Category Archives: Director’s blog

“A film by…”

director Brayden Yoder

writer/director Brayden Yoder

Putting the director’s name on the marquee following the words, “A film by…” is, I think, a reward for the person most responsible for realizing a film…and for the one who takes the most crap while doing it.  From start to finish, directors have to deal with more hassles and outright problems than any other member of the team, from creative heights down to mundane drudgery, from demanding higher-ups looking over your shoulder to sensitive and sometimes difficult egos on-set, which may have their own competing agendas.  While other collaborators can do their part for a film and move quickly on to other projects, directors put their outside lives on hold for the entire duration of the filmmaking process, because they have to be involved in every single decision–from the color fabric of the lead actresses’ dress to what kind of music will play under the film’s end credits (and in exactly what fashion those credits should roll.)  Everything the audience sees up on the screen is the product of a director’s choosing, so it’s no wonder that most directors only put out one film every couple of years, or that a master like Stanley Kubrick–notoriously attentive to detail and controlling–made only a dozen features across a forty-year career.

Yet the fact is that the phrase “a film by” is a fanciful fiction, as it implies that that the work somehow springs fully formed from the sole consciousness of the director.  But that is not at all how the filmmaking process works, even when the director is also the writer.  The old saying goes that a film gets written three times–once on the page, once when it’s shot, and once when it’s edited–but I think the process is, at its best, much more organic than that.  There are any number of suggestions and contributions from the other collaborators on a film on any given day–and any one of them could enhance, detract from, or alter entirely the meaning that the director intends to achieve.

the director's job

working with the Breakdown team

The easiest way to illustrate this principle on the page is with a simple phrase: “Look over there.”  How would you say this line, if you were an actor?  Where would you put the emphasis?  Would you say, “Look over there.”  Would you turn it into an exclamation?  “Look over there!”  Would you add a dramatic pause?  “Look–over there.”  Or would you do something completely unconventional?  “Look over…there.”  There are many different choices an actor can make when giving a line, and those choices are further compounded by the choices the actor can make with body language, eye movement, and facial expressions while delivering the line.

Oftentimes, I know what I would like the actor to do with the scene, but I just as often like to keep my mouth shut at first to see what might happen, and if it might be better than what I had initially conceived.  Sometimes, it’s not; many times, though, it is, which is something I first saw for myself in screenwriting class back in Sydney, Australia.  Our assignment to write a “key scene” from a larger screen story saw professional actors brought in to give voice and character to the lines we had written, as part of a moved reading of our script.  I was always amazed when the actors would find beats in the scene that I had not intended, or deliver a line differently than how I had first heard it in my head.

These kinds of elaborations occur in all the other elements of film–picture, sound, editing, costumes, art direction, etc.  And a good director to my mind tries to empower those other collaborators by creating space for their respective creativity and suggestions.  Sometimes, this kind of freedom can be taken too far, in which case the director might really have to put a foot down as guardian of the film’s collective vision.  (“Diva” behavior can be found in the other departments, too, not just with actors.) But more often, I’ve found that the other collaborators value having their opinions taken into account, and will make outstanding suggestions to benefit the film.

backstage pow-wow

backstage pow-wow

At the end of the day, though, a film can only speak with one voice, and so the director has to have the last word.  I agree with something that Walter Murch, the legendary sound designer and editor, once said about the director functioning as “the immune system of a film”, either accepting or rejecting what the other collaborators may wish to put into its body.  To use the acting example again, it’s up to the director to recognize when the actor is doing what the film requires at that given moment, and how the actor’s actions on screen will combine with the lighting, camera, colors, music, and sound that will make up the scene.   The actor, of course, will not be able to “see” those other elements; the music and sound effects, for example, will be added in later in post-production, and during principal photography they exist only in the director’s head.   On set, the actor can only concentrate then on his own performance, and getting the “feeling” right–and for method actors, the more intense the feeling, the better.

