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Vikkramm Chandirramani on Film Direction, Culture of Bans in India and Stories of Conflict

Vikkramm Chandirramani on Film Direction, Culture of Bans in India and Stories of Conflict

Creative inclinations can be contrived all that surrounds our existence. A conversation with stranger or a soliloquy with yourself, a character from the last book you read or the painting you saw at the exhibition. Vikkramm Chandirramani talks about paying attention to the minute details of everything that is happening around us to strike the right idea. Apart from making films, he also plays an important role in producing, editing and writing his own films. Learn to take inspirations from the minutest details in life, for that’s how great ideas pop-up, explains Vikramm.

Highlights of this Episode

  • Instead of writing out of compulsion, start writing out of pleasure, they definitely yield better results.
  • Filmmaking is not a one man’s army, it is backed by a fully efficient and armed crew.
  • Screwdriver, the latest addition to his works of art, essentially is about self proclaimed moral polices in India.
  • Always be sure of your expenses, before you take the leap, keep a clear head and all will go smoothly.

Quotes and Takeaways

  • “I think it’s important for a director to understand and experience the craft of acting before directing.”
  • “Writing according to a template makes it a rather mechanical, somewhat like a lifeless process.”
  • “ Stories need to have conflict and our lives are full of it.”

How did you begin your journey as a film producer, editor, and writer?

I’ve written all my life, and until now, purely for pleasure. My father is an author and has written ten books including three biographies. So, writing comes easily to me. I spent a lot of my growing up years watching films of all sorts across varied genres, and reading fiction,  and nonfiction. I also spent two years learning graphic design and animation soon after my graduation. I considered making films much earlier but didn’t take the leap. Instead, I started my existing internet company. A few years back I realized that the entry barriers were now so low, it was possible to make a film, even without support from mainstream producers and studios. The internet is in many ways an equalizer. You can have an audience for a film from video streaming websites like YouTube, and with social networking websites it’s easier to get the word out. I spent a couple of years learning the ropes of filmmaking, including directing and editing, by reading books and watching videos and films. I also got formally trained as an actor at Roshan Taneja Acting School, because I think it’s important for a director to understand and experience the craft of acting before directing.  I then wrote the script and decided to direct and produce it. The preproduction, casting, and rehearsals took a couple of months. The film has fifteen characters. I finalized Dr. Rajesh Nahar for the lead, having seen his work and knowing his flair for comedy. I cast Preety Arora opposite him because she was the quintessential Punjabi woman I was looking for. For the other thirteen characters, I personally auditioned the artists. Filmmaking is teamwork and a very collaborative process between the director, the crew, and artists. I was lucky to have a very committed and sincere crew. It took three days to complete the filming and everything went smoothly.

 

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Can you tell us about the background of your latest short film “Screwdriver”?

‘Screwdriver’ is a political satire on the culture of bans in India. We have a tradition of imposing bans on a whim. The government routinely imposes bans, whether it is alcohol, beef, or books. There is a PIL in the Honorable Supreme Court about banning Santa Banta jokes (aka sardar jokes). India is known for knee-jerk reactions to everything. New laws are hurriedly made and old ones are changed quite often to appease voter banks. The film also mocks red tape, the ‘Self Appointed’ culture police, and other aspects of our society.

 

What are the challenges of making a bootstrapped movie?

Making a bootstrapped film is definitely more challenging. The budgets are lower and planning is essential. You must have a complete script and do some storyboarding, while being open to making changes to the storyboards when filming. Be sure of what everything costs before you commit. Rehearsals are important. Often an actor gives you something unexpected during rehearsals that you hadn’t thought of, and it improves their overall performance! Leave room for that sort of magic. You can use the rehearsals to plan your shots. The more you plan, the more you can control your costs, and that is extremely important when making a bootstrapped film. You need to have talented, enthusiastic, and committed cast and crew.  Get good assistant directors and delegate responsibilities to your crew in an organized manner. Finally, ensure the food is good. This will ensure a relaxed environment where everyone can give their best.

