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Shooting the Moon/Post It All/The Inevitable Sequel

October 10, 2010

if you haven’t already, watch sasti masti here!

and there is a part two so please watch it.

and finally, here are the final bits of my blogs on the film. enjooooyyyy!!!

“Shooting the Moon – Day 1”

The first day of the shoot was meant to be the fight scene. i had envisioned shooting it in a fast paced style reminiscent of Far Eastern cinema. to choreograph it, i had sought out a variety of martial arts experts. after several no-shows and failed meetings, i found a small dojo run by a recent reverse emigre from the US. with their help, we managed to choreograph an elaborate, yet easy-to-shoot scene. the plan was to use the martial artists to do all the stunts and flying about, while for zafar – my hero – to swat them away in the traditional pakistani fight scene style.

the shoot was set at a location on the outer reaches of lahore. it was a house owned by a famous film star, whose gatekeeper now rented it out to shoots for regional television dramas. it had an open space reminiscent of a village. i had rented a track, a set of gloriously gaudy costumes, and lots of fake mustaches and blood. a friend had arranged to provide for several SUVs to be used by the villains, as well as a set of guns. in all there were about 25 people involved.

the night before, it all began to unravel.

first, the martial arts guys called to tell me that several of them couldn’t come. frantically, i shot through all the contacts i had garnered and managed to secure shahbaz, a national champion in karate, as well as several of his students.

but within moments of that crisis temporarily being averted, the monsoons arrived. it kept raining through the night. by eight o-clock, when i was meant to start picking up the various people involved and get to the location, half the city was submerged. an hour later, the anti-climax arrived and the shoot had to be called off.

immediately, a round of frantic calling ensued. the shoot could not be rescheduled for any of the next three days due to scheduling conflicts with the actors. so now i had to hold it for four days later. everyone eventually agreed to the new date, although zafar took an exceptionally long time to be brought around.

“Shooting the Moon – Day 2”

The next day was the shooting for the song sequence. i had wanted to use lahore’s famous blend of colonial and mughal architecture for the setting of the song, and i was determined to avoid the typical contemporary pakistani film scenario of a posturing macho hero looking gruff while the heroine dry-humped him. i was also not in the mood of heros and heroines chasing each other around gardens and other such cinematic cliches of previous eras.

the original plan envisaged the hero (khitab) in chase of a heroine (sonia) who he can’t find. i wanted to shoot around the whole city, culminating the chase in the magnificent 17th centry lahore fort. over time, the bureaucratic nightmare of trying to gain permission for shooting at the fort, coupled with the assorted dramas elsewhere, meant i decided to abandon my grandiose ambitions of capturing the whole city, and contend myself with the fort alone. i managed to get permission for one day of shooting.

i had decided on which song to choose, a process i described here. once i knew i wouldn’t be shooting the whole city, i wanted to add some other attraction to the shoot. at first, i tried to convince the actual band who had performed the song to appear in the scene, but they happened to be touring the US at that point. i then decided to grab hold of a marching band, and a magician. the ideas were rather random, and their main purpose was to create a sense of wonder, and surprise, at their curious juxtaposition within the historical settings.

but the day of the shoot, the very next day after the damp squib which was day one, also began with heavy rains. only this time, i was determined to shoot come hell or as it were, high water. by noon, the rains abated, and by three o’clock, i had assembled the cast and crew of 15 marching band members in full regalia, two actors, a magician who had brought along two members for a puppet show in case i needed one, two men operating a track normally used for 35mm cameras, and riz and his assistant.

the night before, while i was still fretting about the actual narrative to employ within the song, safieh has a brainwave. she suggested that i represent the heroine with a long, flowing red scarf. instead of seeing her, the hero only sees the scarf which he keeps chasing. in a more relaxed state, i might have tried to reconcile the heavy connotations of a flowing red cloth with the character of the heroine and tied myself up in knots. but that night, it offered a solution, one which ended up having widespread ramifications.

