Here We Come

After the India shoot, I remained in India for a couple of weeks, traveling to Punjab in north India to Valarie‘s ancestral homeland for the first time. But we also did some film production while we were there.

While I was in the midst of a complex short film in the slums of Bangalore, Valarie was in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. A year earlier, we were both there filming the aftermath of the shooting of six Sikh worshipers at the gurdwara there. In the year since, we’ve been back periodically to conduct follow-up interviews in what will likely become a larger documentary project about the shooting and its aftermath.

And because I was in India on the Story of a Girl shoot, Valarie had to produce a complicated production of her own on the one-year memorial. Fortunately, she had the help of two our of Visual Law Project cohorts and a newly introduced DP who also went to AFI but before I did.

When she was there, she discovered that one of our interviewees would be in India at the same time and place as we would be – Amritsar. During the August 5, 2012 shooting, the gunman seriously injured Baba Punjab Singh, an older man, who was left mostly paralyzed and in the hospital. Two sons and his wife came from India and have been by their father’s side since then, virtually living at the hospital for an entire year.

One grown son, Raghvinder, has become one of our main interviewees – a deeply kind and generous embodiment of the Sikh spirit of “chardi kala” (relentless optimism). He was returning to his home in Amritsar for the first time in a year to see his family right when we’d be visiting Amritsar.

We joined him at the Golden Temple, the holiest place for Sikhs and perhaps the single most beautiful and authentically spiritual place I’ve been to in India. We interviewed Raghvinder and his family and followed him around the temple, filming with our Sony A99. It was really moving and unexpected day of production on our tour of Punjab.

After India, we stopped in Denver for a wedding, then to LA where we went apartment hunting for our triumphant return to California. It took all of two days – we found an amazing place in Venice that we’re happy to call home, in mostly the same neighborhood we lived in three years ago.

Since returning, I’ve been reuniting with old forces, meeting new ones, and searching for a new manager/producing partner. We even had a couple of screenings of our VLP film The Worst of the Worst – one at Stanford Law School and another at the United Nations Association Film Festival in Palo Alto. It was great to see the film in front of an audience for the first time since we premiered at Yale last year.

Simultaneously, our short Oak Creek: In Memoriam was showing at the festival in Toronto where Valarie and I had met 10 years ago. (We couldn’t make it because of our Stanford work.)

Anyway, it’s been good to be back in California, even if we’ve been on the road for a majority of the month since we moved in.

In fact, I’m in Burma (Myanmar) right now updating this – note the irony of titling this post in reference to a song about heading to California, all while I update this from Southeast Asia. Not here on a film assignment, technically, but we’ve been showing our Oak Creek: In Memoriam here as part of Valarie’s US State Department sponsored speaking trip. She’s meeting with and speaking to people who are trying to combat inter-religious violence between Buddhist and Muslim groups.

Okay, I think that actually catches me up to now. More to come back actually in California in a week or so.

India Production Recap

I can’t believe it’s OCTOBER and I am just now updating what happened in India. So much has happened since India that I’ll have to do an update very soon. In a nutshell – I moved across country and now we’re back in The Movie Factory aka Los Angeles and we moved in to our Venice apartment.

But more of that later. Here’s what happened in the Subcontinent:

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Director of Photograph Amith Surendran walks through the shot with me and my trusty tablet in the JP Nagar slum.

All told, we shot for eight days with an additional two half days of pick-ups in August. It would be probably terribly uninteresting for me to lay out each day in detail, but I will share some highlights, spread over a couple of Blog entries. Warning, there might be spoilers for the forthcoming film so, you four readers, are hereby warned. Also, this is quite long so good luck and godspeed if you’re up for it.

Day 1 – JP Nagar Slums Part 1

The first shot of the first day was …  unforgettable. Generally, I prefer to not have a very difficult scene to start the production off, but we had a tight schedule and I didn’t have the luxury of that sort of flexibility. The scene first up was the first time our two main characters meet – “Niti” our lead and “Pooja” who befriends her. Niti is in the tree hiding from some people trying to catch her and Pooja spots her. So we had to put Niti in a tree. But we also had to put Amith Surendran, our DP, in the tree – or, as the plan was, on a ladder that was higher than where our actress was.

No problem right? Well, no problem if you have a ladder that’s the correct height. Our crew did not. But they did have four craft service tables. So, they went about stacking the square tables on top of one another. And then the short ladder on top, where Amith would climb into the tree. They then slung a rope over the branch, tied the Canon 5D Mark III to one end, and hoisted it up to him in the tree.