But film is not the theater, and there are other ways of generating feeling in the audience than just the actor’s performance.  Intense color creates a feeling in film.  Dramatic music creates a feeling in film.  Soft lighting creates a feeling in film.  Sparse sound creates a feeling in film.  Camera position creates a feeling in film–whether an extreme close-up, a sweeping camera move, or a long, static, establishing shot.  Nothing stands alone in a film; all of the elements have to interconnect to make it work.  And nearly all of the elements are present in every single scene; the artistry in direction lies in balancing those elements into some kind of harmony. Each of the other collaborators will have strong ideas about what the film should “be,” but only the director can see the whole elephant.

DSC_0468

The director on a film has been called “the captain of the ship”, but having served in the military, I don’t think that’s especially apt as a metaphor.  A film’s creative crew is much more democratic than a military unit, which is concerned with following orders from the top, and a good director welcomes the kind of creative tension that comes from working with collaborators who may sometimes disagree with you.  Making a film has more in common I think with preparing a gourmet meal, where the chef tries to get every ingredient just right–a little dash of this, a sprinkle of that–so as to enhance the flavor of the dish without overwhelming it in any one direction.  But of course top chefs are dealing with food, while film directors are working with people.

And so the closest analogy I can think of for a director’s job is that of the coach of a team, who draws up the plays and motivates the people he thinks can best execute his vision of the game on the field.  Again, the analogy is not quite exact; a coach works through the season with more or less the same group, while a director is involved with at least three distinct seasons–pre-production, principal photography, and post-production–and with different personnel in each of those.  But the principles of leading, teaching, and learning from others seem the same to me.  The coach’s influence is pervasive and paramount, but he doesn’t win the championship alone; it takes a group of people buying into the concept and pulling towards the finish line together–and that’s what makes it worthwhile. No matter how the studios may try to market “A film by,…”, filmmaking is truly a team sport.

The Indian Orson Welles

Stranger on a Train, 2010

Stranger on a Train, 2010

The American: “Thank you–is this ‘prasad’?”

Krishna: “No, it’s idli!”

Two of my favorite lines from Stranger on a Train, a short film I conceived and directed about an American traveling through India while holding fixed expectations about the country and its people.  Having the American ask the question would demonstrate the character’s rudimentary understanding of Indian culture, as well as his interest in spiritual things; prasad is the food offering that Hindus enjoy, after it has been blessed by the temple god for distribution in religious fellowship.  Yet having the American mistake a simple idli for something with religious value would underscore the film’s comic tone, and show again the character’s almost cringe-worthy ignorance.  To paraphrase Mark Twain, he would have the words right but not the tune.

Those two little lines did a lot of work for our little film, which clocked in at a brisk 10 minutes, 17 seconds.  Every line of dialogue in a film should be advancing the storyline, and that goes doubly so in a short film, which needs to maximize its opportunities before it runs out of reel.  That Stranger on a Train was generally well-received, I would credit largely to the strength of its dialogue­—of which the brilliant call-and-response of those two lines above represent some of the most inspired.

And the reason I’m blogging about them now is because I didn’t write them.

The words were suggested as an addition to my original screenplay by Satchit Puranik, who began as my editor on the project and who grew into so much more.  When I look back at Stranger, I see Satchit’s fingerprints all over the film, just as I see them all over Breakdown today.  I’ve read interviews with several directors who have all said that when they look back on their films, what they see first are all the mistakes they made—and what they wish in retrospect they had done differently.  Yet in my limited experience, what I always see first are the “stich points,” where the consciousness of one of my main collaborators intersected with my original idea to make it so much better than what I had first conceived.

On the set of Stranger on a Train

On the set of Stranger on a Train

In the case of Stranger, the script called only for the couple across from the American to offer to break bread with him, and draw him out in conversation about religion; Satchit’s suggested lines made the transition into something much more entertaining, which also revealed character.  And Satchit continued to offer up those kinds of brilliant suggestions time and again, from pre-production through the whole of our three-day shoot in the studio, and of course, into the editing process.  Those kinds of weavings create the magic of film, and over the past few years, I have been privy to some fantastic turns from many of the creative people working with me.  But nobody has cast a greater spell on what I have tried to accomplish in India than Satchit Puranik.