so we began shooting, and immediately it was a nightmare. the fort is an extremely popular tourist spot, especially on a day where the oppressive summer heat has been dissipated due to recent rains. moreover, the fort is absolutely massive. after all, it was a mini-city. these two factors meant that going from one shot to the next was a logistical nightmare, and the process of actually taking a shot was repeatedly thwarted by overenthusiastic onlookers.

at one point, i completely snapped, chasing after a group of cat-calling school girls with the camera, threatening to take pictures of them. as he would do repeatedly during the next few days, riz arose to calm the situation, making me aware of the futility of my bizarre threats.

the late start also meant that we were fast losing light. and for all the rave reviews i had read online about the power of the DSLR cameras in low light, the final shots were very disappointing in terms of the noise on the frame. the fact that the fort is also a UNESCO heritage site meant that using any external lighting was not allowed. and as for the track – it was so heavy it required four men to pick up, who then balanced it using bricks and pebbles. i quickly ditched all the track shots i had planned for this as well as all upcoming shoots.

but at least it got done.

“Shooting the Moon – Day 3”

at the end of the shoot on day two, i was dropping back my heroine, sonia. she began asking me when i planned to pay her. since most of the budget was being used up on actors, i didn’t want to pay them straight away. even if did want that, i couldn’t do it at that moment since i was almost out of cash.

my plan to raise funds for the film was to get money from the news channel i used to work for. i had left for my MA on a one-year unpaid leave, during which time the channel had offloaded nearly half its staff due to various reasons. my plan was to ask them to lay me off as well, and use my severance to pay for the film. i managed to pull that off, but the cheque still hadn’t arrived. so i had ended up borrowing first from my father, then more through his friend, then from my cousin, my aunt and my friends. the only cash i had i needed to pay for daily expenditures.

moreover, my relationship with sonia was not at a good point either. i had been doing several rehearsals with both her and khitab, and was really disappointed. i could not get her to act with any presence. i couldn’t get her to tense up her body, despite making her lift sofas and couches and asking her to observe her tightening muscles. and the chemistry between her and khitab was ponderous and awkward. i was quickly realising that while i could write dialogues and know which shots i wanted to frame, i was clueless about eliciting a performance. mostly because i had believed that actors needed to embrace the roles themselves and bring their own interpretation. but in this case, it was clear that the actors had not managed to embrace the roles, and as a director i had to find a way out.

so far my strategy was to pray for the best, but i was also on a short fuse. so over the course of the ride to sonia’s house, the request for payment and my subsequent denial blew up into a huge fight. by the time i dropped her off, the director in me gave way to the petrified producer. i texted her to let her know that i would pay her tomorrow.

day three’s shoot was at a friend’s house, and was for the dramatic climax where the heroine murders the hero. in order to cut down costs, i was now transporting all the equipment and the technicians myself. i had also spurned several other locations to use my friend’s empty house, which meant that i had no real furniture to use. and lastly, this scene was scripted very late, and thus lacked the solidity of the previous scenes. my plan was to shoot the scene as many times as i could, and use the edits and post-production to gloss over the poor acting.

by noon, i had collected all the equipment. by two o’clock, everyone but sonia had arrived. as a producer, i knew that i was now the guy whose phone no one ever picked up. but this was getting serious. sonia’s phone went from non-responding to being turned off. i was nearly in tears.

riz took me aside and started asking me to consider getting someone else in. for the longest time, this suggestion refused to make any sense. how could i find someone to come in and shoot the most important scene of my film at a moment’s notice? how could i find a replacement for someone i had already shot a scene with? but as sonia’s phone continued to elude me, i had no choice left. a few days previously, i had hired an actress, nadia, to do a small role for the second scene. i now called her and asked her to take up the MOST important role in the film. as i dialed, i feared that the acids churning in my stomach would soon rupture its linings and poison me. i was rapidly descending into a nervous breakdown.

but then nadia came to the rescue.

somehow, she agreed. by seven o’clock she arrived and saw the script for the first time. by the time we began shooting, everyone on set had officially gone into double overtime.

