Very rarely is a directorial debut as reined and impactful as Sujata Day’s “Definition Please.” In all sincerity, the film is such an authentic look at mental health and a family dynamic. You may know Sujata Day from Issa Rae’s “Insecure” or “The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl.” Add feature-length film director to her already-hefty resumé. In this interview, she discusses growing up in suburban Pennsylvania, filming her first film there, cast dynamics, and her journey making “Definition Please.”
A huge congratulations to Sujata for getting her film picked up by Netflix. You can watch “Definition Please” on Netflix on January 21.
You set the film, your first film, “Definition Please” — congratulations on it, I thought it was really great — in Pennsylvania. The representation of Pennsylvania was just funny because I don’t see a lot of movies take place [in Pennsylvania] if it’s not in Philadelphia or Pittsburgh. What did it mean to you to kind of bring your first film right back to where you’re from?
I honestly had such a great childhood and the memories growing up in Greensburg have kind of stuck with me. And so, there wasn’t really a choice in my head of where this was going to be set. It was definitely going to be set in my hometown.
And what was amazing was when we shot the movie in the summer of 2019, the entire community of Greensburg came together to help out and make this movie happen. I had crew members that were friends of mine. The middle school and high school, we shot in my high school principal’s house. And in Greensburg downtown, there’s a theater called The Palace Theatre where we shot the opening scene [the opening spelling bee], and that’s where I grew up watching plays and musicals. And there’s a kid’s theater camp called Stage Right! in downtown Greensburg where we shot the smaller spelling bee at the end of the film. And a lot of those kids are extras in the movie. And so it was just a really beautiful way to showcase the middle of Pennsylvania in a way of it really hadn’t been seen before.
I mean, one totally Greensburg thing was, we had called the Pittsburgh film office because we were going to be shooting a late-night scene on a weeknight and it was going to be very loud. It was a screaming, emotional scene, and we would be shooting from 11:00 PM to 1:00 AM.
And we called the office, the Pittsburgh film office for permits, and they told us that we didn’t need permits. After our initial shock of not needing permits for any locations, they just said, “You need to get the permission from the people around there,” so what I did was I hand wrote notes to about eight or nine of my neighbors, and then I taped them to their door and I said “Hey, we’re shooting the scene [and] sorry if it causes a disturbance. Here’s the phone number of my producer, call him if you have any questions.” And my producer got a few phone calls. One of the phone calls was “Can I be an extra in the movie?” And then as we were shooting the scene that night, or a couple of nights later, some of my neighbors came out with lawn chairs and cracked open a beer, and they were watching us.
So is there any little-known fact about suburban PA that you or something that makes it unique?
I mean, the people are really nice. I was there this past summer and there are still kids riding around on their bikes, in their bathing suits, going from house to house, it feels like it feels sort of like the “Stranger Things” [vibes]. It feels really safe when you’re outside, I mean, I don’t really know like fun facts, I can just tell you how I feel when I’m there.
And I’ll also say something that’s unique to my family is that in Monroeville, which is 20 minutes outside of Greensburg, there are two temples. And so I also grew up within a thriving South Asian American community. So I went to dance classes at the temple. Every Sunday, I went to the Hindu temple summer camp on Lake Erie. I went to birthday parties and graduations and weddings. I was hanging out with my Indian friends all weekend.
Something I had read in the press notes, you said, “American families who stay true to their Indian culture, but also have embraced the potential of the American dream.” Can you talk a little bit more about showcasing the Indian culture?
Yeah, for me, I definitely [didn’t] want to have the plot of the film deal with some conflict about culture, because that’s not how me and my friends grew up. We grew up meshed in both worlds.
We had our Indian culture; I mean, a lot of us are fluent in our parent’s languages as I’m fluent in Bengali, and yet we still went to school and were cheerleaders and played sports and did all the American things, too. I wanted to make sure that this film was about a South Asian American family who was dealing with conflicts that had to deal with relationship and character but also happened to be Indian. So they’re eating Indian foods and they’re celebrating Indian traditions. And one thing that I really wanted to focus on was not explaining the Indian stuff. It was just going to be there. If you’re outside of Bengali American culture, you’re watching and you’re like, “Oh, that’s cool. I didn’t know they did that. Maybe I’ll go look that up if I don’t understand what it is,” but I didn’t want to take time in the story to explain exactly what was happening.
I don’t know if you like this phrase, but I feel like you’re kind of a “trailblazer” for the representation of South Asian [cultures]? I don’t know if that’s kind of too bold to put upon yourself, but how does that make you feel? I think this [“Definition Please”] is really an accomplishment.
Thank you so much. I mean, I don’t truly consider myself a “trailblazer,” I’m just a product of auditioning for a lot of stereotypical roles in Hollywood.
And as I was going through these roles, I’m like, “Oh, they want me to do an accent” or “They want me to wear a headscarf and I’m not Muslim, I’m Hindu” or “Why are these young women always going through an arranged marriage?” There’s more to us than arranged marriage? So, my main goal was to create a role for myself that I would want to play.
