The Cosmopolitan Filmmaker

An interview with Kartik Singh

By RANJIT SOURI • Photos: CAROLINE MENNE, May 10, 2007

After growing up in Kansas City, Kartik Singh has become a cosmopolitan citizen and an award-winning filmmaker.

The 34-year-old Singh has lived in Washington, D.C., Japan, the Netherlands, and Paris (his current home), and has also studied acting in New York City and Los Angeles. In addition to his mother tongue of English, he speaks fluent French, conversational Dutch and Japanese, and some German, Spanish, and Hindi. He has degrees from American University (B.A., economics and international studies) and the Sorbonne (equivalents of B.A., M.A., and M.F.A., all in film). His short films have won prizes at the Festival ARTE Rush and the Festival Courts Metrages et Grands Talents, both in France.

When I interviewed Singh, he was in the final stages of post-production on his latest short film, Saving Mom and Dad, in anticipation of submitting it to the Cannes Film Festival. Saving Mom and Dad is a film about a 7-year-old boy, Ravi, and his struggle to understand God. Ravi is forced to examine the differences between the Sikh values at home and the Christian teaching at school.

How is post-production going for Saving Mom and Dad?

Great, but hectic. We are doing the editing, sound editing, mixing, and music, and the submission deadline for Cannes is only three weeks away.

Can you give an approximate timeline for the project, from idea to final product?

I got the idea in May of 2005. I wrote the first draft of the script by June, and in September did location scouting in Savannah, Ga., with a plan to begin production in March of 2006. But we ended up not being able to shoot in Savannah, and the project was left in limbo for a few months. We finally decided to shoot in Paris. In October of 2006 we started pre-production in Paris. We finished casting by November, and finished location scouting by December. We rehearsed in January of 2007 and shot in February, and we’re doing all of our post-production in March. The Cannes submission deadline is April 1, 2007.

How did a guy from the American heartland end up in Paris?

Initially, I was just going to be in Paris for a study-abroad semester through American University. But quickly I realized that I felt very comfortable here. As I had studied French from 6th to 12th grades at Pembroke Hill [a private prep school in Kansas City], I had a solid foundation in French language and culture. Following that semester, I went through a rigorous application process to study at the Sorbonne. After a thorough written application and an exam in French consisting solely of essay questions, I learned that I had been accepted to the film program. It was exciting and challenging. I had to work hard to follow the coursework, which was all in French. This was a time when I soaked in so much film culture: In Paris you can go and see so many old movies—and we studied them in school at the same time. There was incredible exposure to world cinema: Iran, India, Japan, Finland, France, Spain … I learned so much about American masters too—Ford, Hawks, Leo McCarey.

What did your family think about your decision to stay in Paris and make movies?

I think that they thought it was a passing phase, but they were very supportive. Their paths were more traditional than mine—Dad was a corporate controller (now retired), Mom is a psychiatrist, and my brother is a hedge-fund trader in New York City.

My parents have always had open minds. For example, they agreed to let me spend a year in the Netherlands right after graduation from high school. This was a great experience as I got to learn Dutch and experience Dutch culture with a host family. Mom and Dad were also supportive when I decided to spend a year teaching English in Japan right after graduating from American U.

How long have you been interested in movies?

I’ve loved the movies ever since I was a child. I still remember so many of the great movies I saw in the Kansas City theatres. I especially liked movies with young protagonists struggling with identity: The Karate Kid, Back to the Future, The Empire Strikes Back, Dead Poets Society, Platoon, and The Breakfast Club.

I saw Red Balloon when I was 10, and that was very strong and memorable for me too.

I also remember seeing a Raj Kapoor film called Satyam Shivam Sundaram. It left a deep impression on me. It is about a beautiful village woman who has an awful scar on her face that she is always hiding with her sari. The hero falls in love with her, but she is reluctant to accept his advances because she believes he will reject her if he discovers her scar. Something about this scar and this woman—and the symbolism behind it—really marked my psyche.

