Kundun: About The Production

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Since Tibet and India were out of the question as film locations, director Scorsese and producer Barbara De Fina decided to shoot "Kundun" in Morocco. The country's high desert and mountains provided an ideal backdrop, and the growing film community there provided the necessary technical support system. When Scorsese and De Fina first visited the town of Ouarzazate, it consisted of two small hotels and a main street. Over the years however, it has developed as a staging post for tourism into the Sahara. It also has a film facility, the Atlas Studios, a fifteen minute drive from the center of town, which became the "Kundun" production base.

When the advance crew arrived at the studios in May of 1996, they set about creating offices out of windowless storage spaces, installing air conditioning and building desks. The first task for the construction crew was to build the large stage to house the extensive sets.

In addition to the usual activities on the studio lot, there was a snake catcher, as well as tent makers sewing beautifully decorated tents for use in the film and for the wardrobe department and catering facilities.

At the Atlas Studios and in the countryside around Ouarzazate, Tibet was painstakingly recreated. "We've tried to make "Kundun" as accurate as possible," Scorsese says. "It was important to me to be able to create an entertaining movie and at the same time show the beauty and uniqueness of Tibet."

The production was assisted by three Tibetan consultants. Namgyal L. Taklha, widow of the Dalai Lama's brother, Lobsang, specialized in costume research. Lobsang Samten, a fully ordained monk for more than twenty years, was the adviser on religious matters. Lobsang Lhalungpa, who worked at the grand secretariat at the Potala Palace during the childhood of the 14th Dalai Lama, was the ceremonial adviser.

About the Casting

From the beginning of this project, director Scorsese and producer De Fina decided to cast the film with Tibetans. Ellen Lewis, who has worked as the casting director on many of Scorsese's films, combed Tibetan communities in India and the United States with a video camera. Her biggest challenge was to find Tibetans who not only had the right physical characteristics, but also whose English was good enough to convey the emotions of the story.

"In choosing the actors we were looking for believability and the ability to express emotion; people who could be in the moment," director Scorsese says. "If they then looked like the character, that was terrific, but it wasn't our primary goal."

A chance introduction led Lewis to the nephew of Namgyal L. Taklha, widow of His Holiness's brother Lobsang and one of the production's consultants. As a result Lewis found the young man who would play the adult Dalai Lama.

"I was looking for an 18-year-old who was confident enough to handle the script material, and who also had a sense of humor," Lewis says. "That was essential. When I found Tenzin Thuthob Tsarong, I was excited. He has depth and a light spirit to him."

Some cast members are related to the characters they play. Tencho Gyalpo (the Dalai Lama's mother) plays her own grandmother. Tenzin Lodoe (Takster, the Dalai Lama's brother) plays his uncle and Gawa Youngdung (the old village woman) plays her older sister.

Lewis cast Tenzin Trinley as the Dalai Lama's tutor, Ling Rinpoche, without knowing that Trinley had been a student of Ling Rinpoche himself. Geshi Yeshi Gyatso, who plays the Lama of Sera, is also a monk from the re-established Sera monastery.

Three cast members, Sonam Phuntsok, (Reting) Tashi Dhondup (the adult Lobsang) and Jampa Lungtok, (the Nechung Oracle), are members of TIPA, the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts.

The TIPA company itself performed A Hunter's Dance, The Good Luck Dance and a satirical sketch, which satirizes the oracle for scenes of the opera festival in the film.

The extras casting involved international coordination on a grand scale. Hundreds of exiled Tibetans traveled to Morocco. Over a hundred Tibetan monks came from monasteries in India and Nepal, including the Namgyal Monastery, which is closely associated with the Dalai Lama. Moroccan and Berber extras occasionally increased the numbers to a thousand.

On set the atmosphere resembled the United Nations. The majority of the crew came from Italy, the United States, Britain and Morocco, but there were individuals from many other countries. There were three working languages: English, Italian and French, and many crew members were tri-lingual. Some also doubled as interpreters from Tibetan and Arabic. Buddhism and Islam were practiced side by side.

About the Sets

With supervising art director, Alan R. Tomkins, art directors Franco Ceraolo and Massimo Razzi, set decorator, Francesca Lo Schiavo, fifteen Italians, including a construction supervisor, master sculptors, plasterers, carpenters and painters who had worked with him on Fellini's films and hundreds of Moroccan laborers, production designer Dante Ferretti recreated Tibet in the desert.

Ferretti first worked in Morocco thirty years ago on Pasolini's "Oedipus Rex." "The Moroccan landscape is fantastic," he says. "It looks like Tibet, and Morocco now has a good tradition of filmmaking. There are many craftspeople here who use the same methods as five hundred years ago. They don't use modern technology. They build in their own way and everything looks old, just right for the look of Tibet."

In fact almost everything had to be built: the streets of the Tibetan capital, Lhasa, the exteriors of the Dalai Lama's residences, the Potala Palace and the Norbulingka and the palace interiors, including the massive enthronement room. All the furniture, all the jewelry and all the costumes, more than one thousand five hundred of them, were made in Ouarzazate. It was a massive undertaking demanding vision, energy and determination.

The art department compiled its own photographic library on Tibet and this research was augmented by the Dalai Lama himself. "In spring 1996, we visited Dharamsala," says producer De Fina. "His Holiness sat with us and went over the plans for the set with Dante Ferretti. We had to piece together the geography of the Potala from photographs in different books. He redrew the floor plan for us and put it all into perspective. When he was a little boy, he told us, he slept in one room and when he was older, he slept in another. He offered information that no one else could possibly know."

Anyone stepping on to the set of the Potala Palace for the first time was invariably reduced to a stunned silence. The assembly room, in particular, where prayers were held before the first morning's filming, had the stillness of a temple.

