Just try to meet the ball.
About thirteen years ago, I started my second year of graduate film school at the American Film Institute. The primary focus of your second year at AFI is your thesis film – the first film you’ll take out into the world with the hope that it will start or kickstart your career as a filmmaker.
My thesis advisor was Gill Dennis. White hair, frumpy and middle-aged, he had the contradictory appearance of a cranky curmudgeon combined with a smile that was boyish and light. He was our Mr. Miaygi – someone who would tell stories that would seem to have nothing to do with anything but would ultimately wind back towards a critical lesson about storytelling until we realized we had been learning karate all along.
In that year, Gill shaped me as a writer and director, making sure I wasn’t overlooking key elements in my film to create something real and true. Creatively, he was so unconcerned about plot, unconcerned about style and camera or anything else – because the essence of the film is the emotional journey. True emotion. Verisimilitude – humans have to inhabit a real world. Even if that world is fantasy, their emotions and their interactions have to be real. All of the other aspects will follow suit, but not until you’ve thought long and hard about the emotional reality of the characters.
There are so many stories I could write about Gill, but allow me to share these few.
American Made, my thesis film, takes place in the desert with an Indian American family stranded on the side of the road en route to the Grand Canyon. We sat in his office and talked about the script, and Gill mentioned a story about when he and a friend were younger and his car broke down in the middle of nowhere. And it happened to be at the same time someone had been murdered by a pair of hitchhikers. Gill would wave down a car for help, and it would start to pull over – until the car saw there were two people, and then it would drive away. Soon after, I wrote a version of that for my film – a memorable scene and it’s one that will forever remind me of Gill.
After we shot American Made, I was in the editing room and we were required to show our advisor the first rough cut. So Gill came in and watched it. He was so thrilled he squealed with what approximates as glee. He said, “look every few years we get a cut this good. You’ve got all this time now to keep editing when you don’t have to do too much more. Don’t fuck it up!”
A couple weeks later, he came and saw a more fine cut. My editor Scott Rosenblatt and I decided to try a few things that were different, playing around with scenes and the order of some shots. When we showed it to him, he said, “Close the door.” Sort of terrified, we closed the door to the editing room and he belted something to the effect, “They just give you guys too much time in here. You’re fucking it up.” But he said it with love, or what approximates as love. And he was right.
When Scott and I talked about it after Gill left, he said, “I thought he was going beat us up!” Me too. We undid a lot of those changes.
There are other amazing facts about Gill. He co-wrote Walk the Line; wrote cult classic Return to Oz; was in the first graduating class of AFI with the likes of Terrence Malick (The Thin Red Line, The Tree of Life) and David Lynch (Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks); his first wife was an award-winning actress who committed suicide and his second wife is the daughter of legendary director Sam Peckinpah (The Wild Bunch, Straw Dogs). He was firmly a part of Hollywood, despite his disheveled boyishness.
One final thing for now. In our group seminars, Gill would lead the directors in very personal exercises to get at the heart of filmmaking and true emotion. In one of the final sessions before directors started going out to shoot their thesis films, the topic turned to what happens next. These were the films that were going to start our careers – isn’t that a lot of pressure? These films can be Academy Award nominated, win us awards, fame, success, a career, an island off Hawaii, etc. What if we blow it? What if we don’t?
Of course, Gill instead told this story about the 1986 baseball playoffs. The California Angels were about to win the league championship series and go to the World Series for the first time in franchise history. Donnie Moore, the Angels’ reliever only needed one more strike to win the game but instead gave up a home run to the Red Sox’s Dave Henderson. The Angels lost and went on to lose the series. (Postscripts – Moore then suffered from intense depression and committed suicide three years later and the Red Sox went on to lose the World Series to the New York Mets in part because Bill Buckner booted a routine grounder to first.)
Anyway, in the post-game interview a TV reporter kept asking Henderson if he was trying to hit a home run in that situation. Henderson dodged and then finally responded, “I was just trying to meet the ball.”
