prepping and shooting happened simultaneously. So, the cameras pointed in one direction as the crew fixed up another area for the same scene.” The sequence also wasn’t shot in the way it plays out, constantly messing with continuity. Matthew kept charts on his laptop to ensure that the movement of the NSG as it was written and meant to be shown was followed by the actors, the art department and the costume department.    

In spite of how well the sequence finally turned out, and how the culmination of the show is the NSG’s success in combating the attack, overall State of Siege does not shy away from highlighting some of the factors which made our counter-terrorism agencies ill-equipped in handling the scourge, but the fact that they were low on manpower and resources, the miscommunication between the police and the military, and how the media may have played the role in botching up several smaller missions, is still very toned down. Perhaps the audience is still not ready for the whole truth. That seemed to be a major issue for Matthew to understand, considering how the US is much freer with how they portray their leaders and bureaucratic systems in the press. And while he was really excited to delve deeper into ‘what went wrong,’ even this slightly ‘simmered down’ version of the tale seemed to get its point across. If nothing else, it gave him a bit more faith in the press in his home country. “American news networks are terrified of losing investment and sponsorship more than offending someone in power.”

But that’s not the only difference between back home and India. “The filmmaking style in India is actually much faster than that happening in Western cinema,” says Matthew. “The two cinemas seem to be going in opposite directions. The pacing in American dramas, thrillers and even action films, is slowing down. They let the audience catch their breath and build the tension, let the scene play out. In India, it seems like you’ve stepped on the accelerator directly and zoomed off.” He is thankful that OTT platforms have improved the quality of television (and general content) in most countries though. “I’m not sure what kind of entertainment the Indian people have been used to so far, but some of the stuff I’ve seen recently… traditional television production houses better step up their game because your web game is top-notch.” Matthew especially loved Delhi Crime on Netflix and is now a big Shefali Shah fan. “Shefali has real depth and brought such authenticity to the main role.” Perhaps we will get to see the two collaborate soon.

Meanwhile, the filmmaker feels that perhaps his style of handling things onset is rather distinctive. “I may have driven some people up the wall (laughs). I’m not laid back at all and maybe that’s not the style that works there. I’d love to make friends on set but that’s not the job I was hired to do. Some of the cast and crew may have had teething problems with my pacing, but once I was able to explain to them that the subject matter warrants a certain sensitivity and respect, I was able to get them to sombre up pretty quickly.” Arjan Bajwa was one of the people on set who’d take the responsibility of calming everyone down during an intense scene, and also help him calm down. But more than the on-set attitude, it was the vision for which Matthew really pushed for, stating that he wasn’t going to compromise on the craft with which the show was made. It seems to have paid off. With its successful viewership and critical acclaim, Matthew has received many messages from his cast and crew thanking him for pushing them to their limits.

When you watch State of Siege, you will be able to pick up how seamlessly the story revolves around the many heroes who played their parts, even if in a small way, and how efficiently the show pays tribute to and applauds their bravado. But you won’t be able to pick up on the many obstacles the team had to face on the way there. “It wasn’t an easy shoot, for sure. I was supposed to be in India for about three months. The transition from scripting to shooting actually went by rather quickly. But that monsoon really dampened a lot of our progress. I was also unwell in the middle and we had to shut down production. Eventually, our production time doubled.”

“Of course, there are parts of the show which could have been better. I’d like some sequences to go a lot faster. But the network knows its audience much better than I do,” he says introspectively. “I take this as a learning experience. I’d fight for something I truly believed in, but overall, the team that was put together were so hardworking and professional and really understood my vision. A few compromises on the way still worth it if everyone is happy with the end product.” The biggest advantage he had, he says, was that the story was told in a series and not a movie format. “I don’t think I’d be able to build a good enough movie with the number of nuances that this event holds. As the story progresses over the eight episodes, it gave me enough time to build characters and pay equal attention to all those entities who had a role to play.”

At a time when the world is essentially in lockdown, left with only essential supplies and individual company, it’s easy to see some parts of State of Siege: 26/11 as trigger warnings for people with anxiety. But some parts, especially the climactic moments also serve as an outlet to express national pride and truly celebrate the heroism of a few people who won a big battle against terrorism.

Meanwhile, now back in the United States, Matthew finds himself in unchartered territory once again. He’s just moved into a new apartment with his dog. “All said and done, the lockdown has its positives,” he says. “I have my new neighbours dropping by and asking if there’s anything I need, which is great to make friends. And now I’ve started doing the same for the immobile and elderly around the area. We don’t talk, just drop things off and help around. But it’s still a great way to connect eventually. It also puts things in perspective. Even for someone like me who’s at home a lot, physical interaction is really important.” If nothing else, the situation has inspired many filmmakers and technicians to take forward unique ideas that stem both from the inspiration as well as the frustration of being at home so much. Matthew has already started working on a project on those lines and hopes that platforms would be ready to fund many such projects once we’re out of isolation. “Thanks to the pandemic, we’re all going to turn into content producers soon.”

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