Vada Chennai art director on working with Vetrimaaran: Our conversations are brief but we trust each other
Vada Chennai art director Jackie opens up on his long-standing relationship with Vetrimaaran and why recreating a different era was challenging
At the pre-release press meet of Vada Chennai, filmmaker Vetrimaaran revealed they spent a whopping Rs 5 crore on building the prison set, and called art director Jackson, aka Jackie, as one of the pillars of the film, which has earned a lot of praise for recreating the bygone era and staying true to the period it is set in. Jackie opens up on his long-standing relationship with Vetrimaaran, why recreating a different era was challenging and the overall experience of working with Dhanush.
Jackie and Vetrimaaran collaborated for the first time in National Award-winning Tamil film Aadukalam, which starred Dhanush and Taapsee Pannu in the lead. The second time the duo joined hands was for Visaranai, another award-winning film on abuse of power and police brutality. Talking about his journey with Vetrimaaran and what makes them click as a pair, Jackie says: “Our take-off has been very smooth. We share a very good understanding which has helped us to work with a lot of freedom and comfort. Every time we work together on a project, he tells me what he wants and does not ask how I will do it. In Aadukalam, he told me we had to shoot a cockfight sequence and gave me a reference for it. We had to recreate the whole setup. He just briefed me and left. When he returned a week later, we had everything in place. He took a look at the set and asked us to start shooting. He did not even appreciate the set once but those things never bothered us because we share a very professional relationship.”
For Visaranai, Jackie was asked to build a police station set. The brief was that when someone entered the building, there should be a sense of fear. “A lot of action and drama takes place inside the police station in Visaranai. Vetri asked me to make the set in such a way that it strikes fear in the hearts of audiences when they’re taken inside. After the set was finished, Vetri walked in one day and all that he told me was, 'Yes, there is a feeling of fear as I walk in.' We’ve never sat and discussed for hours about any set. Our conversations have always been very brief but we trust each other.”
Jackie prepared the set design of Vada Chennai nearly six years ago. “Soon after Aadukalam, Vetri and I discussed the idea of Vada Chennai. I designed all the sets in 3D in Maya. It’s been a long wait to see the film get made but it’s been worth it,” he said, adding the first set that he built was the prison set, which has become one of the highlights of the film. Nearly the entire first half of Vada Chennai unfolds on the prison set. “Initially, the jail portion was not supposed to be so long. We thought of shooting in a real jail in Rajahmundry. It was later decided that the jail portion would be longer and Vetri wanted the set to resemble the Chennai Central prison. We kept aside 43 days to build the prison set but it was completed in 40.”
Talking about spending the maximum chunk of the film’s budget on building sets, Jackie said he was surprised by the support extended by the production department. “In the first meeting with the executive producer, I was asked how much it would cost the build the prison set. I took a wild guess and said around Rs 10 crore and I wasn’t even asked a question. I was asked to start the work immediately as they wanted the prison set to be completed to start the shoot. When most producers would ask to cut short the budget, Dhanush and his team gave us a lot of creative freedom and time to work. That may have possible because of the relationship Dhanush shares with Vetrimaaran.”
Even while working on the prison set, Vetrimaaran never intervened in Jackie’s work. “He’d visit us every now and then come with some suggestions. One time he brought someone who had served time in the central jail and asked us to take inputs from him. When we worked on building the slum and recreating Royapuram area, Vetri worked closely with us because he knew the place and its landscape really well. The biggest challenge for me on this project was recreating the look of a certain time period. Since the story goes back and forth in time, we had to ensure the overall look matched the time period. The hotel where the film begins, for instance, had to look different in each time period, at least the interiors. When we shot the portion featuring Rajan and the other characters, the tables had concrete top but in the 80s portion they were replaced by sunmica. One day, we’d shoot the 70s portion and by the end of the day, Vetri would tell us that we’d have to shoot the 80s portion the next day. We worked through the night and prepared the set to suit the 80s period for the next day. It was challenging and at the same time, exciting.”
Jackie looks forward to collaborate with Vetrimaaran for the fourth time as he teams up with Dhanush for a project based on the Tamil novel, Vekkai. “Vetri has asked me to read the novel and I’m waiting to hear from him to start the work.”
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