Chandran Rutnam on the cult classic and having a story to tell
By Dimithri Wijesinghe
The cult classic “The Sleeping Dictionary” starring Hugh Dancy and Jessica Alba was filmed 20 years ago, and the film which essentially launched Alba’s career was also shot entirely on location in Sarawak, Malaysia over 16 weeks. The movie was released in 2003.
With its “based on true events” storyline, the film ran point on its authenticity and Guy Jenkin, the writer and first-time director, had his heart set on filming on location and decided who better than Sri Lanka’s very own Asian Film Location Services President and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Chandran Rutnam, to bring them to Sarawak. Rutnam was also appointed as associate producer for the project.
Considering his illustrious career, and his involvement in the upcoming film project which quite poetically is set to be shot in Sarawak as well, we reached out to the legend himself.
Rutnam is currently writing a book chronicling the astonishing number of 68 films he has worked on, and funnily enough when we caught up with Rutnam, he was just in the middle of his 20th chapter, which just so happened to be The Sleeping Dictionary, and what a magical coincidence it was.
With the universe on our side, we launched into a film nerd-fuelled tirade of questions which he so patiently answered, many of which were to satisfy our curiosity on how awesome Harrison Ford was, and how absolutely mind-blowing it was to talk to someone who not only met but also worked with Steven Spielberg closely. Of course, at the end of it though, it came down to the fact that while we idolise these people from afar, to Rutnam, they have been colleagues and even possibly friends, and his experiences are far too different for us to relate. However, he was kind enough to indulge us in our prying.
Speaking about The Sleeping Dictionary, he stated that it was one of those more pleasant experiences as the location is somewhat dear to him. “Sarawak is a beautiful location, and it is only second to Sri Lanka and when you are looking for the oriental feel Sri Lanka cannot provide, Sarawak is my first choice,” he said.
He shared that the set was a jovial one, and that both cast and crew would often party late into the night. However, they displayed their dedication and professionalism by showing up to set early and on time every single day. “There was a fantastic wrap party on the custom boat that was built particularly for the film at the end of shooting, which was a memorable one,” he recalled.
The movie which was released direct to DVD back in 2003 is gaining its second wind, achieving a cult status all thanks to streaming services. Rutnam shared that he too is glad, as it was a film that should have garnered a lot more attention than it actually did back in the day.
Rutnam also shared that when working with various filmmakers, he has been lucky in his experiences as a majority of them have been pleasant, adding that while newcomers often tend to oblige and be overall easy to deal with and the more experienced ones quite similarly so, those in the middle tier tend to be the troublemakers. However, he has been so lucky as to avoid that problematic kind.
Reminiscing about the old days, Rutnam, who is currently in the midst of his massive project of putting together a collection of his work, shared that had it not been for the downtime he had due to the curfew, he wouldn’t ever have had the time to go through all of his old work. “I have been spending my days and nights referring to all of my old files and putting together this book; if not for this, I don’t know what I would have done. I would have gone crazy,” he said, speaking like someone who hasn’t taken a day off since he was a teenager.
Rutnam has had an eventful life, from the time he worked on the set of “The Bridge on the River Kwai” at age 17 to when he went to Hollywood and stayed there for 40 years to learn the ins and outs of show business while serving a six-year stint in the US Army, not once considering the option to become a US citizen, remaining a proud Sri Lankan passport holder through and through.
He shared that in doing all of this, he has always maintained a love for filmmaking and while Asian Film Location Services will remain a functioning body, his current interests lie with his production company Taprobane Pictures. “With all this foreign interest in Asia and foreign productions, there is a huge market out there for authentic cinema,” he said, adding that he hopes to capitalise on that.
He said that the most important thing to remember in filmmaking is that it all comes down to your story. If you have a story to tell, then your only challenge is to tell it well, but it all boils down to the stories and the challenge lies in finding that perfect mix of appealing relatability, and when you have that figured out, you’re that much closer to succeeding.
As we segued into Sri Lankan cinema, we had to pose the question of the current state of our industry and Rutnam was quite reluctant to comment, sharing that he wishes not to talk about the local cinema industry, while expressing a hint of disappointment at the state of affairs. However, he did say that if you look at his body of work, if he was able to persuade Steven Spielberg to shoot a film with him in our country and that film goes on to be highly critically acclaimed, then what is stopping him from creating art of the same calibre?
He did, however, cheekily compare some film festivals that are held abroad requiring films to meet a standard, where they will be adjudged by a jury looking to provide constructive criticism focused on improving, to film festivals here, which often tend to provide the juror with a free ticket, which then results in pats on the back, self-applause, and filmmakers being sent on their merry way with awards they likely do not deserve.
Despite his thinly veiled feeling of disappointment with the Lankan cinema industry, throughout our conversation, Rutnam would often allude to the fact that he considers himself very lucky to have had the experiences he has. He is most grateful for the life he has led and greatly wishes to continue doing what he loves.