The whole enterprise made me very very nervous, but the Indians in our crew were un-phased, unconcerned about the danger, did all they can to make it safe, and continued forward. Amith was in the tree, I was on a lower branch holding the monitor for framing, Niti was on a nearby branch, and we got the shot that will probably start that scene.

This sort of encapsulates the entire shoot – at times haphazard and makeshift, but ultimately, for the most part, we got the shot. And this was only shot one, first scene of the shoot, first day. I spent the rest of the shoot trying not to have a heart attack.

We finished the day with scenes in the slum and atop a partially finished building, which was a great location and a series of scenes I’ll never forget doing. The day was long – about 14 hours – which was a sign of things to come, as well.

Day 2 – JP Nagar Slums Part 2

The highlight of Day 2, our second slum shoot day, was a scene where cops come and trash our main characters hovel, dragging the girls outside. It’s a pivotal scene in the film and ended up being shot very dynamically, with a lot of quick pans and movement. The actors who played the cops and our main girls all did a good job. I think the action helped give it an intense feeling.

Our day went long into the night to finish our night exteriors, and someone overheard a nearby resident in the slums say,

“Why are they (the film crew) still here? Don’t they have work to do?”

This is perhaps my favorite thing I’ve ever overheard on a shoot. Of course it looks like we’re just screwing around, playing make-believe – and we are. So it’s logical to assume that this is just play and not our actual jobs. I’m going to remember this for a long time.

The evening concluded with Amith doing a “poor man’s” tilt-shift lens effect. It was great – he removed the lens from the camera and held an old Russian lens in front of, but not attached to, the camera. It created a great disorienting and distorted effect with lens flaring and strange areas of sharp focus next to shallow focus – like tilt-shift itself. It was very cool and helped to enhance the feeling of our main character descending into illness.

Day 3 – JP Nagar Slums Part 3 and Orphanage

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JP Napar Slum, Bangalore, left to right: Me, Amith, 1st Assistant Camera Karthik, Spotboy Manjunath, Sound Mixer/Boom Operator Krish, Producer Alan Smith.

The morning was spent on basically one scene that is only technically half a page. But we spent half the day on it – it’s the scene when we first meet our grown-up (12-year-old) Niti and she runs through the slums away from boys chasing her.

It was a lot of fun – we had actual boys from the slum playing the boys chasing her and they were great. We used several corners and alleyways of both sides of the slum – the more built up side and the more makeshift side. We even had our girl jump off a hollowed out building (we had mattresses for her to fall on) and the boys followed suit.

We were probably having too much fun because we didn’t quite finish the scene, so when it was time, we wrapped up and made our way over to the next location – an orphanage nearby.

The orphanage, actually, is for kids who either have HIV or because their parents died from AIDS. A really inspiring little place, to be sure. But, because of the “magic of cinema,” we turned it into the bad orphanage that causes our main character to flee and end up on the streets.

The location sent us back in time, script wise. The orphanage set features our young Niti, 5-years-old. And, like all 5-year-olds, our actor was very sweet. Fortunately, she has no dialogue, too, so we didn’t have to worry about lines, just expressions and movement. We kept her happy with chocolate. Scenes included one with my great aunt Rajani who played a kind orphanage nurse who tells our girl to take her medicine regurlarly and she’ll survive.

We finished up our shoot late – again – and wrapped up with a jailbreak running away scene of Niti escaping. It was a bit of a rush but we got what we need.

Day 4 – Orphanage and Kids

The majority of the day was spent at the orphanage, involving many of the kids in the orphanage as extras, ranging in age from five to about sixteen. And oh boy is it ever difficult to corral a bunch of children when you don’t have adequate crew to do so. Our first scene involved a fight that breaks out and Niti uses that opportunity to sneak in and get food. Holy cow was that difficult to orchestrate – we had kids playing on the grounds everywhere, a cricket game, a fight, our five-year-old going on cue, camera movements. Man, things kept shifting and sliding and finally we were able to get the shots we needed. But not before the poor kids fake fighting actually went too far and smacked one another, sending one boy into tears. We gave them big hugs and made sure they were okay.

We continued and kept our little star happy with ice cream. But the day was long. We wrapped at the orphanage, took pictures with the kids – the sweetest kids in the world – and moved to our house location. It was my great aunt Rajani’s house. The scenes were some of the first in the film and required Niti’s Father to be on his deathbed. Overall, I think we got all the shots we need but I’m worried that I might have missed a critical shot because we were rushing to get the little girl home. We’ll know for sure when we edit that scene together.

We finished around midnight – again – and thankfully decided to give the crew Monday off. It had been a gruelling 4 days.

