Designing a Full Length Fiction Movie

Applying design to create a first of its kind feature film about legal immigration in America

Opportunity

Having written a somewhat popular amateur ethno observation blog about the lives of South Asian immigrants in America, there was scope to tell a broader story with wider reach.

My Role

Founder- Writer and Producer

Challenge

How might we create more awareness and empathy for legal immigrants in America?

Business Goal

To design and deliver an entertaining film available for worlwided viewing.

Background

Making movies is a dream for many. The challenges presented by the movie industry are vast and insurmountable for most individuals.

It wasn’t my dream to make movies however. It started just as an experiment for me in 2010 and went on to become the most thrilling entrepreneurial journey of a lifetime- including screenings at the U.S Congress, sold out shows in 35 US cities, and  getting called “Empathy machine” by critics.

Inevitably, I faced all the challenges of a first-time independent writer and filmmaker. To make things more complicated, I was also a complete outsider with no real training in writing or producing movies.

I used design thinking and lean startup to write and produce the first feature film about skilled, legal immigrants in America.

Official theatrical trailer

Pain Point and Audience segments

I’ve been on a temporary visa for all my time in the U.S (since 2005). It is estimated that this temporary status can continue until after my death. This fact or its effect is not known to most Americans, including lawmakers. And I was not the only one who struggled to communicate this problem effectively to family, bosses, friends and colleagues. I identified the following segments:

  • Immigrants directly affected by the issue
  • Indians in America
  • Employers and workers in STEM fields including other nationalities
  • Americans that watch independent films
  • Indian immigrants worldwide
  • Foreign students at American universities
  • Families in home countries

researching the story

I started imagining some of my blog posts into scenes and running them by my friends, collecting lines that were commonly used in social gatherings as pieces of dialogue, running through scenarios with people to understand how they were tackling the decision of pursuing with their careers and families on a temporary status, anecdotal incidents from people’s lives in the form of a user diary or a contextual inquiry

Within a few weekends, I had a collected a wealth of ideas from talking with people whose life the film would be about as well as my own observations.

Some KEY insights that inspired the vision

  • Big life decisions like marriage, home purchase, job opportunities were strongly shaped by people’s immigration status
  • No immigration story covered the drama of the “in between”, assimilation stage, almost all talked about wanting to come to America or what happened after being in America for a while (cue Namesake et al)
  • There were a lot of funny incidents that happened with people when they first came to the country, including misplaced paperwork, being rounded up by authorities, misinterpreting or not know American use of English etc
  • The life issues were layered and multi-faceted affecting not just the individuals but also their spouses, children, employers and families

USer personas a.k.a characters

The various visas that exist automatically provide constraints, mission and motivation for everyone in real. There are 185 U.S visa types and my mission was to create characters that would be authetic and relatable to the broadest possible audience- design for majority.

I used to data to determine that most common types: H1B, L1, F1. To add contrast I decided to have a character that's a citizen with no immigration constraints.

IDEATION

Like with any design, a story could go in many different directions. Based on the interview insights and personas I had I did some "competitive" research of films, stories and screenplays for inspiration simlutaneously generating more ideas and scenes on my own- something like crazy 8s.

Story Principles

Based on my insights and research, I set up some final outcomes for how the story should feel for the audience

  • Issue- Takeaway should be clear that this specific immigration problem is very real.
  • Absurdity-Throughout the events of the film, there should be a “catch-22” type feeling- no satisfactory choices for characters
  • Fun– Experience should not be overly educational or heavy handed in treatment
  • Real– Experience should remain believable and mirror reality in order to be authentic

This is not too different from how I would setup overall outcomes for, say a checkout design- should be clear to the user what the final amount is, should be easy to modify addresses, minimal form inputs, should “feel” fast.

Parallells: Screenplay and Behavioral spec

There were a lot of iterations that went into it but briefly I interviewed screenwriters, read a book and took a class to go from story to screenplay.

The parallels to writing a screenplay and designing a digital product are many.

In fact, as I began to self-educate on the process of screenwriting, I developed an understanding of the screenwriter as the UX designer.

