As the Indian-American project ‘Across The Ocean’ has its world premiere in Chicago, the woman who filmed the Kerala part, Uma Kumarapuram, talks to TNM about the film.

Uma Kumarapuram
Flix Interview Saturday, September 21, 2019 - 18:32

Uma Kumarapuram and Nicole Donadio have met just once. But they have made a film together, one sitting (well not just sitting) in Kerala, and the other in Los Angeles. Their story has been told several times, the unique Indian-American collaboration coming as a surprise for many. TNM had reported on it too, back in 2016. 

There were many skeptics along the way, asking if the movie would ever work out. It’s taken time, with both of them having to work on separate projects over the years, but on September 21, 2019, they can finally spread out their hands and point to the world premiere of their film, Across The Ocean, at the Chicago South Asian Film Festival.

Uma, a little under the weather, agreed to an interview, on the day her film was premiering. She was an assistant cinematographer for years before turning independent as a cinematographer and filmmaker with Across The Ocean. And Nicole has been a television producer.

How did the project take off?

It all started in 2015, when I came across a very interesting video featured in HuffPost, a gender reversed parody on the trailer of Wolf of Wall Street. I found it to be hilarious and a remarkable thought, so I looked up the maker on Facebook. And I did something that day, which I had never done before in my life. I took the initiative to start a conversation. I wrote, “Hello there, I saw your YouTube Video, and I think it is hilarious!”

Nicole Donadio

Never thought I’d get any response, but Nicole actually replied, saying thanks. And that kind of triggered a string of Facebook chats for some months. Being two female filmmakers from two parts of the world, we were really curious about each other's life. And we chatted for some weeks, months, and in between the question just came out - "Should we do a movie together?” Again, something I had never ever even thought about before, but it just happened on the spur of the moment. I was feeling a bit down at the time, bored because projects that I was supposed to do the camera work for, weren't happening, and I was home jobless. But Nicole was busy with work at that time, so couldn’t answer then. However, a few months later, she wrote back, asking if I was still up for that movie idea. And that started the whole thing.

How did it work, shooting the film in two different continents, collaborating, chatting, discussing?  Tell us the nice anecdotes. Scary anecdotes. All the crazy experiences!

It’s hard enough making a movie but add in a 13.5 hour time difference, two different cultures and 9,000 miles distance and it’s a whole different challenge. To begin with, we knew we were going to be cutting back and forth between the footage filmed in India and what was filmed in the US. Because of that, we decided to use the same camera, the Canon 5D. In fact, each and every decision -whether it is about the equipment, casting or location scouts, was discussed with one another beforehand.

And another major challenge we faced was convincing others (who’d be working with us) that this is going to happen. Just as we guessed, most of the people in the industry thought what we were doing was just plain crazy; that it was a waste of time and money and it was impossible. Especially because of the fact that this was also our first feature film. But we took it up as a challenge. And we had people around us who believed in us. So we just went ahead and crowd-funded with Kickstarter in US and Wishberry in India.

We both decided to begin production during the same weeks in April 2017. After each day’s work, we exchanged dailies and still frames with one another. Once we finished the shooting, we edited the footage roughly and compared. And then we realised that we needed a couple more shots, and some corrections to be done and that was done in the coming months. And then we sent our hard discs to our main editor in Kochi. We decided on having a third person to intercut and finalise the edit, because we wanted a fresh perspective and take on the story that we had created. Also, during this time our composer, Crystal Mangano, who was located in LA, finished our score.

Fun Trivia - From the social media networks like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, messaging and calling apps like Gmail, Hangout, Whatsapp, Messenger, and Skype, managing tools like Mailchimp and HootSuite, to the crowd-funding platforms Kickstarter and Wishberry, online file sharing/transferring services like Google Drive, Dropbox, WeTransfer, WeSendIt, and FileTransfer, online video platforms YouTube and Vimeo, to the international payment windows like PayPal, and the film festival submission platforms like FilmFreeway, Withoutabox and Festagent, the online services we’ve used are pretty vast and eclectic.

I remember a Hollywood movie called The Holiday where Kate Winslet and Cameron Diaz from two different continents appear to go through similar relationship issues. I know this is different. You want to comment on it?