but then something strange happened. if you don’t believe what i am about to tell you, see the film again and judge for yourself. somehow nadia became the character. despite the fact that khitab had rehearsed the scene for weeks now, her presence continued to swell with each take. by six in the morning, after delays due to power failures, booming azaans  and a dog which just wouldn’t shut up, nadia had done the scene several times better than i could have imagined sonia ever doing it. my flaws as a director to the actors were suddenly being papered up, as both khitab and nadia began to enjoy their roles, and i found my instructions being responded to. and any time i began losing concentration, or control, riz’s calming presence made the crucial difference.

and if you hadn’t pieced it together already, this was where the red scarf came in. for had i used sonia’s face or body in any of the shots during the song sequence, either the whole sequence would have to be scrapped, or re-shot. neither scenario was a financial or logistical possibility.

somehow, fate had conspired to give me another day…

“Shooting the Moon – Day 4”

i had originally planned for a break between the shoots, but the rain-out on day one meant back to back shoots for everyone. as a producer, my horrible task had just become worse, as i now had to get my crew together at noon after having released them from the shoot only four hours previously. on top of that, i now had to find a replacement for the role i had originally reserved for nadia. in a perverse bit of luck, the absolute constant dread i was filled with meant that i wasn’t able to sleep much for once in my life. i spent the morning convincing and cajoling one of my cousins to take up the role of the secretary vacated by nadia, and also getting two of her friends to play as extras.

once again, to cut costs i was using a relative’s office as the location. this was now the third place that i was shooting at free of cost, after having gained permission for the fort due to being a student, and calling in favors for the next two. it also meant shooting during what was a work day for the employees at the location, because of which i had to spend time briefing them not to stare at the camera, and apologizing for the disturbance we would be causing.

however, for all the planning the day began as another mortifying deja vu. for the second day running, my actress was not picking up her phone. once again, all the other crew was present, and i was losing money. by this time, the producer in me had gone completely senile, as the act of replacing the replacement actress was only producing a maniacal laughter from within me.

thankfully though, she was not meaning to bail out on me, but rather was just struggling to wake up after the extra long shoot the night before. and when she arrived, the smoothest shoot of the entire film unfolded.

for starters, both the fight scene and the song were more ideas of montages than narrative structures grounded in script. the final scene was dialogue heavy, but had been written much later after the other scenes, and was nowhere near as detailed or reworked and solidified. but this scene had remained largely the way it was and contained possibly my strongest writing. khitab gave what was easily his most assured performance of the film, while monty, one of the last-minute extras really stole the scene with what was meant as a minor role. we only had one power failure, and we were done with the shoot by nine at night.

“Shooting the Moon – Day 5”

The final day of the shoot was the rescheduled fight scene. as i drove back from the fourth day’s shoot to drop off my technicians, i began my routine of calling everyone who was meant to show up for the next day’s shoot. once again, zafar refused to pick up my calls. as i neared the studios where i was dropping off my light and sound men, i began to fear the worst. eventually zafar picked up.

he told me that he was driving, and was on the outskirts of islamabad. he was planning to stay there for the next week before he flew out to europe. he was not going to be in my film.

when he said that, it meant that khitab was the only person remaining from my original team that was meant to meet at mcdonald’s.

perhaps that was why i managed to swing into action straight away. the wonders of the pakistani studio system meant that i had a replacement actor within five minutes. arif gondal was a stuntman who had done countless fight scenes in films. and he ended up being the star of the show.

when day 5 began and each of the cogs began to fall into place, i began to feel a giddy sense of excitement. as the shoot began, my continuous feeling of nausea and fear, which had enveloped me for at least two weeks now, began to slowly abate. at that moment, around the time we took our first shot, i was informed that one of my friend’s from university had died in a freak fire accident.