For the Tibetans it was an especially moving experience. "The first day when we were taken to the sets, something in me was stirred," says Tenzin Lodoe, who plays Takster and grew up in India. "I felt the interior of the Potala was so beautifully recreated. Then I walked along the corridor and saw the face of the Buddha, which I had only seen in photographs. This will probably be the closest thing I'm ever going to see to the Tibet that my parents knew. It could be the closest thing to Tibet that I'll ever see in my life. As I left the set on my last day, I wondered when I would walk on the real steps of the Potala."

The exteriors of the Potala and Norbulingka, the Dalai Lama's winter and summer residences, were built at the Atlas studios, for the most part using real materials, predominantly stone. The result was that everything felt real. The paved forecourt of the Norbulingka, took on a life of its own. When the opera scenes filmed there were over, the players changed and came back, to stroll and chat, as if it were a town square on a summer night. It was also there the Tibetans, both actors and monks, gave a concert for the crew.

The streets of Lhasa were built close to Ouarzazate and production designer Ferretti was able to take advantage of a street of unfinished houses, using the concrete shells as a solid base for his Tibetan exteriors.

Hundreds of Moroccans were involved in building the entrance to the summer palace and its walled gardens on the shore of a large reservoir. It was a forty-minute drive from Ouarzazate, through villages, along dusty tracks, past women gathering sparse shrubs to feed their animals. On the far shore the Atlas mountains stood capped with snow.

Massive lion sculptures made the journey in an open flatbed truck, sitting in a row one behind the other. Perch traveled from Italy for the ornamental fish pond and trees were carefully watered for months. It was a very peaceful setting. "This would be a wonderful place to meditate," said Gawa Youngdung, who had been adopted by the family of His Holiness, and had played in the real Norbulingka gardens as a child.

Scenes in the village where the Dalai Lama was born were filmed at Timlougite, in the mountains between Ouarzazate and Marrakech. The production hired a small road building company to create basic access to remote locations such as this.

After fifteen weeks in Ouarzazate, "Kundun" moved briefly to Casablanca, where an existing building provided Mao Zedong's headquarters and on to the village of Imlil, in the High Atlas mountains, a ninety minute drive from Marrakech, where a field study center, La Kasbah de Toubkal, was converted into the Dungkhar monastery.

To reach Imlil was difficult and required traveling several kilometers over a rutted and pot-holed track through the mountains. Then, getting to La Kasbah de Toubkal involved climbing a steep, narrow path on foot or by donkey, occasionally passing herds of goats on the way.

All the elements of the set were built at Ouarzazate and transported to Imlil. Then sixty people, mostly locals and forty donkeys worked for four weeks to prepare the location. All the equipment, camera cases, wardrobe baskets, catering, everything, was carried up by donkey. The villagers themselves have never seen a film.

About the Costumes

"We have so many different costumes and different kinds of jewelry in Tibet," says Namgyal L. Taklha. "We wanted to be as accurate as possible and it's been difficult. There is very little documentation about the life of old Tibet. We had no museums at all. We didn't preserve our art or our culture. Every home was a museum piece. A family would have things dating back centuries, which had been preserved with care. It was a way of life."

Bona Nasalli-Rocca, the wardrobe supervisor and a costume designer in her own right, managed an output of incredible proportions.

Working in a small warehouse, twelve seamstresses and tailors, four from Italy and eight from Morocco and a team responsible for aging the fabrics, made over one thousand five hundred costumes.

"Bona has been my right arm," says Dante Ferretti, who doubled as costume designer. She is really exceptional."

Twenty-five large metal trunks, full of silks and brocades, chosen by Ferretti arrived from Varanasi, a textile town in India, which serves the Tibetan community.

Miles of off-white wool and cotton were bought in Italy and dyed at the studio in tin bathtubs and bins, a rush roof the only barrier to the ferocious heat. Elaborate silk brocade was bleached, or put in mixed colors to change the shade and then aged either with a blow torch, or yak grease and dust.

"Namgyal L. Taklha explained the different costumes to me," Ferretti says. "She explained which are used for ceremonies and how they reflect the hierarchy of Tibet. It's very complicated. There are different costumes for the Dalai Lama, the lay officials, the monk officials, the monks, the middle class, the people, and the nomads. The least detail changes the social position and importance of an individual.

"I researched in the library in Dharamsala. I was in touch with the Dalai Lama's tailor. I bought twenty-five period costumes, a sample of everything to see how it had been cut and put together. Then one day there we were with all this fabric-about 30,000 meters-and a blank page. We had to start somewhere, so we began with the jackets, because they were the easiest to create."

With the exception of one diplomat's costume and a few hats, everything was made in Morocco.

The hairdressing department led by Mirella Ginnoto, who began her career on "Ben Hur," had a similarly demanding task.

Fifty-five wigs were made in Rome, but as the number of extras grew, Mirella created her own lab at the Atlas Studios and made one hundred twenty-three more.

"Scorsese wanted everything to look real, everything a little worn," she says. "The people from Amdo, where the Dalai Lama was born, had hair down to their feet. Nomads wore their hair in as many as a hundred and eight braids, so they could hide their jewelry in it. It was their equivalent to a bank account. The lay officials looked really beautiful. They loved decoration, but they didn't go for anything simple."

There are five or six movements involved in creating the lay official's topknot and the teams of hairdressers spent two weeks trying wigs on each other. At first it took them an hour and a quarter. By the time filming began they were able to deal with hundreds of people in a single morning.

"Working on 'Kundun' has been a once in a lifetime opportunity to participate in the history of Tibet," says Tenzin Trinley. "Tibetan culture is on the verge of extinction. It's been very exciting to see this process of revival, of costumes and beautiful sets, to see it recorded for the younger generation and all those people who don't know anything about Tibet, even if it's only for two hours."

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