Paul Mayeda Berges

The Mistress Of Spices

Interviewed by Jaspreet Pandohar

“When you see Aishwarya on the screen it's very hard to look at anything else ”

Paul Mayeda Berges was born in Los Angeles and began his film career making documentaries and teaching film production. In 1994 he met British filmmaker Gurinder Chadha while working as a Director of the San Francisco International Asian American film festival, with whom he formed a close friendship and writing partnership. The couple went on to marry and co-write four films together - What's Cooking? (2000), Bend It Like Beckham (2002), Bride & Prejudice (2004) and now The Mistress Of Spices. Based upon the novel of the same name by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, it marks Paul's feature directorial debut and stars Bollywood actress Aishwarya Rai as an ancient Indian spirit living in modern America who draws on the mystical properties of spices to cure people.

Why did you feel this particular novel would translate well on screen?

I thought it was very cinematic. On one hand it's a classic immigrant tale and deals with a lot of the themes Gurinder are interested in, like culture, what happens when you move from one country to another, what you take with you and what you leave behind. But it also uses magic realism, which I thought was really interesting.

How did you go about portraying the magic realism on screen?

Obviously there's long history in literature in using magic realism to explore how different cultures perceive reality, and what I thought was so exciting was that it is very visual. It just seemed natural to bring that into the realm of cinema. For me magic realism is all about myth and folklore and being tied into something that is bigger than yourself. There is also a lot about the film that is contemporary and multicultural, in that it's set now in San Francisco and the kind of customers who come in and out of the spice shop. But at the same time, for me, the spices in the film represent Tilo's tradition.

Having co-written, produced and assisted on a number of films with Gurinder, how did you feel directing your own?

I was excited as we were working with a lot of the same crew and actors as we did on Bend It Like Beckham and Bride who we had become quite close to. More than anything it felt like we had gone away to summer camp together. When you spend so much time raising money and putting the film together, when you finally get to shoot it you have a blast and tell yourself to enjoy it.

Did you find directing more stressful than writing or producing?

Undoubtedly there is pressure as everything is on your shoulders. You've got to be able to answer everything, be on top of all the departments - the performances, the look of the film, the music. I saw it as a wonderful opportunity to put my own stamp and personality on the film.

How did you manage to tempt Gurinder away from the camera?

She had a great input into the film but it wasn't a problem at all. We wrote it together and she produced it, so there's still a lot of Gurinder in it. I give her a lot of credit. She was cautious of influencing me and didn't want to be looking over my shoulder and say "Are you sure you want to shoot this like this?" or "You sure you don't want another take?" She had some great notes for me and was really helpful, but she let me got on with it and was really confident that everybody was really good at their jobs.

How do you think your styles compare when it comes to direction?

I don't think it's an overall directing style. I think each film has its own tone and feel. Gurinder is so full of laughter, life and joy all the time that she tends to bring that comedy element into her films. There's a lot of affection and warmth and that's what she is known for. Because Mistress is a much more sensual, intimate, romantic film compared to a musical like Bride And Prejudice, it was better suited to me. It's more like a fable and is all about someone who is really taking their first step into a new world. It's hard to compare Mistress to something like Bend It Like Beckham as it's such a different genre.

What made you cast Dylan McDermott against Aishwarya?

When I was casting I knew I needed a really strong, traditional leading man who had to be American. In the UK Dylan is mostly known from the TV series The Practice, but what I like about him is his intensity. When you see Aishwarya on the screen it's very hard to look at anything else as she is so striking. She is even more striking when she's simple, as she is in this film, and not overly glamorous. I knew we had to cast a good-looking bloke like Doug who could also hold the screen with her.

The Mistress Of Spices is released in UK cinemas on Friday 21st April 2006