That Satchit would have a great ear for dialogue would seem elementary to anyone who knew of his extensive background in the theater—which, stupidly, I did not when we first started working together.  I had instead wanted to work with Satchit only because he seemed like an interesting dude around campus, about the same age as me, with whom I could communicate well.  I was also partial to Satchit’s outside work experience in the film industry; I knew he had spent time as an AD (assistant director) on Bollywood features, and had even co-directed a feature film called Mr Ya Miss, a Hindi adaptation of Blake Edwards’ Switch.  Finally, I had seen that Satchit understood how to navigate the Byzantine labyrinth that is the Film & Television Institute of India, as he had years earlier completed the one-year course in television direction before returning in December of 2007 to begin the course in film editing.

cutting the Breakdown negative

cutting the Breakdown negative at the Film & Television Institute of India

With all of that experience, I felt Satchit would be a great resource upon which to draw, and that we would be lucky to have his talents on the team for Stranger.  But I had no idea how fortunate we would be, or that we would continue to benefit from his talents beyond that first project.  As a respected actor and writer in the industry, Satchit knew performers all across Bombay, and so he was able to serve as the casting director for both Stranger on a Train and Breakdown, carefully lining up choices for me to vet, ever respectful of my position as the film’s director, always giving me the final call–which, of course, I would only make after consultation with him.  Friends back home in the US have asked me how I went about picking out actors for a film in India, and the truth is–outside of Rob Tepper, of course–I would have had no idea how to choose the right performer without Satchit’s contacts, his input, and especially his outstanding ear.  Aside from speaking and performing fluently in English, Hindi, and Gujarati, Sathchit also knows a good bit of Bengali as well as Marathi, which means he can basically communicate with anyone in northern, western, and eastern India in their mother tongue.  As you might guess, Satchit is also a good musician who plays the harmonium and sarode, and loves to sing Hindi songs at parties.  He’s a social animal who loves interaction with people.

What makes Satchit most invaluable to our team, though, is his ability to communicate story concepts to our Indian collaborators in ways that I simply cannot.  In this case, I’m not necessarily talking about language barriers, though those sometimes do exist for me within the sprawling credits of an Indian film set.  Rather, I’m talking about Satchit’s extensive reading into Indian philosophy, and his deep knowledge of Hindu mythology; his collection of Hindustani classical music, and the virtual library of Hindi films in his head; his references to Indian television serials, and his jokes about the country’s politicians past and present.  Put simply, after a lifetime of growing up in and traveling around India, Satchit knows the audience.  And as I posted earlier in this blog, the first rule of writing is to know your audience…and the first rule of writing is to write from what you know.

On the sets of Breakdown

On the sets of Breakdown

That’s why I gave Satchit co-writer credit on Stranger, and co-story credit on Breakdown.  Satchit’s suggestions always enhance the initial structure, vision and concept that I first lay out for the team in my screenplay, director’s notes, treatment, and step-outline–and his experience allows him to make worthwhile suggestions from script to shoot to post.   The only “knock” on Satchit is that his myriad outside projects–as an actor, editor, writer, casting director–often leave him unavailable and sometimes nigh impossible to get hold of, which can be frustrating for a director trying to keep to a certain timetable.  Satchit would also be the first to admit that he’s a long way away from being a technical expert with the non-linear editing software that has become the industry standard over the years.

The way I see it, though, you can always hire technical expertise; what you can’t hire is imagination and inspiration, which Satchit has in spades.  Those are the qualities that make the great ones in demand, and I’d rather have a guy that’s sometimes hard to get hold of because everybody wants him on their team than a guy who’s always available because nobody wants to call on him.  Since that first project, I’ve never been able to refer to Satchit as my “editor”, (though he is that, too, and brings a more avant-garde sensibility than my own.)  Satchit has simply been my chief collaborator, in every sense of the word.  I don’t think I could have been as successful in India without him.

fun with filmmaking

fun with filmmaking

It was during the casting of Stranger that I gave him the nickname that’s the title of this blog post.  He and I were on our way to pitch the project to Amar Talwar, an extremely well-known actor who would come to perform brilliantly in our little film as the main oppositional character to our clueless train-riding American.   Satchit knew Amar from having acted opposite him, and the mutual respect they enjoyed allowed him to playfully refer to Amar as “India’s answer to Jack Nicholson.” After hearing that enough times, I realized that Satchit reminded me of an American film icon, too–every bit as brilliant, independent, and gifted as Mr. Welles himself.

