Family is supposed to be the immutable bastion of support to which you can turn whenever life gets tough, but what if instead of a refuge, family is the very thing holding you back from reaching your true potential? Would you be able to abandon your responsibilities to them in order to clear the path ahead to your future? Premiering on Directors Notes today, Vishnu Vallabhaneni’s Sunshine and Rain grapples with this thorny question as a young woman faces the difficult choice of investing in her future or taking care of her troubled family. DN sat down with Vishnu to discover how the difficult experiences of his close friend inspired this story about how much of ourselves we should sacrifice for those we love.
Despite being out of the realm of your life experiences Sunshine and Rain feels like a very personal film, how did you come to tell this story?
The film’s story is based on my friend who left college to take care of her family in South Dallas. Coming from my point of view, having been raised in comfortable suburbia, the idea of children sacrificing for the family was not something I was familiar with. It was a sensitive topic to broach especially since her story isn’t innately mine to tell but after I wrote the script, we had a few honest conversations on how her story has the ability to empathize with kids coming from similar situations to let them know that they are not defined by their past.
In many ways, my role as a writer was to be a good listener and to document what felt right for the story. I then took that true story, added characters and elements of magical realism to create a greater sense of urgency in the narrative.
Were there elements in the early script drafts which your friend identified as unauthentic to her experience or details she provided which hadn’t occurred to you?
There were blind spots to my friend’s experience that I didn’t know to capture innately and much of the notes were instigating me to push the story further. I started to think about Frankie (the supposed antagonist) in a more empathetic light, it added a whole other dimension to Frankie and Charice’s relationship while touching on the pseudo-sexual relationships that build while in confinement of some sort and in this case, alcohol rehabilitation.
How did you further refine the project during the pre-production period?
Pre-production was really about staffing up with talented people that understood the truthful nature of the story who could both understand and challenge my notions of what the film should be. Garson Ormiston, the DOP, was an amazing collaborator because he views cinema and lighting very different from me so our conversations are many times questioning each other’s motivations for a scene. For me, I enjoy that discussion and conflict in creation because often times the collision of two opposing ideas is more interesting than the acceptance of a single idea.
The ability to be highly mobile in our setups was key to capturing small moments and to create time for our actors to improvise.
Taking from Sidney Lumet’s philosophy in his book Making Movies, Garson and I had heavy technical conversations in prep to iron out our complete shooting and lighting plans so when we were on set, I could focus on the actors’ performances. We decided that having the ability to be highly mobile in our setups was key to capturing small moments and to create time for our actors to improvise. The scouting to find the family’s house was monumental in mine and Garson’s visualization and blocking process as well.
What was your casting process and to what extent did you have to reassure potential actors about your intentions in telling this story?
I went through casting agencies in Austin, Texas for all the adult roles (Kayla, Charice, and Frankie). For Ray Ray, the younger brother I wanted a non-actor so I went to middle schools in the East Austin area, visited theater classes, and spoke to teachers about their students. So when I cast Khemari as Ray, I just had a conversation with him about anything but the script because so much of his performance in the film is about his presence and how his nonverbal reactions change the characters around him. Khemari brought the right mix of confidence and uncertainty about his future to the role, purely naturally.
There wasn’t much reassuring, the actors trusted that I did my research and felt that the script reflected their experiences as well.
I tell my actors, the script is the Bible and it’s up to you how to interpret it.
What techniques did you use to engender the naturalistic performances you got from the cast?
Again this was different for the adults as for Ray-Ray. For Ray-Ray my job was to just make him comfortable being himself with a camera in his face, so a lot of our ‘rehearsal’ time was just talking about sports, eating junk food and racing each other. It was very much a big brother relationship and I just wanted to make him feel like a part of the family.
For the adults, we did scene work on the script at hand and I also wrote scenes outside of the film for the actors to study that ultimately fueled their backstory building process. So we workshopped the script during rehearsals but like I tell my actors, the script is the Bible and it’s up to you how to interpret it.
How long was the shoot and what was your set up?
The film was shot in five days on a Sony FS5 and Sony FS7, primarily on a shoulder rig, tripod, and Steadicam. We shot the interiors of the film in Austin, Texas and the exteriors in Dallas. Capturing the real environment in a naturalistic way was key. In the opening scene, seeing the skyline of the city of Dallas from a deserted field in Oakcliff provided so much emotional context of where Kayla (our lead) has been and where she is right now.
Given that you wrote, directed and ultimately cut Sunshine and Rain, how did you prevent yourself from succumbing to tunnel vision?
I think tunnel vision on something this personal to many people is inevitable. It’s important when making movies in general to have a community of friends that you trust and source thoughts from. Garson was very included in the later cutting process of the film but much of it was just sitting with the material and letting it become a part of me.
Our post process was fairly standard for a short film. I cut the film in 4 weeks, and the colorist did an amazing job of retaining the skin tones of the actors. The opening music was arranged by Joe Bowman who pulled from Gustav Mahler’s Symphony 1 and an instrumental track from The Beach Boys to create our melody.
How have audiences reacted to the film during its festival run?
Audiences have reacted quite strongly to the film in different ways. The film is symbolic and open-ended so people can draw their own conclusions. I received many reactions as to what the cotton burning at the end meant, to me that moment is about Kayla reacting in frustration to her past, her family, and the things that supposedly define her. Again I’ve heard interpretations that it was just a dream, or that she’s ascended to heaven because she only wears white in the movie… I definitely wasn’t thinking about that last one, but I love it all!
The film is symbolic and open-ended so people can draw their own conclusions.
What will we see from you next?
I’m turning the short into a feature film and focusing on the relationship between Ray-Ray and Kayla. For Ray-Ray, his unique coming-of-age story is hit with an influx of different cultures from his heavily gentrifying neighborhood. For Kayla, we’re showing how her coming-of-age story was robbed from her to take care of others after dropping out of college. Ray-Ray gets famous online because of a viral internet video, and conflict arises between the siblings when Ray’s idea of growing up comes at odds with Kayla’s expectations. The project is being shepherded through Jim Cummings’ (Thunder Road) Short to Feature Program.
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