utterly failing to know how to deal with the situation, i completely immersed myself in the shoot. any happiness was replaced by a strenuous focus. but at the same time, the tension also abated. suddenly, none of my travails felt quite so drastic anymore – the tragedy had thrown that much into sharp relief, despite the denial of my emotions.

mercifully, i was also in charge of people who knew what they were doing. arif was immense – there was no need for direction. because the role was such a staple, he managed to enter it seamlessly. but where he took it to the next level was how he interacted with the martial artists. i saw first hand the difference between shooting a fight for films, versus staging a mock fight. arif’s reactions, his grunts and groans, his stares and licks make that scene cinematic. without him, all the flying kicks and rotating chops would have been reduced to campy kitsch. despite not having a single line of dialogue, his performance is easily the strongest in the film.

despite the huge number of shots, and the fact that the third scene also had to be shot on the same location, we managed to get done in really quick time. this was also helped by being at a professional location. the marvelous naimat – the aforementioned gatekeeper – was constantly at hand to provide water bottles, arrange for a large pot of biryani, find random extras, to ferry actors to and from the location in his weathered motorcycle, to arrange for a battered television set at a moment’s notice, to do anything i needed.

by seven pm, i had finished my last day of shooting as the first one to end on time.

 

Post-it-all

I think that the kind of filmmaker you are, in an essentialist manner of speaking, depends on the part of the process where you feel simultaneously most at control, as well as terrified of failure.

i began as an editor in terms of the technical aspects, and so my approach has been defined by this area of expertise. during shoots, i prefer taking as many shots as possible so that the editor retains the possibility to become God.

thus when i began my edit the constant sense of anxiety i had faced during the shoot had abated. as a director, i had felt increasingly out of control – partly because i struggled to impose myself or my outlook on a personal level, and partly because the production was so harrowing. in fact, the producer inside me faced a true baptism of fire – each moment of drama was nerve-shredding, but also left for no time to dither.

but now as an editor, i felt in control. i began with the scenes largely chronologically, and the edit was quite ambitious. i decided to make heavy use of split screens and rapid cuts, and was particularly keen on creating a lot of fluidity and pace.

however, once the time came to score the film, my confidence vanished. at that point, i had to choose songs for the fight scene, and cut the entire song sequence with a song i had already chosen.

the problem was that the fight scene had been choreographed in a certain narrative, and because there were a lot of fake punches or slowed down moves, i had also edited it very precisely already. so i now had to find a song which managed to line up to the pace and the rhythms of the edit, with no room to maneuver.

this was when safieh came to my rescue, and ended up owning the edit for these crucial parts of the film. to begin with, we had two songs in mind; Choli ke Peeche – a rock cover by a Pakistani band of a classic, and scandalous for its time Bollywood song. the second was Paanch Chuhay/Machli Ka Bacha – a metal version of two famous nursery rhymes from Pakistan. in an intertextual sense, and so in the spirit of the whole film, they were quite appropriate. however, neither one fit with the edit. certain parts of one song would slow down  right when the pace of the fight picked up, or there would be lyrics playing at times when a lead was needed.

i knew it was theoretically possible to chop up the songs, but my ears lacked the ability needed to translate music from being pleasurable to technical as well. safieh however, a piano player from a young age, helped identify the beats and the tempo and consequently the moments where i could snip out a whole passage from a song, and attach it to another part, and then add that to a completely different song.

i had already chosen the song – Chup – for the fact that it was a non-masala type song, and so an interesting choice for a film. its lyrics, which begin with “baatein khatam hueen/ab to pyar ka waqt hua” (end the talking/its time for love) and are being sung by a woman to a man, was also in line with the theme of the film. but the narrative of the hero chasing a dupatta did not have enough shots for me to make anything longer than 50 seconds. and i had a lot of footage, beautiful footage, of the fort which i did not know how to use. this time, safieh took over completely – going through the song bit by bit, and then deciding which shot to take and how to treat it with effects. and the reason she had to do so was that more so than the fight sequence, this point had left me completely paralyzed with fear. i realised it was because the lack of narrative meant that i had to completely create one. its like taking a jackson pollack painting and trying to use it to create a carvaggio. and thus at this point, it was crucial that safieh stepped in and helped bring the whole thing to a completion.