Socially conscious?

Saheli Sangh (Part II of II)

Saheli brochure front/back

Saheli brochure front/back

“I was feeling so helpless and so angry, I was pushing him away, scratching him with my nails but he slapped me and then he started beating me and at the end he raped me. That is when I realized what this was and what I had to do… I was crying and screaming that I want to go back home but he told me, if you don’t entertain a man like this you will never go home, you will die.”

Budhwar Peth Interviewee #2, HIV positive

“This isn’t enough for a film, Brayden,” my friend flatly declared, after hearing the interviewee’s words read aloud to him.  “We know all about this problem–we already know these women exist.

“You need something more.”

His words sucker-punched me right in the pretensions, just when I thought the revelations I had to tell him about sex trafficking in India would knock him out.  Shouldn’t sharing first-hand accounts from actual victims move him in the same way it had moved my cherished American social consciousness?  Shouldn’t these real-life stories be the grist from which amazing films are made?  Shouldn’t their tales be met with more than a shrug?

When I look back at it now, though, I feel ridiculous; did I really think I would be able to tell India something it did not know about itself?  My Indian classmate’s reaction served as the wake-up call I didn’t know I needed…and yet it still took me a long time thereafter to accept that I had been dreaming, and to understand where he was coming from.  I was a naïf in this culture–yet there I was growing upset that a native was not reacting as I did.

Jean Piaget, considered the father of the study of children’s cognitive development, famously defined maturity in kids as the age when they can start to perceive points of view other than their own.  Before reaching that stage, Piaget contended that children are extremely egocentric creatures who naturally assume that everybody else sees, hears, and feels exactly as they do.  Piaget based much of his conclusions on his observations of children’s speech, which they deploy only for their own purposes, never to enquire about others, even when they’re in a group.  In this world, children are really talking to themselves.

That’s as good a description as it gets for the ex-pat, born wide-eyed in another culture.  If I had done a story about the brothel women of old Pune, perhaps other naïfs would have found it as moving as I did.  Indians, on the other hand, might have looked at it as we look at a ten-year old writing about dragons, fairies, and castles of old Europe.  It’s not that my Indian friend was unmoved by the interview excerpts I read out to him; only the most callous bastard could fail to empathize with prostitutes describing how they were stolen from their villages as teenage girls and literally sold into brothel work.  But it was a story he had known of since he had become sexually aware as a teenager–and one that had played out countless times before in Indian films I had not yet seen, nor would have fully understood even if I had.  Any basic Google search for Bollywood and prostitution will yield up films such as Umrao Jaan, Chandni Bar, Chameli, or Mandi, films as well-known in India as Pretty Woman is in the United States, and ones with a commensurate amount of “social consciousness.”  Nobody watches Julia Roberts as a hooker and leaves the theater wanting to save all the street-walkers.

bollywood_prostitution

As I would go through film school in Pune, I would learn about the on-screen depictions of the red-light district in India.  I would also learn more about my own country, and thanks to the great Preston Sturges, I could see how American film directors wanting to make a difference come across on celluloid:

Sullivan: I’m going out on the road to find out what it’s like to be poor and needy and then I’m going to make a picture about it.

Butler: If you’ll permit me to say so, sir, the subject is not an interesting one.  The poor know all about poverty and only the morbid rich would find the topic glamorous.

Sullivan: But I’m doing it for the poor. Don’t you understand?

Butler: I doubt if they would appreciate it, sir. They rather resent the invasion of their privacy. I believe quite properly, sir. 