  • Story structure, plots and sub-plots are like the information architecture- where the information is and how someone can get to it- there’s some logic but there’s also intuition that follows it- just like a website or an app has certain expected elements- navigation, header, footer, contact, main product page, so to a three act structure screenplay- opening, crisis, catalyst, obstacles and challenges, climax and resolution – the writer or designer can add as much mystery and delight as they in forming those
  • Characters and dialogues are the affordances- things through with the artifact is experienced.
  • Locations and other visual descriptions of props and the setting are like the suggested layout and typography- must feel open and balanced; director, production designer and cinematographers can detail it further, just like a visual and motion designer can detail out a wireframe,
  • The overall screenplay i.e how the scenes are organized is mostly about designing passage of time just like any interaction design. How best to take a “user” from where they are to where they need to be.
  • Being mindful of development is extremely important- just like complex interactions can cause significant developer or budgeting pushback, so to writing overly complex scenes can have significant impact on the budgets, locations, time to shoot etc.
  • In making design choices, just like UX designer uses information on established cognitive mental models for an emotionally engaging experience- a priori’s  (feedbacks, social validation, peak-end rule etc) so does the writer on established audience expectations of experiencing a visual story like a movie (anticipation, connection, tension, interpretation, appropriation, reflection,  and conclusion- also read technology as experience for more on these). Above are not screenwriting terms but it is exactly what the design of any story attempts to do.
  • Writing is also iterative- before getting to the final behavioral spec, similar activities like design need to be done-  design reviews (with experts and director), stakeholder reviews (producers and actors), user testing (story narration sessions)

The big difference in an interactive product is that the designer can constantly test and iterate a design with users and act more as a facilitator than the expert.

A screenplay by contrast is more “closed”, where the writer has full control of the user’s journey.

Screenplay Reviews and impact

I continued to follow the three act structure based on my outcomes and principles to develop the second and final act of the story that includes the climax.

One highlight of the screenplay was how I was able to use multiple true events (2008 recession, Sikh shootings post 9/11, fake university scams, FBI watch lists) and actual policy research data in the dialogue (green card wait times for Indians and Chinese professionals etc.)

Screenplay is now in the library of the academy in Los Angeles to be used as refrence for other writers.


A FRESH, ENGAGING PORTRAIT OF THE IMMIGRANT EXPERIENCE THAT WE HAVE NOT SEEN ON FILM BEFORE
- Lisa Rosenberg, Lucas Films

A STORY THAT IS GUARANTEED TO CAPTURE THE INTERESTS AND THE HEARTS OF PEOPLE IN MORE THAN TWO CONTINENTS
– Ina Kalo, London Film Academy

A finalized screenplay in no guarantee for an actual film to be produced.
The bound script however allowed me to build the rest of the team and pitch to investors. I resorted to lean startup techniques to operationalize the production of the film.

Validated Learning with MVP for the Film

Since I wanted to tell the story of how uncertainty of one’s immigration status causes existential crisis, the core emotion of the story would have to be ambiguity.

This was important to learn because I could not find competitive examples of films that had “uncertainty” or “ambiguity” as a central emotion.

Would people watch a film about existential ambiguity due to one’s immigration status?

In short, should this product be created? Not only did I need further convincing, I’d also needed to gather validated evidence to pitch to others.

In accordance with build-measure-learn philosophy, we wanted to create the cheapest possible way to convey the existential ambiguity, show it to a test audience and learn from their reactions whether the emotion resonated.

A mini-documentary to pitch the core emotion

This had the essence of many of the ideas and characters in the script- breadth of issues, diversity of people, questions about home and belonging all leading to the core emotion of existential ambiguity.

Pitching the Problem

To gain further tractions with collaborators and investors, the problem needed to be clearly established for everyone. Especially since I had no background in writing or producing, it was important to pitch the problem I was going after rather than the solution/story itself.

The idea was to convey that this feeling of ambiguity was experienced by real people and that a majority of others are not aware of it.