And I clearly remember attending the Kansas City premiere of Gandhi—I was 8 or so—and that was very powerful for me. This movie completely blew me away, inspired me, and made me proud to be an Indian. It was great to see an English-language film in which there were so many Indians with speaking parts! Certain images from this film still linger in my mind: Gandhi riding on the top of the train; Gandhi and his wife renewing their marriage vows on the stairway; during the riot, Gandhi telling the bloodthirsty Hindu character played by Om Puri to adopt a Muslim boy and raise him Muslim.

We had a VHS camcorder in those days, and I made home movies with my friends. We edited in the camera, so between cuts, you’d get the rainbow stripe that slowly disappears. I got a great buzz from seeing what gets created through editing. Sometimes as we were filming, we would want to check out how the footage was looking. I remember it was annoying trying to get the tape back to the right place.

When I was 13, we took a family trip to Los Angeles. We visited Universal Studios and saw the exterior set of Back to the Future. We also saw a taping of Garry Shandling’s show. I was so excited to get a behind-the-scenes peek at how things get made.

Another lasting impression came from a drama teacher I had—I must have been 9. We did plays, and the great thing was that we could always say whatever we wanted. There were no lines to remember—just say it in our own words, and I loved that—that freedom felt great. It is something I use in my own filmmaking now: The lines I wrote are expendable—if the actor feels better with something else—or with saying nothing at all.

In high school I acted in musicals and plays, and continued that at American U., even though I was an Econ major.

At American I also acted in films made by my classmate Chris Kramer on black-and-white super 8, and as an extra on Forrest Gump. Watching Hanks and Zemeckis work was incredibly inspiring for me.

Did you make the final cut of Forrest Gump?

I was in the scene where Forrest fishes Jenny out of the reflecting pool in Washington, D.C. I’ve watched the scene repeatedly and meticulously, even using freeze-frame on the DVD. I’ve never been able to spot myself in it, even though I can see the people I was with.

So you were acting and spending time around movies. Was there a specific moment at which you decided to make films yourself?

One summer when I was home in KC—I was 19—the Satyajit Ray retrospective came through. I saw all of his films over the course of a couple of weeks. Particularly seeing Pather Panchali was a defining moment for me. I knew then that I wanted to become a filmmaker.

Are there any other filmmakers who have been major influences?

I’m really fortunate to have been personally mentored by some really accomplished directors/writers: Ron Underwood [City Slickers, Tremors], F. Gary Gray [The Italian Job, The Negotiator], Max Frye [Something Wild, Emmy winner for Band of Brothers], Jeff Stockwell [Writers Guild award nominee for Wilder Days], and great French filmmakers like Jerome Beaujour (writer) and Philippe LeGuay (writer-director).

Describe your early attempts at screenwriting or directing.

I found writing very difficult. I still do today, but back then, it was much worse. I had no patience. I tended to copy my favorite films or screenwriters, as many new writers do.

I wrote a feature script, adapted from the novel Success by Martin Amis. I spent two years writing that script, and 90 percent of that time was spent procrastinating and finding small patches of a few days here and there to write. It was a miserable time.

Then I co-wrote a script called Belleville about a cop. It was a better experience but I was writing about a character I had absolutely nothing in common with. I think I was not mature enough to be able to tackle subjects with real stakes for me personally.

I wrote another story about an immigrant Indian youth getting trapped in a building and having to square off with a local French security guard. But ultimately unsatisfied with the script, I never shot it.

These experiences were all in my early 20s. I did not go about making my first “real” film until I was 27. And though there have been seven short films since then, I feel in a way that all of them were ways to prepare for making Saving Mom and Dad.

Tell me about Aditya Bhagirath, who plays the lead in Saving Mom and Dad.

What a godsend Aditya was. For many reasons, I had to make the difficult decision to fire our original lead, whom we had hired after an extensive search in Paris and the U.S. Firing him was especially risky because none of the other candidates we’d looked at were people who would work for this role.