i had known once the shoot was over that these two areas would be the shining points of the film, and the most obvious ways of showcasing the updating of cinematic language. but perhaps that’s why it also felt more daunting. the reason safieh managed to succeed, and end up doing a spectacular job by doing justice to both the songs and the footage, was that she was unencumbered by the experience of the director and the producer. and more importantly, she brought with her the joy of the viewer. i think this was what was the definitive moment, because her enthusiasm was precisely what the sequences needed. unlike dialogue, where the rhythm is primarily set by the actors and the script, in these cases the performances were meant to be about the camera and the music just as much as the actors and the words. and as such, the response of the editor has to be very organic, very open to the body’s reaction to the sights and the sounds. i think that’s what i learnt from this experience through safieh’s approach, and it is something that i later tried to bring to the rest of the score through out the film as well.

The inevitable sequel

so what do i take away?

to begin with, independent filmmaking in pakistan is very much a possibility. i had arrived for this course as someone curious, and unsure of what to do with what i was going to learn. for personal reasons, i knew i wanted to go back to pakistan, but i had no idea how it was going to be possible to make a career out of films in the country. and so this thesis was my way of answering that question.

what i learnt was what everyone knows about the third world – the labor is dirt cheap, and the professionalism is abysmal. i came to know of both truths quite vividly. but the very fact that i had experienced these ideas as truth was what was important.

what i realised was that the technical staff was highly dedicated and professional. with the exception of the cameraman fiasco, each of my technical crew were magnificent. they were least liable to argue and put forth their own opinions, the least likely to renege or even show up late, and also the cheapest facets of the budget.

almost all my trouble came from people in front of the camera. its easy to blame it on actors being prima donnas, but i think it’s also because the person on-screen is the only instrument within the mis-en-scene which has a consciousness. the lighting doesn’t wonder if its garish, the camera doesn’t question the zooms. but the actor realises that and responds to it. and it was my failing as a director which fed to the problem. because while lighting, sounds, frames are all chosen using the aesthetic judging parts of the brain, the actors are worked using the part of your brain which is a manager.

however, now begins another interesting chapter in this story, and thus one more step that needs to be completed before i can honestly reflect upon this film as an experience. that of course is the release to the public. i am going to put the film on Facebook, Youtube and Vimeo on 10.10.10. to promote the launch, i am going to be posting blogs on my own websites, as well as on the blog for a national newspaper. i am also going to release clips and screen shots from the film through my twitter page and the film’s personal facebook and vimeo pages to generate interest, particularly amongst the loyal group of readers on the  sasti masti blog. my aim is to try and reach 10,000 consolidated views. in the process, i plan to learn on how people respond to the film, and what sort of impact it generates.

in other words, we’re now leaving base camp, and setting off for the summit.

 

 

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14 Comments leave one →
  1. October 10, 2010 19:06

    Ahmer, You’ve really hit your mark with this film. You’ve taken burger charia-pan and mixed it with a more sinister, old fashioned feudal exploitation. All of Lollywood represents, blends it up with gandasa’s, and ends in the 21st century with a Tarantino/Femi-Vengeance twist.

    Sasti Masti Forever.

    • October 11, 2010 22:21

      your comments deserve a special pantheon for themselves. burger charia-pan is perhaps my favourite expression of the decade 🙂

      glad you got the basic politics of the film without pining for something more obvious. tried to work it in with the corporate structure of the office, the chai joke where he can’t believe he has to make the tea, and elsewhere in scraps.

  2. Omer permalink
    October 11, 2010 02:00

    sequel should be all based on arif gondal. i mean all all .

  3. October 11, 2010 11:45

    I really enjoyed the movie and reading this post 🙂

  4. Taban Khamosh permalink
    October 11, 2010 22:00

    After reading about your travails during the shooting process, I’m in even more awe of your editing and post product Kung Fu … Cinematography wise the shahii qila sequences are just brilliant! I just can’t get over the fact as to how visually vibrant and engaging they are! Just awesome!

