Independent Filmmaker's Guide
August 11, 2020
From Iron Man to Indie: Faran Tahir and the cast of the indie drama I'll Meet You There
- Faran Tahir and the cast of the indie drama I’ll Meet You There share their experiences of what it was like to become, as they describe, a working family on set. If you haven’t heard our main episode on I’ll Meet You There, check it out. In it, we get in depth with the pre-production, production, and post-production journey. In today’s episode, we speak with the cast of the film about their experience working with their director and cinematographer to create this incredibly moving story and their journey, most recently to the Bentonville Film Festival.
James Allerdyce: So, first of all, is this the first time all of you have been back together, since wrapping?
Iram Parveen Bilal: It’s pretty sad, yeah. We had a wrap party, but after that … yeah.
James Allerdyce: We’re happy to be at least the vehicle where you all can see each other again.
Nikita Tewani: Yeah, thanks for having us.
James Allerdyce: Iram, could you maybe start off, by just telling us a little bit about the characters that are featured in this film?
Iram Parveen Bilal: Yeah, I would love to. I would love for these guys to speak more, because I want to hear more from them. But, Faran plays a police officer in Chicago. He’s a single father to Dua, who is a high school senior, going off to Julliard, she’s a ballerina. Jaffar is an imam in the community mosque, where Majeed and Dua live. And Shonali, is a best friend of Majeed’s late wife, but turned essentially love interest, as well as Dua’s second mother, so to speak, and her dance teacher. She teaches her ballet, and then, end up teaching her Kathak, which is a classical dance, and ode to her late mother. That is a band dance in the house, but that’s about it.
Faran Tahir: Yeah, I think all the characters in the film, we are struggling to find our identity, and find a balance within our souls, of who we are, and truly accept the person that we truly are. And I think that’s the biggest struggle for all of these characters.
Faran Tahir: For Majeed, it manifests itself because, first of all, he’s bringing up a teenage daughter by himself, which has its own challenges. At the same time, he is a cop, and working undercover for something, which I don’t want to reveal at this point. But, it is something that actually challenges his own identity, and creates a certain amount of guilt in him. Coupled with that, his own issues with his own father, also come into play.
Faran Tahir: So, all of these things are really … I think, Majeed’s journey is not only to do right by others, but also accept who he really is, and celebrate that. And I think that’s the biggest challenge for Majeed in general.
Nikita Tewani: For Dua, what I really related to the most, was this clash between two worlds, and how she’s young, she’s still very impressionable. And, her full identity has not been created yet. Because at 17, who’s is? So, I grow up with my father, and in this very modern American lifestyle, that I’m used to. And then, suddenly my grandfather comes into town, and he represents a whole different set of values, that I’m curious about, and that I’ve missed, because I’ve never really been exposed to them. So, it becomes this world of what’s right and what’s wrong, and finding myself between these two very different sets of values.
Nitin Madan: If I may, so as the Imam of this local mosque, I find myself in place, where I am trying to a, keep the community together, and struggle with the duality of the society around us, who views us with suspicion, rather than as just people who want to live their lives in a day-to-day manner. And to keep that balance within the community, where I want them to continue doing their spiritual, slash religious duties, while surviving amongst people who view even their charitable work as suspicious.
Nitin Madan: So, it’s a balance that one wants to maintain as a first generation migrant in a community, where you’re trying to, not only come off as victims or perpetrators, but just as normal individuals who wants to live their lives, just like every other American family.
Sheetal Sheth: Yes. For Shonali, I feel like for her, she’s mostly in relationships with Majeed and Dua, where you see her. And I think she’s a catalyst for both of them. I think that she’s probably the most settled in who she is, and she ends up becoming somebody who allows Majeed to move forward in a way that, I think, everyone knows he needs to, but has had a hard time. And with Dua as well, finding her own space, and figuring out what that means to her. But it’s hard for Shonali, because obviously, she doesn’t want to step on anybody’s toes, and her friend was his ex wife, and she does love this man. And so, it becomes a little bit complicated. But, I do think that she very much serves as a catalyst for Majeed and Dua to find their way.
James Allerdyce: It’s amazing that we have such a cohesiveness with the cast, especially since there’s such a wide range of experience. Nikita, this was your first feature-length film, Sheetal and Faran, you’ve obviously been in many, many movies. What the difference, from an actor in terms of being in a big budget movie like Iron Man, how does that compare, from the actors experience, to being a low-budget feature?
