Emmy-nominated producer and filmmaker Mikail Chowdhury stops by on Close-Up Culture to talk about his work on Aimee Victoria.
The short film, which Chowdhury wrote and produced, is a deaf queer love story which features Natasha Ofili (Netflix’s The Politician, Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales) and Stephanie Nogueras (The Good Fight, Grimm), and is directed by Chrystee Pharris.
Many people found ways to stay busy during lockdown, whether it was learning new skills or doing quizzes on Zoom. But you made a movie! What inspired you to make this film during such challenging times?
To be honest, it was born a little out of frustration – when lockdown happened in March 2020 – I had just had an audience table read for one of my feature films which was in development with funding attached. And suddenly everything had to go on hold. I decided that it would be great to make something so that we could all keep being creative and come out of lockdown with a completed project (I should add – we naively thought Covid would be over by the end of 2020).
This film started as part of a short form series called ‘The Myth of Control’ and it was really a way to channel that creative energy and give as many other people as possible the opportunity to do the same.
It started with an e-mail from me to a few friends titled, ‘Bonker’s Idea’ – and from there we ended up with people in 8 countries and more than 25 cities all working completely remotely. The success of the film is a testament to all of their hard work, patience and talent. This was a true team effort.
Aimee Victoria was filmed remotely on iPhone during lockdown. What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in this process?
Because it was the height of lockdown, people couldn’t even visit their neighbours – we were disinfecting groceries at the front door and wearing gloves in shops. So we needed a way to shoot without anybody physically interacting with anyone outside their quarantine bubble.
We decided to use a cellphone as the camera because everyone knows how to use a phone and we wanted to make it as familiar as possible. The phone was sent to each actor in turn with a microphone, tripods and softbox lights – they sanitized, used, then sanitized and sent it to the next actor using the trunk of a cab or courier. All footage was uploaded to a Cloud Drive and we backed it up from there. Each Camera Operator was someone in the actor’s bubble, so no experienced camera crew were involved.
Working with the iPhone itself was not that hard, we had to learn how to turn it into a film camera and to use the FilmicPro app, but we had an incredible consultant and a brilliant technical supervisor. The biggest challenge was how to get somebody in a different location who had never even set foot on a film set to do the setups and shoot in a professional manner.
For this we created our own PDF guides with pictures, spent time on video calls training the camera operators (who rose to the challenge and did an amazing job).
As we’ve alluded to, this was no ordinary project and poses different challenges to everyone involved. How was your collaboration with actors Natasha Ofili and Stephanie Nogueras?
The cast were a pleasure to work with and I would also mention Doris Morgado who appears at the start of the film, all three of them were exceptionally patient and committed to the process. To be clear – we were asking them to film themselves on an iPhone in their own homes, but to do it as if we were shooting a big budget film in terms of process and standards.
Costume, production design, hair and make-up were all done over video call with our team telling them what was needed, but the actors had to make it happen. Very different to the usual arrangement where an actor has everything taken care of so they can focus on the performance.
In addition, Stephanie and Natasha are both deaf and our team were not fluent in American Sign Language – so we communicated using voice recognition closed captioning on the Google Meet app, and they responded with messaging. Again, tremendous patience on the part of the whole team and it is a credit to the cast that they pulled out great performances under these circumstances.
So many incredible people made this happen, but I have to especially reference Chrystee Pharris in her directorial debut, Hannah Harmison our writer, Sana Soni my fellow producer, Shanaz Sanjana and Luke Masella who co-ordinated literally everything, Sebatian Gilligan-Kim the Tech Supervisor and our wonderful editors Emily Eldridge Hall and Chris Chan Roberson.
What was the most rewarding part of making a film in these circumstances?
That we were able to deliver a product that reflected the levels of talent and work which the cast and crew put into it. This was a labour of love for so many people, I felt happy (and relieved) that the end result was really good and their efforts shone. In addition, the reaction from the deaf and LGBTQIA communities has been really positive, we had a really diverse team in front of and behind the camera so I think we brought an authenticity to the story which resonated.
It remains the most difficult film I have worked on, and also the most satisfying and fun. One thing I did not expect was the reaction to it, Aimee Victoria has been screened at two Oscar Qualifying festivals, over 20 others and at the British Film Institute in London. And – we are developing it into a feature film. For a ‘bonkers idea’ shot remotely on an iPhone, I could not have predicted that.
I found this an incredibly uplifting and unique watch. What do you hope audiences take away from Aimee Victoria?
Thank you, I’m really glad you enjoyed it. I hope they come out of it with a smile and feel good. It is a simple story, but a sweet one. I also hope people recognise that stories with characters who are disabled, female, POC and LGBTQIA work just as well as more ‘traditional’ casting/writing. This film is not in English (in ASL) with subtitles and features characters we barely see on screen – but it has resonated with a really wide audience.
My biggest hope is that we see more stories/characters like that in the future.