How Did An IT Guy From Telangana Make An Indie Film In The US?

Debutant indie filmmaker Sripal Sama opens up about the pain-staking process of making his filmmaking dream a reality
How A Telugu IT Professional Made An Indie Film In The US?
How A Telugu IT Professional Made An Indie Film In The US?

“I am yet another guy who studied engineering and harboured the aspiration to become a filmmaker,” says Sripal Sama at the start of our Zoom conversation about his self-funded film, How’s That For A Monday? that's set to have a limited release on October 27. Sripal, who is still working as an IT professional in the US, is also a self-distributing the film through PVR Cinemas. 

Although Sripal’s love for filmmaking might have compelled him to pour in his life savings to realise his directorial dream, what pulled him to the field is a quite simple and humane factor: comfort. “I had moved from my village in Warangal district to Hyderabad to study engineering, and was finding the life in city quite difficult to cope with. The traveling, the buses, and the hassles in the room were all frustrating. To deviate my mind, I started watching films. And there was a roommate who wanted to be an actor. As we kept discussing films, I felt I should write something.” Almost a decade after this idea was sown in his mind, Sripal finally wrote and directed a feature.

In this interview with Film Companion, Sripal opens up about the challenges and joys of making a film on a shoestring budget with numerous logistical restrictions, and the harsh realities of the filmmaking business that he had to confront during the process. Excerpts:

Kaushik Ghantasala in a still from How is That For a Monday
Kaushik Ghantasala in a still from How is That For a Monday

What was the first step you took towards filmmaking?

I don’t think I ever took one major step towards filmmaking; it was a combination of many events. For instance, I had written a passionate letter to filmmaker Bapu garu comparing a scene from his film Pelli Pusthakam (1991) to Steven Spielberg’s The Terminal (2004). Two days later, I got a call from one of his associates, informing me that the filmmaker was moved by the letter, but they couldn’t take me in as an assistant because their new film, Radha Gopalam (2004), had commenced production already. Later, Ram Gopal Varma announced a short film competition as a part of the promotion of Agyaat (2009). The task was to make a horror film but I made a horrible film (laughs).

After graduation, I worked in Bangalore, and the organisation often sent me on business trips to the US. I had asked my bosses for a sabbatical so I could go attend a film school in India, but they declined. Then I asked them to relocate me to the US for a couple of years instead of sending me on multiple trips to the country every year. They agreed, and once I moved to the US, I immediately enrolled myself in courses at New York Film Academy and UCLA. I stuck to my day job and was parallelly making short films and learning filmmaking. 

At what point did you finally decide to take the leap and make a feature film?

Around 2016, I decided to write a bound script, and developed a film titled Gas Station. We couldn’t proceed with it due to travel restrictions imposed during the pandemic. And How Is That For A Monday happened because I wanted to write something executable. I knew my spending power. The first motivation for the story was that the premise had to be limited. My co-writer Praneeth and I consciously reverse-engineered everything. I knew I couldn’t afford to elaborate on certain scenes even though the story demands it, but I had to give it a completeness with the restrictions in place. The seed was: A thriller around the thought ‘What can go wrong in a person's life in two days?’. One reference I had was Uncut Gems (2019). Not a solid reference but I wanted such hastiness in the screenplay, and then there was one image I saw on Twitter. I cannot reveal which image it is, but these elements drove the story.

A working still from the film's shooting spot
A working still from the film's shooting spot

What was the planning and the process of putting up a team together like?

I took a one-month break from work and we shot for 14 and a half days. And considering the film is around 90 minutes, we shot around 5-6 minutes of runtime every day. Coming to the process of assembling the team, that’s where I feel staying in Los Angeles helped a lot. Everyone comes here with filmmaking aspirations and naturally, we have many options to pick from, both the crew and the cast. There are websites to source technical crew and cast. There are agencies too, but they are quite expensive and they do not even answer your calls. You cannot go for agencies unless your budget is around two-three million. You can hire a low-profile casting director or invite actors for auditions yourself. There are some places here that offer you a camera set-up on an hourly basis for a nominal price, allowing you to shoot the auditions and review them later. So I knew this casting director personally and although I couldn’t hire her, I requested her login credentials, and posted my requirements for actors on one such website. We received so many applications that it was confusing. One actor might look the part but doesn’t sound like the character; the other actor might be very skilled but he turns out to be too old for the character. It can be frustrating but you have to stick to your vision. And then some actors didn’t want to risk it during the pandemic and couldn’t travel. 

But thankfully, we found a passionate set of actors eventually. I had asked one actor to get an extra shirt since we would splash blood on him in a scene, and he ended up bringing 10 pairs of extra t-shirts for me to choose from. Of course, there were a few people who weren’t that cooperative too. There was one actor who quit midway saying he had to shoot for another film. He just told me to edit out his portions and move on. I was scared, sad and clueless because I didn’t have the money to hire a new actor and reshoot his portions. Neither could I share this news with others because that would disturb them. I kept shooting despite his absence and three days later, he called me and said he’d be back since the shoot of the other film got cancelled. It was very stressful!