If a script came across my desk and I also wanted to show [that] we are not a monolith, that yes, there are Asian-Americans who are doctors and engineers and work on Wall Street, but there’s also the other side of us, but you don’t really get to see on screen. And it was really important for me that each character had their positive traits and their flaws and that they were very real and grounded and dealing with their own problems, but also understanding each other’s problems as well.
And so how much of the story itself was [based on] personal [experiences]?
So it was very personal to me, but it was not autobiographical. It was definitely, me growing up in this thriving suburban American community in Western Pennsylvania. I saw [that] I was observing what was happening with my friends and their parents and, and I could see the upon them. And some of them would run away from home, some of them would be depressed, and some of them would be anxious or suffering from other mental health illnesses. And our parents, as a whole would be like, “What’s going on with our kid?” The word therapy never came up.
I continued to see this even in college because I ended up going to Case Western to get my engineering degree. Once again, I was surrounded by many Asian-American and Indian-American fellow students. And I could see, once again, the pressure upon them to do a good job and, sadly some of them committed suicide because it was just too much.
And so I took all of these experiences, [of] studying my friends and their parents. And I was like, “I want to explore these aspects of being Asian-American and really kind of tackle them in my movie in a way that feels real and not exploited.”
I do want to touch on mental health in a little bit, but to get back to actually the actual filmmaking, did you have a lot of writing experience [before writing “Definition Please”]?
I mentioned that I went to Case Western and while I was studying engineering there, I was also doing plays and musicals and acting in a lot of stuff. And then I decided to take a semester of screenwriting and a semester of playwriting, That’s what triggered my love for writing for the screen whereas before I was writing stories and poems and songs, and I was very much writing non-specific stories. I mean, the scripts that I wrote back then are actually terrible. I unearthed them and I was like, “Oh wow, these are not salvageable at all.” I think my journey with “Awkward Black Girl” and watching Issa [Rae] tell her black girl’s story and being hella inspired to tell my brown girl’s story, really honed my specific voice.
And that helped me just churn out a bunch of stories and scripts. And that’s when I started selling scripts. I started selling TV shows [and] working with production companies. I wrote a short film in 2016 called “Cowboy and Indian” that went to the film festival circuit did really well. And now it’s being developed into a TV show. So that’s when I really started writing seriously. My voice became stronger because I had a really specific point of view.
And so when did the inspiration, you know, the inspiration, I guess for definition, please come, come about. And when did you start the whole process? I think I’d read that you, you filmed it in 2019, but was this an idea that was floating around for a time before that?
So the initial idea was definitely inspired by a real-life thing that happened to me, which is me winning my fourth-grade spelling bee. And then I went on to regionals and I lost in the first round on the word radish. I spelled it with two d’s instead of one, and it was devastating. But then fast forward to the year 2015, I was in an Upright Citizens Brigade comedy sketch writing class, and one of the sketches I wrote in that class was called, “Where Are They Now: Spelling Bee Winners?” And if you look them up, they’re doing all these amazing things. They’re winning the World Poker Tour, they’re scientists at NASA. Um, so the punchline of my sketch was that there was this young woman who had was a former spelling bee champion and now she is not doing much of anything at all. She is living in her parents’ house she’s she hasn’t moved on. So that four-page sketch was the initial idea for the feature film version of “Definition Please.” And I did a Sundance screenwriting lab in 2016, went to Sundance for the first time in 2017 where my friend Justin Chon’s project “Gook” was premiering.
And after I watched that movie, I was just blown away and I cornered him at his premiere and I asked him how he made the movie and he was like, “I just asked my friends and family for money and put it together and then we shot it,” and I was like, “Cool. That’s what I’m going to do.” So I went home, wrote the scripts throughout 2017, 2018, started soft pitching it around. People like[d] the script, but I wasn’t getting any bites in terms of a green light. And then in 2019, went back to Sundance this time. Justin’s next film “Ms. Purple” was playing there. And I said to myself, “Wait, Justin has made two movies and I have made zero and this is not okay.” So once again, Justin was inspiring me to just get it done no matter what.
And that’s when I decided then and there that I was going to shoot it [“Definition Please”] in the summer of 2019. Something really serendipitous happened when I got this email and it said that a show that I had sold previously was going to be returned back to me. Because of a big studio merger. And along with the rights being returned back to me, they were going to send me a huge check and I was like, “Wow, I’m going to be the first investor into my movie!” So that’s what happened. I started the process of seeing if they [anyone I would talk to] wanted to put money into my movie.
So I was raising money, getting investors, putting my cast and crew together. And then we shot it in the summer of 2019.
So you always planned on directing “Definition Please”?
Was there any sort of adjustment to directing? Was this a hard transition for you or did you find it easy?
So, as I said, I directed the short film that I did in 2016, “Cowboy and Indian.” That felt like my practice round for the feature film. And I told myself back then, “If I do a decent job with this, then I can move on to bigger projects.” And after “Cowboy and Indian” turned out pretty decent, I said to myself, “Okay, the next thing I’m going to do is a feature.”
