SUDHISH: I made my first film, That Four Letter Word, twice before I wrote Good Night Good Morning. That Four Letter Word was the regular first film filmmakers in their early twenties choose to do semi-autobiographical coming of age film about four friends, one of them who wants to make a movie.
The first version, shot in the Digi Beta format in 2002, cost us about $24,000, but I had to shelve it with just two scenes to shoot because of assorted reasons - technical and personal - but mostly, because I did not like what I had shot.
The second time around, in 2005, I scaled the film down and shot on a MiniDV camera and a budget of $6000 and we managed to get a limited theatrical release in India in two cities - Mumbai and Chennai in 2007. But guess what, the second time didn't help either. I still didn't like it. Movies need money. When you cut corners, it reflects on the end product. People don't care that you don't have money. They want to see a good film.
So once I barely recovered cost of production through theatrical release and a stray release on video on demand, I decided to just put it up online for free downloads and streaming. Thankfully, I have a day job as a film critic for The Hindu, which is India's second largest circulated English newspaper and I've been writing for them for the last 11 years. So there was really no pressure on me to keep making films. I would work only if the idea truly motivated me.
Where did the idea come from? What was the writing process like?
SUDHISH: A friend of mine, Krishna, bought this HD camera on my advice. I had told him to get one that can shoot 24 frames and in progressive mode and he did just that. Once he bought it, he said, "Let's make a movie." And I told him, "With no money and just a camera, you can only make a film with two people talking on the phone." I said that as a joke but the more we spoke about it, it seemed like a good challenge considering that there have been conversation films like Before Sunrise and its sequel Before Sunset that have gone on to become cult films. And I've always wanted to make a film about a phone call ever since I saw Phone Booth.
And there have been quite a few films where we see the guy and the girl share an immensely romantic all night phone call... from When Harry Met Sally to Elizabethtown. Cameron Crowe has been like the single most significant cinematic influence in my life and so I decided to write a film as a tribute. And all the experience of talking to my girlfriend late into the night as we were getting to know each other helped quite a bit. In fact, I wrote the film with her. My friend Krishna and me would sit all night and work out the structure.
I wanted the phone call to capture all eight stages of romance - the Icebreaker, the Honeymoon, the Reality Check, the Break Up, the Patch Up, the Confiding, the Great Friendship and the Killing confusion before you give in and accept you are truly, madly, deeply in love. So I knew I had to take my characters through this journey of these eight stages that just made up with for the sake of structure and my girlfriend Shilpa and me would write out the lines.
A lot of my stray thoughts from my blogging days (I used to do quite a bit of that when I was single) provided the material for some interesting conversation and the more we wrote, the more we were convinced that this film needed to be scaled up a little. If it was going to be New Year's eve, we agreed it had to be mounted against the backdrop of New York City since no other place in the world captures the excitement of a New Year and a fresh start than the revelry at Times Square. We also decided to invest in quality actors - Manu Narayan and Seema Rahmani and their improvisation added quite a bit to make the conversation seem real, like it really happened.
How did you find funding for the film?
SUDHISH: I used credit cards, took a personal loan for furnishing my house, borrowed money from friends, put all my savings into it and also ended up using a part of my housing loan. Again, good thing I have a day job or I would have never got all these loans.
What were the technical challenges you faced shooting the phone conversations?
SUDHISH: We had decided earlier on that the characters needed to be talking on mobile phones to reflect our times. So it wouldn't have made sense to have both of them at home. And since I wanted them to be moving away from each other as they were getting intimate and closer over the phone, I decided that one of them had to be in transit in New York with a flight to catch and the other was driving back home to Philadelphia away from New York.
I wanted the phone call to happen in the most inconvenient of situations and for a guy, there could be no bigger nightmare than his best friends in the car eavesdropping into the conversation, especially if one of them is high and talking nonsense and if the other is the designated driver who is in no mood to listen to love talk.
Ideally, I would have liked to shoot the conversation live with a two-camera set-up. One in the girl's hotel room and one in the moving car but it seemed like a logistical nightmare for an indie production. You know the size of hotel rooms in New York... they are so small. Also imagine even trying to shoot on a highway. We would be insane to even try.
So we did the next best thing: Decided to shoot in a hotel room in India with all the props from the American hotel, including the day's newspaper - we just wanted to make sure it looked authentic - and we shot the girl's side of the phone call with the other actor giving her his lines... through a phone call, of course. So it would be his rehearsal, but for her, that was the shot being canned. We shot all her scenes in 3 days.
And then spent three days to edit the whole call and then shot in an air conditioned floor with a static car and reverse projection by feeding him her lines - the edited version - so that he now had to respond to her talking non-stop. And there would be perfect sync. It just put a lot more pressure on the actor but that's where working with an experienced theatre actor from Broadway really helps.
What type of camera did you use to shoot the film and what did you like about it .... and hate about it?
SUDHISH: We ended up using the same camera my friend bought - the Sony HVR - V1U which can shoot 1080p (progressive mode) in 24 frames. It's a very good camera to shoot with because it leaves you the option to simply print to film without any complicated processing or additional post-production. It was the ideal camera to shoot with in 2008 when we wrote the film and shot the New Year's Eve portions in New York. But two years later, there were better cameras in the market.
It took us another 18 months after the first schedule to get started again because of my loans and debts, by which time my friend also bought a Canon Mark II, 5D camera. We were tempted to shoot with it but decided not to mix formats since we were told that we would have a tough time in post production trying to make visuals from the second schedule look like a part of the film from the first schedule, both visually and technically from the editing platform point of view.
Shooting with 1080p meant our editing options were limited. We either had to use a basic Sony Vegas or Final Cut Pro that had the Apple Pro Res codec since AVID did not have a codec for 1080p back then (now it does). But if I were to shoot today, I would use the Mark II, 5D for the whole film.
What was the smartest thing you did during production? The dumbest?
SUDHISH: The smartest thing I did was to decide to shoot in black and white so that the reverse projection seemed integral to the theme of the film - we thought it would make the film look like a 1950s talkie set in today's world as a throwback to the old-world romance films because hey, romance hasn't changed but how we communicate has.
The dumbest thing we did was to cram the schedule with loads to shoot in a single day. We shot all of the guy's side of the phone call in nine hours! We didn't have a choice since one of the actors was leaving the country and we had wasted two days trying to figure out how to make a right hand drive car in India look like a left hand drive on camera since the rare left hand drive camera we finally procured had shitty interiors.
We considered flipping the image for the whole film (using the mirror image), make the actors wear a watch on the wrong hand etc but figured we were just going to make life difficult for us. So finally we spent about $12 and bought a steering wheel from a mechanic down the street and told the actor who was supposed to be driving to keep holding it throughout the film and pretend to drive. It worked!
And, finally, what did you learn from making the film that you can take to other projects?
SUDHISH: My biggest learning from this film is to invest in quality actors and work hard on the writing because it really paid off big time for us, more than I had ever imagined.
Most of the time, great actors and quality writing can distract people from the technical aspects of the film and make them forgive the production constraints. Stories are about people in a conflict. If the people come across as real when they take on the conflict, you can be assured that your storytelling is effective. People relate to people.
With all these cameras today, films have become easier to shoot but whether I have the money or not, I will always make sure I have good actors because they will ensure I have a decent film if I have a decent story to tell.