The solution value hypothesis then became that if a feature film existed about this feeling of ambiguity that people experience then it would be easier to generate empathy for the issues to a vast majority of stakeholders (families, employers, students, law and policymakers) because the film would serve to be an authentic media representation on this topic.

Would a film on the topic deliver this sort of “value”?

There were more questions to deliberate over as well when pitching this problem

  • Do people have this problem of communicating the complication in their life because of immigration?
  • If there was a storytelling solution to the problem, would people buy into it?
  • Would they watch the film we made?
  • Will we be able to make it?

For question 1, we knew empirically that the primary audience segment we were targeting the film toward (immigrant workers and students on visas), did not have the means to clearly communicate how their immigration status affected their quality of life. Since I am living that very life, it was easy to answer.

Question 3 was a real unknown because there really was no way to gauge the acceptance of an independent film with first time filmmakers. Question 4 was trending positive because of the cast and the crew I was able to attach.

For question 2, I designed another video experiment to demonstrate the demand for the solution. In this video, just the concept of the story was narrated to the audience and then comments were sought anonymously.

We wanted to learn was whether the concept was interesting enough for people to watch a full film on it. Which is what we asked people to comment on.

A demand demonstration experiment

My team and I were able to fundraise and then go on to shoot the film with an ensemble cast of seven main characters, over 60 locations in America and India and 40 shooting days over 4 phases from June 2013-Feb 2014.

A/B testing the solution qualitatively

Editing the film was a daunting task in itself with a multitude of creative decisions that had to be made.

Again, I referred back to the principles and outcomes I had outlined during the script stage to use as guard rails for our decisions.

The most interesting aspect was however that the film could have different endings and a few different scenes for the American version and the Indian version.

We created the two different edits and test screened with participants. Screenings were followed by a survey and then a moderated focus group discussion.

This initial feedback and ratings we received were used to iterate further on the edit and helped the team gain creative agreement upon any number of design decisions that had to be made to finalize a scene that included its length, the actors performance, the type of shot, continuity of the story, technical quality of the shot, its placement in the overall sequence of scenes etc.

Ultimately, a single edit for both markets was locked in.

Acceptance Testing

As we got ready to submit the film to festivals, this round of testing was all about finding any logical or technical flaws with the product (like jump cuts, subtitle typos etc) and how well the film worked.

Participants were recruited anonymously and through friend networks. They were asked to judge the film based on the outcomes that were set up.

Feedback from the audience was mostly positive and most updates were made to polish up the edit.

Post Production

The next stages include composing, sound design, visual effects and color correction. Needless to say, similar outcome and testing based process was used to arrive upon the best creative decision for the film.

Festival Premiere

The film premiered at Cinequest, San Jose, voted America’s #1 film festival. It had 3 sold out screening with over 1700 people in attendance and an extra screening by audience demand.

We documented the audience response to help us go to more festivals and find commercial distributors.

PS: To learn more about my story beyond this case study, read my open letter.

RESULTS 

Rare non-studio, independent film to be streaming on Netflix

Critics reviews
“No recent film illustrates the late Roger Ebert’s assertion that films are “empathy machines” better” – Chicago Daily Herald“21st century Catch-22” – Chicago Daily Herald“A welcome counterpart to HBO’s Silicon Valley”– Fort Worth Star-Telegram“Incredibly sharp, deeply engaging and sensitive”– India West
User Reviews (source: IMDB)
“Excellent. A must watch..Very sensitively captures a serious topic and its emotional impact. ““Indians in USA…All the tv series and movie show us the good part of living in USA but no one shows these basic living problem faced here.”“Fantastic…The movie provides a fantastic peek into the struggles of legal immigrants, as they navigate the complicated immigration process in the US! The script is very thoughtful, and the movie handles a highly complicated topic quite sensitively.”35 U.S city release in AMC theaters along with international theatrical release in India17 film festival screeningsCovered on Bloomberg, Quartz, NBC, SF Chronicle et al.2 bi-partisan sponsored U.S Congress screeningsIndian embassy screenings at D.C, Chicago and San Francisco Corporate screenings including Western Union, Salesforce University Screenings include NYU, GWU and more