Sullivan's Travels, 1941

Sullivan’s Travels, 1941

The butler from Sullivan’s Travels serves as a reality check for the young movie director, just as my Indian classmate was for me at the beginning of film school.  Yet it’s a difficult thing for Americans to accept, because we think of ourselves as difference-makers–and we often are, for good or ill.  For the past century, from making the world “safe for democracy” to holding ourselves up as “the indispensable nation,” we have never shied from the spotlight or the belief that we can change things.  But there are limits to that kind of thinking, and a short student film on the evils of sex trafficking in India was not going to revolutionize Indian society, no matter how much I wanted the despicable practice of sex trafficking to end.

Katherine Boo, the Pulitzer-prize winning writer, recently said that “the only thing worse than being a poverty reporter is if no one ever wrote about it at all,” and her latest book, Behind the Beautiful Forevers, paints a minutely detailed picture of the human spirit in the dredges of a Bombay slum.  Yet had I tried to construct a film around the lives of sex workers in Pune’s red-light district, I fear it would have clumsily veered towards preachy propaganda–and would have been no more compelling than if I had just ripped a headline from the newspaper.   Journalism and social studies are perhaps the more appropriate spheres for the kind of light that needs be shone on society’s ills.  But the most important thing a creative work should do is capture a feeling.

I came to Saheli in 2008 through a young woman who had made her bones working with disadvantaged and oppressed communities in the developing world–across Africa, southeast Asia, and India.  Her master’s degree work in Pune had led her to the women of Budhwar Peth, and she later shared that research with me in the hopes that I might be able to make something worthwhile.  Armed with interviews from women being forced to prostitute themselves, I thought I had found a film worth making.  But what I really had was character study, and access to part of the world of which I had never before known.  Their culture in old Pune would become the noir milieu for Breakdown, and their stories would become the background for Janki, the trafficked tamasha dancer forced to gyrate on the stage.

Yet I still wanted to honor the information I had been entrusted with in a way that was more substantial than a short feature.  I ended up using the research to make a short promotional documentary about Saheli, which I hoped would serve as my small contribution to the important work the organization is doing there in Budhwar Peth.  But for my final student film in India, I would need something more personal to my own experience, which is the primary goal of artistic expression.  I would need, too, an Indian collaborator who could take the naiveté off–and help shape my ideas of this culture into something more mature.  Thankfully, working in film means never having to talk only to yourself, and that others can point out the blind spots staring straight at you.  All you have to do is learn to see things a little more like they do.

What Saheli does

What Saheli does

No Children in Film Noir

Saheli Sangh (Part I of II)

If “clever outs” from Maharashtran culture are there for the taking all across Pune, then “difficult ins” need to be sought out and pursued.  And in my time here, there’s been no more “difficult in” than Saheli sangh, a sex workers union in the middle of the old city’s red light district, on the other side of the river.  I had once thought that prostitution looked like the stilettos and barely-there skirts of the free agents that troll for tourists in Waikiki­–trashier versions of Julia Roberts’ street walker in Pretty Woman.  But I was ignorant; there’s nothing “pretty” about women trafficked into sex slavery, or the children they birth and raise under those conditions.

It was those children that first kept me coming back to Saheli, every Sunday for my first two-and-a-half years in Pune.   The Saheli offices were closed on that day, so it was often just me with some twenty-five kids that loved hanging off of me like I was a tree.  I was happy to oblige them, even though their caretaker nanny generally disapproved of hugging.  Kids just have a natural instinct to climb on things, which they couldn’t exercise within the four walls of the Saheli crèche.

Hanging Brayden tree

Hanging Brayden tree

Still, they were at least secure in that place, and not squaloring in the surrounding brothels.  I loved playing games with them, teaching them English, or showing them VCD’s of popular Hindi-language children’s programs like My Friend Ganesha. Sometimes, friends would join on visits to the crèche and help to chaperone the children on outings, like to the zoo or to the park or even just the harrowing journey down the street to get some sugar cane juice.   Wherever we were, their smiles reminded me that childhood doesn’t care where you come from, and that the number of angels dancing on the head of a pin count for nothing against a single child growing up without a father figure.  Yet these children seemed blissfully unaware of the circumstances of their birth, existing in the same state of grace that keeps kids climbing trees and jungle gyms in any corner of the globe.