Faran Tahir: I think part of it is, of course, some of the advantages of being in big budget movies, because they can do anything they want. They can make rain whenever they want to make it. You know what I mean? So, there is that side to it. So, you have whatever you need, you can have, which makes it easy for you to do what you’re doing. But, on the flip side of it, the beauty of independent filmmaking is, that you really have to be creative, and you have to have all your creative jets firing at the same time. Because, sometimes, again, making that parallel of theater versus indie movies, I think they’re very close, because sometimes you don’t have the luxury of doing 37 takes of something. So, you have to bring whatever you’ve got, good, bad, or ugly, in the moment at that point, because you might only have one or two takes. So, I think it makes my creative juices flow much more, when I’m doing something like this. And again, going back to something that we’ve been talking about a lot, it really creates a sense of community, and you really do have to bind together, and hold each other’s hand when you go through this experience. Which might not be true on a big budget movie, because the departments are so vast and deep, and whatever, and you’re doing your own thing. So, to me, I have found that most of my growth has happened when I’ve done projects like this, as an actor. I think it feeds my soul more. Yeah, a big budget movie feeds my wallet more, but that’s a whole other thing. But, this feeds my soul. So, that’s why I think it’s important to we keep doing it. Because, I think that’s the real cutting-edge movie making is happening in indie movies, it’s not happening in big budget movies.
Sheetal Sheth: It also just reinforces that you don’t really need all of that stuff.
Faran Tahir: You don’t. Yeah.
Sheetal Sheth: Yes, you need it if you’re making Iron Man, obviously you need it for certain parts that you do. I personally think, there is so much waste and excess in a lot of these budgets, because I go onto these sets, and I’m like, “Oh my God.” But I’ve done mostly independent movies, and-
Iram Parveen Bilal: You’ve also produced.
Sheetal Sheth: Yeah. So, I’ve seen all the sides of it. And so, when I’m producing, I’m like, “I wish I had just a little bit more. If I could have that 10% contingency budget of that other movie, I could make a whole movie.” And that is the problem with the huge disparity between what you have access to. And that’s my biggest issue, is the access and the opportunities that you want to give the world of creation. I’ve worked on movies where there were no heads of departments, and there’s just one person who are each department. And, skeleton crews, where there’s 15 people, and I’ve done my own continuity, and my own wardrobe. And you just have to decide what’s important, and if you want to tell the story or not. And, thank goodness. I’ve also worked on films where the cast doesn’t get that, and the crew doesn’t get that. And so, if you don’t have the right kind of hearts making the movie that you want to make, and realize what it’s about, and it’s something bigger than yourself, then you’re lost. But thankfully, in this situation, Iram put together a great band of misfits. We all wanted to tell the story, and I think we’re all alike, like-minds and hearts.
James Allerdyce: I certainly would agree. I think it came through. As an audience member, I saw it 100%.
Iram Parveen Bilal: I was going to say to you, that Sheetal, you might be really uniquely suited for COVID production. Because, if you’ve done 15 people crews, for an independent film, that’s what it’s going to look like. I was going to say, as a director, there are a couple of moments … you were talking about process between senior, and more greener actors. I do see the value sometimes in being able to give actors their own space, because everybody has such a process. And in some locations we have that, but in some locations these poor guys, they were just hanging out by crafty, because that’s just what it was. Everybody’s going through their own emotions and craft, that sometimes it behooves them to, at least have a space if they want to use it. And so, I always used to get annoyed that we didn’t have that. But, that being said, I think we averaged three takes on this movie. At most, maybe, we had five or six. I think, one we did 13 times, a party one which we didn’t even use fully. So, literally the producers would come in, and it’d be so stressful, sag and all this, because we were also shooting Staten Island, so we were losing time, in terms of … and that was the hardest week. The first week was the hardest. We shot everything from the dance studio, to the big dance pieces, to the dance parties, and high school, and … what else? The big fights and the blow-outs. Exteriors, and all the rain. And of course, it rained it lot in New York in September that particular year.
Faran Tahir: The other great thing about being in independents, this one was basically, when you put on your wardrobe, is when you become the character. It’s that whole thing about, being amongst people in your wardrobe, and then you are the character in the real world, rather than sitting in your own little trailer, or enclosure, or whatever that might be, with your thoughts.
James Allerdyce: But I’d like to start with, what it was like playing many of your family members, and even when you’re not a family member … we had tight-knit community members. So, can any of you just jump in, speaking about what it was like to play, be it a tight-knit community, or a tight-knit family?
Nikita Tewani: So, this was my first experience, being a lead role in a feature film. And for me, it was new to be on a set of people who were just like me in some ways. I felt like instantly it was a family, and I crave more of that now. But, it was amazing how the chemistry was already there with everyone. And, you didn’t really have to work at that relationship of the family members, especially how I felt with everyone close to me. My father, my grandfather, my director. There was never a barrier that I have found at times before.
