Midnight Delight – Saying Hi to High with Rohit Gupta & the cast
“Midnight Delight is like smoking a cinematic joint!” said one of the jury members at the Cannabis Film Festival while praising Rohit Gupta’s latest directorial venture. The film went on to receive the award for the ‘Judges Choice Film’ at the festival, in addition to all the praise, applause and prizes that it has been garnering at festivals around the world.
But this isn’t new for New York-based internationally acclaimed filmmaker & entrepreneur Rohit Gupta, whose films have been screened in over 75 international film festivals globally, including the prestigious Cannes Film Festival and awarded with over one hundred international accolades & awards. His first full-length motion picture (Life! Camera Action…) holds a place in the Limca Book of Records for being the first feature to be “shot by just a two-member crew”.
In his recent release, the filmmaker shows characters in a smoking lounge reflecting over their daily existence, societal curiosities, conversing about various topics with people they have never met before. The filmmaker and the cast of the film including Shaheed K Woods, Alexandra Hellquist and Michael Laguerre talk to Pandolin about the making of this comedy-fantasy, which released worldwide on July 21 2016 via VOD on various platforms.
In conversation with Rohit Gupta
The film is like chapters from the lives of different couples (essentially strangers). How did the concept come into being?
I had just come out of making our feature ‘Life! Camera Action…’, which was an exhaustive emotional roller coaster ride. So I wanted to create something that was emotionally ‘moving’, yet light, speaking from the standpoint of production. I have been wanting to explore the concept of bringing enthusiastic and driven actors together, who are passionate about portraying one of their dream characters on screen. That’s where the ideation process began.
I felt it would be interesting to put together a project focused more on the thought process than its canvas and depict how it would be for people to just sit around in a place and converse without any inhibitions. Like say, people sitting at Starbucks, having coffee and conversing, or at a restaurant eating, or drinking, or any social setting for that matter. I wondered if a story could be told that had no central character and it still made sense, like our life? Another reason this sounded interesting is that our propensity for eavesdropping is inescapable. So, while brainstorming with my friend Sarthak Brahma (who also collaborated creatively) on what could be the common thread among the various vignettes in Midnight Delight, it dawned on us that cannabis would be a great candidate since, not only was the legalization of cannabis slowly starting to happen everywhere in the United States, but additionally cannabis based movies have mostly done very well, both critically and commercially, with a mass fan following around the world. Hence the research began, and considering the subject’s socio-cultural context, at least around the US, this felt like it could be the right space to enter at the right time. Hence this movie.
Was there ever a bound script or have you let the characters improvise? If improvisation was the tool, then how did you set the boundaries for the performers?
The film was shot as an improvised movie with only a few pages of treatment for a script. Largely, instead of a script, the actors received outlines, which covered the plot points and they were told what had to happen. Knowing that the structure was already in place, it was about letting the actors own their characters, and have a big say in the clothes that they wore, and in the interactions that they had with each other. They needed to be listening to each other and reacting honestly and I needed to be paying really close attention, because there’s not a script to fall back on if I went blank.
We also cast non-professional actors who were apt for the part. I wanted to experiment by giving the actors ownership of who they want to be, in an attempt to let out a part of them that they may not know exists, and feel extremely natural and comfortable with. So the auditions were based on that and accordingly right characters were chosen for the parts which all worked very well. I just wanted to experiment with a different approach and experience, and see where would this journey lead us. The goal of doing it that way was to keep everybody engaged and create situations that felt fun and natural. For stories with pairs, none of the actors knew, or had previously met their partners until the night of filming. This was done mainly to make the movie less predictable and capture real interactions with someone we meet for the first time, thus trying to let everyone be natural rather than act with the aim of connecting with the audience.
The film largely has a two-people shot in each frame. Did you ever feel an urge of moving the characters to a different space (Out of the smoking lounge)? What was the motivation behind keeping them in such a claustrophobic space for the entire length of the film?
The setting was strategic (Moving out will happen in a sequel). The motivation to keep it all under one roof was more of a mood and character development process.
What was the entire duration of filming? And how many days did the edit take? Talk about the key challenges you faced while making this film.
It was filmed over two nights with a multi-camera set up (with two months of pre-production). Since the film was shot as an improvised piece, we built it in post, which was a great and fun filled journey. Michael Lester, the co-editor, and myself had put together a rough edit in about two months. The biggest challenges were to fix a few unavoidable technical glitches which needed expertize with techniques like rotoscopy. Also picking up the right shots, continuity, choice of music and its licensing from Warner, BMG etc., in itself could be said as an exciting challenge. Post-production was split in three schedules of a month each, spread over a period of a year. Saumin Mehta, a close friend and also the producer & post-production director of the film then took the rough edit, rebuilt and put together the entire film magically within three months, so overall from pre production it took us around eight months to roll out the final picture.
In conversation with the Cast
Actor Michael Laguerre who made his debut with Midnight Delight won the Best Leading Actor award at the Accolade Film Awards 2016 for his role. Alexandra Hellquist meandered her way through seven different countries over four continents before arriving in New York while Shaheed K Woods who first got noticed in his debut feature Life! Camera Action… also directed by Rohit Gupta will soon be seen in a Hindi feature as well. Here’s what the actors have to say about their experience of being part of Midnight Delight.
