An Interview With Michael Keller – By Philip Smolen

Michael Keller’s new movie “Red Gold” is an audacious film (for my review, please click here). It tells the story of a poor Indian youth named Ravi (Shivam Sharma) whose family is at the mercy of the local low-rent kingpin Iswhar (Bikramjeet Kanwarpal). Determined to help his family and his neighbors, Ravi begins to cut in on Iswhar’s illegal blood bank business. Succeeding beyond his wildest dreams, Ravi begins to actually see light at the end of the poverty tunnel. However, Iswhar finds out about Ravi’s enterprise and is determined to wipe out his competition.

What’s incredible about “Red Gold” is how Michael Keller made this film. Trusting in his abilities, the young filmmaker took a tremendous leap of faith and flew to India with only a script and a camera in hand! Working with the local population, he found a producer as well as an Indian cast and crew and in ten incredible days filmed a mighty and magical motion picture. Michael was kind enough to agree to an interview with Rogue Cinema in order to tell his unbelievable story.

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RC: Michael, “Red Gold” is your first feature film and it’s a knockout. Tell me how you became so passionate; first about film in general and then about the subject matter of “Red Gold” (organ and tissue selling in India).

MK: Thanks for your kind words, Phil. I guess growing up everything I wanted to do was something I saw in a movie. One minute I wanted to be a cowboy, the next an astronaut, the next a pirate, etc. Eventually, I realized I would never be able to live all these different lives. But upon further reflection, I realized that it’s the storytelling and screen craft of filmmaking that makes everything seem larger than life. So I decided that what I really wanted was to realize fantastic visions, to create magical worlds and to share stories with audiences.

As I matured, I realized films could be more than escapist fantasies; that they could open people’s eyes, broaden their worldviews, communicate truth and expose the dark realities that many of us would rather sweep under the rug.
A while back, I read this fascinating book called “The Red Market”, by Scott Carney, about the commodification of the human body; which inspired me to do further research about organ trafficking. It’s literally a visceral subject, so it readily translates to the sensory immersion of film.

RC: Did you know anyone who had to resort to this practice?

MK: I don’t personally know anyone who sold an organ or who had to resort to black market kidney tourism. But I did know a kid in college who was blinded in one eye, by a bacterial infection. He bumped into things for several months while waiting for a cornea donor to die. Now he literally sees the world through someone else’s eye.

RC: Do you feel that the American and Indian governments are turning a blind eye to this kind of activity?

MK: I wouldn’t single out any government. From what I’ve read, this sort of thing happens all over the world. I set the story in India because they have picturesque settings and the production infrastructure in place. But any country that has desperately poor people breeds opportunistic middlemen to prey on them. And in the developed world, some people with means, who are dying from failing organs, are equally desperate to do whatever it takes to survive.

Apparently, Iran is the only country in the world that allows people to legally sell a kidney. At first blush, this practice seems distasteful, even barbaric. But what is the alternative? Every other country bans the sale of organs, but none are able to enforce these laws. So the practice is driven underground, which prevents safety regulation and facilitates the victimization of organ sellers who have no legal recourse when they are cheated in these transactions.

RC: Can anything be done about this practice?

MK: It looks like we will see 3D printed organs made of stem cells in our lifetime, hopefully soon. The science is advancing at an exponential pace. But until that revolution comes to pass, I guess the best we can do is damage control.

RC: Back to your movie. Did you feel it was necessary to film in India? It certainly added that authentic touch.

MK: It was a lot more challenging and interesting than filming in Burbank! Like I said, I probably could have filmed in any number of developing countries. I needed a lively, colorful slum location. The village we ended up using was actually our third choice. The first two fell through because the local politicians were holding out for larger bribes.

RC: When you arrived in India, did you have a completed script? How long did the script take? Were there any changes on the fly?

MK: Yes, the script we shot wasn’t altered much from when I first arrived in-country. My co-producer, Srivinay Salian gave it a once-over to make sure the dialogue didn’t sound too American, but I had already gleaned most of the Indian-English slang from the internet and peppered in a few Hindi words I learned from Rosetta Stone. Once I was inspired by the premise, the script sort of wrote itself. The first draft took about two hours a day for twenty days or so and I did a couple rounds of revisions from development notes I got from people on the Trigger Street Labs website.

The main changes we had to make on the fly were condensing scenes, due to time constraints. Our meager budget only allowed for 10 shooting days, so we were always in such a mad rush to make our daily quota of pages.

RC: How did you finance the film?

MK: I paid for the film out of my modest savings. Since the dollar goes so far in India, it only cost about $10,000, even with travel expenses. We contracted with Virendra Rathore, of Join Films, who gave us a very generous package deal, covering locations, production design, crew and actor payroll for a flat fee. He worked some economic miracles for us.

RC: How did you find your producer Srivinay Salian? What did he bring to the project?

MK: I posted an ad in an Indian equivalent of Craigslist. I am so deeply grateful Srivinay answered the call. I could not have made this film without him. He’s an amazing organizer, problem solver, diplomat, and bulldog on set. He knew when to use a gentle touch and when to twist some arms. His tenacity and resourcefulness got us out of so many binds.

