Local filmmaker Rohit Colin Rao, the writer/director/cinematographer/editor/composer/musician behind the remarkable film Ultrasonic sat down with BYT to talk about his second feature, a true labor of love. The film is a compelling, hypnotic homage to chiaroscuro, shot in black and white, with occasional flourishes of sepia tones, and its adept use of depth-of-field camera work recalls a certain Drive-esque sensibility. While harkening to the conspiracy-thriller aesthetics of Pi, Ultrasonic’s cinematography is not frenetic and claustrophobic. It lends itself seamlessly to the purposely-ambiguous narrative arc–the smoke and mirrors aspect of “reality” and “normalcy.” Is the protagonist Simon really hearing a noise no one else can hear [ha] or is it all in his head?
Rao does a superb job of writing a script that allows that ambivalence to linger without resorting to heavy-handed, beat-the-audience-over-the-head tactics. Ultrasonic is a story of one man’s isolation and a testament to tenuous nature of reality. It’s engrossing and moody but never sinister. Rao’s love for DC is palpable in his selection of locations to shoot–with nary a “DC landmark” in sight, this is what our city really looks like at night, with shadows moving in waves, falling away then taking over. The brilliant soundtrack adds an extra element to the milieu, the hum inside Simon’s head resembling the undercurrent of threat that underpins the film.
1. Could you please talk a little about your background? How difficult was it to shoot a feature, from a logistical perspective, especially in DC, a place not normally associated with movie-making?
Well, I made my first short film when I was 24. It was called Blocks. I made another one a year later called Someone and Someone, Inc. Since then, aside from my day job, I focused on my bands and songwriting, until of course 2010 when I picked up the Canon T2i.
Regarding how difficult it was to shoot this feature… I’m not trying to deter anyone from doing this, in fact I think that anyone with a real desire to make a feature should stop reading this and go out and start it now. But, this thing almost broke me. I was a walking shell of a human being by the end of this process. Logistically, it was a bit more difficult to get started in DC, specifically because the pool of cast and crew is smaller than someplace like LA or NY. In the beginning, it was four of us that were the team that was going to make this happen. Mario (sound recordist), Mike (my co-writer and script supervisor), Tayne (art direction, key grip, all around go-to guy) and myself. I was the only one who had been on a set before, so I knew there was going to be a learning curve there. I didn’t believe I could get it all done without having at least one more person on set who has been on a crew before.
I was lucky to be referred to Nabou, who ended up producing the film with me. Nabou has her MFA in Film Studies from Chapman University and understood all the ins and outs of how a production should run, so I was able to breathe easier knowing things like the script breakdown and schedule could be taken off my plate. Finally, I was lucky to find Liza Gipsova, an American University film grad, who had run camera on sets before and came on board as my Assistant Camera and Gaffer. With the three of us having on-set experience, it became clear to me that we had a small but competent and committed team of people and could really do something potentially big here.
2. The cinematography in the movie is spectacular. Could you talk a little bit about the conscious choice you made in shooting the movie in black-and-white/sepia tones? There is also really interesting use of the depth of field/focus–was this with the intention of creating the claustrophobic/tense atmosphere of the movie?
Thanks. The cinematography was one of the pieces that was on the forefront of my mind from the start. One of the things I knew I wanted for the film was for it to be visually striking. Once I bought the camera, I started shooting a LOT of test footage, and doing various color grades on them. I bought the camera before we wrote the script, so I used the entire time we were writing the script to learn the camera and its idiosyncracies, and to also figure out what I wanted the color palette to look like. Ultrasonic was always meant to be a color film, right up to about a month before I finished post-production. I had a really sweet color scheme of deep reds and greens that I felt would be perfect for the film.
However, as with just about everything else with this movie, the B&W decision came from a limitation of budget. I didn’t have the money to buy or rent a decent color grading monitor, and without it, I would have had a nearly impossible time matching color between cuts/shots, so I started thinking of other options. Straight Black and White was an option, and I was messing with the B&W contrast one night when the tv was on, and on came Sin City. I really liked his use of yellow in the highlights so I started playing around in Apple Color and was able to push some yellow through in the post-color part that comes through in the highlights nicely. It met my “visually striking” requirement, so Ultrasonic became black and white.
The focus issue was a different choice altogether. During my testing-the-camera phase, I realized that the focus ring on these cameras is really difficult to use accurately. A change in focus from one point to another would be something like a few millimeters shift in the focus ring, and to do that in the middle of a shot, especially with a moving shot, would prove incredibly difficult. So I decided to use the out of focus look as-is. There are a few shots where I had the subject walk to their mark, and rather than following focus, I just left them blurry in the background until they got to their mark when the essentially “walked into focus.” I think it worked. I hope it worked.
3. Talk a little bit about the more “banal” logistics of making the movie–getting permits to shoot on the Metro, casting actors, budget?
After the script was done, I began the process of looking for actors. Mike and I went to this mass-audition called Stonehenge in Baltimore. I didn’t get much of an idea of actors who would be good for the parts from that, so I decided to hold a casting call of our own. We had the call early in November 2010, and had over 100 actors show up to audition throughout the day. By the end of the day, we had pretty much everyone cast but Simon. I was interested in this one guy and started talks with him about it. He was good, but ultimately I’m glad it didn’t work out with him as Ultrasonic would have been a much different film than it was. A couple of weeks later, Mamoy, my bassist (who you see playing bass in the opening credits of the film), texted me and asked if I was still looking for actors and that he had run into someone at a party who would like to audition. I told him we had everything cast but the main role, and he was welcome to come audition for it. Enter Silas; he came and read with Cate (Ruth), as she had already been cast. He nailed it. My big thing with all the actors was that I really wanted their performances to be subdued (well, except Jonas).
