Interview with director Agni Raj Singh

SHORT BIO OF THE DIRECTOR: Agni is a freelance Filmmaker, Photographer & Visual Artist with professional expertise in branding, marketing, creative consultancy & commercial content. Born & raised in India, he is currently based across Los Angeles, London, Dubai & Mumbai. A student of USC’s School of Cinematic Arts, he has written & directed numerous short films, music videos, animations & experimental pieces, some of which have been recognized at film festivals around the world. His notable works include the surreal film-noir piece Requiem (2016) which was recommended for the American Society of Cinematographer’s Heritage Awards, the 2030s sci-fi character drama The Fringes (2018) which has had international festival, TV & online screenings to widespread acclaim & Spend My Dayz (2019) a nostalgia-soaked music video that portrays an artist obsessively chasing his vision & inspirations, as he journeys from Los Angeles’s gritty urban jungle to its delicate floral paradises. His favorite film of all time is 2001: A Space Odyssey.

  • Was there a particular event or time that you recognized that filmmaking is your way of telling stories?

Unbeknownst to me, I had been training at the altar of film my whole life. I have been a creative writer, a photographer, a musician, a dancer, an editor, a viewer, a critic, et al; diverse creative endeavors over the course of my existence that honed my senses of sight, sound & story in fragments. The first domino tumbled when I watched Michel Hazanavicius’s 2012 masterpiece “The Artist” to review for my high school’s critique journal. It lovingly guided me through a hero’s journey that was at once classic & modern — a tasteful meta-analysis of film as an industry and perpetually evolving art form which had the power to house life’s better realizations. From then on it was evident: I had just found the purest, most complete way to express myself and I was going to take any route available to get there.

  • Do you think it is essential to go to a film institute in order to become a successful filmmaker?

Not at all. Being a filmmaker (or any artist for that matter) is about the journey on the inside, not outside. A film school will give you resources, contacts & the occasionally rationed sound stage but it can’t give you soul. Any nitwit with a few dollars and a camera can stage a series of banal visuals with no spine. Storytelling is a different matter altogether. As long as your desire to craft imagined worlds and real characters supersedes your temporary abilities to do so, it’s only a matter of time before the world is forced to look your way. You don’t need a certificate to tell you that.

  • Is it harder to get started or to keep going? What was the particular thing that you had to conquer to do either?

To keep going. To say that the perils of movie making will knock your socks off is a gentle understatement. Staying afloat requires courage against all odds in this artistic abattoir. I have rarely felt anything like that initial spark when I got started. Unbridled, innocent creativity is a thing of beauty. Ironically, chasing that initial spark is what ultimately keeps me going. I already got my first taste of nirvana when I found truth in filmmaking. Living that one moment as a perpetual reality is now my goal in life.

  • What was the most important lesson you had to learn that has had a positive effect on your film? How did that lesson happen?

Pursuing perfection for the sake of perfection can be debilitating. You can’t have a death grip on the steering wheel and navigate sharp corners with finesse. I eventually realized that film is too deeply entrenched in its many, mostly uncontrollable variables. Micro-managing art reduces it to a manufactured commodity. An additional realization that further dignified this lesson was welcoming those little unplanned moments of greatness — anything from a genius bit of improvisation, to an actor grabbing the wrong prop, to a honest cackle caught right after “CUT!” when the cameras kept rolling. Slipping on the proverbial banana peel isn’t always a bad thing. If you go hunting for straight-jacketed perfection, you’ll never find real pulse in your art. Plan for perfection and know that it can never be achieved. But it can always be approached.

  • What were the production realities from casting through editing that you had to accommodate? How did you navigate those compromises or surprises and still end up with a cohesive film?

The greatest challenge with Spend My Dayz was consciously attempting to capture lightning-ina-bottle several times over. We knew the feeling we wanted to evoke and the general progression of the video’s “narrative”, but everything else was up for grabs. Our locations were worryingly volatile, we had no crew, no storyboards, no script, no budget & no precedence. We shot with a cohesive style in mind, but we had no idea whether it all would seamlessly cut together or not.
All I had was the abstract, and my duty as a creator was bringing this abstraction to reality. There was no magic pill that helped our cause though. My gifted editor Andrew and I spent weeks whittling away endlessly, sometimes even senselessly, at this shapeless mass of visuals. One fine day though, we hit play & knew we finally had something that we were proud to show the world. The rest is history.

  • What was the hardest artistic choice you made in the making of a film, at any stage in production?

Taking on the video itself was the toughest choice I made, since every odd was so severely stacked against us. I was based in Los Angeles and the artist, Wan, was from Baltimore. We had briefly connected via Instagram but there was no reason for us to pursue a full-scale crosscountry project planned with little to no resources at our disposal with a first-time collaborator that neither of us had ever even met before. Eventually, it’s all gut feelings. I heard his music and knew there was something special there. He saw my films & photographs and felt the same. Despite all better judgement, we leap into the abyss together and thankfully came out the other end forged in fire.

  • You are a collaborator. How have you discovered members of your team and how do you keep the relationship with them strong?

It would be convenient to say that I met them through film school. But I met a lot of people through film school. It doesn’t feel special enough. My collaborators were some of my closest friends, long before we’d ever worked together. We are kindred spirits who share a common, burning passion to express ourselves with purity. Thankfully, we all happened to find solace in the house of filmmaking and found each other along the way. Collaborating, then retroactively forming strong bonds is a tricky proposition. I usually try doing things the other way around.

  • What do audiences want? And is it the filmmaker’s role to worry about that?

For the average two-hours or so that a movie runs, we filmmakers are permitted to play god. An audience allows us to unravel our worlds before them, while relishing in all its pleasures and pains along with us. It only stands to reason then, that we make good on our end of the bargain in exchange for that privilege. We must give our audience sublimation — pay them back for the emotional vulnerability and trust and they put in us by making well-rounded stories with a great sense of closure. This isn’t something a filmmaker should worry about though, or even consciously consider. A well-told story must sublime anyway. As long as the craft itself is our primary focus, this essential exchange of energy between artist & viewer is very realistically achievable.

  • What role have film festivals played in your life so far? Why are they necessary? How do you get the most out of them?

As a fledgling filmmaker, festivals were my very first way to go global. The sense of fulfillment I got as an unknown artist, knowing that a room-full of eager eyes enjoyed my work was more than enough to motivate me till the next project. Film festivals are necessary not in the credentials they provide, but in keeping us emerging filmmakers afloat and letting us know that there is tangible value in what we put sweat and blood into. I have always gotten the most out of festivals when I’ve been able to attend in person, but that’s easier said than done, considering how far and wide you can globetrot and still find a fantastic film festival. Whenever I can though, I make it a point to show up, interact with the festival staff & my fellow filmmakers, all while enjoying a well-curated mix of movies from across the world.

  • Do you believe that a filmmaker should be original and fresh or he/she should stick to classic but safe cinema style?

All a filmmaker should be is themselves, regardless of how it manifests on-screen. You can be you and make anything you want — something that’s out-of-the-box original or something that feels true-blue classic. But with either alternative, your personal identity must shine through. The greatest actors truly live their characters but are still essentially just themselves connecting to a higher plane. It is no different for us filmmakers. This is a medium of truths. It’s easy to tell when someone pretends.