Thursday, April 9, 2009

Sharat Raju on "American Made"

What was your filmmaking background before beginning American Made?

SHARAT: American Made was my Masters thesis film at the American Film Institute. So, at AFI, I had made four short films prior to that. Immediately before enrolling at AFI, I was a casting assistant for the late Mali Finn, one of the all-time greatest casting directors. I worked for her on The Matrix Reloaded, The Matrix Revolutions, 8 Mile, High Crimes and Gideon’s Crossing on ABC. Before moving to LA, I did some work as a freelance production assistant in Chicago, my hometown. I also wrote and directed a handful of student projects at the University of Michigan.

But American Made was really the first film I’ve taken out into to the world.

What was the inspiration for the story?

SHARAT: My inspiration was to not get kicked out of film school. No, just kidding...

So, I wrote this in the summer of 2002. At that time there was a lot of talk by the government about being careful of anything "suspicious" or "un-American." It was about 8 or 9 months since Sept. 11, 2001, and there was a lot of fear and this sort of talk going around. People like my parents, who had been in the US longer than they had been in India, felt the need to have an American flag, just to be safe – even though this is their home country for the last 30 years. So I thought, what does that mean – “Un-American”? What would that look like?

I was driving in the desert north of Los Angeles and I saw a stranded car on the side of the road and started to think – does a stranded car look suspicious? What if there was a hitchhiker, wouldn’t that be suspicious? What if the person wasn't white, or was Indian or wore a turban -- does that make them "un-American" because they don't fit within the traditional definition? What if it was a family stranded, would any one stop and help them? 

So this was sort of a starting point and I just kicked around the idea and used it as the backdrop for the story. It evolved into an exploration of it means to be American, especially then. And even that takes a back seat to what's more important -- focusing on the relationship between the father and the son, between assimilation and cultural identity, about holding onto a belief versus trying to blend in. The intersection of that is what interested me. To me, America is a place that allows for this expression of self, not a suppression of what you feel is your identity. But in the face of danger, what would you be forced to sacrifice?

What obstacles did you overcome to make the film?

SHARAT: The usual filmmaking obstacles – money and trying to prove you know what your are doing. AFI gives some money, but we wanted to shoot on film and we needed to be in the Mojave Desert for a week to make this happen. So we had to raise money, which we did, fortunately, from friends and family. 

AFI runs itself less like a school and more like a studio. So we had to prove to AFI we had to go so far away to shoot, and get a special exemption to do so because they don’t allow it as a matter of policy. We had to go to each department and prove to them that we knew what we were doing and had a rationale for going so far outside of LA, where we’d be in trouble if something went wrong on set. 

To prove we knew what we were doing, my cinematographer, producer, and I went out to the location and shot the entire script with stand ins (including me) on a video camera, edited it together, and showed professors and administrators that the only way to make the script believable was to shoot at this spot. They were convinced, thank God, and let us do it the way we needed to do it. Then we actually had to make the film. Which, actually, was the least difficult part, in retrospect. The cast was great, the crew was great – it all came together.

How have audiences responded to the film?

SHARAT: I think the most telling response to this question is the fact that I’m now answering this question nearly six years after we released it. 

It has continued to endure and continues to entertain, even as I work on other projects and evolve (hopefully) as a filmmaker. More than 2 million people have seen it around the world, it still airs on PBS’s “Independent Lens,” and it won 17 awards at festivals and the like. It’s being used by teachers in junior high and high schools, graduate film students study it, and even a police department in Texas is using it for cultural training and community outreach. 

It boggles my mind. A professional studio film that does this is really quite remarkable. The fact that this was a Masters thesis film really defies logic. Honestly, it doesn’t really compute in my head – it just seems like they’re talking about a different film. I’m not trying to be false modest, but it really does not seem like they are talking about the film I slaved over for all that time six years ago, just happy to have it in the can and properly exposed. But the acclaim and the reception are an honor and humbling, and I’m just happy that it’s able to do what it has. I simply wanted to tell a memorable story. I’m glad it’s moved many people this way.

What was your favorite part of the process on American Made?

SHARAT: After our last day of filming, I became quite sad. I wanted to keep working. I felt like I was just getting warmed up. And that’s a testament to my incredible production team – my producer Marcus Cano and cinematographer Matthew Blute. It was a professional set – I only had to worry about where to put the camera and how to get a performance from my actors. It was invigorating. Frequently on a poorly run production or a low-budget operation, you have to worry about other things, like getting kicked out of a location or will we have lunch today or not. But, because of my crew and the incredible cast, it was more joyous an experience making a film and spending a week in the desert than you can imagine.

What did you learn making this film that you've taken to subsequent projects?

SHARAT: Good question. It certainly has set my expectations high, both creatively and practically. But I really learned, even more so, the value of having a great cast. With a great cast, you can get away with a lot. The story, of course, is the most important. But really you’re watching a movie for the actors, to watch their lives play out on screen. I knew that as a casting assistant, but I really learned it in a tangible way as a director.

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