Day 5 – Train, Clinic and Dengue

This is the day I will abosutely never forget. When we showed up on set, our 12-year-old Niti was feeling feverish. We were filming on a railroad track down aways from the station, and safely on the side. There were a handful of scenes with both Niti and Pooja. When Niti was feeling okay, we brought her down, and her scenes.

Filming on the tracks was great and we were very careful. But it was also sort of crazy. We had to count on a train coming from a certain direction going a certain speed on one of the four tracks. We even had to make sure a train came that we could put Niti on one side of the track with Pooja on the other side. In anticipation of this going poorly, I had a detailed flow chart of if-then possibilities, given the direction of the train and track and the scene we’re shooting (there were a few scenes so we had costume changes). I also had an overhead map sketched out for our camera crew so we knew exactly where to place everyone quickly – we used all three cameras.

We also kept our non-Indian producers Jonathan and Alan Smith up away from the tracks to prevent detection from authorities to might think we be shooting a big international film. But still, the police came after we were almost completely finished. They led our line producer and location manager away to the station manager’s office. After some negotiation (and likely a bribe), they let us finish our remaining one shot.

We did it, wrapped up on the tracks, and went to our next location – a scrap metal yard. Here, Niti, in real life, had a worsening fever. We gave her liquids and food, but she wasn’t getting better after she shot her short scenes there.

Our next location was my Uncle Pradhyumna’s clinic so we knew we could take her there to get treated. Her fever was now quite high, so the staff gave her a shot to bring her fever down and drew her blood.

The results came back – positive for dengue fever. We couldn’t believe it. She slept and we discussed what to do. Her fever might persist for a couple of weeks. We didn’t have the luxury of postponing indefinitely – I had to return to the US in a few weeks and the two Smiths were scheduled to fly back in a day or two. And we didn’t have the money to have short half-day shoots and we certainly couldn’t start over with a new main actress.

It would have to be day-by-day, maybe even hour-by-hour. Here was a girl playing the part of a girl with a serious disease, coming into a hospital to get a check-up. But instead, she actually contracted a serious virus, came to a real hospital where she was supposed to pretend she was sick and had to be treated because she was sick in real life. The ironies, or witnessing art imitating art imitating life – it wasn’t lost on us.

After an hour or two of sleeping, our Niti miraculously felt better and decided she wanted to finish her work that day – two scenes, including the very final scene of the film. We told her parents that we would only shoot with her if she was 100 percent okay to do it and it would be really up to them – we were prepared to delay indefinitely to make sure she was feeling okay.

They said she wanted to shoot. She told us that, too, and we all gave her a standing ovation when she walked on set. It was one of the more heroic things I’ve witnessed – all from a 12-year-old girl. We shot the final scene of the film and then one when she’s getting a check up from a doctor – ably played by my uncle whose clinic we filmed in. (The clinic, by the way, was named after his father, my grandfather, the late great poet M. Gopalakrishna Adiga.)

We finished after midnight and changed our schedule to give her the day off the next day. We would check in every evening to see how she was doing from then on.

Day 6 – Hospital and Bonfire

Only two scenes remained that didn’t require our 12-year-old Niti – the opening two scenes of the film. The first takes places in a hospital corridor. Niti’s mother, pregnant, is rushed through the hospital on a stretcher. It’s one scene, but boy did we draw a crowd in the hospital.

We basically took over the hallway of a large government hospital. We used a GoPro Hero 3 for some insert shots, attached to the gurney. We also used a wheelchair. The art department rigged a wheelchair attached to the gurney and Amith sat in it with the camera to give us a more steady look. It was a poor-man’s steadicam (you’ll notice a lot of “poor-man’s” work here in this film) and worked pretty well. We also had a two-headed monster – Amith shooting on the wheelchair with a apple box behind him and Jonathan on top of the apple box shooting a high angle. It was crazy, but a lot of fun.

We certainly got the hospital administrator upset, that’s one thing for sure – or at least, we wore out our welcome. But we wrapped up and discovered that our grown-up Niti was still sick, so we had to drop our afternoon shoot in the flower market and push it to another day. Instead, we drove two hours out to our final location that day, which is the second scene of the film – an evening funeral pyre scene with Niti’s Father and an infant newborn Niti.

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Filming the funeral sequence. That’s a real fire, people.

It was great, way out in the country on a riverbank. And, of course, it was a real fire. It all went relatively smoothly, actually. We decided to take the following day off to give Niti another day to recover and would check in with her later.

