About six years ago around the same time, I met New York.
It was love at first sight.
I had just the script for it.
A conversation film that I had just written with Shilpa Rathnam simply because my friend Nischalakrishna Vittalanathan bought a Sony HVR V1U (He had spent a year discovering everything it can do and how to optimise it for shooting movies) and had insisted that I write something we can shoot quickly.
The pop culture references were mostly American since we had written it in English and it didn’t seem to work when we tried to localise it. (We’re still trying to do it, though!) Besides, this was a New year’s eve film in English. New York sounded like the perfect world for it.
Raja Sen was one of the first people to read it, a month after we started writing it and asked me who I had in mind for the cast. I was planning to shoot with newcomers. He was on the opinion that this script has so much potential that I should consider casting someone from Bollywood. He put me in touch with an actress who loved the script enough to say she would do it.
I had heard of Manu Narayan from Kaveri Valliappan, a choice strongly recommended by my best friend from school Murugan (they are both from Pittsburgh; Murugan had seen Manu perform in Andrew Lloyd Webber & A.R. Rahman’s Bombay Dreams in Broadway, New York). So New York it would be. We would shoot on New Year’s Eve. We would be there around Christmas and stay on for three weeks to wrap shoot. That was the plan.
But thanks to problems small filmmakers face with big stars, I ended up with just the first four minutes of the film. And I was going to leave New york, having spent the three lakhs more than the ten lakhs I had budgeted for the whole film – WITH NO FILM!
Just some great memories. The Pizza at Artichoke. Hot Chocolate at Max Brenners. Experiencing snowfall for the first time in Queens… while shooting it. The madness at Times Square on New Years Eve… Getting so sloshed to keep ourselves warm and almost surviving the night. Ask Raja Sen for the story of that legendary night he remembers only from accounts of other people… Going to Red Bank, New Jersey to see where Kevin Smith shot Clerks on his birthday… Living in a suite at the New Yorker hotel (where we were supposed to shoot) for a week… Shooting an obscure music video with our actress that had nothing to do with the film because our film shoot was not going to happen.
In between these highs and lows, I thought about how they did it back in the day before outdoor shoots were not logistically possible. The fifties. And it dawned on me that if I could do the same, I could probably be able to shoot the whole film in India if I went all the way and embraced everything the fifties were about.
So in that one week I had left in New York, I decided to salvage the best out of that situation. I hired a helicopter, got all the aerial shots I needed from New York to halfway to Philadelphia. I rented a taxi halfway between New York and Philadelphia and shot all around New Hope. I shot every possible outdoor shot I needed. I sourced every prop I needed to stay true to the milieu. The radio announcements on December 31, the newspaper of that day, the hotel supplies… We even stole their menu.
All the outdoors could be projected outside the static car inside a studio… and it would work great in a black and white film. We hadn’t started off trying to make a black and white film but this seemed like the only way out. So we rewrote the film to make it sound more like the fifties. More mushy. More cheesy. We sourced the right kind of jazz music – from Ray Guntrip in the UK to Gregory Generet from New York to Manu Narayan’s bandmate Radovan Jovicevic to Chennai based Maitreya to do a cover of Strangers in the Night.
I just need money to shoot. And to pay off the credit card and personal loan debts from the 13 lakhs I had already spent. To cut a long sob story short, it took me 18 months to get back on my feet and shoot again. With more personal loans and fresh credit card debt.
The actress who was to do the film wasn’t available anymore because of both health and date issues but this turned out to be a blessing in disguise because we found the incredibly talented Seema Rahmani… who I had messaged through Facebook after being impressed with her American accent in Loins of Punjab. She didn’t share her number. She texted back her email address and said she would call IF she liked the script.
Two days later, she did. She didn’t even want to talk money. It had connected to her at a very deep level. She called me every day to go over the lines until she came to Chennai three weeks later for the shoot and by the time she landed, she knew every single line of the script by heart.
It was a craziest of schedules. We put them up both at a service apartment for a month and even shot a few scenes there. We shot all of Seema in three days flat, all of Manu in two days and the five episodes in between the phone call in another four days. Including patchwork, we shot maybe ten days in all!
We had just finished edit and before we could figure out what to do, Megha Ramaswamy saw the film at Raja Sen’s place and recommended it to Galen Rosenthal of the South Asian International Film Festival, New York. It seemed like the place to premiere the film being the home of the film.
We also got a call from the Mumbai Film Festival. So we had back to back premieres in a week. Mumbai first and then, New York. Finally, AFTER the premiere, I was able to reshoot and replace a few shots from the first four minutes with Seema Rahmani walking down streets of New York (I had used the shots of the previous actress in silhouette for the premiere).
Manu’s Mom came for the premiere. She was moved to tears with the performance of her son. I would always cherish that night Manu got so emotional and said he found a brother in me. For life. I love that guy. For sticking with the project and believing in it. For years.
An American premiere was also the perfect excuse for me to go all the way to LA. I was hoping to meet my idol Cameron Crowe to give him a DVD of our film – because we had written it as that ten minute phone call from Elizabethtown coming to life. But that’s another story.
We then got invited to the Habitat Film Festival, Delhi and Shiladitya Bora, who was programming alternative content for PVR happened to see a poster of the film there that got his attention. He wrote to me asking for a DVD and offered to release it through his new banner Director’s Rare. That was the beginning of another great friendship.
On January 20, 2012, PVR launched its Director’s Rare banner with Good Night Good Morning. We sold 1500 tickets through 18 screens. It was a total disaster at the box office given. We hadn’t spent one rupee on marketing or publicity because I had already spent 30 lakhs on the film and was too broke to spend any more. I wrote an angry rant back then that got some people interested in the film and luckily for us, the reviews were good too.
Full credit to Shiladitya Bora to keep the initiative going and Director’s Rare today has released about 60 films since Good Night Good Morning. He had opened up and created a niche market for films like these.
Our share from PVR was Rs.99000. We got another Rs.25000 from Sathyam Cinemas from Chennai. Mela gave us Rs.50000 for an online release. And Enlighten sold 1000 DVDs that got us another Rs. 60000. So I had spent 30 lakh rupees and not even recovered three! We are still waiting for a decent deal for a TV premiere.
I still have three more months of Good Night Good Morning debt left. I still need to pay my best friend Murugan $9000 dollars. I reminded him about it last week. He said even if you make it back, I want you to put it in the next film.
Thankfully, I don’t need to take on the extra baggage of producing anymore. And the market has opened up too.
There are some excellent modern producers and we found one such angel investor in Manish Mundra for X. But this is not about X.
This is about closure for Good Night Good Morning. A film about closure.
So guys and girls, the film is finally out there online. For posterity, hopefully. In all its HD detail.
You can buy it or rent it for Rs.25 on Google Play. It should be out on Amazon and iTunes soon. Maybe in twenty years or so, it would actually recover its cost.
If you want to help, do spread the word and pass this link to your friends. It’s not a bad film at all, I promise. There’s a link to the director’s commentary online as well that I recorded at home if you want to hear more about our adventures with low-budget filmmaking.