 

“It all starts with the script.” Maybe not, but when do you know a script is ready to shoot, and what is your process of getting it there?

It usually starts with an idea which I could get anytime, in the shower, when working out, or when I’ve just woken up! From there, if I have a beginning, middle, and end, I have a story. Then comes the screenplay, where I flesh out the story and work out scenes. The dialogues follow. While this is the normal process, it is rarely linear. Sometimes a conversation, a news story, an anecdote, or a book I’m reading inspires me to add a scene or a dialogue, while I’m still working on the story. I could also add a character or change the personality of a character I have conceived. I’m not a big fan of writing per the templates that a lot of books suggest. That makes it a rather mechanical, somewhat lifeless process. For me writing is a creative and very personal process.  Having a complete and final script is very important before one starts preproduction to minimize uncertainty in the filmmaking process.

What has been your most exciting experience in your journey so far? Can you share any specific incidences?

Directing actors and filming a scene, which until sometime back was only in your head or on paper, is very exciting in itself.  Yet, some other incidents are very thrilling. When I was doing the pre-production of ‘Screwdriver’ I sounded off a few companies which could do the VFX for it. There are a few sequences that required Chroma key work, which involves replacing the background of a scene (usually plain green or blue) with some other background. It’s used to show news rooms or characters flying in the air etc. Through one of the companies, I got a quote of Rs.50,000 for a single minute of VFX work! This was despite my explaining to them that this was a small budget short film! A couple of other studios I spoke to also made the process more difficult. I was disappointed, and almost wrote the scenes out of the script. Later I decided that I would film them anyway, and use the green background intact worst case scenario. For Chroma key work, it is critical to get a well and evenly lit background, and my cinematographer, Kartik Katkar, did a great job on that front. I already had training in animation, having learned it in my college days. So, when I sat down with the footage, it took me all of one day to finish the Chroma key work! I was thrilled! It cost me nothing except the rental for the workstation, which was a very nominal cost!

 

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Let’s take a hypothesis. There are only six stories, all of which have been done before. What do you do to keep it fresh? Is there anything that you can do to subvert the process to keep it original?

There are innumerable stories all around us. Just look around. Every person has moments of grief, regret, pride, envy, greed, jubilation, and the incidents that lead to this. Stories need to have conflict and our lives are full of it, whether it is an employee asking his boss for a raise, or a couple disagreeing over starting a family, or a teacher punishing a student. Yet, if there were six or twelve stories and I had to keep them fresh, I would keep the premise and change the story altogether. Let’s say we had ‘The Crow and the Pitcher’, which everyone is familiar with. Now the premise of this story is that you shouldn’t give up when the chips are down. Keep trying, working doggedly, and eventually you’ll succeed. Look at films like ‘Rocky’ or ‘Cindrella Man’ or ‘Chak De India’ and that’s what these films are about. You don’t have to work with the same story. If the premise inspires you, run with it.

 

 

What films have been the most inspiring or influential to you and why?

I’ve watched films of from various genres. I especially love comedies, romantic comedies, and films that are touching or intense. Among my favorites are ‘Notting Hill’, ‘Forrest Gump’, ‘Castaway’, ‘Cindrella Man’, ‘Falling in Love,’ and among Hindi films, I have watched the whole range, from Raj Kapoor’s early films to the films being made today. One director I have been influenced by is Roger Corman, who is truly a legend. He had the knack of for shooting films in a short span of time and on a limited budget. He shot ‘The Little Shop of Horrors’ (1960) in less than two days and one night, after betting that he could shoot a feature in threee days.  He also mentored some of the greatest film directors we have seen emerge from Hollywood, or worked with them much before they made it big. This includes James Cameroon,  Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, and many others.

 

What advice would you give to someone who wants to have a life creating films?

While wide appeal is essential for the survival of an artist, I believe that for artists it’s important to assert themselves creatively, without worrying about how they will be judged by people in their everyday life. So, to all artists I would say, ‘Don’t worry too much about what people think of you. Most of them aren’t thinking about you anyway’!

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