Postponing meant that Jonathan and Alan were forced to miss the final day of the shoot, unable to reschedule their flights back to the US, leaving me to do it with Digvijay and bring it home.

Day 7 – Slumlord, Police Station and Mud Fight

Our final day with a full crew and all of our cast except for Niti – and without our executive producers. She came and was feeling almost totally recovered. The medicine was doing its magic. We shot a fake police station exterior set for two scenes and then we moved to a construction site.

The construction site is where our girls get into a mud fight that turns from angry to cathartic. It also involved boys from the local slum, too. Boy, did this scene ever make me nervous. How would I make the mud fight look believable? And how would I make sure the girls look like they’re having fun? It was ripe for being a major timesuck and for not turning out as envisioned.

We shot the dialogue with the girls before the mud fight began numerous times, cutting the scene before we got to the mud fight. Then, when they actually had to throw mud at each other, I made sure we did it in close-ups so we could cut the actual throwing together. The girls weren’t quite so good at tossing mud (in this case, wet clumped sand) at each other in a way that looked real. But, with the magic of cinema and editing, I think it will look as if they threw mud at each other.

Then the other boys joined in as per the story. That’s when things got nuts. The boys were much more eager to throw than the girls, so we had to get them to calm down. And man oh man did we have a crowd watching us. The location was near an intersection, so we soon became the main attraction. But it looked great – the sun was getting closer to the horizon and we even got a high angle shot from the top of the building, running up quickly before we were forced off the location, long shadows across the lot.

We finally got to the final location – the slumlord’s house. We had to film several locations/parts of it at different times of day. The morning scenes were short and we finished just as we ran out of daylight. The evening scenes took a little longer, including one that involved our Slumlord (who was also our location manager and local production coordinator) crashing into a table. We, once again, overstayed our welcome but we finally finished after a crazy long day again – close to 16 hours I believe.

We said goodbye to Pooja and most of our crew around midnight. I had taught the crew about the term “martini shot” and they enjoyed employing it each night. We wrapped and rested, taking a day off before we finished our final day with a splinter unit.

Day 8 – Splinter Unit

Our splinter unit day – we mopped up some running-through-the-slums shots we didn’t get. Unimportant things like, oh, the actual end of the chase. Here we had the use of another camera operator – Valarie, using our Sony A99 SLT in its first real action on a narrative shoot. We used the GoPro, too, attached to a monopod and inverted so we could shoot closeups of feet running.

The GoPro is in fashion now, but it has a number of drawbacks. Foremost, you can’t watch what it’s recording while it’s recording. You can watch playback through an app on a networked tablet – which we did – but it’s not super ideal. We had numerous problems with it but hopefully some of the footage turns out usable – it was a luxury to have it anyway.

We said goodbye to the slums – perhaps forever, because they’re being bulldozed and the residents are being given highrise housing developments in which to live. Next time I visit Bangalore the JP Nagar slums might be no more.

Our final location was perhaps our most colorful and it might’ve been the most fun to shoot. We were in KR Market – a large, crumbling, bustling marketplace in the center of the city. In one part exists a vibrant and chaotic flower market. In India, flowers are used in extreme abundance – all Hindu temples require flowers and all Hindu religious festivals need a cartoonish amount of flowers and garlands, too.

So the place is loud, packed, and definitely not a controlled environment for a film crew. But we had a plan. Niti, who was here to “sell” her makeshift jewelry that keeps her alive, would walk through the market. We hid cameras up on a balcony out of the way, and kept another one at ground level off to the side. Her real parents were behind her just in case, and our location manager would be near by. We all had walkie-talkies for action and cut.

We were most concerned that people would look into the camera or would giggle and less concerned that we’d be kicked out. But it worked – and it was awesome. Niti improvised the entire scene, asking people to buy her necklaces – and some almost did. We shot from above, and then we had Amith follow her through the market, too. (Niti told us that people were nicer to her when the camera was there behind her.)

We finished up at the market – again, a scene that on paper is only about one fourth of a page long, but will probably be longer on screen because of the production value.

So that was that. We wrapped principal photography. Three weeks later or so, we picked up a couple of missing shots. But this was it. I said goodbye to the crew and goodbye to our incredible 12-year-old Niti.

It was, all in all, one of the most stressful things I have ever done. Each night was long. Each day I was in danger of not getting all the shots we needed. Each day I had to worry about things I wouldn’t have to worry about in an American or a professional shoot (dengue fever, for example).

But I was incredibly grateful for the whole experience and wiser for the next time. Hopefully, it’ll come together when we edit, and I won’t be too mad at the director. We’ll see.