After firing him, I contacted casting agents in England, not just London, but all over—Manchester, Wales, etc. At the same time, I was also still looking in L.A. and throughout North America.

Then I got some brilliant advice from a friend. He said that I need to really, fully exhaust all the possibilities of finding the boy in Paris before moving on to England to look.

And when he said that, it opened a door for me. I remembered a director I’d worked with in the distant past.

He was happy to hear from me, and recommended I meet little Aditya, who is the 7-year-old son of a diplomat working at the Indian Embassy in Paris.

Not expecting much, I went to see this kid, and he blew me away. He was absolutely better than any other kid I had met anywhere. Since he has always been in international schools, he even speaks with an American accent. He is absolutely perfect. He is exceptionally bright and sensitive.

Also, we never would have been able to work without the constant support of Aditya’s parents. They followed the project closely and were always willing to help. Nothing about the project scared them—the way other parents have reacted—fearful that acting in the film would confuse their child. They put their full trust in me, and that was fundamental to our success.

Concretely, that meant opening their home to us for rehearsals and letting Aditya participate in countless rehearsals—what had started as weekly rehearsals in the fall became daily rehearsals in the final two weeks before production. In the weeks before filming, they opened their home to us for no fewer than 30 times. This commitment was so important to our being able to work with Aditya to create this character.

Aditya had never acted before, so these rehearsals were designed to get him used to being filmed, and also helping him to learn the craft—through physical warm-ups, voice work, improvisation, and learning to get in touch with his emotions. This training was important because his character really carries the film.

Meeting him, I immediately sensed his great intelligence. He is very advanced for his age, and I believe his experience living in many different countries and attending international schools has contributed to his maturity.

We created an environment that was fun for him. That said, he understood when it was time to work. He was able to accomplish what any great actor strives for—he was able to be real and to live his real feelings while being filmed with a big camera and being surrounded by a room full of technicians, lights, microphones, equipment, etc.

He did it all unflinchingly. And he is only 7.

After all our rehearsals, we still had no idea of how things would turn out. After a few jitters the first morning, Aditya really got into the work. And his performance from day to day got better and better. By day 5 for the climax scene, he cried real tears from a real place—and as a cast and crew, we cried with him.

He is an amazing child with a bright future, and we were so blessed to find him and to be in his presence these past few weeks.

Did you learn anything new technically in making Saving Mom and Dad?

Yes! I only had one dolly move on my shot list. But since we had the dolly, my DP [Director of Photography] started proposing other shots using the dolly. Though I was unsure, I trusted him. These dolly moves invariably combined multiple shots into one shot, and they look great! In my previous films, there is little camera movement. I remember reading somewhere that moving shots invariably take longer than static ones. In the past, I was wary of the time factor. This time around, I trusted my cameraman and his team of grips and gaffers. The result is that many of these shots are more impactful for the audience. I am so happy with this new aspect to my filmmaking which really sprang up unexpectedly. I look forward to applying it to my future films.

After Saving Mom and Dad is completed, what’s next for you?

In the short term, I’m considering a trip to India. I would love to see my grandparents and extended family there. Work-wise, there may be a feature-length version of Saving Mom and Dad in the future. I am writing a screenplay for a production company in the U.K.—it’s a script about a man who gives up everything in the name of his personal beliefs. I am also adapting a short story that I would like to direct. I’m always on the lookout for a new project and a new challenge!

For more information about Kartik Singh, visit http://kartiksingh.canalblog.com/

Ranjit Souri (rjsouri@gmail.com) teaches classes in improvisation and writing in Chicago.

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About kartiksingh

I have been living in Paris, France since 1996. I was born to Sikh parents who immigrated to the USA. I grew up outside of Kansas City, and at 18 went to Washington DC with the intention of becoming a diplomat. Five years later, I arrived in Paris and found my life purpose: to make films that bring hope, insight, and inspiration to the world. My debut feature film Callback premieres in September 2010 in New York. For more details on where you can see my films, look for me at http://www.facebook.com/#!/kartik.singh
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