At the zoo and at the park

At the zoo and at the park

Their mothers of course had different stories to tell, and as “fallen women” they occupied a peculiar contradiction within the conservative caste-based society encasing the old city, keeping everything in its given place.  Over the next few years, I contacted Rohini Sahni and studied her collection of scholars’ essays in Prostitution and Beyond: An Analysis of Sex Work in India.  I read about The Dancing Girls of Lahore, Louise Brown’s recounting of the past, faded glories of the subcontinent’s courtesans, and their descent from renowned tawaifs of the high nautch dancing culture into vulgar, forgotten prostitution.  I met often with a husband and wife pair of activist lawyers at Pune’s Human Rights & Law Defenders, who counseled me on the plight of sex workers all across India, from solicitors at roadside dabbas to modern-day devdasis, plying their trade from a temple.  I grew less ignorant.

But none of that data collection could compare to the privilege of witnessing the warm touch that Saheli provided to the women of Budhwar Peth.  I would soon come to learn first-hand accounts of their personal journeys from the village to this sad station of life, and of the men who tricked, kidnapped, drugged, sold, bound, beat, and raped them into submitting to this fate.  And I would come to marvel at their undying spirit, and the female capacity to bear such unjust burdens.

These trafficked women enduring at the margins of Pune gave me a template for what later became our film’s captive tamasha dancer; when it came time to write the story of Breakdown, Janki was the first character I started with, not the American.  But in choosing to make a genre film, I realized that I could not make her a mother.  As Ken Dancyger and Jeff Rush put it in their fantastic book Alternative Scriptwriting, “There are no children in film noir.  Married couples have no children. Children represent hope and there is no hope in any relationship, nor in the future.”

Mothers of Saheli children

Mothers of Saheli children

That was how it was for many of the women in the red-light area; it was their children that kept them going.  Like any parent whose dreams had been betrayed by life, the mothers of Budhwar Peth were determined to spare their children the cruelties that they themselves had endured­–and to provide some kind of better life to the next generation.  With little formal or vocational education, they continued in the world’s oldest profession because it was the only livelihood they knew.  And because they knew they could not go home again.

The children of Saheli’s crèche would someday no doubt come to know about their origins.  Perhaps they would learn to walk in love, as their mothers loved them.  Or perhaps they would resent their mothers’ offerings, for placing upon them an undue burden of redemption.  I contemplated these things for several years every Sunday morning, aware of what these children represented in the face of their mothers’ great sacrifices and prayerful for the light of a changing world, which could one day seek forgiveness for the darkness it visited on their formative years.  Studying their faces, I was sure of only one thing: if not unto us, the kingdom of heaven should truly belong to such as these.

Saheli kids and their world

Saheli kids and their world

Chai, no latte

In the five-plus years I’ve lived here, there’s been no greater symbol of Pune’s transformation than the realization of the JW Marriott hotel and convention center, which opened its 426 rooms and 60 executive suites around the corner from the film institute in the autumn of 2010….

JW_Marriott

..that is, of course, except for the Westin hotel & resort across town, which arranged its restaurants, bars, clubs, and 277 rooms in the shape of a ship’s bow jutting out into the Mula-Mutha river.  The Westin opened in December of 2009, a stone’s throw from the Hard Rock Cafe, where I once saw Wyclef Jean perform on the Hard Rock’s own opening night in April of 2008.

the-westin-pune-koregaon

The Westin, Koregaon Park, Pune

Between the Westin and the Hard Rock, where used to stretch a deserted patch of unimproved road, now stands the 400,000 air-conditioned square feet of Koregaon Park Plaza shopping mall, which opened its L’occitane, Mac, Clinique, & Tommy Hilfiger stores in March of 2012.  In its selection of shops, this particular mall is pretty similar to the three-floored commercial metropolis in northeast Pune called Phoenix Market City mall, which literally sits almost bang-opposite across the highway from the nearly-as-posh Inorbit Mall.  These dueling malls opened in 2011, promising, “an integrated mixed-use development incorporating Shopping, Dining, Movies, Entertainment and much more that delivers a holistic lifestyle and leisure experience.”  At least, that’s how Phoenix’s website puts it.