And speaking of hiring crew from the website, I had posted the requirement for sound mixing on a website and Scott Wolf applied. I thought he applied by mistake and called him to check the same. He sounded pretty interested in working on the film, and he walked me through basics like splitting the film into reels for sound mixing. He showed me old film reels, gave me a demo of the 7.1 mix set up at his home studio, and shared anecdotes of working with Quentin Tarantino. The only scary part was that there was a snake in his house (laughs).

A working still from the film's shooting spot
A working still from the film's shooting spot

Coming to the execution, how did plan the shooting schedule?

It’s all about how efficiently you can use a location and the actors. For instance, if there is an actor who is featured in multiple scenes in one location but you also need him at a different location for a brief shot. So I try to get his shots on the same day and call it a wrap for him. This way, I could save the cost of hiring him for one extra day.

How many people did you have in your team?

Well, the entire production and direction were handled just by me.

Wow. That means you had to handle tasks like checking the continuity between shots yourself?

I had a production manager named Misty but two days into the shoot, she had to drop out because of a family emergency. She would remotely support me by sending the call sheets, but apart from that, I was running the production by myself. I was the first AD, the second AD, and the script supervisor. I would finish shooting a scene and start planning the next shot while browsing the food app on my phone to order lunch for the crew. I had to make sure the crew wasn’t angry with the food, while also ensuring it was within my budget. I couldn't repeat the menu. They were all angry that I repeated pizzas on the second day (laughs).

There was a lot of multi-tasking involved. My DoP, Rahul Biruly, was also our truck driver, and he would take care of the loading and unloading of the equipment needed for the shoot. At the end of every day, he would give me the memory cards to copy the footage we shot, and I had to make two copies. I was always scared that I would forget to copy the files one day because I was under severe stress. When my DoP would ask me whether he could erase the files from the memory card after I had copied, I would tell him to go ahead, but I would be wondering if I had actually copied the files (laughs). Luckily, I did it every day.

A still from the film
A still from the film

And how about the budget? Would you split it day-wise?

Yes. It was allocated on the basis of the actors I needed on that day, the location, the food, and the props. The equipment was sorted because we had rented it out for a month. Sometimes, we might need an extra rig or something, but it’s all noted down in Excel sheets, with one sheet for each day. And I paid every single person on my team at the end of each day. At times, I would hit the transaction limit so I had to use alternate modes of payment. It was hectic but that’s the thing about making an indie film.

What was the most frustrating point during the whole process?

In LA, cast and crew might be available but finding locations is very difficult since everyone is filming something. And locations are pretty expensive. For instance, I needed a parking lot on a rooftop and one location was $2000 per hour. There were plenty of unused rooftop parking lots but they wouldn’t rent it out for free because it’s considered a liability. I had called so many places and finally, there was one government parking that let me use the location for $400 per night. Imagine coming from $2000 per hour to $400 per night! 

If I had a producer, they would have worked out the logistics, giving me the space to focus on the creative aspects. Here, however, I had to channel my time and energy into both logistical and creative facets. You have to deal with some stress every day because there are so many things beyond your control. Every day, I would be scared wondering what to do if an actor cancels on me. You are always operating with that risk.

A working still from the film's shooting spot
A working still from the film's shooting spot

Your film features a Telugu protagonist but it’s entirely set in the US and is shot in English. Who do you think is your target audience?

This is a good question. I used to get angry when someone would ask me the same. I’ll be honest, I didn’t think much about it. I felt the urban Indians and American audiences would watch it. Anyone who is interested in indie films might enjoy it because it’s in their realm. But business-wise, I didn’t have an answer to this question. When I pitched this idea to streaming platforms, they would ask me, “What do I do with this?” Netflix India would tell me to go to Netflix US, and vice-versa. I understand their perspective because they go by statistics. But the thing is, a youngster from Hyderabad would enjoy it because they are already enjoying international content. I think it’s hard for the representatives to understand this judgment and explain it to their management. As a result, the OTT business was a challenge for us. Praneeth and I wanted to tell a story we felt was interesting but business-wise, the question stays the same. Some OTT representatives wouldn’t even watch it. Some would say it’s great but they couldn’t help. We knew nothing would happen there. The whole OTT experience was very sad and humbling.

A still from the film
A still from the film

How did you finally manage to crack the theatrical distribution and the limited release?

We are self-distributing. We don’t have a distributor in India. In the US, there are some young distributors willing to help. In India, we spoke with PVR for screenings. For theatrical, there are some nominal publishing charges that I have to bear. It’s around ₹7000 per week for each screen. Be it 4 shows or 2 shows per day, the fee remains the same. So based on the allocation of shows, I say, we'll get around 10-15 shows. Then they create DCPs (Digital Cinema Package) for screenings but in this case, we are only creating the DCPs. In the US, my distributor has been helpful and is not charging anything, but the exhibitor will charge 65% of the ticket sales. In India, the split between producer and exhibitor is 50-50 for our film. 

This has been a very tough process for you. How would you keep going when you face constant rejections?

See, I know that I might not be able to recover the money I’ve invested but I also know that I won’t be on the streets. I might have to work a few more years to earn the money back and yes, I have that pain. But there’s nothing we can do. We made the movie. Keeping all the business aside, my only hope is that there’ll be some people who will watch the film, find it interesting, and like it. I’m hoping it works at least over time.

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