Interview: Get to know filmmaker Shetu Modi

The Austin Asian American Film Festival was held in December 2017. “The Pits” was part of the shorts showcase that followed an adolescent Indian-Canadian by the name of Dhruvi through to her college years. We had the opportunity to chat with writer, director and editor Shetu Modi who is a Canadian filmmaker base in Toronto. Her other short films include “Drape, Tuck, Pleat” and “Hot Air.”

Did you always know you wanted to be a filmmaker? How did you get started? 

I knew when I was about 13, and I got started in my high school media class. I made a documentary on a trip to India and it had no story, but it was a start! There were many shots of peacocks and monkeys.

You work as a video producer and editor at the Canadian Press. You’ve covered TIFF and received a Digital Publishing Award. Can you talk about how you balance work and making time for your own films?

I work the morning shift and I don’t have any kids yet, so I actually don’t find it that difficult to make time. But that’s probably because I’ve only made short films so far – “The Pits” shoot was the longest, at 2.5 days, and I shot it over two weekends with an amazing cast and crew.

You’re a writer, director and editor. Do you prefer one over the other and can you talk about your process when developing an idea from start to finish?

I prefer editing because it means the shoot, which is always a little stressful, is over.

For my short fiction films, I came up with the ideas three or four years ago but I’m not a producer and I was a little unsure how to proceed after writing the scripts. My producers (Shannon Hanmer for “Hot Air” and Emily Varg for “The Pits”) helped a lot with that – they had experience with auditions, securing locations and crowdfunding.

I shot-list each film with my cinematographer, Alvin Sun, and rehearse with the actors. After each shoot, I’m always nervous about thoroughly looking at the footage so I procrastinate until I’m less nervous and then I edit a rough cut in a day. Then I send the cut to trusted friends and family and implement some of their suggestions. I go through seven or eight edits before the sound designer (Colleen Hale-Hodgson) and the composers (Dan Morphy and Laura Chambers) take over.

“Drape, Tuck, Pleat,” “Hot Air” and  “The Pits” delve into stories about culture and heritage and trying to find where you fit in and mesh both worlds. What do you hope your films bring to the conversation around diversity and female story telling? 

My protagonists are always South Asian women and I hope that when people are discussing female-led films, my characters are seen as nuanced and authentic. I’ve heard people describe quiet brown women as “good Indian girls” which is so reductive. And Indian aunties are stereotyped like crazy – as being gossipy busybodies – both in real life and in popular culture. (EVERYONE loves gossiping, by the way.) My aim is for my characters not to fall into these traps. I might have an Indian female character who doesn’t drink, for example, but that’s not all she is.

What’s been the most surprising festival experience you’ve had with “The Pits” or your other films that you didn’t expect?

I definitely didn’t expect any of the awards. I know everyone says that but I thought awards went to more serious films.

 What are you working on next? You mentioned in the Q&A that you hope “The Pits” will turn into a feature-length film. Is this in the works?

I’m working on a web series about a late bloomer. Yes, I’ve been thinking about turning “The Pits” into a feature length film, but I’m working out in my head what other elements to include. It’ll still be about identity but I don’t want Dhruvi to spend 90 minutes hating herself and her cultural background.

 You must be busy working at the Canadian Press and navigating the festival circuit. What do you do to unwind and recharge?

I watch movies, TV and read – nothing else, really. I also love listening to music on long car rides, though I don’t enjoy driving very much. So I guess long car rides are relaxing if someone else is driving!

 What are watching right now? 

So many things! “The Crown,” “Jane the Virgin,” “The Good Place,” “The Mindy Project,” “Insecure,” “Riverdale.” I re-watch “The Good Wife” and “Parks and Recreation” all the time. As for recent movies, I loved “Lady Bird” and “I, Tonya.”

To learn more about Shetu’s work and stay updated on where you can see her films visit her website here. Watch “The Pits” trailer below! 

Featured image from “The Pits” | Courtesy of Shetu Modi

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