4. The sensibilities of Ultrasonic are very Pi-like. Did Pi influence you?
You know, I think I’m subconsciously influenced by it more than I know. I’m starting to get the Pi reference kinda regularly. I watched Pi on opening night at the now-defunct Outer Circle on Wisconsin Avenue. Damn if I wasn’t blown away by it. Aronofsky immediately became one of my favorite directors. Interestingly enough, though, I feel that I’ve been more influenced by his later films than by Pi. Requiem for a Dream kicked my ass. Then I watched Black Swan in the theater with Tayne about three weeks before filming Ultrasonic and that kicked my ass even harder! I remember coming home and being suuuper depressed because of how good it was and what I felt I had to live up to. Anyway, I think there’s definitely some latent Pi influence going on though, because it seems a lot of people are seeing that correlation. I will say I know one thing for a fact that was a conscious influence on me was Clint Mansell’s scores. I first noticed it in Pi but it was so incredible in Requiem, that it made me realize the importance of score in a film, and that a score can actually help shape whether a film is good or not, as well as shape the audience’s reaction to what is going on on-screen.
5. How did you initially come up with the story for the movie? Were you at all interested in conspiracy theories before?
When I made the decision to make the film, I contacted two writing buddies of mine, Mike Maguire and Chris Peloso. We met at the bar at Clydes in Rockville and from the first meeting, began throwing out ideas. I had just moved back from Seattle where I lived for about three years. We moved there in the summer, which was amazing. Crisp, no humidity, everyone out and about, everyone nice… it was awesome. My neighbor, and future Translucents guitarist Ryan, warned me about the coming winter. He said, “It doesn’t get cold, but the low cloud-cover and the rain… it messes with your mind.” The rains came in October and I remember thinking it was no big deal. Come November, I had gone crazy… well, relatively. A weird paranoia set in. It got so bad I began to see a therapist who put me on Paxil. Paxil helped but it made me feel not quite like myself, so I stopped taking it. It did take away the feelings of paranoia though, and the feeling that someone was following me, etc.. Over the next couple of years, I learned to deal with the winter there, but man, it was a psychological trip, to say the least.
Anyway, so when I met with Mike and Chris, we had initially come up with a story about a musician who had figured out a formula to write the perfect song, but the more we talked, the more I found us discussing a lot of these ideas of paranoia and such. I never told them about the Paxil, I don’t think I did anyway, but I did tell them a little about what I went through during that time. I’m not really into conspiracy theories, but I’m definitely interested in the psychological disorder part of the story. That’s really what I think the storyline is about, it’s about Simon’s state of mind, as opposed to the conspiracy.
6. Did you have to do research on the psychological causes of auditory hallucinations [which are actually very common for people under stress]?
No, not really. We made all that up. I never had auditory hallucinations during that period, it was more just an idea that we liked that we went with.
7. The music for the movie was entirely composed by you. Was it difficult for you to wear so many hats in making this? Could you discuss your music background a little bit?
Yeah, I scored the film, and the rock songs in the film are by my band in Seattle, The Translucents, and the band I started when I moved here, Tigertronic. Initially, Tigertronic was going to write the entire soundtrack, but Mario was called to Honduras on account of his father being ill, and ended up not being able to produce the thing. There are two main piano lines in the film that I had come up with during pre-production that I knew I wanted to use, so I began to think of ways to turn those licks into songs, without having someone who could produce a live band playing it. The answer came in a small $60 piece of beat-slicing software called Renoise. I had been messing with it for a while, and decided to pull in the piano loops and put some beats on it myself. In the late ’90s, I became a bit fixated on how Aphex Twin got his beats to be so fast, so “ripped,” and it wasn’t until I found Renoise that I understood how he did it. It also wasn’t until I found Renoise that I began enjoying making electronic music. Anyway, so I pulled the analog piano loops into Renoise, and started slicing beats to it. The sound I was getting from it sounded insane (to me), so I decided to continue and do the entire score that way. The beats ended up adding a complexity and frenetic quality to the soundtrack that I really fell in love with.
As far as my musical background goes, music is my first love. I studied classical violin for about 10 years until my sophomore year in high school when I traded my violin for an electric guitar. That’s around the time I began making music with my buddies, with whom I used to sneak off to watch shows. Dischord Records is all I can say about that period of my life (well, and DeSoto records). Fugazi with The MakeUp at Fort Reno Park in ’96 will forever be etched in my brain. Jawbox was (and in a lot of ways will always be) my favorite band. I wanted to be Bill Barbot. The band we started was called Substationine, and we decided to create a zine. The farthest I got with the zine was to do an interview with Bill Barbot and Kim Colletta backstage at a University of Maryland show they did. Anyway, music is a form of expression that I hope to continue making for the rest of my life.
8. Discuss your relationship with DC as a setting. Clearly, it lends itself especially well to the “conspiracy theory” angle of the film, but you shoot in neighborhoody DC and the film runs like it was shot by someone in love with his city.
I do love DC. I grew up in Silver Spring and went to high school in Takoma Park in the early ’90s. My first trip to the city as a teenager, without my parents, was with a couple of buddies from school. We told our parents we were going to “Physics is Phun” at UMCP for extra credit, and instead we went to see this band called “Therapy?” at the original 9:30 Club on F street. I was 16 years old. I remember walking up to the door and seeing the “9:30” on the window above the door. It’s still so vivid in my mind. We watched the show, hung out drinking our cokes in the back bar, and life wasn’t the same anymore. We began voraciously consuming the DC music scene, and that period definitely helped shape my musical tastes/sensibilities today. Anyway, that’s where my DC loyalist mentality first took root, it’ll be always be home to me, it’s where I cut my teeth growing up.