phoenix_mall

Phoenix Market City, Viman Nagar, Pune

Air-conditioned shopping malls, multiplexes, food courts and all-in-one “leisure experiences” are things I thought I had left back home, but every year it seems that more of America follows me to India.   Whether it’s more SUVs cruising Pune’s narrow streets, or more night clubs playing American Top 40, or ever more US exchange students studying in cafes while typing on Macbooks, globalization seems to mean never having to not speak English or drink espresso.  At least, in the city.

What this means for the ex-pat writer here in Pune is that it is increasingly easy to avail yourself of “clever outs” from the local culture, i.e. the ways a person can self-regulate against assimilation.  Just like the body, the brain is adept at finding those places where it doesn’t have to work nearly as hard, which is why I end up speaking English and not broken Hindi to my Indian friends on campus.  (Why wouldn’t I, when they all speak English as well as I do?  Besides, it beats getting corrected all the time on my poor pronunciation of Hindi syllables.)

I didn’t know this when I migrated to Pune in January of 2008, but I knew it as I saw it build up around me.  “Write from what you know,” is the name of the game, but I knew early on that the fabulous life of an American expat in Pune was not the story I wanted to tell.  I needed to move from being a tourist visiting India, collecting the t-shirt, to someone who is more of the place, collecting new perspectives on life.  I needed to force myself out of the oasis of film school, and resist taking all of the “clever outs” popping up across the city, tempting as they were.  I needed to find places where I couldn’t deal in English, where a Rs 150 latte at Costa coffee was nowhere to be found and a Rs 4 chai from the wooden tea stall on the corner does people just fine—and has for generations.

The next few posts will cover the mediators that pulled me more into the world around me here in India–and the experiences that eventually combined into the world of Breakdown.  There were books to read about Maharashtra and places to photograph, ragas to listen to and “Teach Yourself Hindi” lessons to struggle with.  But most importantly there were strangers who became collaborators who became friends, who made me feel at home while we explored their country together—and who taught me how to drink chai like it was coffee.

me_n_satchit

Talkin’ Tepper (part 2 of 2)

DSC_9787

There I was on the phone with Tepper, trying to make a good impression.  By the end of the phone call, I would be asking him out.

Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink argues in part that intuitive decisions are often better than “paralysis by over-analysis.”    Gladwell received a lot of criticism for his conclusions, but when it comes to blind dating, I think he gets it right.  Nine out of ten times, you don’t need more than a short while with the other person to know if you want to go out again.

As I narrated to Rob our “American film noir in India,” he said to me, “Man, I think this is something that I would want to do.”  I knew right then that he was the only guy for the role.  I would email him the twelve-page step-outline of the film–plus my seven pages of writer’s notes–and hope he wouldn’t think I was one of those guys who only talked about himself at dinner.  And that he would still want to do the film in the morning.

Two days later, he called back.

Since filmmaking is collaborative, the most important thing to me as a director is to find people with whom I could work, and with whom I could enjoy the journey.  I guess it does not always–or maybe even often–work that way with the egos in the industry.   But I knew it could be that way with Rob.  He would be the star player that would buy into the team concept, and he would make everybody around him better.

Four months later, I met up with Tepper face-to-face, when I came back to the US for Christmas.  Four months after that, Tepper was in India.

Talkin’ Tepper (part 1 of 2)

It was Facebook that did it.

A decade on from college, I searched for the profile of the only actor I knew in Hollywood and hoped Rob Tepper would remember me fondly from our one Public Speaking class together back at Santa Clara University.

Brayden! Great to hear from you! What’s your number? I’d be stoked to help you find who you’re looking for…let’s talk soon…this weekend is good for me. Best -Tepper

It was August 2011, and I was back in Hawai’i for a short time.  Before returning to India, I had set myself a goal of identifying an actor who might be interested in coming to the subcontinent sometime in 2012 to carry my final student film.  I called up Rob, hoping that he would be able to help me dig around Los Angeles for the best guy for the job….and, you know, damned if he didn’t.

