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An Interview with Santosh M P, Director of A 'Pitch-Dark' Diorama

by Mike Haberfelner

December 2016

Films directed by Santosh M P on (re)Search my Trash


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Your new movie A 'Pitch-Dark' Diorama - in a few words, what is it about?


A 'Pitch-Dark' Diorama deals with the way we approach closure in a work of fiction. To simplify it further, the film is about writing and reading and the subconscious mind that influences the process.


Basic question of course, why did you choose to tell your story as a diorama, and was that intended since day one or did that just develop during the writing process?


The story was intended to be told as a Diorama right from day one but the title itself arrived only as the script was nearing completion. The first title was “Perpetrator”. The second was an extremely stupid “Hard-Boiled Closure”. A digression here. I wanted to title my first live action short as “Fate Plays” and just to confirm if I hadn’t lifted it off the OST of “Heat”, I went through the track listing of that film. I hadn’t. But I saw another track called “Predator Diorama” and that name stayed in my head for a really long time. Long enough for me to want to use the word ‘Diorama’. I vaguely knew what a diorama meant but checked it nonetheless. The meaning fit in with the theme of my feature and I just had to find an appropriate title for the novel inside the film that could lend both literal and thematic resonance. That novel became Pitch-Dark, and the film became A 'Pitch-Dark' Diorama.


(Other) sources of inspiration when writing A 'Pitch-Dark' Diorama?


Scott McCloud’s line about the reader being an accomplice in an act of closure (demonstrated through an explicit act of murder) was the primary trigger. Inception made me realise that people here were open to this idea at a mainstream level. Neil Gaiman’s A Black and White World was the inspiration behind the plot mechanics. The rest was filled out by my mind constantly consuming David Lynch, Haruki Murakami, Alan Resnais, and John Cassavetes. There was some Carl Jung psychology study too.


Of all the lead characters in A 'Pitch-Dark' Diorama, who can you identify with the most, who the least?


I think I can identify with the two writers. Indranil Deashi, because he starts off writing about things that matter to him but owing to a sustained poor reception of his books, is forced to enter a genre that he’s clueless about. Rajiv Dey, because there’s a certain amount of bluff involved in creating and later, promoting a piece, and the artistic ego that’s involved in it. The character I could least identify with, on a personal level, is the detective. That’s because that character arrived only from my fascination with detectives through reading novels and watching films. Thankfully, I was dealing with an existential detective. So I could imbibe many eccentric traits and personal observations into that role without sticking to procedural authenticity.


A 'Pitch-Dark' Diorama is a thriller that leaves large chunks open to interpretation - could you at all elaborate on that choice of yours for a bit?


The first draft of the script had a pretty clear cut answer from my end as to who the killer was. But a casting decision and the reason Indranil Deashi loses his life made me realise that life’s a bit more complicated than what I’d envisaged. Closure is more complicated than we realize. It depends on so many variables. So for a film tackling closure, it was only natural that the film itself resists conventional closure.

Of course, a decision like that opens up a host of problems because the audience starts to aggressively look for answers and might not accept an open-ended conclusion. However, ‘open to interpretation’ was the only way to have justified the thought experiment that the film is.


What can you tell us about your overall directorial approach to your story at hand?


I write a script with a conceit in mind and during the rehearsal, production, and post-production, I keep stripping away that conceit so that the final film, at least from my own perspective, feels more organic than engineered. I’m trying hard to get rid of my left-brained approach to right-brained ideas.


Do talk about your cast, and why exactly those people?


I like working with a mix of professionals and non-professionals. People whose faces are unfamiliar enough to lend authenticity to the material. I feel, as filmmakers, we miss out on a lot of personality tics because we probably gravitate towards acting in a literal sense. If I have a character who behaves a certain way on the page and if I meet an actor who could act that way but has a far more interesting personality otherwise, warts and all, I’d move towards a new interpretation of that character. Also, my scripts tend to have people ranging from grey to downright nasty. So the character should attract real hostility. Also, the film itself is a learning process for me. Part of that learning comes from the cast members’ perspectives. So given a choice between a person who’s a teacher and knows a lot more about the world but hasn’t had acting experience and a person who can pull the role off easily but might only give life to my lines without giving any additional insight, I might prefer the former and just ask that person to be himself or herself. Most actors in my film come from theatre backgrounds. And we were going in for long takes, lasting close to five or six minutes on celluloid. So the actors needed to have their lines off pat. Their theatre experience served them well there.


What can you tell us about the shoot as such, and the on-set atmosphere?


The shoot was hectic. Obviously so as it was an indie film and shot on film. But the cast and crew had an amazing time. There was an atmosphere of trust on set and key members felt comfortable enough to offer suggestions and brainstorm ideas. The team continues to meet whenever the opportunity arises.

The shoot itself was a bit of a drudge for me when longer setup times were needed and the acting itself didn’t require elaborate direction. However, things became interesting when the cinematographer, ADs, and actors chimed in with some spur of the moment fine tuning and it helped me unlearn that scene in question and look at it from a new angle. An idea was debated, its impact on the entire storyline considered, and then retained or removed. I start with a detailed rehearsal/scene interpretation process way before the shoot begins. During this stage, I ask the actors to feel free to improvise and brainstorm as the luxury of time won’t be available during production. This is also the stage where different languages comes into the picture and I see if the textures of the dialogues are fine. The actors get the lines to a point where they feel like they are having a conversation and the lines are embedded in them like muscle memory.