Nikita Tewani: And in that way, it was becoming this character, and relating to the other characters was so much easier for me, than it ever has been before. And just being around a community of people who represent you and likewise. It was definitely a unique experience, that I think, most people of color in the industry, I hope they get to experience that.
Faran Tahir: I think on top of that, I think for me, it was just such a wonderful experience, just working with these people. I met Nikita, who was going to play my daughter, and I just felt from the get-go, I didn’t have to try too hard to connect. I think I just trusted that there was a connection, which there was. And I think, credit also goes to Iram, for getting the right people together at the right time, and creating a script, which actually lends itself to not feeling shy, or vulnerability in a way. And I think that’s a beautiful thing. The funny story is, that Sheetal and I worked together … when was this, Sheetal?
Sheetal Sheth: Oh my God. It was my first movie in 1998.
Faran Tahir: Right. Right. And we played brother and sister. So, it was a little bit of a shift.
Faran Tahir: It was called ABCD. Yeah. So, it was a little bit of a shift, from playing brother and sister, to playing a love interest. It was a bit of like, “Um, all right. This is a whole other kind of energy.” But, anyway.
Iram Parveen Bilal: We live in Game of Thrones world, Faran.
Faran Tahir: Well, exactly. No, but I just felt that, I think, the entire cast, from the person who played my father, to … every character. There was a wonderfully warm feeling, that we wanted to make this particular project the best that we could, and you could feel that in pretty much everybody.
Sheetal Sheth: And I think Iram created space for us to, when we all got together before we even filmed, we got together a few times. Faran and I, because I know him, and I love him, so there’s no issue there, and Nikita’s so easy to love, and everybody is part of the family. You instantly feel this connection. But, you have also this time, to just hang out, and get to know each other a little bit, which adds the layers, I think, of the history of a relationship. And Iram knew that was important. I think that that kind of stuff, you can’t script, you can’t write, you just have to live. And she did. She made the time for that. And I think that that says a lot.
Nikita Tewani: I had a rehearsal with Sheetal and Iram. Before the script, we were just building the history of these characters, and I remember my vision of what my history was with these characters, it was very much aligned with everyone else’s. And I also remember, one time, we had a rehearsal, where we went to … I think it was Faran’s apartment. And I think it was me, Baba, Faran, Iram, and Sheetal.
Iram Parveen Bilal: This was the dinner. This was an in-character dinner.
Nikita Tewani: Yes. The in-character dinner, where we all went to Faran’s apartment, and we had to enter as our characters. And then I remember, halfway through we all just dropped it, and we were just totally being ourselves, and hanging out.
Nitin Madan: It was interesting for me, because we did not have a rehearsal at all. Obviously Iram will speak of the logistics of this production. But, I actually found myself in a mosque, which … the last time I was in a mosque, was sightseeing in Jama Mashid, in New Delhi, or in Delhi. But, it wasn’t the environment that I was immediately comfortable in. And you go for a few days within a group that already knows each other really well. So, it doesn’t start off like you’re all ready to go immediately. But, it was just something about … first of all, when I read the script, and I was just looking forward to being a part of it, and going in there and playing. But when I was there, and when I started working, it was almost like an experience of reality to me. And there were moments when Iram just came, whispered in my ear, and it just made everything seem to work so much better. There was this one point where she just goes, “Just follow your instincts.” And, it’s such an easy direction, and it’s something that you, as an actor, would always remember. But, in that moment, you need somebody who’ll just whisper it in your ear. And, it worked really well. And also, just playing that character, made me for that moment step inside the shoes of that Imam, where not great things happen within the mosque. And you suddenly feel so violated. And, while working on that character, while working, while actually acting, while actually being there, it just brought home things that happened, that have never happened to me. But, through this experience, made me realize what was going on. And, it just opened a different perspective for me, regarding our existence in this community in general.
James Allerdyce: So, I hear a lot about being connected right off the bat. Iram, what was preparation and rehearsal like? And, how long did you rehearse for with the actors? And, what was the experience?
