By Melissa Silverstein | Women and Hollywood September 10, 2013 at 12:15PM
Gita Pullapilly was born in South Bend, Indiana. She studied finance at University of Notre Dame and journalism at Northwestern University's Medill School. She produced all of Aron Gaudet's documentaries and co-directed a segment of Lifecasters (13) with him. Beneath the Harvest Sky (13), which she co-wrote and co-produced, marks her feature debut.
Beneath the Harvest Sky is playing in the Discovery program at TIFF.
Women and Hollywood: Please give us a description of the film playing at TIFF.
Gita Pullapilly: Beneath the Harvest Sky is about unconditional friends. It's the story of Casper (Emory Cohen) and Dominic (Callan McAuliffe) -- two best friends that are fiercely loyal to another, as they come of age in a small farming town in Maine. During harvest break, Casper is drawn into smuggling drugs across the Canadian border with his outlaw father, Clayton (Aidan Gillen). Meanwhile, Dominic works his final potato harvest, hoping to earn the money he needs to buy a car and take them away towards a better future. But with Casper's life unraveling before their eyes, their friendship and loyalty are put to the test as they are forced to mature and make very adult decisions that will forever alter the course of their lives.
WaH: What drew you to this script?
GP: Aron Gaudet (my husband and film partner) and I wrote the script together. He is from Maine and he came across these photos of beautiful blue potato fields in Van Buren up near the Canadian border. We journeyed north to Van Buren and found such a breathtaking backdrop, we knew we wanted to tell a story up there. In our research, we were amazed to discover the lengths people went in these small, struggling towns in order to survive. Many are innovative and have found creative ways to get by in their own way-- it's just how they choose to interpret the law. And once we learned about the illegal drug trade between Canada and Maine, we knew we had a story.
WaH: What was the biggest challenge?
GP: Well, this was my directorial debut. Aron had other directing credits, but this was my first. And this was our first narrative feature. So, we tried to prepare as much as we could for what other filmmakers warned us would be difficult--staying on schedule and on budget. No one warned us about the people management part, until after the fact. We were such an open production that everyone had access to us all the time. And managing the needs and personalities of everyone--making sure everyone was happy and fulfilled through production-- was challenging and time consuming. So we had to quickly figure out our priorities behind the scenes--how to move our team forward, making sure their voices were heard, and finding creative ways to keep the team engaged and energized. In order to maximize our time in the field and on set, I've realized the importance of turning to leaders in other fields to understand their process and methods. And I'm excited to incorporate all of this into our next production.
WaH: What advice do you have for other female directors?
GP: Study and watch football. Seriously. Go into production as a coach, ready to lead. I've learned it is critical to make sure everyone on the team knows what I want and what I expect out of them. You have to trust each person on your set to come ready to perform and give it 100%. And it's up to you to get them there. My number one goal on our next film is to be better prepared to lead a strong team to a very clear vision. And in doing so, I've been studying what a lot of NFL coaches do. There is a quote from Bill Belichick, the head coach of the Patriots, that I now truly understand. He said, "There is an old saying about the strength of the wolf is the pack, and I think there is a lot of truth to that. On a football team, it's not the strength of the individual players, but it is the strength of the unit and how they all function together." So, before I go back into the field, I'm going to ask myself, can my team perform at the level we need them to. And if not, what do I need to do to get us there.
WaH: What's the biggest misconception about you and your work?
GP: As a writer, producer and director on this film, I wore many hats. I think up until this point, I was most known for producing. And even in the pre-production stage, I spent a great deal of time wearing my producing hat because we were a small team and I needed to make sure we could get into production seamlessly. Because I played a prominent producing role, I think it was hard for some to remember that when I stepped into production, I was putting on the directing hat with Aron and focusing specifically on that role. In some ways, I felt like I had to prove myself that much more -- that the business person actually had creative and artistic chops as well. Aron and I are both actor-focused directors. Performances are everything to us. On set, as a team, we made sure our actors delivered their best performances for each scene. Beneath the Harvest Sky represents the vision and strength of that direction.
WaH: What are the biggest challenges and or opportunities for the future with the changing distribution mechanisms for films?
GP: Right now, it's the wild west for indie film distribution. Anything is possible! And filmmakers can really be equally as creative on the distribution side as they are in creating something special in their film. For the last two years, we worked with a team from Harvard Business School and Terra Chips to develop an incredible high-value marketing package for Beneath the Harvest Sky that reduces the risk and maximizes the audience reach and engagement for potential distributors.
We realize that in order to make the films we want to make in the long run, we have to make them smarter and more efficiently. We have to know the value of the film in the marketplace before we ever ask an investor for money, and we have to make sure our investors see their returns. We're in the long game when it comes to our career in film and our goal is to grow our slate of films with a tight knit, elite team that is equally as hungry to succeed.
WaH: Name your favorite women directed film and why.
GP: Boys Don't Cry, directed by Kimberly Peirce. It was such a raw and honest portrayal of the unimaginable courage it takes to be yourself. The performances are so powerful and even now years later, I think about how that story affected me and moved me. I loved the look of the film-- that raw, dark, saturated look that matched so perfectly the story of Brandon Teena.