Lust for Life

Why a biotech scientist decided to chuck it all and become an independent filmmaker

As career shifts go, Aparna Malladi's is pretty radical: She quit her job as a scientist at a South Bay biotech company, shelving her master's degree in molecular biology, to make a 35mm Cinemascope feature. “My parents designed my education to do a certain thing, and I'm doing something entirely opposite,” the Indian-born Malladi wryly observes. Come October, she'll begin shooting mitsein, utilizing S.F. painters and locations to depict a woman's existential journey.

While working in a gallery, mitsein's married protagonist recognizes her life in the artwork. “But she sees that she's not prominent in the paintings,” Malladi explains, “so she goes looking for the artist.” Her search takes her through Hunters Point and other mazes until she finds him, setting up a dialogue/interrogation. Says Malladi, “Don't we all want to meet our creator one day and ask, “What's my purpose? You just leave me there without a map and I'm supposed to figure it out.'” As the power behind the canvas, Malladi cast the famous British painter and Berkeley resident Jesse Allen. “If you meet him, you know he's perfect God material,” she says with a laugh.

The novice filmmaker — who drew storyboards after visiting each location and visualizing every shot — has arrayed a remarkable list of collaborators, from Vorpal Art Gallery owner Muldoon Elder to former Pixar cinematographer Matthew Uhry (who shot her 35mm short, Nupur). Incidentally, the German word mitsein (“being with”) was coined by philosopher Martin Heidegger and used by author Simone de Beauvoir in The Second Sex to describe the inseparability of the sexes.

French Kiss Fans of Naomi Watts (Mulholland Drive) and Kate Hudson (Almost Famous) can start getting jazzed about an upcoming film adapted from the novel Le Divorce, the comic bestseller about two half-sisters' romantic entanglements in Paris. So says its author, S.F.'s Diane Johnson, who was in the City of Lights for the just-wrapped Merchant-Ivory production. “I'm kind of surprised, because the writer is supposed to be skeptical,” Johnson confides. “I would find myself at the rushes laughing, marveling at this or that detail that [James] Ivory had thought of and I hadn't.”

She was also charmed by what screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala came up with. “Isabel [Kate Hudson's character] is told that she's made a sexual faux pas in eating too much cheese at a dinner party,” Johnson relates. “They were going to film in a cheese shop, but it was closed. So they had to rush and write a new scene.” Jhabvala spotted some asparagus at an outdoor market, where, Johnson notes dryly, the stalks “are much more visual, large, and phallic” than cheese. So the new scene Jhabvala concocted boasts a sight gag — hardly a staple of Merchant-Ivory films.

Johnson reports that she got very interested in the editing process and would love to see a rough cut. “Of course, you could always intercede at the point of the rough cut,” she says drolly. Fox Searchlight won't open Le Divorce here until next spring, but plans to debut it at a major fall film festival such as Venice, Toronto, or New York. “I'm longing to hear,” Johnson admits. “It says in my contract that they have to send me to the premiere. I hope it's in Venice.” The novelist is quietly optimistic that if Le Divorce clicks, Merchant and Ivory will want the rights to her follow-up, Le Mariage. Johnson speaks and schmoozes on Thursday, July 11, at the Mechanic's Institute Library, 57 Post (at Montgomery), at 6 p.m. Call 393-0100 for reservations, which are required, or visit

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