Actors are the most prominent tool in a director’s kit; whether a film is dialogue-heavy or not, actors are the ones the audience is watching, like the front man for a band.  To put it another way, a good lead actor executes the dramatic plan laid out by the director, like a quarterback calling the coach’s plays.  Dhanu_Yoder_Tepper

A great lead actor, though, like Rob, can change the call at the line of scrimmage, and produce something truly extraordinary for himself and his team.  Time and again, Rob delivered for us on the Breakdown set, leaving me wondering how in the hell I ever could have made this film without him.  I mean, what if he had told me, “No?”

Before that first phone call in August 2011, I had not spoken with Tepper in more than ten years.  We had been friendly but not close in college, though we had gotten on really well in that one class and had several mutual friends.  But after our graduation from Santa Clara, I went off into the US Army, and Rob went off to Hollywood.

I’ll never forget Rob’s first words when I called him up on the phone.  “Yoder, what?  You’re in India? Making films? What?

Writing rules

There are a couple of rules to writing that vie for primacy in my head.  The first is to write from what you know.  And the first is to know your audience.   Both of these firsts can set you back when working in a foreign culture–and set you further apart, too.

Sure, you can write about attending your first Indian wedding, and the folks back home will enjoy the photos of you pulsing your hands Bollywood-style while dancing in a saree.  But the everyday Indians around you won’t be interested in what is novel to you; they’ve already bought fresh mangoes off the back of a hand-pulled bullock cart and seen an elephant lumbering down the road.  In fact, they have seen it every Tuesday since they were three years old.

How then does one make a film in a foreign culture, which could also feel authentic to that particular place and appeal to its people?  Wong Kar-Wai tried crafting a bit of Americana with his first English-language feature, My Blueberry Nights, which fell fantastically flat.   And while Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire might have swept the Oscars, it received a much different reception here in India, where it was released at the end of my first year in film school.  “It didn’t touch me personally,” opined Aamir Khan, one of India’s biggest stars and filmmakers. “While it’s about India, I don’t think it’s an Indian film.  I don’t feel the point of view is Indian.”

If film is a director’s medium and point-of-view is the metric by which we assay a movie’s artistic value, could a thirtysomething ex-Army guy from Hawai’i really direct an “Indian film?”  Ang Lee pulled off this cultural balancing act with Brokeback Mountain, though by then Lee had long since become a naturalized American citizen, and he had Annie Proulx’s Wyoming Stories from which to draw more authenticity.   I knew I wanted to craft a story that would appeal to both Indians here and Americans back home, but while I had been in India a few years, I knew I wouldn’t get it right if I tried to tell it solely from an Indian’s perspective.  When I sat down to write the first draft of Breakdown in April of 2011, I still needed an American avatar to interact with the world of the film and help channel that primary point-of-view in my head.

And so I went calling on Hollywood…

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So this guy walks into a blog…

A stand-up buddy of mine in Texas encouraged me to start posting about Breakdown, as he was surprised to hear that I was making films in India. “I have no idea where Pune, Maharashtra is,” he wrote me. “What’s so special about that location? How is it different from the backdrop of Slumdog Millionaire?

The short answer is that, more than five years on, Pune now feels something like home. The medium answer is that, like any writer, I needed to write from what I knew. But my friend was really hankering for the long(er) answer: Why India?

Is it challenging filming in India,” he asked. “How is filmmaking there different compared to the US?” On the second question, I can’t comment; I’ve never made a film in the US, and the Film & Television Institute of India was the only film school to which I applied. But the first question is one I’ll try to answer in these blogs, to give some insight into the filmmaking process and how all the lessons I’ve learned since coming to the subcontinent combined in the experience of making Breakdown.

I hope you’ll find it interesting, and maybe a little entertaining. Feel free to leave comments and let me know how I’m doing with this new microphone. And please don’t forget to tip your waitress.

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