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Vijay Rajan: Director, BASE EMOTIONS

February 18, 2013

vijay1Q: Tell us a little about the origins of BASE EMOTIONS (playing at CQ with The Sentiment of the Flesh), from concept to financing.

“Base Emotions” is a film that came to me at a time when I was really struggling with the question of faith. How do we trust in people when we have been hurt by them? How do we trust in God — if we do — if we have been hurt by Him? I was considering the word “faithless” one day and was struck by the fact that it had two meanings: one of infidelity, and the other of not believing in something. I wanted to write a piece that would bring into direct conflict two characters who each were faithless in those different ways — one who was an adulterer and another who simply did not know how to believe. It just grew from there. Ultimately, it ended up being a character piece about a maddening woman named Katie, probably the first fully realized female character I’ve ever managed to successfully write; I know her incredibly well, and yet she always simultaneously surprises me. She is someone I hope the audience will desire, despise, be repulsed by, feel compassion for, and then ultimately will come to understand. This is because the film is also to an extent about judgment; we judge other people so easily, yet never seek to understand their perspectives, to realign our thinking to their priorities, their punishments, their sense of morality. In the course of one night, all of this plays out. Can the character of Justin, and through him the audience, seek to understand this woman whose behavior just seems to be so contrary to many of our own conceptions of morality?

Once I’d written it, I called up the guys who I’d worked with since film school, and in our various ways, we found our ways into the project. The entire short film, 22 minutes long, takes place in one hotel room with only two characters. In terms of financing, we found a willing partner and executive producer named Quoc Peyrot who believed in the project and basically donated all the camera equipment for the production. In terms of the actors and the set, it was all very low budget; my crew basically consisted of people who were passionate about this project and the filmmaking process. It was during this time that we basically went from being guys who worked together in film school to being a film company. Together, we bought a jib crane. Together, we paid for the location and the necessary supporting equipment. Together, we made the project work.

I have done work in the past I’ve been proud of, but “Base Emotions” is really the first project for our company — Siren Song Creations. And it’s really an honor to be able to say that now that it’s finally done, it will be having its world premiere at a film festival that is just a block down the street from where we filmed it at the Fairmont Hotel, and maybe three blocks down the street from the school where we as a group learned our craft and met each other. We are about as local as local filmmakers can get; yet we take a certain pride in the fact that our work is absolutely universal in quality. We just believe in the strength of storytelling. You can sink millions into a movie, but I hope our film — low-budget as it is — just has characters and a situation that will churn something visceral in our audiences, something uncomfortable but familiar, and something ultimately hopeful. I mean, it’s a question all of us deal with in our lives, right? How do we forgive?

2Q: You have attended Cinequest several times before as both filmmaker and film viewer. Explain your favorite parts of our film festival.

God, I love Cinequest. That’s the truth. I’ve had some bad years in my life recently, and Cinequest helps tokeep me inspired and motivated. It’s a festival where there are no celebrities; even the celebrities are just people who make art and you can make a connection with. It’s incredible to join energies with the other independent artists on the rise. I’ve been to Cinequest as a filmmaker, and every year that passes when I don’t have a film in the festival, there’s a certain itch under my skin when I attend — a certain sense of knowing I got stories to tell and I got to get on telling them, that I gotta be a filmmaker. Cinequest is really always going to be my home festival. I sincerely hope that as my film productions increase in budget and size and scope and hopefully quality, I continue to premiere every single one at this festival. It’s just home. And it’s a place that absolutely loves the independent artist.

It’s tough to be a filmmaker in this day and age when you don’t have any money and you have few connections. Relationships suffer. Families want you to settle. And still, you got this burning desire to create something, and I think that has value. Historically, artists had value. To want to be an artist was an honorable thing. It simply is not true anymore, at least not in most parts of the world. It’s seen as selfish, expendable, and its value negligible. At a few places like Cinequest, being an “artist,” pretentious a term as that may seem sometimes, still has value. It’s not about the money or who was in your film, it’s about the story you were trying to tell. My film is playing at the festival that played incredible films like “Prague,” “For My Father,” “A Colombia,” “The Last Lullaby,” and “Andrew Jenks, Room 335.” I don’t care that most of the world hasn’t heard of these movies; I saw them at Cinequest and they changed my life. Now my movie’s playing there, too. There’s real pride in me to be able to say that.

3Q: What was your best and/or worst experience while making BASE EMOTIONS?

There’s tons of great memories that come to mind, from working on writing it the morning after Thanksgiving spent at a friend’s house and having a minor epiphany that brought the whole piece together, to the moment right before I called “Action” for the first time, when the whole crew was gathered and ready to roll, and I knew I’d started this thing that had only grown and become better and clearer and truer with every person standing in that room with me. Incredible moments.

But the moment I really want to talk about, the worst moment – though it might not be great PR — is the moment I abandoned “Base Emotions.” The truth is, we shot this film four-and-a-half years ago now. I was supposed to edit it, supposed to put the pieces together, and life hit. I don’t want to be cryptic about this but I’ll suppose I’ll have to be. Life hit hard, and I just didn’t have the will to finish this project. I felt ripped in two. And can I just say that that is simply unforgivable? To have so many people work on your project with the kind of passion and dedication that they did, sacrificing so much to be there, and then to not finish the project? I lost my way from film. I got sidetracked. For a while there, I didn’t have the will to write, to make movies, to express myself in any way at all.

