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How One Filmmaker Made The Switch From Documentary To Fiction

After a decade in nonfiction, filmmaker Sandhya Suri talks about the challenge of tackling her first script and what she learned at the Sundance Directors Lab.

Sandhya Suri and Robert Redford

Sandhya Suri and Robert Redford

© 2016 Sundance Institute, Photograph By Jonathan Hickerson

Editor’s Note: Director Sandhya Suri is not a new face at Sundance, where her feature “I for India” premiered a decade ago. Suri though is new to the world of fiction filmmaking after working for years in documentaries. The filmmaker recently brought her first script “Santosh” — the story of a young widow in Northern India, who inherits her husband’s job as police constable — to the 2016 Directors Lab to workshop scenes and get hands on experience directing actors. IndieWire asked her to share her experience and find out what she learned about making the transition for nonfiction to fiction filmmaking.

PHOTO GALLERY: Behind the Scenes at the 2016 Sundance Directors Lab 

When I arrived at Sundance there was still snow on the mountains. It was like a landscape from “The Sound of Music.” By the end of the Lab, it had almost all melted and I was leaving decidedly changed by my experiences here.

It’s a strange mystical, unbelievable thing to be in the middle of the most beautiful nature for one month, thinking, talking, living only in your story with no business or real world challenges to think about, surrounded by some of the best creative minds in their fields who are there only to help you explore your film and its possibilities, all giving their time for free.

I For India

Suri’s “I for India” premiered at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival.

Sandhya Suri

I had been working in documentary for over 10 years, traveling the world, filming realities far from my own from D.R. Congo to Samoa. I had also had my feature doc “I for India” in competition at Sundance and so had already experienced the sense of a Sundance community. But in terms of fiction, I knew nothing! “Santosh” is my first fiction script, which is partly thrilling and partly terrifying and everyone was keen to help me find my feet. I came wanting to leave with some confidence in this new arena and an understanding of the skills I was already able to bring.

READ MORE: Inside The Sundance Directors Lab – Why It’s So Valuable To Workshop Scenes

People asked me if I was anxious about working with actors, as this was obviously the biggest difference. Strangely, though, it wasn’t the case for me. Lots to learn about how to do it well — but anxious, no. As documentary filmmakers, we can spend years negotiating relationships with the contributors of our films, understanding what makes them tick, how to respond to their anxieties and doubts, spoken and unspoken. Essentially great documentary cinema is about the strength of those human relationships.

Directing fellow Sandhyu Suri discusses her scene.

Directing fellow Sandhyu Suri discusses her scene.

© 2016 Sundance Institute, Photograph By Brandon Cruz

There were differences of course, like understanding how to give feed back in an immediate, concise and useful way. One of the most important things for me to take away from the lab was watching Robert Redford with my actors. Every time he appeared, space would just open up. He would listen with such attention, curiosity and flexibility. I understood that great direction is not just about having a bag of tools but something much deeper.

We workshop four to five scenes from our script at the Lab, and we are mentored during rehearsal, on set, in the edit, between rounds, at dinner, at lunch — head-exploding, brilliant mentorship from some of the world’s best. We talked a lot about finding common ground between documentary and fiction. I was far, far away from the reality of my film, trying to recreate India with a lot of non-Indians on a mountain in Utah. I was reassured that many others had done it before me and not to worry about that level of authenticity but to concentrate instead on the essential dynamics of the story. I knew that with my documentary background I would get stuck on any detail of location, costume, accent that did not feel 100% genuine so it was sort of liberating for me. I needed to concentrate instead on the essential dynamics of each scene and this was a way to see them.

Sandhya Suri at the 2016 DIrectors Lab.

Sandhya Suri at the 2016 Directors Lab.

© 2016 Sundance Institute | Photo by Brandon Cruz

The first scene I directed at Sundance was my first time properly on a fiction set. A lot of the scene took place in a a mirror which posed its own problems with neither of my two actresses actually able to see one another. It meant a lot of cheated eye-lines, propping people up on apple boxes and marks on the ground. I liked what I saw at the end but the process felt very mechanistic and in sharp opposition to the documentary flow I was so used to.

PHOTO GALLERY: Sundance Lab Throwback — Tarantino, PT Anderson, Cary Fukunaga, Ryan Coogler and Others Workshop Their First Features 

By the time the final round had come I had started to see possible ways of working; ways to approach creating a space, a world, a reality and then letting the actors live out the story in that space. Joan Darling, one of our fantastic acting advisors, explained to us how she would start the day on set by getting the actors to personalize their space, adjust things, own it and let them play out the scene a couple of times with no intervention from her. It felt like a good starting point for me too.

As the Directors Lab ended and the Screenwriters Lab began, we were joined by the Documentary Edit and Story Lab and the Theatre-Makers Residency, which were running concurrently on the mountain. It was a brilliant initiative of the Institute to set up a joint event to allow us to mix and explore the differences and similarities in the way we tell stories.

I remember a conversation one night with documentarian Rob Moss at the moody Owl Bar. I told him that my scenes had felt “okay,” but that I didn’t really believe any of them had actually happened. Rob, who is also a brilliant Harvard scholar, told me kindly that that was perhaps an unhelpful way to bring my documentary making into fiction. The words were a relief.

Sandhya Suri rehearse "Santosh"

Sandhya Suri rehearses “Santosh”

© 2016 Sundance Institute | Photo by Jonathan Hickerson

When working in fiction, my search for authenticity and awareness of the false note may be a helpful skill I bring from documentary, and yet, reality cannot be the yardstick because…that’s not the point! Simple and obvious I know, but it was a block that I had to get over.

READ MORE: Real-Life Bears and Advice From Tarantino: 7 Of The Craziest Stories From Behind The Scenes Of ‘Swiss Army Man’

I had turned to fiction for this project because of the tough nature of the material. I knew that to tell this story well, it has to be told from the inside out. I had imagined all sorts of things about fiction, some absurd sense of having control being one of them. What I experienced at Sundance was that a fiction film is a crazy mutable beast where things are flowing fast and time is tick tick ticking! What comes out is risky and sometimes magical and not half as controllable as I thought. Some of the great advisors who were there to guide us offered great tips and advice, but ultimately they were riding the same crazy beast — and they’re still doing it because they love the thrill of it.

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