    Regarding the financial side of the indie movie experience, did you at all consider raising capital through the various crowd-sourcing sites?

    • October 11, 2010 22:28

      the cinematography, as i wrote, is all down to Riz’s brilliance. he was one of the reasons i am so positive about pakistani filmmaking, because you have amazing amazing technicians available for next to nothing. so glad you liked it this much 🙂

      as for financing, this time around i had no planning for it. literally decided what to do once i got back to pakistan – three weeks before the shoot. but it is pretty damn easy to raise money i think for the level of this film. i mean just saving up for a year would get you the one lakh this film eventually cost.

      plus a lot of the costs depend on what you are able to do. the most expensive things are always the camera, the cameraman, and the actors. if you can get a good camera as a favor, like i did, you are lucky. however, even really good sony z-1s etc are pretty cheap in pakistan. i would recommend not scrounging around on a cameraman, which can often mean that even a cheap camera can look damn good. but actors are another way of getting bang for your buck. ask friends etc to do it, if they’ve had experience.

      everything else – lights, sound, extras, makeup, costumes – are damn cheap in lahore, and i am sure peshawar. in karachi costumes apart they’re pretty cheap as well.

      but do let me know of any other ideas. i’ll check out crowd-sourcing sites too, but are they available in pakiland?

      • October 17, 2010 18:29

        I meant something like indiegogo or other sites. Some other artists have financed movies through this method.

        Since it’s all over the net, I think expats can pitch in too… heck… I’d like to pitch in in your next venture, as I’m sure a lot of other would do.

        Personally I think Cinema can play a key role in pulling Pakistan out of it’s current identity crisis.

      • October 27, 2010 10:54

        pitching in my next venture?

        it is going to be a doozie, so i will take you up on this offer when it happens

  5. October 15, 2010 20:56

    lots of fun reading this post. it’s like getting the dvd with director’s commentary for free. social media FTW!

    your experiences making this movie deserve a movie all to themselves – the story is certainly captivating enough. and seriously, a film about how DIFFICULT it is to accomplish something in Pakistan without being uber-connected or born in the right household would be really, REALLY interesting.

    showing how institutional factors are part of the issue and how people are sometimes just jerks, and despite that, how a lot of people (like Arif and Riz and Naimat) are literally godsends – that’s a wonderful story IMHO. it would be true, and uplifting, and we fucking need that, no matter how much it may seem like blind optimism.

    i mean,this post is at least partly the story of how riz and safieh made this film possible and brought their A-game because it was simply not possible for you to handle everything. This (http://www.fastestonemanband.com/images/fastest_one_man_band.jpg) exists, but this (http://fiftyonefiftyone.com/uploaded_images/one-man-band-706928.jpg) doesn’t, and that’s very….humbling, isn’t it?

    if you’re lara, and if you plan to ask us fifty years later whether you entertained, this is a good start 🙂

    • October 27, 2010 10:53

      you’re too kind, but i think you’ve also seen the movie for what it was… its been a real pleasure reaching out to people who have ‘gotten’ not just the film and its plot, but its process as well.

      and the lara coment is fucking fit!

  6. Shani Ji permalink
    September 21, 2011 23:58

    I have been reading your blog for quiet sometime and it’s a revelation, loved your “Chup” song, and I do agree with one of your posts in which you said that in order to make a difference in Pakistani film we should first within the genre conventions of Pakistani films, an excellent point. I have studied film for seven years and taught it for three, now I am doing my PhD in Communication at UNC.

    • September 22, 2011 09:43

      Thank you for the compliments – it’s very enjoyable to find someone within whom your thoughts resonate. even more so when it’s a fellow filmmaker. is any of your work available online? i’d love to have a look. think all the filmmakers in pakistan can keep helping each other out, since it’s a tough world out there

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