This post was written by Mragendra Singh.

It all started with the question, "What do I want to say in my story?"

This answer gave me the spine to keep going when the odds were not in favor. Since it’s no surprise that there are a lot of moving pieces in the making of an independent motion picture, and there is a lot of advice out there that would probably be better than mine, I want to focus on my writing and directorial approach towards coming up with a plan to film this feature in 14 days.

How it started

The idea for normal was circling in my mind for a while but I was working on another feature, which… well, fell through. I can also write a post about how to deal with heartbreaks from projects falling through, but that’s for another day.

Anyway, I was heartbroken and felt ready to make a feature, so I went back to the story that kept lingering in my mind, normal. Well, in hindsight knowing what I know now, I don’t think I really understood what "being ready" meant, but I was sure of one thing—that as a person of color who immigrated to the states from India, I had felt my existence in America was stereotyped by the epithets such as “thank you come again” or “somebody gonna get hurt real bad” (in a heavily Indian accent), and I wanted to see south Asians living a normal life and going through normal stuff on screen.

And three weeks later, I had the first draft of normal, the story of an interracial couple who lose intimacy after having their first child and they are trying to get back to… normal (sorry, you’re going to read this word a lot).

Before writing the script, I did look at what was available to me in terms of production, and within those given constraints, what was the most authentic story I could tell. I also made an active decision to not write or show the baby in the entire film as the narrative vehicle, because I wanted to focus on the life of the new parents, or the lack of it.

101_1'normal'Credit: 19th Cloud Productions

While writing the script, I decided that I wanted to make this film on my own. Finding funds for a slice-of-life drama with an Indian leading man five years ago did not seem like a reality. I was even "ready" to go and shoot it myself.

The biggest question was, how? I had used all my favors in my other short films, and a short could be done in a day, but this film is going to take longer than a day or a weekend. I also made an active decision to not film this over several weekends. I didn’t want to lose the momentum and the spirit of the set with only weekend shoots.

During this initial phase, No Film School was a great resource. Especially all the podcasts. I made it a routine to have it on every day when I went for a run, basically all the interviews to all the weekly updates, I consumed anything and everything NFS. (Side note—it was a star-struck moment when I ended up meeting Liz Nord in person, years later.)

Now, I felt ready to send the script out. First, it went to my ex-wife and long-time collaborator, Caitlin Kelly, who tore the first draft apart. I went back into my writing seat and sent the next draft to Mainak Dhar, who said, "If you make this movie, I’ll produce it." And there, I had two producers who would become the pillars of normal.

Mainak made his first indie feature, 417 miles, by using every tool from the guerilla filmmaking handbook, and it went to the biggest film festival in India and got distribution, his previous experience was normal’s biggest asset.

101_1'normal'Credit: 19th Cloud Productions

Making the film

Although I had to figure out a lot of semantics in terms of production, I also wanted to make sure that my mental momentum of wanting to make this project stayed. Therefore I started doing my end of directorial preparation while we figured out everything else. The very first thing I did after finishing the shooting draft of the script, which is another word for the millionth draft, I read it with fresh eyes and questioned each and every word written critically.

Honestly, this enabled me to look at the characters from a different set of eyes. Now for every scene, I wrote down three things:

  1. Whose point of view is this scene from?
  2. What is the thing that happens in the scene that pushes the character to make a decision?
  3. The emotional impact of the scene. I wanted to make sure it aligned with the emotional throughline which goes with the main theme—these people are trying to find their normal.

Aseem Tiwari and I shared the same vision for brown representation and after reading the script, he joined the team as the main character, Aniket, and producer. Later, Shardul Sharma joined as a producer, and then LT Chang, our DP, asked all the right questions and came on board. All this to say, without a team who believed in the story as much as I did, it would be impossible to make an indie for very little to no money.

I wanted coverage to be super intentional while effectively communicating with the least number of setups, therefore followed storyboarding. I understand that storyboards are not for everyone, but I find them beneficial and because of this exercise, I came up with the visual language of the film i.e. the camera being a fly on the wall and the story unfolds in longer takes as if the audience lives and is trapped with the characters.

102_1'normal'Credit: 19th Cloud Productions

Challenges of production

Well, being a tiny indie, we took casting on ourselves, which was a learning experience, and a lesson on the genius of casting directors. We lucked out with having the most diverse and talented cast, but going forward, I will definitely work with an expert.

I met with each and every one of the principal actors to discuss their parts. We did two weeks of rehearsal, and personally, because of this, we were able to make our days since we went through the wringer and explored character, insights, notes, trust building, and listening. I feel if your cast trusts you and each other, they will be down to go with you to deep emotional trenches and that shows in their truthful performances.

After these rehearsals, I revisited my storyboards and made changes to them which I communicated to my DP, and we locked our shot list.

There are a lot of unsung heroes in this journey of normal—some gave us equipment, some gave us locations, some figured out insurance, many supported financially, and most importantly the cast and crew gave their time and resources. However, I would like to emphasize how Gabriel Bruskoff, the first AD, played an integral role in running the set.

102_1'normal'Credit: 19th Cloud Productions

He spent sleepless nights working with me on making the schedule. I remember, three days before the shoot, I was nodding off at 3:30 a.m., and he was relentless and pushed me to finish. He is a total film nerd and a fellow filmmaker who truly cares about storytelling. Having him on my side was a blessing. We were always on time, and I never felt rushed.

The bottom line is the AD sets the tone of the set, and I would recommend finding someone like Gabe if not him to run them, especially when it’s so tight.

I did so much prep for normal, that by the time we started principal photography, I was ready to take any challenge that could come my way—whether it's a sprinkler that will wet the equipment or losing the lav mic in the toilet on the first day or someone stealing all the props which were rented, while I focus on my objective—make. My. Day.

The one lesson in the whole production of 14 days is to stick to your vision but be open to ideas and solutions because someone can suggest something that you have not thought of before. I didn't want to get pigeonholed in the name of vision. Therefore I kept checks and balances, surrounded myself with a team of trusted collaborators, watched dailies every day no matter how late we got done, and tried to keep the outlook as objective as I could.

102_1'normal'Credit: 19th Cloud Productions


Then, months later came the dreadful first assembly cut, and hours and hours of discussions with the producing team led to Jesica Andres (producer) suggesting structural changes which made the assembly less terrifying, and the film started to take shape.

One year later, we had a complete film, and I was ready to send it out.

I'm so grateful that the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival made normal an official selection in the 2019 lineup, and then we went to the Singapore South Asian International film festival and nabbed the best screenplay award at that festival. And then, of course, while we had just started with the festivals, the pandemic hit.

102_1'normal'Credit: 19th Cloud Productions

After the Jagran Film Festival and Seattle Asian Film Festival, we made an active choice to find a way to release it.

Soon enough we got a sales agent—hurrah, right?! But then they tried to steal the film from us and one big distributor basically tried to bully us into letting the film go. It was also ironic because this went down during AAPI month, and it came down to us standing up for ourselves and finding the right partner for our film.

We’re grateful that Buffalo 8 came on board, and now normal is available for people to watch.

The story of normal manifested in my real life and this journey has taught me patience, how to keep on going when everything seems impossible, to listen, and most importantly, to have fun!

It’s available on Apple TV, Amazon, Google, and Vudu.

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