My crew, too, this film company that had congealed, well, life hit them, too. Marriage. Children. Families. “Real” careers. Everyone fall apart. A lot of us lost our way from film.

Then a year or so ago, I had dinner at Chili’s with my friends Dashiel Pare-Mayer and Oscar Arguello. Dashiel was the cinematographer on “Base Emotions” and Oscar was a producer. And we had our own quarrels and disagreements at that point but inevitably, as we sat down to dinner, all we could talk about was film, and the stories we wanted to tell, and the movies we wanted to make. Film was just such a huge part of us and who we are as a group that not for ten minutes could we hang out together and not start planning things.

And we came back to film. We realized how much it mattered, how much we needed it, and how we could never abandon it. I edited “Base Emotions,” I found a great music composer to score it, we color processed it, and now it’s at Cinequest. The project was always worth it. Never once in all those years did I think it wasn’t. In the middle there, for a while, I wasn’t worthy of it. I say that honestly. I had to deal with a lot of things in my life before I could say confidently that I had the right to tell a story, that I had the privilege of having a voice.

The worst moment in the process of making “Base Emotions” was the moment we stopped.

The best moment? The best moment, I hope, will be when we play it at Cinequest, and all the people who helped me on this film will be there in the theater.

I hope many of those people will still be with me on all the films we’ve got in preproduction now. I appreciate everything they’ve done and I simply cannot apologize enough for the delay.

4Q: Festival audiences often have to make hard decisions about what to see, and the catalog descriptions sometimes run together. In your own words, why should people see your film?

Because it’s good. Because it’s real. And because it’ll mean something to them.

I’d like to say, “Because we’re local San Jose filmmakers, and you should support the local scene,” but I’ve never believed in that. Or even, “Watch it because there’s some weird magic energy between the people that collaborated on this, a weird completion of a circle.” That’s true, but so what? The only reason ever to see a film is quality. The funny thing about this film is it’s much better than it has a right to be, simply because even I, as the writer, didn’t understand its power when I wrote it. To be blunt, I hadn’t been cheated on when I wrote it. Now, at the time of finishing it, I have. There are scenes that hurt to watch. These are moments of dialogue that are cruelty, a cruelty I might not have been able to write had I done it now.

The reason to watch this film, above all else, though, is the main character of Katie. Halsey Varady, our lead actress — who we found after extensive auditions — is amazing as Katie. It’s a raw and seductive performance that’ll draw you in. It’s sexy, it’s cruel, it’s compassionate, it’s maddening. This is a character you can’t take your eyes off of even as she emotionally rips you in two. Much like many significant others of all our pasts, I imagine. (I say this last part with a smile, just so it’s clear.) She did things with her performance that I am still seeking to understand now.

But then again, it’s just a film about two lonely people. And the connection they make over one night. And the hope that is left when we allow our masks to slip and let others see us as we really are. Why should people watch it?

Because I think they’ll see themselves in this.

I guess that’s true of every movie, but I’ll stick by that answer. I am usually very critical of my work, and of course there are little things in “Base Emotions” I’d change if I could go back, but this is a movie I am damn proud of.

Watch it because it’s good. What else matters?

5Q: Short films often have no means of wide distribution. What are your plans for BASE EMOTIONS in the future, and what sorts of things can you accomplish by making a short film?

We hope to make a compilation of Siren Song Creations short films and release them as a DVD for sale off our website in the future. But that’s an interesting question. Why make short films? One of my executive producers on “Base Emotions” even said to me at one point, “Rather than making a 22-minute film, would it be impossible for you to write this as a feature? It wouldn’t cost us that much more to make it a feature.”

And I’d be lying if I said I didn’t make short films as calling cards, to raise the investment for that elusive first feature.

But still, ultimately the value of short films lies in the fact that they are a different medium. “Base Emotions” would not have made a strong feature. But it’s a helluva short. Features and shorts are two different mediums, telling two different types of stories. My crew and I don’t make movies based on what’s going to sell and what we’re going to do with the work. To me, that’s a backwards way of working. You tell the stories that matter to you; if you don’t, why bother being a filmmaker? That’s one of Kurt Vonnegut’s first rules. “Write for yourself.” Filmmaking is just writing under a different name, right?

What did I accomplish by making “Base Emotions” as a short film? Well, the simple answer is it was a story we wanted to tell, and I think we told in the film format that best suited it. We did the story justice, I guess. This film helped me define my craft, helped me grow. These are the only accomplishments I want really. Call it selfish but when I look back at my work in twenty years, I wanna know that each movie was better than the last. I believe the rest — the sale, the popularity, the enormous budgets — just comes with that progression.

I just believe the best way of being successful and to achieve all of that is to stay true to the story and what benefits the story, and audiences will respond to that. Stick true to what you know is right, and you will find your audience. Sacrifice that story for saleability and you won’t.

We made “Base Emotions” because that story is the one we wanted to tell. I will gladly up-front admit that it is not the one most likely to sell. I don’t care. Sometimes you gotta just tell the story that’s burning inside of you.

From → Interviews

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