Mud Lotus is a short film about a Tibetan monk on a quest to find the reincarnation of his dead teacher. Christine White is the film’s writer/director; Jonathon Nichols-Pethick is in charge of production/editing; and Ronald Dye is the lead male actor. Just like Nawang, the Tibetan monk in the film, the film took its own lengthy journey connecting these three individuals at DePauw University with each other and with a medium none of them had experienced before.
Brian: Tell me about the premier and how all of this got started.
Christine: We were able to get the film into the New Hampshire Film Festival. It premiered in October of this year. It went really well, and we had two screenings.
I originally wrote it for a full-length play. We began adapting it to a full-length screenplay as part of a faculty fellowship project at DePauw University.
Jonathon: Christine called me one night and said she wanted to apply for a New Directions Grant from Great Lakes Colleges Association (GLCA), a grant for mid-career faculty who want to pursue something different from what they have been doing. The grant would fund the pre-production of six-minute trailer for the full-length screenplay.
At some point after the grant was done, Chris said rather than produce this fragmented glimpse of what the film might be, we should produce a short film with a beginning, middle and end, something whole that we could take around. We had to find a new way to fund and cast it.
Christine: Yeh, so we had to start over. It was about a year-and-a-half process with all of the pre-production stuff of trying to figure out our funding, casting, recruiting the crew, rewriting the script from 75 pages to 23 pages, and getting locations and contracts.
Jonathon: The second round of money came through the university, helping us out by using money available to us as faculty members. So we had these little pockets of money we could use. They helped us through faculty development programs, and other people donated money to us. That gave us the money to hire the cinematographer, the sound post-production guy, the cast and crew, and to get our equipment.
Christine: Feed them! That was a big part of the budget. Fortunately, The Runcible Spoon out of Bloomington donated all of the food.
Brian: That’s part of the process most people don’t think about.
Christine: We had a six-day shoot and about four to five days of rehearsal ahead of time. This was luxurious for people like Rae Dawn Chong, who said that was fantastic to have that much time to rehearse. We also had brought out a young 12-year-old girl, Liz Chiarellar, who is the niece of Tom Chiarella, our executive producer. We brought Eric Branco, our cinematographer, who is from the Bronx, and Chinonye Chukwu, an alum of DePauw, who was a writing major when she was here and went on to be quite an up-and-coming filmmaker.
Jonathon: A lot of the people who joined us really helped us understand what we needed to do next and how to move on. It was good to have them on set and use them, and for the most part they worked for free.
Christine: We only paid two people in the production crew.
Jonathon: Eric Branco worked for his minimum fee and John Avarese, our sound guy. And, then we paid for some color correction at the end in post-production.
Brian: Ron, have you done any film acting before this?
Ron: Very little. I had done a couple of trailers, and then I had done some commercial stuff. I had never done anything longer than two days.
Brian: You’ve done acting in the theatre; what was the big difference between acting in the theatre and for this film?
Ron: Well, there were a couple of things. One was that there was a lot of sitting around on the set when you’re not doing stuff. We were able to do a number of takes on some shots, and we were able to do rehearsals, but there were some takes where we didn’t have the luxury of rehearsing or doing extra takes.
Brian: How long is the finished production?
Christine: The film is 23 minutes.
Brian: How long did you shoot to get 23 minutes of finished film?
Jonathon: I would say our shooting ratio was maybe 10 to 1, probably more.
Christine: Maybe more like 15 to 1.
Jonathon: Yeh, we had to cut a lot of things out.
Ron: Well, also it was only shot with one camera. It doesn’t look like it was shot with one camera though. We shot every scene with three different angles.
Jonathon: The advantage to shooting with a single camera is that it allows you to get performances that you want rather than trying to capture a performance that is happening. It allows you to go back in and redo, redo and redo it. It is much more time intensive. It forces actors like Ron to sit around for a long time while someone else gets their shot.
Brian: What were some of the challenges you had to face doing this for the first time?
Christine: One of the challenges was because we were a small production, and all of us had many roles. I was writer, director and producer. Once the production got going, I really tried to focus my energies on the actors as much as I could and let others do their jobs. Editing was a huge job.
Jonathon: For me it was the production, but the pre-production was even more so, because as one of the producers I was just keeping track of the logistics. On a tiny scale that this production was relatively, it still felt enormous; keeping track of every cent you were spending; where people were; where they’re going to be; how we’re going to get them there. Then when Chris and I got to the editing we had to negotiate out the scene between us, and then sometimes we would totally disagree. At the end of the day, Chris was the writer/director, and so I let that dictate the decision, but sometimes I had my own ideas about it, and we had to negotiate it.
Brian: So, at the end of the day, you’re saying it was her decision?
Jonathon: I think so, but it wasn’t a matter of her saying it was her way or the highway. In fact, she was very open, maybe too much at times, to my ideas. I had never edited with someone else; I had always done it alone, and here I had someone say, “I don’t really like the way that plays.” And, you’re going…“what??? I just did that.”
Brian: Ron, what about you?
Ron: Any time you are doing something on video or film that’s not ephemeral like the stage, then you don’t have as much control over every single moment that you have. So, in other words, when work on a stage play that you have rehearsed for weeks, you either do it or you don’t in performance. In a film, you have these multi-performances that someone else is going to take bits and pieces of and put it together in a composite that, as an actor, you just have to trust them that they will do it as well as possible.
Jonathon: There was no way for Ron, Rae Dawn, Adam or Liz to see all of the footage, and yet, I was always conscious of whether they would like the performance that we chose to use.
Brian: What were the pleasant surprises, since you’ve never done this before?
Christine: I think one of the surprises for me was what you gain; that you have a lot more control because you have the opportunity to put it together just the way you want. Plus, it was exciting to have such a large canvas to work with, different from a stage setting.
Jonathon: The camaraderie was exciting for me. Just watching people come together in a way that was powerful.
Ron: I enjoyed working with my friends and colleagues, but I also enjoyed meeting some of the new people who were involved, particularly the director of photography and how much he was contributing in storytelling process.
Also, to me it’s exciting that it’s the first type of this scale done like this at DePauw. It’s neat to think that DePauw could be part of a film done here each summer.
Brian: What’s next?
Jonathon: I’m retired..(LOL)…One and done!
Christine: It would be wonderful if we could try a feature the next time, and it’s also daunting to even consider it since this one seemed like an awful lot to accomplish, but I would like to try it.
Ron: I’ll do anything these guys ask me to do.
Brian: What happens with this film, Mud Lotus?
Christine: We’re submitting to a lot of festivals.
Jonathon: There’s not much of a market for short films beyond festivals and niche packages of short films. We hope to get into more festivals. It is sort of like our calling card showing what we can do and maybe someone will want to help us develop it into a feature or help us fund our next project.
Christine: Even now, I have a couple of scripts out to our director of photography, Eric Branco, to talk about what we might do next. So, we are hoping that Mud Lotus will gain some attention on the festival circuit.