How Filmmaker Mayuran Tiruchelvam Made The Girl is in Trouble

Earlier this month, The Girl is in Trouble premiered with a dual release on the big screen in New York City and on the small screen via video on demand platforms. The trailer is in heavy rotation on the OnDemand menu screen.

While searching for a couple of shows I missed last week, I believe I watched the preview for the film three times. It’s climbing the list of popular downloads on iTunes. The Girl is in Trouble is a dual release success story—something of which will become more more prominent as a distribution strategy.

This is the first feature film written by Mayuran Tiruchelvam, who is very excited about its national release and accessibility, “I’ve really enjoyed being able to hear from fans all over the country who found the film and are spreading the word.” Tiruchelvam shares his experience, working with Spike Lee, and recounts one terrifying moment in production.

How Mayuran Tiruchelvam Made The Girl is in Trouble

Filmmaking Stuff: What was the release strategy behind the film?

Mayuran Tiruchelvam: The Girl is in Trouble released in theaters in New York City and VOD platforms, including iTunes, Amazon, Cable pay-per-view, Xbox, Playstation, and more. The advantage for an independent film with a limited marketing and publicity budget is that national press reaches all your audiences at the same time. So even if the movie is opening in a handful of cities theatrically, everyone across the nation knows about it and they can watch the film at home. VOD enables independent filmmakers to connect with audiences we normally may not have access to.

Filmmaking Stuff: What are some of the challenges producing a low budget film?

Mayuran Tiruchelvam: The biggest challenge in making The Girl is in Trouble as a low budget independent film is managing a limited amount of time and money. We managed to overcome this challenge by hiring a hard working crew, many of whom were our closest friends. We worked with a team of people who we knew would go the extra mile for the project and create a positive energy on set. Without each individual cast and crew member’s commitment, dedication, and trust in our vision, we wouldn’t have been able to make this movie.

Filmmaking Stuff: Any particular eye-opening experiences in producing this film as opposed to others?

Mayuran Tiruchelvam: The biggest eye-opener was that we had three break-ins by local thieves while working on the film. In one of those break-ins, my computer and my hard drive were stolen. That was a different kind of lesson learned, never leave your stuff in your vehicle—even if you’re on set surrounded by 40 people who work for you.

Filmmaking Stuff: Stolen? I would have had a panic attack!

Mayuran Tiruchelvam: The good news is that I eventually got my computer back, thanks to my own detective work and the assistance of police in NY and NJ. But, that aside, The Girl is in Trouble was one of the first feature films that I worked on, so it was a huge learning experience. I learned how to manage large crews, move multiple trucks and personnel across the city efficiently, deal with agents and actors, and to develop positive relations with neighbors who are sick and tired of movies shooting on their block—a common occurrence in NYC. I was one of the first people on set, and the last to leave, delivering the cans of undeveloped film to technicolor on my way home.

Filmmaking Stuff: I read the film is shot with a Super 35. How much was budgeting a part of that decision?

Mayuran Tiruchelvam: I knew that Julius Onah (director and co-writer) wanted to shoot on film, and I built a budget that could support that choice. We established solid deals with Arri, Fuji, and Technicolor to make the process affordable. At the time, film was not that much more expensive than digital… It simply had this mythos associated with it about being prohibitively expensive. Unfortunately today there is no lab to process film in NYC. In just a year, so much has changed. While it’s important to make the right budget decision in terms of shooting format, I don’t think any format is better than another. I saw a wonderful film earlier this year called Tangerine that was shot entirely on an iPhone. It looked gorgeous.

Filmmaking Stuff: How did you begin to raise funding?

Mayuran Tiruchelvam: The first step was getting Spike Lee involved as our executive producer. With Spike’s attachment, we began casting the actors for the project. Then we reached out to individual investors. After reading the script and seeing the cast come together, many of those investors became interested in financing the film.

Filmmaking Stuff: That is every young filmmaker’s dream: to work with legends of the industry. What was your first thought when Spike Lee joined as an executive producer?

Mayuran Tiruchelvam: Working with and learning from Spike Lee was super cool. Spike says exactly what is on his mind. He doesn’t sugar coat his words. We were equally honest with him, and he respected that. But getting him on-board was quite a challenge. Julius was one of his students at NYU’s grad film school. Spike read the script for The Girl is in Trouble and liked it a lot, so we just asked him, “If you love this script, why don’t you jump on board as an executive producer and help us get it made?”

Filmmaking Stuff: Wow, that’s the direct approach!

Mayuran Tiruchelvam: He didn’t say yes. Instead, he gave us notes and told us to come back the next week. For about five weeks it went on like this. He would give us notes and we would rewrite the script all weekend and send it to him on Monday, then meet him on Thursday. After the fifth week, he asked for a budget and schedule and production plan. We gave that to him, and the next thing we knew he had us meeting with his agent (at the time) at WME, a great guy named Rich Cook, and the two of them helped get the ball rolling.

Filmmaking Stuff: The Girl Is in Trouble explores various cultures. Your next film, the documentary Farewell Ferris Wheel, follows the history between Mexican laborers and the American carnival industry. You have your finger dipped in the melting pot of the country. Similarly, Spike Lee’s films often involve characters of various ethnicities and cultural types. Were his films an early influence on you?