Iram Parveen Bilal: First of all, this is like a breath of fresh air. I don’t know how these guys feel, but I have been waiting to talk about this movie so much. Just hearing everybody, it’s therapy for me right now. I’ve been holding back tears, just hearing, because it takes me back to the time. This particular film, I’ve been working on for years. So, as far as pre-production as a writer director, all my heads of departments were ready to go, for two years before we shot, because we lost investment twice. So, it has particular set of jinxing and bad luck with it. Which is, I think, it’s going to be even sweeter when it comes out. So, as far as the pre-production in terms of shot lists, and production design, we were all on it. And, because we knew it was going to be made for a lot less money that we want to, that was incredible. And that’s what opened up space for me to talk to these guys. But, in the world we’re in, casting in indie films, you literally don’t even know who your lead is going to be, until a week before. But, thankfully, Faran and I were connected before. He had actually done a couple of table reads, because I was considering him. He really had shown interest that he wanted to do the project. I just wasn’t sure, because I wanted to have everything cast in terms of chemistry. So, to have your point, it was almost like a parallel. I had ideas of who I wanted to play characters, but at the same time it’s availability, do they want to do it, is this time? Everything has to work at the same time. But, I did want to have people who had some background in theater, and were just serious artists. Because I think, when you’re doing an independent film, a, you don’t have time for divas, and b, you need people who really respect the craft for what it is. And I feel like theatrical people just … maybe it’s my presumption, but I feel like there’s a different approach to the material.
And, of course, Faran is very known and respected. Sheetal has done so much. These guys have … And Nikita blew me away. Nikita was the only person, and Nitin. So, Nikita and Nitin were found through casting. Sheetal and Faran, I knew on my own. And like you’ve said, it’s a small community, so know a lot of the players. I watched probably 90 tapes, and Nikita specifically … I’ll talk about Nikita first. Nikita just stood out from the beginning. I just kept going back to her. And then it was between her and this other person. And, I knew it was her. And I was a little concerned about dance, because dance is a big part of it, and then training. But then she ended up having training in the sort of dance I wanted in the film, which is Kathak. So, it all came together that way. I think that, what is really important, especially when you a very fast shooting film, is for all the actors … It’s hard, because you want things to be fresh. So, I learned as a director … because before I were trying to rehearse the scenes, and then they become stale sometimes. So, I did a lot of contextual rehearsal. Nitin, on purpose, we actually didn’t rehearse with you, because you had everybody in this foursome. So, one person who was really missing here, and who I wish was here, is Baba. Because it’s the three of them, and then Shonali, they form the family so to speak. So, everybody else, it’s okay if there’s discomfort. And particularly with Nitin, I think the awkwardness was good, because it played on screen. So, it was actually, it behooved my telling of the story, to just keep him distant.
James Allerdyce: How long did you rehearse with them? Was there a rule of thumb, did you rehearse a day for each person before each scene, or did you just rehearse right before the scene? How did the process go?
Iram Parveen Bilal: We did one table read in the beginning in the production office living room. And then, I had Sheetal and Nikita. So, Shonali and Dua separately, and then of course, I had Majeed, Dua and Baba separately. I had Dua and Baba separately. So, I did their separate rehearsals. Faran was coming in from another shoot, so then I had to, after the first week of shoot, then it was a lot of the house scenes, and so I had Majeed and Baba together for a session, just chatting, and talking, breaking bread, and then talking about the issues.
Faran Tahir: To which I would add, that Qavi Khan, who plays Baba, literally I’ve known him for my entire life. He is a father figure to me in my real life, so connecting with him on that level, was just natural. It was just me and him, being who we have been all our lives. So, that is again, that is also just the beauty of the casting, that it put people together who, either very quickly created trust, or already had the trust. And half of the game in acting is trust. You need to know that you’re going into a scene with someone who’s got your back, and you’ve got their backs. So that was a beautiful thing, working with Sheetal, working with Baba, or finding somebody like Nikita to work with. For me, I was in heaven because of that.
Iram Parveen Bilal: And it was very important, in terms of authenticity of language and culture, to cast somebody from Pakistan, for me. And, people were trying to push people here. I just haven’t found somebody in that age, who was authentic in terms of language, in Urdu. And then also to say, Qavi Khan has won a lifetime achievement award in film, television, radio, and theater in Pakistan. So, he is incredible. So, that weekend was actually a huge help for me, because Faran and Qavi Khan, we were just talking through the scenes in Urdu dialogue. And so, we were trying to make whatever was comfortable for them. And so, I rewrote a couple of the scenes, based on their input in terms of dialogue. So yeah, it was great. And then, on set we would always … I’m trying to remember. Yeah, we would just do lines, just normal stuff, and then we would come up with, if there were more thoughts that came up while Anthony and the crew was lighting, I would go to them and ask if there were any thoughts, or I would walk into Hair and Makeup, when it was close, and just be like, “What are you thinking? What’s your emotional truth in the scene? Where are you coming from? Where are we going?” Because, we always shoot out of order unfortunately.
