The first time acclaimed Indian director Vidhu Vinod Chopra visited Los Angeles was to attend the Academy Awards after his 20-minute documentary, “An Encounter With Faces,” was nominated for an Oscar.
The Indian government paid for his airfare because the young filmmaker, fresh out of film school, didn’t have enough money to buy a plane ticket. He also couldn’t afford to rent a tuxedo, so he wore his national dress — a night suit — on the night of the 1979 ceremony. The experience, however, planted a seed in Chopra’s mind that he would eventually return to L.A. “If I was not nominated, I don’t think I would be back here,” he said.
Although he did not go home with one of Hollywood’s coveted golden statues, Chopra has returned to the city more than 30 years later to make his first English-language movie. His independent feature, “Broken Horses,” wrapped production Friday.
“The reason I came here was because all my dreams were fulfilled in India,” Chopra, one of India’s most renowned directors, said in an interview Saturday. “This is a different challenge. It’s chasing a new dream all over again. I felt like I was in film school because nobody knows who I am.”
His new $10-million movie was financed by India’s Reliance Entertainment and is scheduled for release next year. Besides being Chopra’s first film in English, “Broken Horses” also is believed to be the first to be shot by an Indian filmmaker in Los Angeles for an American audience.
Chopra’s movies include Bollywood hits such as his last production, “3 Idiots,” which was India’s all-time highest-grossing film; a sweeping Shakespearean epic called “Eklavya: The Royal Guard”; and a documentary about destitute children in Mumbai.
Set in a California border town, “Broken Horses” tells the story of two brothers, played by Anton Yelchin and Chris Marquette, who get caught up in U.S.-Mexico border gang wars.
Although not a Bollywood film — the cast is mostly American and no one breaks out in song — it is loosely based on another picture Chopra wrote and directed, the 1989 Hindi movie “Parinda.”
The script was written by Chopra and Abhijat Joshi, who also wrote “Eklavya: The Royal Guard” and “3 Idiots.” Chopra’s brother-in-lawSubhash Dhar, a collaborator on several of Chopra’s films, also served as producer (Mandeville Films partners David Hoberman and Todd Lieberman were executive producers).
“To me this film is primarily a love story between two brothers caught up in a conflict in a border town,” Chopra said. “I’m very close to my brother and my family, and it’s really a story I wanted to tell.”
The movie took several years to get off the ground. Originally conceived as a larger-budget project, the story initially was set in New York, but Chopra realized he didn’t know the city well enough. He revised the script to use a border town as the backdrop and scouted locations in Nevada and New Mexico, but he ultimately selected the L.A. area because of its diverse locations and strong crews. (The production also got a $2-million state film tax credit.)
Chopra assembled a top-notch crew, including Oscar-nominated cinematographer Tom Stern (“The Hunger Games,” “Million Dollar Baby”), production designer Toby Corbett (“Crossing Over”) and Emmy-nominated costume designer Mary Vogt (“Men in Black 3" and “Batman Returns”).
“I had a $100-million crew on a $10-million movie,” Chopra said. “They had all come from big movies.”
“Broken Horses” filmed over 34 days throughout the L.A. area, including Victorville, which played a border town; downtown, which represented New York City; and locations in Santa Clarita and at Polsa Rosa Ranch in Acton, where the crew built a chapel, a cabin and a small pond with water pumped from a nearby reservoir. The 730-acre ranch, which straddles the Santa Clara River and borders the Angeles National Forest, is a popular spot for filming and was also used for Disney’s “The Lone Ranger.”
“It was a perfect site for us,” Dhar said. “L.A. has so much to offer. You can shoot for New York, a border town, for deserts — it’s got amazing landscapes within 50 miles of the city.”
Bundled up in a cap and winter jacket to fend off the 40-degree weather on a recent weekday at Polsa Rosa Ranch, Chopra was joined by about 100 crew members filming a scene for “Broken Horses.”
Julius Hench sat in his black Ford SUV perched on a hilltop in Acton, watching one of his lieutenants drive down a dirt road to a ranch house in the distance. A man behind the truck cranked up a fan to blow a cloud of dust behind the truck.
Chopra liked the scene, except for one thing: He noticed Hench, played by Vincent D’Onofrio, was blinking too much and asked him to give him another take. D’Onofrio, star of the TV series “Law & Order: Criminal Intent,” repeated the shot with less blinking.
“We got it — very nice,” Chopra said.