Thursday, February 25, 2010

Sarab Neelam on "Ocean of Pearls"

What was your filmmaking background before making Ocean of Pearls?

SARAB: I had a dream to make movies since I was 7 years old. I used to play around with a super 8mm camera in high school in Toronto. Then I had a chance to work as a production assistant in a big budget Indian film being shot in Toronto while I was a med student.

After moving to the USA, I started taking 1- to 2-week courses on different aspects of filmmaking in Hollywood, Toronto and Maine. I studied with talented and passionate artists working in this field. Meanwhile I did a short and documentary before embarking on making a feature.

None of this was easy but it was a lot of fun pursuing a dream. I would do it again in a heartbeat.

Where did the idea come from?

SARAB: Jim Burnstein (one of my mentors and screenwriting professors at University of Michigan) always said "Do what you know." I had told him I knew being a Sikh (my religion) and the confusion about identity that existed in me growing up and the medical profession and how it seemed like a business in America. So Ocean of Pearls became the story of a young Canadian Sikh transplant surgeon who battles the injustices of the American Health System and ultimately his own identity.

It was also a unique story as there had never been a Sikh character as a lead in a Hollywood film with a turban wearing Sikh director. We were breaking new ground.

What was the writing process like?

SARAB: I wrote an initial draft of the script, but Jim Burnstein didn't feel it could be shot in its initial form and script is the most important part of making a film. So he brought his former student V. Prasad , a talented writer now in LA to write the screenplay. We worked on this for 3 years. We took ideas from Jim and Jeff Dowd and a writer’s lab in Film Independent. Finally the script was ready to be shot.

What was the biggest lesson you took away from shooting the movie?

SARAB: They are right when they say in books that the most important element is writing and the next is casting. However so many other things determine whether the movie will be good or great from music to editing to makeup and even casting for single lines.

What was the smarted decision you made during production? The worst decision?

SARAB: We were not budgeted to have the proper sound person but I had read that sound is very very important so I paid Jamie some money from my own side and that made a world of difference in post-production. ADR is possible but you lose the in the moment voices of actors and these cannot be properly duplicated. I was very thankful that I picked the right sound guy.

Unfortunately, some of the production people had not done a film to our preparation and level and the work showed. I would hire people in the future who are very experienced at what their job qualification is. Even though these were nice people, what I have to remember is that as a director you can only make 10 films in your life and each film should count for something, so hire the best you can afford.

And, finally, what did you learn from making the film that you can take to other projects?

SARAB: I think I can write a book on how to make a film:
Tell a story that is either unique or if not tell in a unique way.
Bring a music supervisor and editor early in the process.
Hire the best and most experienced people that you can afford. You may not get a second shot if your product doesn't look good. To distributors it's not 10 years of work, it is simply ”toothpaste" and can they sell this toothpaste compared to others.
Having a test audience in the rough cut stage helps to tell you the flaws. They will be brutally "honest" and if they say the film is good it means it is bad. Only very good and excellent means anything.
Prepare a real budget of the film. It will definitely go up but at least keep it within 10-20 percent. Also put in 100,000 dollars if you want to have a theatrical distribution in 5 cities if you don't get a distributor.
Enjoy the process, you are a filmmaker living your dream and creating art. You will touch a lot of people with your film and message. I have been humbled by the comments I receive and how it has affected their lives.


James said...

I love this blog interviews... thanks!

Rob:-] said...

I saw this lovely movie on a recent issue of Spiritual Cinema Circle.

When the main character was about to cut his hair I was saying, "No! Don't do it!" to the screen. I was moved, touched and informed by this movie. I feel I know just a little bit more about Sikhs now than I did before.

I could have read a longer interview but really enjoyed reading this one.