James Allerdyce: Well that’s another thing I wanted to ask you and the cast, because to me, while watching the film, there’s definitely different perspectives happening, and you feel that in the actors and the film making. Some are much more dramatic, others start off a bit more whimsical, and then go into that drama. So, I was actually wondering if you did shoot in order. Or, and if you didn’t, how the actors approached jumping back and forth, say from a college party scene, to … did you ever have to go from a college party scene, straight into something further on, that was much more dramatic?
Iram Parveen Bilal: Well, if you though we shot in order, we did.
Sheetal Sheth: Has anybody ever had the luxury to shoot anything in order?
Faran Tahir: Never. Never.
Sheetal Sheth: I don’t know anybody who’s shot in order ever, period. Unless … it’s impossible.
Iram Parveen Bilal: But to your point, to jog your memory, Nikita. Your first day of shoot, you probably remember. Please tell him.
Nikita Tewani: Yeah. I do, I remember. This was a very new experience for me, when I came to … I have done smaller parts in feature films, but I’ve never been a lead. And coming from a theater background, when everything is in order. I was surprised at how well I was able to jump into it, without thinking too much. And it think, that’s always my biggest struggle, is overthinking things. And I think, again, this just has to go back to my trust with Iram, and my trust with the community of people we had. And, the connection that I had to the script. I never felt like I wasn’t …
Nikita Tewani: Now, of course, each year you grow as an actor, and you’re like, “Oh, maybe I would have done this differently, or this differently,” with everything that you go back to. But, I felt really confident about what I wanted, and I think that really helped me jump in, and not do things in an order. Because, I didn’t feel like I needed to go through a certain scene, to reach the emotional, or the stake of a scene that comes after it, if we’d shot that before.
Nikita Tewani: Also, I just really focused on the people that I was in my scenes with, and just listening to Iram, because I trusted her with my whole self.
Sheetal Sheth: As an actor, that’s our work. You have to figure it out. You have to do all the work on your own, about your emotional journey, your arc, what you need to be doing in each scene. And then, you have to trust you’ve done that work, and let it go. So that, when you’re in the scene, you can live in the moment. But, that doesn’t come without having done your homework.
Faran Tahir: Yeah. And I think for different people, I think it’s a different process. Iram talked about having theater as the base for some of us. And, that’s how I look at it. That, because of a theater training, you can create your art. You know what your point A is, and what your point C is. So, you do all or most of your work, figuring all of that out. But then, when you get into actually shooting, then I think in that moment, you have to stop looking at the arc, and start looking at the matrix of the character. Because, that opens you up to making different choices, as long as you get to where you need to go. But it opens you up to not getting so married to one choice, that you’re not honoring other people that you’re working with. And also, not looking at different possibilities of getting there. So I think that’s what it does. So, once you create that arc for yourself in your head, then it’s easy to chop it up, because you know where your hooks are emotionally and physically, what will trigger what for you. And you can do that. So, I think it’s all about good preparation in the end. Then you can chop it up any which way you want it, and still be fine.
Nikita Tewani: And it allows you to be in the moment with who you’re with, and really receive what you’re receiving, rather than being in your head. And I found that to be the case, because I was working with such incredible people, that I was really able to just let go, and just get what I was getting. And things came up that I didn’t even know would. And that’s the best part, that’s why you’re doing it.
Iram Parveen Bilal: There were multiple scenes where, after calling cut, I was crying and they were crying. We were all crying together. There were even scenes where they weren’t crying and I was crying. This cast has given me so much. I learned so much, in terms of just the human condition, having shot this film. I remember our first day, we were shooting in Staten Island, and it was raining, and I just had one take with my director’s monitor, and it broke. Actually, I didn’t even get to have one take. Apparently it broke before we called action. And this was Nikita’s first day, where she was playing a monumental scene about her dance story. It was insane. And we didn’t have the money to have a ballet … because her training is more Kathak. A ballet choreographer … so, a student of mine from LA, who I taught in film, but happened to be a dancer, he flew, because he just wanted to be in the movie. And he gave his day rate for the flight, and ended up training her for that scene, whatever little that he could. It was insane. It was such a … everybody giving their heart in, and making this piece work.
James Allerdyce: I wish we had more time to keep going about all this. But, this is an incredible cast, and an incredible experience watching you all. So, thank you for your work, and thanks for being on the show.
Faran Tahir: Thank you for having us.
IFG is created and produced by Framework Productions. This episode was directed by Matt Mundy, edited by Audrey Rae McHale, and hosted by James Allerdyce. The music is by Glass Boy. Find his music on freemusicarchive.org.