The time Nicole and I began talking about a movie together, which would be about two persons in two countries, there were a couple of movies that came up – The Holiday being the first, followed by Mary and Max, an animation movie and The Other End of The Line where an Indian woman falls in love with an American guy.

But The Holiday talked about two white/ethnically similar women and how their lives change AFTER they go to another country. And it was a typical Hollywood movie (one of the good ones too). Except the similarity of two women in two countries, and the intercutting editing pattern, it had nothing in common to ours. The Other End of The Line, could have drawn some comparison to ours, since it also had an Indian-American storyline. One reason we opted out of any romance-based plot.

We did a bit of research to see if we had any predecessors, but so far, we haven’t been able to find a film which could have had such an experiment on narrative as well as execution- especially considering the fact that this could be a textbook example of how globalisation of digital technology and reach of internet can be used, and that was done without the help of any big studios/financial supports.

How did the story idea come once you two decided to work together? 

We knew the story was going to have two parts - half for Nicole to shoot and half for me to shoot. So the most practical thing was to have two protagonists. So the next question came - who are they?

We felt the best would be something we both could relate to. So after juggling with a lot of possibilities and combinations of protagonists and situations, we finally came to our current protagonists - Nila and Holly, two young women in their 20s, learning to juggle their life, career, relationships and dreams.

We wanted to show that regardless of both the protagonists’ differences – where they grew up, their cultures, their families, and their lives – these characters were actually pretty similar. We thought that with this idea, we could cut back and forth between their stories and it would seem almost as if they were living parallel stories and lives... but 9,000 miles apart.

Apoorva Bose in Across The Ocean

From the Facebook Messenger, Gmail become our discussion platform, and mail chains of 100+, and several weeks of discussion were put in, to brainstorm what we were going to make.

The initial plan was that we both make a deadline and we both write our individual stories by then. And we'd swap them to compare the mood, the tone, to know what's happening on the other story. We would discuss what points could be polished, changed, and incorporated. That was pretty interesting too, because the first time we swapped, we realised that I had gone straight to the sitcom type comedy treatment, whereas Nicole had gone for a serious emotional tone. So the next draft meant my toning down the humour, and Nicole making the emotion a bit lighter. This continued for some time, since we had our other jobs in between. I think it took around one year for us to polish the story, create the parallels, recognise the intercut points between both and lock the screenplay.

Tell us about the cast?

Apoorva Bose and Anna Jaller are the leading ladies in the movie.

Apoorva is a notable face in the Malayalam industry, even though she has done only a handful of supporting character roles. And Anna is a Theatre major from Muhlenberg College, and a passionate, multifaceted actor/producer based in Los Angeles, USA, with credits including Entourage (2015), Ella’s Lament (2011), Purple Walls (2014), MTV's Failosophy, the pilot of Hitting Home, and several national commercials and new media shorts.

Anna Jaller in Across The Ocean

And apart from both, the cast list boasts of various talented actors from Kerala and California, some having extensive acting profiles in television and advertisement industries, as well as indie films, while others have prestigious theatre backgrounds. Kerala side includes Muthumani Somasundaran, Sreeram Ramachandran, Jolly Chirayath, Veenah Nair etc and from California there are Krishna Smitha, Austin Arnold, Darin Toonder etc.

You are a cinematographer and now you're also a director.  How has it worked out?

I studied and have been been pursuing a career in cinematography since 2010, and that background was a huge help in making ATO happen. For one, when I suggested doing a movie together with Nicole, I very well had a clear idea of how the shooting and the technical side was going to be. I learned the management, production, marketing and everything later on as the situation demanded. But one area I was confident and was sure about pulling off was the execution. I knew which equipment gave the results we wanted, how low budget we could go, what kind of visuals and sounds were supposed to be in them and what rhythm the movie needed. That came from the years of work experience.

Being a cinematographer means you need to know how to create a visual apt for the story, from what’s available to you. If you shoot a lot of low-budget stuff, the challenge is harder but it makes you learn a lot of stuff- like practical, DIY approach of making things happen. And the work-experiences from the commercial high budget movies gave me the habit of structuring, organising and being professional about the various jobs and technicians who were with me in the team. Even in my debut movie as a DOP (upcoming film Rampunthanavaruthi), my approach was similar, except that I was solely focusing on the cinematography part of it, rather than the whole picture.

Also read: From reluctant actor to audience favourite: The evolution of Soubin Shahir