The film is placed within a smoking lounge and seems to have long scenes where the actors have no business (in acting parlance) but smoking. At any point, did you feel that this was a hindrance and did the lack of business make you uncomfortable at times?
Alexandra Hellquist (AH): I think the concept of “business” for business’ sake can be a little bit of a red herring. My training is that if you know why you’re in a place and what you’re trying to accomplish, any actions you take should arise naturally out of that. But if you’re just keeping your hands busy because you don’t know what to do with your hands, then you’re in more trouble than any amount of “business” will rescue you from! As it happens, in my scene, I think Jolene herself is exceedingly ill-at-ease in the lounge, and with the business of smoking, and has no idea what to do with herself at all, so I was embracing and leaning into discomfort wherever it occurred. So for me, it made sense, and it was an absolute gift.
Michael Laguerre (ML): I think that allowed us to relax and allow things to happen organically on-screen, versus trying to force comedy or one-liners.
Shaheed Woods (SW): Given the circumstances of their time in the club, the lack of business added to the authenticity of the experience. I felt the interactions were real. That they were as they should be, given the situation the characters are living in at the moment. The characters are walking through each moment organically, they are discovering parts of themselves and their conversation allows us to understand it. The fact that the scenes take place in this way creates a symbiotic relationship between the actor and character. If anything, the freedom gave us an opportunity to let the character organically express from within us.
Comedy is purely a game of timing. How did you’ll manage to pull it off? Does it come easily to you’ll?
AH: I think comedy is magical – it opens our hearts and minds by disarming our defenses, it subverts our expectations and makes us see the world in new ways, and laughter can be one of the most healing things in the world. But there’s also an old actor’s joke, “Dying is easy – comedy is hard”. And there’s so much to it – commitment, character, extremes, fast switches, not thinking too much, a well constructed joke, sharp punch lines, humanity – and yes, of course, timing. But ultimately, especially with improvisation, all of that is in the lap of the comedy gods. And maybe in the end, with all acting, all you can do is give yourself up to your character, and your circumstances, and trust. I think sometimes, trying to be funny is itself the kiss of death to comedy – all you can be, ultimately, is true.
ML: Since I was young I’ve always wanted to make people around me laugh and enjoy themselves. I’ve never taken myself too seriously, and I think that becomes pretty obvious when you watch the film.
SW: Comedy is a language. I’m not fluent yet, but I can speak it. I’m just trying to communicate with the audience. So the short answer to the question would be – Yes, yes it does. Bringing laughter to people, I feel, is a way of healing a bit of the world. And also, there is no better way to make a friend other than sharing a laugh.
What was the most complex aspect of your role?
AH: It’s always an interesting, beautiful challenge, as an actor, to live a sensory experience – cold, sick, high, hot, drunk, nauseous, anything – when you’re not. You have to get very specific about what you’re feeling, where, and how. I have to say I’m indebted to my training at the T. Schreiber Studio, and especially my teacher Peter Jensen, for giving me the tools to attempt any of this. And Rohit and Dot and Feather Entertainment, for giving me the chance to play!
ML: I think my biggest challenge was remaining focused on the notes Rohit was giving me as I wanted to ensure I don’t digress much.
SW: In all honesty, there was a real experience of self-discovery during this film. Kind of a sense of evolution as an actor. The most complex part was seeing so much of myself pour out of this character and still find moments, to create moments, which are completely separate from me. This entire journey is in the mind of others and this makes the film, role, and the character complex.
What differentiates this film from the other work that you have done till date?
AH: I love improvisation, and a lot of the film work I’ve done has borrowed from improvisations that I’ve done with actors and directors, but this was the first feature film I’ve done that was entirely improvised. Even the “button” of the scene – that final moment – Rohit had planned it, but Michael had no idea what we were going to do, and we had no idea how it would play out! Every moment was a beautiful surprise, for everyone.
SW: The voice-over work in the beginning stands out. I have always wanted to voice a cartoon or dive into voice-over work as a whole. This project has really allowed me to do so and help to create something that people love. Also, it has moments of very deep thought. I am mostly cast in roles where my character is required to generate laughter. The character you see is so closely related to my real personality that I feel like it can be a role that shows a side not many people have seen yet. That’s what stands out.
Many of the roles I’ve done with Rohit allow me to explore a more human side of who I am. To delve into real emotion, conflict and real desires… As a whole this role stands out because I am playing a version of myself that can only exist in that particular situation. As an actor, the goal is to try to discover something new about myself and collaborating with Rohit helps us all achieve a certain level of evolution.
Were there any apprehensions of being part of a ‘stoner’ comedy?
AH: No. Why – should there be?
ML: I never saw Midnight Delight as just a stoner comedy. It highlights very different characters and opinions clashing together on a couch… they just happen to be high out of their mind.
SW: I had none, reason being this isn’t a stoner comedy. This is a journey into the experiences of several individuals. There are layers to the story that evolve with each story. I have realized that this story shows so much more than a marijuana-induced collection of stories. This film is a catalog of human emotion displayed on film for the world to see firsthand. This film is an exploration of the human psyche, it’s more than a stoner comedy.
Michael, why did you choose this film for your debut and what kind of experience has it been?
It became easy to get involved after meeting with Rohit. He really made the process very easy and offered a tremendous amount of support. I was blown away when I saw the complete film. I feel blessed to have been a part of it!