Interview with Rishi Gandhi, Director of ‘Mater Mortis’

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Stories close to our hearts, whatever emotions they evoke, can be the hardest to tell. An entire industry relies on people talking about their feelings and exploring various traumas in their lives, but what if there was a different channel for these explorations? No-one can claim to have the magic formula but director, writer and producer Rishi Gandhi has decided to use film to explore his upbringing. We asked Rishi about his inspirations and followed up with a collaborative interview to really explore the hurt, pain and horror we face in ‘MATER MORTIS’ .

“The film was inspired by my own family’s struggles with my mother’s mental illness when I was growing up. I decided to explore the themes around mental illness in families and the fallout in communication that happens between fathers and sons, in particular in South Asian homes.”

Rishi Gandhi

S.S: Have you always been attracted to the horror genre, and if not, what drew you in? 

R.G: As a child horror truly was not a genre I loved, because it could be genuinely terrifying. That being said, I was always drawn in. It consciously became a genre I loved when I was in college, and part of that was seeing films that drew from the horrors of our actual reality, whether it was consumerism in ‘Dawn of the Dead’, or mental health in the ‘Babadook’.

S.S: Did you struggle writing and directing a story with such personal origins, or do you think the personal side was beneficial? 

R.G: Creating a story from a personal place can be challenging. Sometimes ideas develop fairly easily and other times you have to really draw out aspects of yourself you didn’t really know existed. I think writing from a personal place is beneficial, but the process isn’t always easy.

S.S: What was your writing and storyboarding process, and how much does that change during the filming and then the edit? 

R.G: I initially wrote a short story about ten years before I considered making it into a short film. From the short, I created an outline with the beats and path I wanted the story to hit, and then I worked with my co-writer of the screenplay, Dexter John Scott, to hammer out a short script. From there we refined it in a back and forth process until we landed a finished screenplay. Normally you don’t want to bake in too much direction in the screenplay, but as I would be shooting my own script, we added some specific direction for particular shots. 

For storyboarding, I keep a sketchbook with me from where I thumbnail rough shots based on the locations. From there, I develop a comprehensive shot list. The shot list is what I use predominantly on set to track and make sure I not only have the desired shots, but enough coverage and alternate shots for the edit. As far as editing goes, in my day to day, I’m an editor, so that is perhaps the part of the process I’m most comfortable with. The edit is the final rewrite of the film, so I tend to go in with an open mind, aware that things usually have to change in order for the film to flow well. There were montages in the original script that I had to change for the edit, simply because they didn’t flow. However, this opened up an opportunity to lean into the protagonist’s trauma surrounding his mother, with cut aways to memories of the past, which I think enhanced the layers of the film.

S.S: Your story is so personal it poses the question how you came to work with the team you had and trusted their vision?

I met my main producing partner, Alex Armando Torres, with whom the film would not have been possible, at Yofi Fest 2018 in NY. We worked together on a few short projects in early 2019, which rapidly led to us working on pre-production for ‘MATER MORTIS’ from May 2019 all the way to wrapping our shoot in October of 2019. Without Alex, there would have been no crowdfunding campaign, no locations and most importantly no film, as he was the logistical heart of our entire production. 

I met my co-writer Dexter through my partner. He’s an excellent writer and collaborator who dealt with similar trauma as I did in my life, having a parent with mental illness. He was able to help me draw out these similar experiences and imbue the script with the feelings I was looking for. Finally, Renzo Adler. He’s my best friend and former roommate from college, and he encouraged me to take my original short story and turn it into a short film for ten years. Without his steadfast support and encouragement, I’d never have taken the step to make this film.

S.S: What advice would you give others trying to use crowdfunding to get their projects off the ground?

R.G: I would say do not rush into a crowdfunding campaign. As with a film you need solid prep time. You need to think through the logistics and make sure you can deliver everything before you ever start the campaign. It takes serious effort to do outreach and get people to back your project. Otherwise, you’re screaming into a void with no one caring. One of the reasons we chose Seed&Spark is because they’re oriented around indie films, and they have a training series that gets you started on all the finer points of making a sustainable crowdfunding campaign. This is especially helpful, as running a crowdfunding campaign is like having a second job.

S.S: You want this to be a film talking about your people, the South Asian community, how did this affect your casting process?

R.G: We worked with a casting director to get a lineup of South Asian actors. From there we reached out to the actors whose reels we loved and then rented a spot to carry out auditions for a few hours. Auditions for us were really fun, because it was our first chance to see incredibly talented people bring my characters to life.

S.S: The colouring of the film is very particular, especially the contrast to the present and to the flashback scenes, how was this realised?

R.G: My intention with the look was always to have a clear delineation between shots from the past and shots in the present. As I am also a DP and colorist by trade, I am always thinking about how the look drives the emotional throughline of a film. One of my color mentors, Dado Valentic, encouraged me to push the looks as far and as extreme as possible, which led to the sepia tinged looks of the past, and the desaturated looks of the present.

S.S: The piercing flashes of red and the zombie-like faces are jarring – how did you find the right balance of their inclusion? 

R.G: We were inspired a lot by the film ‘Moonlight’ and used the frightening cutaways of the protagonist’s mother in that film as a starting point. So the cut aways to a moaning, breathing figure were baked in, to show the protagonist’s trauma trying to break out. Where they fit in best really came down to the editing process.

S.S: The dialogue is minimal and the sound design very light. Why did you decide to go this way?

R.G: The sound design is focused on diegetic sound, and the script was light on dialogue as I wanted to focus on the protagonist, Rajan, and his struggle with communicating with his father. A lot of the awkward interactions come down to what’s not said. These strained interactions are heavily informed by things I have dealt with in my own life.

S.S: What is next for the film and its continued festival circuit? 

R.G: Mater Mortis will be on the festival circuit through at least 2022. We won an award for Best Short Horror at Show Low Film Festival, and I’m hoping we pick up a few more. In terms of what is next, I’m developing a different short with another writer/producer, and working on a feature script.

MATER MORTIS’ will screen at Whirled Cinema on Friday 5th November at 11pm

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