I wanted to tell the story of a father and a son. About one who believes strongly in tradition and another who believes in the value of assimilation, and where the two intersect. When is it important to hold onto these beliefs and when is it important to let them go? I think that struggle is so much a part of what it means to be an American. It’s a struggle shared by every culture, every group that tries to become a part of this society.
Writer/Director Sharat Raju talks about inspiration, exploration, the trials and tribulations of student filmmaking and how post-9-11 America has made him question what it means to be an American today.
What led you to write the script for AMERICAN MADE? What inspired you to tell that story?
I wrote AMERICAN MADE in the summer of 2002. At that time there was a lot of talk by the government about being careful of anything “suspicious” or “un-American.” I thought about what that really means, and how it made me feel. I was driving in the desert near Los Angeles and saw a stranded car. I thought, “Is that something ‘suspicious?’ What if the person stranded wasn't white, or was Indian or wore a turban – does that make him ‘un-American’ because he doesn’t fit within the traditional definition? What if it was a family stranded, would anyone stop and help them? What if it was my family?” So this was sort of a starting point and it evolved into an exploration of what it means to be American.
What were some of the challenges you faced in making this film, personally and professionally?
This was my Masters thesis film at the American Film Institute. Which sounds like we’d have ample support to make a film, but it was still a struggle. One of the toughest challenges was with AFI itself. The school doesn’t allow shoots that are outside the 30-mile radius of Los Angeles. Unfortunately, wide-open desert terrain no longer exists within that radius, so we had to obtain special permission. And to do that, we had to convince every single production department at AFI that we knew what we were doing and that we had exhausted all possible locations closer to L.A.
To do so, we shot the entire script on video with stand-ins and edited the scene for faculty to prove we had to use that location. And then we argued our case to every department chairperson. They finally agreed, but it came down to a final day vote. I imagine this is the struggle any filmmaker who works with a studio or a production company might have– to fight for what they believe is important to the integrity and realism of the story.
What impact do you hope this film will have?
I hope the film will allow people to escape. That is, to believe in the story, the characters, and to not think about anything else but what is going to happen to the family on the screen. I know that’s sort of what all filmmakers want, but really that’s what makes me want to make movies.
How have audiences reacted, thus far?
The response has truly been overwhelming. We were fortunate to have shown it at film festivals and screenings all over the world. People seem to enjoy it beyond what I could have imagined. It’s been very moving for us, as a production team, and even more so for myself. I hope the TV audience responds similarly.
You have some professional actors in your film. How did you get them to work on a student production?
Well, first of all I had a great professional casting director in Mali Finn. She’s one of the best in the business and works on big budget studio films and small, no budget independents, too. Having her on board made a big difference in finding the best actors possible. Secondly, there are not a ton of roles for Indian or Indian-American actors, and there are not a ton of actors to choose from. So most of them, especially some of the top ones, just love acting and being part of a project that they have high hopes for.
This was your graduate school thesis film and it has garnered many awards. Why do you think it’s been so successful?
Despite the very unique family in the film, there’s a universality of the characters and situation. Anyone who has a family, or has been on a family vacation, or knows what it’s like to struggle with something you believe in, has something to relate to. So I think the family, the story and the acting, all sort of come together in the film to create something that people seem to understand. I don’t know, maybe there’s more to it, but AMERICAN MADE has had this energy that has surprised me. I knew we had a pretty good film when we were done with it—I could not have predicted it would affect people the way it has.
What period of time did filming take place and when did it conclude? Tell us about the production process.
The film was shot in late January/early February 2003. We finished editing that summer and premiered that fall. All told, it was a year from inception to completion. (Which sounds like a long time for a short film, but keep in mind we were in school, too...) We shot for six days, and our great producer Marcus Cano did an extraordinary job of putting together a comfortable and relatively error-free shoot on a shoestring budget. We shot on 35mm film with anamorphic lenses, and had an extremely professional crew made up of our AFI classmates. All an all, excellent work by the production team: no disasters.
The independent film business is a difficult one. What keeps you motivated?
It’s not hard to be motivated. It’s hard to get a chance to share the fruits of your motivation, but motivation itself isn’t as difficult to come by. The chance to tell a story, to really be given a megaphone and to show the world something new–that is endlessly exciting. And AMERICAN MADE is motivation, too. You never want to rest on what you’ve done, but I find it important to understand what is possible when a film or a story makes its mark with an audience.
What are you working on now?
I’m in the final post-production phases of a documentary film called Divided We Fall: Americans in the Aftermath. It’s almost like the true story of AMERICAN MADE. We follow a college student in the aftermath of September 11, 2001 as she takes a camera across the country and interviews victims of retribution violence and hate crimes, and searches for what it means to be an American. With analysis from scholars, policymakers and activists, the film puts a lens on what these stories from the South Asian, Arab and Muslim communities can reveal to us about life in a multi-cultural America. We’re hoping it’ll be out by fall.
I’m also writing a narrative feature film that I’m attached to direct with an independent production company in L.A.
Why did you choose to present your film on public television?
I don’t think we chose public television, but rather public television chose us. It’s a long road for a thesis film to make it from a graduation requirement onto the screen, especially for a short. So we’re grateful that an astute audience, like the audiences who generally go to film festivals, have a chance to see the movie in their homes.
What are your three favorite films?
This is a dangerous question to ask any filmmaker, so I’ll answer with this caveat: These are my three favorite films of this second. In the next second the answer will change. Star Wars, The Shawshank Redemption and Brazil. Okay fine, I’ll add three more: High Noon, Life is Beautiful and A Clockwork Orange.
If you weren’t a filmmaker, what kind of work do you think you’d be doing?
A writer, most likely.
What do you think is the most inspirational food for making independent film?
Travel, if you mean “food” metaphorically. If you mean it literally, then milkshakes.
Which filmmakers have most influenced your work?
As a kid, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis. All of them told perfect escapist fare and created worlds that were far more interesting than the one in which I lived. In college, I discovered Francis Ford Coppola, Spike Lee, Martin Scorcese, Orson Welles, Quentin Tarantino, David Lean and Satyajit Ray and really expanded my idea of storytelling and cinema.
What sparks your creativity?
People, exploration and books. Talking to people and hearing their stories always inspires me, as does going to a new town, a new state or country. Whenever I have a chance to explore someplace new, it always makes me think: “What happens here? What story could be set here?” Photography enhances that, for me—putting a new world into a subjective frame. And, of course, reading. Stories and books and nonfiction articles always give me new ideas or lead me down the road to a new story or concept or spark for something larger.
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