Beyond that, he’s a remarkable person. He has a background in microbiology, and he’s also a philosopher and an accomplished screenwriter. He goes from project to project, totally immersing himself, contributing his creativity and learning along the way.

RC: Did you have any adventures during filming that you can share?

MK: Every day was an adventure, weaving through traffic jams in rickety rickshaws, bribing corrupt officials and making due with scarce resources at hand. Filming in the village was an uphill battle against time, fatigue, mosquitoes, language barriers and equipment failure. We had locations fall through twice, due to people mourning deaths in the town. We had to constantly shuffle the schedule around and there was so much haggling over little things.

There was a representative from the village who would come at arbitrary times at night to kick us out of our locations, and we had to keep thinking of ways to trick him. One time, we distracted him by sticking him in the scene we were shooting; another time, I asked permission to do one last shot, even though I really needed three. So I just kept the camera rolling and re-framed several times to get the necessary coverage.

Throughout this road of trials, I’ve never felt more alive. I returned home looking skeletal, but feeling triumphant with our film in the can. I’m actually working on a book about the behind-the-scenes experience, but haven’t yet placed it with a publisher.

RC: Your casting is impeccable. How did you find Shivam Sharma, Richa Meena, Bikramjeet Kanwarpal and Mayur Bansal? They all turn in wonderful performances.

MK: I couldn’t have asked for a better cast. Our casting director, Vidya Iyengar had a lot to do with this. She and Srivinay put out some hyperbolic, but technically not untrue casting notices, advertising an “international feature” helmed by an “American director.” I think people were expecting Danny Boyle or something, because our tiny, rented photo studio was literally swarmed with hopefuls.

We had two long days of nonstop auditions, with Vidya reading with the actors and Srivinay working crowd control outside. I was operating the camera, but every time I looked back over my shoulder, I saw the mob swelling and shoving in the little waiting room. I couldn’t keep up with them, and rarely had time to do a second take.

We managed to get our first choice of actors for all the main parts and it turned out that most of the ones I chose happened to be Vidya’s professional contacts.

RC: Tell me about some of the other Indian technicians who helped you complete the movie.

MK: I hate to single anyone out, since the whole crew was dedicated, hard working and professional. But our lighting technician, Bhushan Gadkari was sort of a wizard. They have a colloquial term in Hindi – Jugaad, which roughly translates to ‘finding inventive solutions by making-do with limited resources at hand.’ Bhushan is such a Jugaad master, that on the first day of shooting, he earned the nickname “Jugaroo.”

We didn’t have lights. We had light bulbs… attached to wires. Jugaroo would cobble together all sorts of intricate lighting setups with this flimsy equipment. He was also very handy with mirrors and reflectors.

On one of the first scenes we shot, he stuck a wire into an electrical outlet and zapped himself. He collapsed of the floor and we all held our breaths for a second. Someone handed him a cup of water, and a minute later, he was back on his feet, holding a reflector.

RC: Weather can be a problem in India. Did it have an effect on filming?

MK: I rushed the production so we would finish well before the monsoon season. Beyond that, it was always very hot, so we had to stay hydrated during the day and wear mosquito repellent at night.

RC: Did you edit the film back in the US or in India as well?

MK: I wanted to do a rough cut in India in case I had to do any re-shoots, but by the time principal photography was finished I was burned out and my funds were exhausted, so I went home to cut the film on my laptop, in coffee shops.

RC: How many days did you film for?

MK: Ten intense, rushed, sleepless, nerve-racking days.

RC: Michael, this movie needs to be seen by a ton of people. What kind of marketing are you hoping for? Do you think you can get a distributor?

MK: Thanks! I certainly hope it will be. First we’re focusing on our festival run. We played the Garden State Film Fest and our next screening will be at The Manhattan Film Festival, on July 1. It’s also playing in Trieste, Italy. Hopefully we’ll get into some more fests soon.

The indie film market is tough these days. It’s so saturated with content. But I hope to at least find distribution on disk and video on demand. Theatrical distribution would be a long shot, since our actors aren’t well known in the States, but never say never…

RC: Would you film in India again?

MK: Absolutely! It’s a beautiful place and I made so many great friends whom I would love to work with again.

RC: Tell me about your future projects

MK: I have several completed scripts that range from child soldiers in the Congo, to spies in the Gaza Strip, to an American drone operator with PTSD, to a dark comedy set in a juvenile prison. I’m also working on some more light-hearted, less “socially relevant” screenplays.

If someone would kindly wire the money, I could deliver a finished film in a matter of months.

RC: Thank you so much, Michael. Everyone at Rogue Cinema wishes you great success with “Red Gold.”

MK: Thank you so much, Phil! I feel privileged to have “Red Gold” featured in Rogue Cinema.

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For more news and information on the wonderful film “Red Gold,” please visit its official website: http://www.redgoldthefilm.com