Just try to meet the ball. That is perhaps Gill’s lasting advice that I’ve tried to live by.
If you run toward your film, people will chase you.
When we first started to tour with American Made, we applied to the Sundance Film Festival and were rejected. There was another film called Sangam – also featuring a South Asian American cast and director – that got in. I figured well that’s why we didn’t get in. Also, screw Sundance.
Of course, because I’m super competitive often in a self-defeating and problematic way, this film became American Made‘s rival – at least in my mind. We would get into festivals that they wouldn’t and win them, they would get into festivals that we didn’t get into and win.
Then finally, both Sangam and American Made were in a festival together and I got to meet the director. His name was Prashant Bhargava and I immediately felt like an idiot. He was such a calm, kind, and soulful guy – why did I create this imaginary contest pitting him as my rival? He certainly didn’t behave like we were enemies. We were actually filpsides of each other. Both from Chicago, both filmmakers with parents from India, both trying to make it in the creative arts.
Though we weren’t close friends, we were colleagues and ran in the same circles. (Once Facebook came out, I discovered we have 94 friends in common.) It turned out I knew his mother well – she created and ran Apna Ghar, a battered women’s shelter for Indian women in Chicago that I had helped raise funds for through my temple’s youth group.
In 2005, an Indian-American organization in Chicago invited Prashant and me to screen our films together on a multi-venue tour one day in greater Chicago. It was fun – we were in small theaters, in living rooms, in community centers – and gave little Q&As afterwards.
Spending that day together, I discovered someone who was a real artist in every sense of the word. Though we were both making films and shared other qualities, we were certainly different creatively. I consider myself a filmmaker – I work in the medium of moving images on a screen and things related to that medium. Prashant was an artist – film seemed to be one more tool he wielded in a wide arsenal, like another color on a palette wheel. He created haunting and lasting images and never did anything conventional on the screen, dipping into the abstract and doing things like projecting an image onto a column of falling water and then filming the result – it’s in the opening of Sangam.
While we were touring that day with our first short films, he also showed a five-minute concept trailer shot entirely on 8mm of a “kite-cutting” festival in Ahmedabad, India. People dip the kite strings in wax and attach shards of glass to them, then sail the kites as high as they can, trying to cut down rivals if necessary. Against this incredible backdrop, Prashant was going to stage an ensemble drama.
And he did. Patang finally came out in 2012 to positive reviews, including four stars from Roger Ebert. Prashant used mostly non-actors or theater actors and focused on a largely improvised script. Patang was an indie darling that year, deservedly so.
While he was working on Patang, I called him to ask his advice on making something in India because I was planning on doing the same. He told me all about his experience and shared with me some of his process. One that I remember very clearly – he took his main cast to the city center and had them just sit and watch the people going by for four hours, not saying a word – just observing human interaction and behavior. I think that’s incredible.
When we talked about the challenges of getting a project going and get it made, he said, “If you run after your film, people will chase you.”
I think about that all the time.
We were friends, but we lived in different cities so I didn’t spend a lot of time with him unfortunately. Yet somehow Prashant’s death has affected me even more than Gill’s. Perhaps because Prashant and I are somewhat close in age, both Chicago-born-and-raised kids of Indian immigrants making a name for ourselves as directors.
But there’s something additionally troubling and heartbreaking in the unfulfilled promise of a talented, creative, and kind artist. It would have been quite the dream to have risen up as filmmakers together, to run into each other again on the film festival circuit and spend nights arguing the intersection of film and art and entertainment.
Prashant’s death cheats us all of a unique and unapologetic vision – the vision of a poet or an artist who is able to see the world and synthesize it and send it back to us in a way never before seen or thought or considered. It’s difficult to imagine the independent film scene, especially with a South Asian American slant, without him.
I hope I can live up to his fearless creativity. Perhaps that’s the best way to remember a fallen fellow traveler, to honor his legacy – explore, create and provoke. And run after my films.