While shooting, it was intimidating, at first, to see so many people between me and the actors but I slowly got used to it and ensured that I’d my chat with the actors before the blocking process began. The prior homework also helped.


The $64-question of course, where can your movie be seen?


This is the official site:

It can be streamed as a mini-series on Youtube here:

It can be streamed as a mini-series on Vimeo here:

And can be downloaded as a feature version here:


Anything you can tell us about audience and critical reception of A 'Pitch-Dark' Diorama?


The audience reaction has been circumspect so far as the film relies a lot on interpretations. It needs sustained concentration and the patience to arrange and rearrange pieces of the jigsaw puzzle afterwards. I’ve had glowing responses from the ones who have managed to do so. I’m still trying to win the hearts of the rest over and reassure them that it is okay to not have a clearcut answer for this film and that’s the whole point.

The critical reception has just started to build and the reaction till now has been positive. It is not a mainstream film or a region-specific film. So I’ve been sending the film across the world to a lot of online critics and bloggers and getting their responses. It has been slow going but as long as I am gradually building word of mouth, I am reasonably happy. Online distribution is a different beast altogether and (as Mark Duplass said) a corner of the sandbox needs to be earmarked first.


Any future projects you'd like to share?


I’ve two script ideas in place. One is a thriller about the power play in an illicit relationship. The other is a high school drama along the lines of Mario Llosa Vargas’ The Time of the Hero. The timeline for these projects will hugely depend on how A 'Pitch-Dark' Diorama is received. So fingers crossed.


What got you into filmmaking in the first place, and did you receive any formal training on the subject?


I am a self-taught filmmaker and the trajectory hasn’t exactly been linear. Films, as I knew them as a kid, were all about Hollywood and Bollywood. So I never gave a conscious thought to it because my mind rejected it as a pipe dream. I used to write and draw comics right from childhood though. I wanted to take up Arts or Mass Communication but was thrust into Mechanical Engineering. Animation was suddenly hot in India in the mid-2000s and post engineering, I promptly moved to study animation for a year and started off as a storyboard artist in a studio. But my sketching itself wasn’t great and I was trying to make my animated shorts look like live action films.

I was also advised that if I wanted to retain control over my scripts (evident even then), I ought to be able to start and end a film by myself. I taught myself editing and worked as an audio, video editor (from Bangalore, India) for a UK radio station called Radio Scilly for two years from 2010 till 2012. This was the period that kickstarted my live action filmmaking.


What can you tell us about your filmwork prior to A 'Pitch-Dark' Diorama?


As mentioned earlier, I was a junior storyboard artist and worked on some episodes and a feature film based on Lord Krishna. Looking back, the studio stint helped me immensely as an editor. Post studio life, I made a couple of short films using Flash. Moved to live action in 2010 and made my first live action short called Fate Plays which was followed by a documentary short called One Life at a Time. A 'Pitch-Dark' Diorama happened after the documentary.


How would you describe yourself as a director?


I venture into a personal story only if it intimidates me and I am in a position to explore the idea thoroughly. I’d really not get into a space where direction for me becomes a job and I need to compromise on certain principles just to get it to a lowest common denominator. The aim is to have a dialogue and engage with my own ideas as thoroughly as possible and make a film that I’d want to watch. Go deep takes precedence over going wide.


Filmmakers who inspire you?


That’s a difficult question. My story influences (till now) have ranged from Christopher Nolan to David Lynch to Shane Carruth. But if you asked me the people I absolutely look up to as directors, they might be John Cassavates, John Sayles, and Werner Herzog.


Your favourite movies?


Again, a difficult one. If a filmmaker has something interesting to say and is pulling all stops to get there even at the risk of looking like a fool, I’ll dig that film. It can be raw and financially compromised but it can’t be emotionally, intellectually, or spiritually compromised.


... and of course, films you really deplore?


Over the years, I’ve really started to hate glossy studio films that look so pretty and polished but are absolutely vapid! Add green screen to that list. I also am disappointed with films that mistake information for insight.


Your/your movie's website, Facebook, whatever else?


This is the official site:

You can find us on Facebook here:

Follow us on Twitter here:


Anything else you're dying to mention and I have merely forgotten to ask?


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Your shop for all things Thai

There’s one character in all my scripts called Pratap. That’s the name of my roommate when I was in engineering. He continues to be a huge support alongwith three or four others. The city we lived in was pretty small and I doubt if there was even a single English film that was released in those four years. However, there was a digital auditorium close to our hostel that would play bootlegged copies of Hollywood films. Priced extremely cheap at 20 rupees (30 cents), that auditorium became my film school and Pratap became the guy with whom long film-centric debates would ensue. The storyteller (me) versus the audience (him). My taste developed pretty rapidly in that time period and ended up being pretty influential for my later life. So when reading my scripts, if you chance upon that name, this is the trivia behind it!


Thanks for the interview!


© by Mike Haberfelner

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On the same day
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directed by
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written by
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Ryan Hunter and
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