A ‘Pitch-Dark’ Diorama is an original and stylish new indie film from Bangalore based filmmaker Santosh MP, currently screening online for free (available as a full length torrent and a 5 part web series.) We spoke to Santosh about taking risks as an independent filmmaker and finding your audience through hybrid distribution methods. For more details about the film, to download as a feature, and for ways to support it, you can visit vespertilio.in
Synopsis: Indranil Deashi is scouring for the right twist to complete his slasher thriller, ‘Pitch-Dark’. In a parallel universe, the fictional characters inside of ‘Pitch-Dark’ are, meanwhile, constantly hurtling through an exaggeratedly possessive director’s many mood swings and idiosyncrasies. When Indranil has just about nailed a fitting conclusion, an unexpected visitor turns up. Personal demons catch up with Indranil, leaving him shattered. And dead. Rajiv Dey, writer of schlock thrillers, attempts to recapture his glory days by accepting to finish ‘Pitch-Dark’. He’s promoting the novel to a deceptively thorny critic. A hard-boiled, lecherous detective encounters a protagonist from the novel. Brutally slashed. And the hunt for the perpetrator begins.
What inspired you to make the film and what fresh approach to genre did you want to bring to Indian audiences?
I didn’t consciously set about to take on a fresh approach to a genre. The film itself has two main genres, surreal thriller and drama, with slasher horror thrown in between.
The treatment happened organically. I’d a thought experiment as a feature idea and my influences just happened to be directors and writers who dealt with the ‘puzzle story’. As a result, I’d to learn the machinations and write accordingly. The genre isn’t very well known here but it was a risk I knew right at the outset. The only solution was to produce it independently to retain the creative freedom and continue to make the film challenging right till the final sound mix. I’d to live with the film for three years, so the emotional investment had to be worth it. My father invested a huge chunk of his retirement funds and generous amounts came in from close friends and relatives to make this film possible.
The ramification is that finding an audience becomes more difficult and I have to find innovative ways to take the film to its audience and continue to create more films. The best way to promote work is to make more work. I can’t help but remain optimistic about it.
What informed your choices in terms of shooting style and what format did you shoot on?
I started off as a storyboard artist for animated films and my initial influences were Michael Mann and Christopher Nolan. So I’d a very hollywood coverage in mind when I set about writing the script.
But the cinematographer, Karthik Muthukumar, was hesitant to take that route because it has become standard practice. He wanted to try out long takes that went on for minutes together. He also didn’t want ‘Over the Shoulder’ shots. So we ditched that straight away.
I was lucky that my actors were from a theatre background and were no strangers to performing uninterrupted for a long time. Furthermore, I had 5 timelines in the film. So each timeline required a distinctive style. Thus, we made strict rules for each timeline.
Timeline 1: Static camera
Timeline 2: Static camera but each new shot will be a new camera setup and no angles will be repeated.
Timeline 3: A mix of static and handheld. Black and white film stock only.
Timeline 4: Handheld. Mid-shots.
Timeline 5: Handheld. Mostly close-ups dictated by staging. The longest shot in the film runs for around 5 minutes.
Because it was an independent production, we couldn’t afford sets or production designers. So the cinematographer also insisted on a 1.85:1 aspect ratio to not let the budget limitation show through.
The film was shot on Super 16. I was hell bent on shooting on film and found a valuable ally in Karthik. An independent film shot on celluloid with sync sound was going to be hard and needed tremendous discipline. Luckily, our crew rose to the occasion. The resultant visual quality was worth the effort.
How can the audience watch the film – could you tell me about the mini-series and full feature version. Are there any differences in the versions and what made you decide on this distribution strategy?
With 2 genres, 5 timelines, and 4 languages, I think it was natural that I’d to hunt for my audience. The only way I could do it is to make it accessible for everyone to watch it at their convenience. The film is available on Vimeo and Youtube as a mini- series, and the feature version as a BitTorrent bundle.
It was a personal observation that it is easier to commit to a shorter duration while streaming a film. While the film was originally made as a feature, I did end up having 20 odd minute chunks of it while sending it to the sound department. Purely out of personal interest, I ended each reel at a cliffhanger. It didn’t feel like a bad strategy to release it as a mini-series, especially in today’s binge watching environment. So I took it as a form of an experiment.
There is no difference between the mini-series and the feature version on BitTorrent but there might and probably will be a difference in the viewing experience. The latter will be relentless for 2 straight hours while the former will hope to tease the viewer into the next episode deftly and recalibrate storyline expectations.
The impact of the animated intro will be more pronounced, however, in the mini- series as it sets an ominous tone for each episode and the repetition becomes a character in itself.
This distribution strategy was devised to find my film an audience. Expecting a conventional theatrical release for a raw indie like this might have been unrealistic and it proved to be so. The only way out was self-distribution. The hitch is that the internet is such a huge place that small films are swamped to the point of being utterly insignificant.
Filmmaker Graham Jones’ Nuascannan movement inspired me tremendously to put the film out without any payment or time bound barriers and make it accessible to everyone. Nina Paley’s Sita Sings The Blues was a case study too. It is a huge risk but the only thing worse than a film to not make money is for a film to not be seen and not make money. I have an ongoing crowdfunding campaign for donations as well as a Paypal checkout on the site so that people can watch the film and if they enjoy it and would like to donate, they have a convenient method to do so.
Can you tell me about your next project?
I have a few projects lined up. I’d like to do a series of essays on the benefits of reading and the importance of bookstores. I’ve two feature ideas that have been outlined. The first one’s a thriller drama about the power play in an illicit relationship and the second is a semi autobiographical drama about high school boys on the lines of Mario Llosa Vargas’ “The Time of the Hero”. But the timeline for these films will depend on the donations that will come in for “A ‘Pitch-Dark’ Diorama”. I’m keeping my hopes up though.