Mayuran Tiruchelvam: Spike is a huge influence on why I became a filmmaker. He wanted to tell stories that spotlighted a different side of America than mainstream films, and he went out and made them without waiting for anyone to grant him permission. As a writer and producer, I aspire to tell stories by and about people who are underrepresented in the mainstream film world. There is a long list of underrepresented folks—women, LGBTQ folks, people of color, differently-abled, I could go on. The hope is that when an audience member emotionally connects with a character who is different from them, that might inspire a bit of empathy and understanding for different types of people in the real world.

Filmmaking Stuff: Do the Right Thing was one the first films I saw that made me think that movies could be more than entertainment. Are moments such as this ones that stir your passion for storytelling?

Mayuran Tiruchelvam: Absolutely. Filmmakers like Spike Lee, Ken Loach, Ingmar Bergman, Roberto Rossellini, and Satyajit Ray had a huge impact on me as a young film lover. These were filmmakers who captured the stark social reality of the world we live in—a world full of injustice, but also full of beauty, poetry, love, and hope. These are the kinds of stories that inspire me.

Filmmaking Stuff: And that’s what motivates you when you write?

Mayuran Tiruchelvam: I believe that every film should have something to say. This doesn’t necessarily mean a political or social statement, but simply a point of view and perspective on the world that enriches the experience of the audience. Themes are the most important aspect of a film to me, and those themes hopefully get forged through good writing into the experiences of compelling characters. I read a lot of scripts for contests, fellowships, and just to give feedback to my friends and colleagues, and my biggest question is always “what is this film about?” and “why are these the characters to embody the themes of this film?”

Filmmaking Stuff: As you write, how often does the producer mindset take over the creative process? Do you have to actively quiet that voice to get the story out for the first few drafts?

Mayuran Tiruchelvam: Great question. Writing as a producer, I bring an awareness of the resources that I have available to me and write the script to be able to made within those resources. In the case of the Girl is in Trouble, we knew what locations we could easily access in the Lower East Side, and wrote the script around them. Limiting locations is important when writing any film, and doubly so for a low budget project. Even though the stereotype may be that producers don’t prioritize creativity, I see producing as a creative process, not just managing production resources. I often write with my producer hat on. That hat, by the way, looks like something Gandalf would wear, as a good producer is something of a wizard who assembles a fellowship of oddballs for a seemingly impossible quest.

Filmmaking Stuff: That’s a pretty amusing analogy! But it makes sense. Filmmaking is such a hugely collaborative process. You also co-wrote this script with Julius Onah. Do you prefer writing with a partner or on your own?

Mayuran Tiruchelvam: I enjoy working with others. It’s great to share creative energy, to bounce ideas off someone else, and merge two imaginations into one super imagination. I recently wrote on Twitter about the qualities of a good collaborative partner: empathy, patience, endurance, self-awareness and no fear of failure. Some tips for maintaining a good collaboration are to delegate to each others strengths, communicate in person, watch things together, and never be precious or personal about your individual contributions. Collaboration is about making something better, together.

Filmmaking Stuff: Do find agent representation necessary for success?

Mayuran Tiruchelvam: I don’t have an agent. I do think it is helpful to have an agent if a filmmaker wants to make movies or television in Hollywood. Not having representation can often seem like a sign of failure, a judgement on the quality of one’s work, or simply a barrier to success, but I don’t feel that way. I always remind myself how lucky I am to be able to create movies and play make-believe for a living. If I find a representative to support my projects, that’s great. If not, I don’t see it as an impediment to keep writing, producing, and creating.


Filmmaking Stuff: What is your approach to be your own agent?

Mayuran Tiruchelvam: Each of the five movies that I’ve produced or co-produced has been made independently. The filmmakers were passionate about their story and didn’t wait for someone to give them permission. I admire all artists who find a way to create no matter what the obstacles. I’m one of those people. That said, I’ve been very blessed to participate in the Sundance lab, Film Independent lab, Tribeca All Access, and other programs that help filmmakers establish relationships with studios, financiers, and production companies.

Filmmaking Stuff: It’s a very people-based industry. Ironically, most people don’t look at it that way.

Mayuran Tiruchelvam: On my own behalf, I try and talk with everyone I meet in a professional context about the types of stories I’m passionate about, and also learn about what sort of stories they want to tell. It’s important not to look at networking as a hassle, a burden, or as a game based around only connecting with those who can help you get ahead. Networking is about building meaningful connections with other people.

Filmmaking Stuff: And the idea of building meaningful connections extends beyond the production side. It’s important for you to build a relationship with your audience.

Mayuran Tiruchelvam: When I started film school (Columbia University), I wanted to make artistic, politically-motivated films. My family is very involved in human rights and social justice causes, and once I stopped working in community organizations and non-profits, I wanted to carry that type of work into my filmmaking. What changed is that Columbia really emphasizes storytelling and character. Through strong characters and engaging storytelling, I learned how to connect to audiences in ways that are a little less didactic. I like to create a space for the audience to see and feel things that they aren’t allowed to see or feel in their daily lives. This time that we spend together in the cinema should be a gift for filmmaker and audience alike.

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Mayuran is completing post production of his next film.  Find him on Twitter @MayuranTIru to keep up with his latest projects.

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