And so there weren’t any thoughts about not directing “Definition Please.” It was always going to be something that I was going to direct. And in terms of tackling that side of it, I just made sure to have an amazing DP, Brooks Ludwick, and we communicated so much and had movie dates before we even started shooting.
He knew what kind of tone and shots I was looking for. We decided on handheld photography. It was actually a really fun process, the whole directing of it all. I was, I was really just channeling some of my favorite directors that I’ve worked with on “Insecure.” Um, I loved Tina Mabry and I loved Debbie Allen and they were all, both so confident and they knew what they wanted.
But yet, they were also very nurturing on set. And so that’s what I brought to set. I kept telling myself, “Be like Debbie Allen,” and I wanted to make sure my cast felt safe. I wanted to make sure my cast and crew were having a good time. That’s what I brought to that as a director.
Did you and your co-star who plays your brother Ritesh [Rajan] previously work on anything together? Because I am not just saying this to say this, but you guys really did have a true kind of sibling dynamic, [from] the bickering to the competing. But there’s also care for each other and it just seems so natural.
We actually met a few years back, a few years before 2019 through a mutual friend. I found out that we both auditioned for the live-action “Aladdin.” And then AJ Rafael, who’s just this amazing musician singer, was putting together a live show and he asked us to sing “A Whole New World” for the live show.
And I said, “Listen, I’m not singing ‘A Whole New World,’ but do you mind if I kind of put a spin on the lyrics and make it funny and relevant and then I will sing that version?” So I wrote a song for “A Diverse Film.” It’s on YouTube, and very searchable everywhere. Ritesh and I sang that and then we also just shot a music video for it for fun.
I did want to go back to mental health because [Rajan’s] character in the film deals with bipolar, and you handled it very delicately. Sometimes a film will just exploit it, maybe not intentionally, but it just happens. But I felt that [you guys] really did handle it with such grace. I imagine you put a lot of effort behind that, what was that like for you?
I grew up around friends and acquaintances and extended family members who were dealing with mental health and especially bipolar. So I really wanted to treat it in a sensitive way and make sure that it wasn’t exploitative. So I pulled from these experiences and made it a story for Ritesh’s character so that it didn’t feel like, “Oh, all of a sudden it’s like coming out of nowhere,” you don’t know what’s happening. I wanted to make it feel like how it is when you’re a family member, living with someone who has mental health issues.
You spoke so much about personal experience and for people who want to be a storyteller, do you find that taking from your personal experiences and utilizing that is an effective way of telling stories?
I think it’s [a] really effective way. When people say, “Write what you know” that’s really good advice. For example, I started with, “Oh, I won the spelling me when I was a kid. I did not win the national spelling bee, but it’s something.” And so I started with that kind of initial germ of an idea, and then you can feel free to fictionalize. Whatever comes beyond that initial germ of an idea, the whole thing doesn’t have to be autobiographical of your life. But, for me, it’s always easy to start with something real and then use my imagination for the rest of the story and the character.
Another actor in the film is LaVar Burton, and I think if I’m not mistaken, was he in another one of your films?
I have a YouTube series with him called “This Is My Story” where he narrates the experiences of real-life racism. So, LaVar and I met, um, I’m part of this blurred brunch group. Before the pandemic, we were hanging out every Sunday and it’s black and brown nerds just hanging out together, eating food. And one day LaVar Burton was walking by the restaurant and Yvette Nicole Brown, who is part of the group, knows him. So she was like, “Oh, I’m going to go bring them inside and introduce them to all of you.” So he sat down at the table and he said, “Everybody take out your phones and take down my cell phone number.” And so that was really cool. And then this was around the time when I was about to go shoot the movie [“Definition Please”] and I was just like, “I’m gonna just text him and see if he wants to be in my movie, play a cameo.”
And he read the script, and he read the scene and he was like, “This is great. Yes, I’d love to.” So then he came out and shot it down the film. And what was really cool is that after he was done shooting, he kind of stood there and he was like, “Okay. so does anyone want a picture with me?” And of course, everyone did so it was just a beautiful moment.
And he’s a loving, kind, giving individual [and] I’m really, really grateful to him agreeing to be in my little film.
Do you have any plans for future [projects]? I know sometimes I’ve asked directors and they say [they] need some time to recover and plan for the next. But do you have any sort of plans? I mean, maybe something you are going to act in, maybe direct and act in again, or writing.
Yeah, I have plans right now and am in pre-production for my next feature film, it’s an ensemble comedy.
I’m really excited about it. I’m going to shoot it back in Pennsylvania. And then I’ve also written a couple of scripts over the pandemic and I’ve been pitching TV shows. So fingers crossed.
We wish the best of luck to Sujata on her future pitches and endeavors. Thank you to Sujata for giving me a half-hour of her time. Watch “Definition Please” on Netflix on January 21!
This interview was edited for clarity.