‘Stray Dolls’ Writer-Director Walks You Through How to Make Your First Indie Feature

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Photo Source: Samuel Goldwyn Films

The following Career Dispatches essay was written by Sonejuhi Sinha, writer/director of “Stray Dolls,” now available on demand. 

The recently released film “Stray Dolls,” my feature debut as a writer/director, is a crime thriller and a love story between a recent immigrant from India, Riz, and a young American runaway, Dallas. The film follows these two young women as they are driven to crime in order to survive and gain agency over their lives. It’s a story about outsiders in America that grapples with the dilemma of whether it’s possible to be good in an environment that is flawed. Here’s a closer look at all the influences that went into building the characters and the world of “Stray Dolls”:

Character:

The most important aspect in any story for me is character.  In “Stray Dolls,” my mission was to present complex and flawed characters from an underrepresented segment of society.  Specifically, as a first-generation immigrant from India and in the xenophobic political climate that currently pervades our country, I believe film has a crucial role to play in pushing back against portrayals of recent immigrants specifically, and women of color more generally, that reduce them to one-dimensional stereotypes.

“Chinatown,” “Drive,” “Blood Simple,” “The Grifters,” “Night Moves,” and many other neo-noir crime thrillers of this ilk have one thing in common: The leads are all white men. White men have always played villains, heroes, thieves, and lovers in the most iconic stories of our time. We are accustomed to seeing them occupy the full gamut of human behavior and experience, and as a result, the idea that they are complex, nuanced individuals is taken to be self-evident. I remember watching “Drive” and wondering if an edgy, violent film like that will ever have a lead character who looks like me. One of my goals with “Stray Dolls” was to shift the landscape of cinema in that direction.

As a first-time feature filmmaker looking to make my mark, I knew my story had to be personal but also add something novel to cinema. Riz, the central character in “Stray Dolls,” is of course a product of personal experience, but she’s a lot more than that; she is a queer woman of color, an immigrant lead in a noir crime/thriller. I felt that to place a character like Riz in this role would be to plant a flag in the ground, to proclaim the right of people like her—and indeed people from all underrepresented groups—to occupy the same wide-ranging space that white male characters have occupied since time immemorial; to be tough, vulnerable, good, bad, tender, and violent all at the same time.

My co-writer Charlotte, also an immigrant, and I looked for character inspiration from films like “Taxi Driver” and “La Ceremonie.” Part of what we loved about these films is that each paints a nuanced and subversive portrait of a misunderstood or stereotyped group. “Taxi Driver” challenges our perception of veterans in America and “La Ceremonie” challenges our perception of maids in French society. Similarly, in “Stray Dolls,” we sought to subvert the simplified image of the recent immigrant that pervades our pop culture. Too often, American film and television portray immigrants as one-dimensional people, reducing their lived experience to lazy stereotypes or a mere struggle for survival. The common image of the “noble, hardworking” immigrant stands in contrast to the vilification of immigrants that pervades our politics, but without depth and nuance these stereotypes only present opposite sides of the same coin; they both reveal a basic disinterest in digging below the surface and understanding what really makes someone human. 

With “Stray Dolls,” I wanted to smash these stereotypes in terms of character and storytelling, but also in terms of style. I believe the most effective antidote to today’s anti-immigrant rhetoric is the presentation of stories that treat immigrants as complex, flawed people, with the same spectrum of desires, weaknesses, and emotions as anyone else. It is only when we insist upon the right of immigrant characters to occupy these varied spaces that we can elevate the dialogue in our country around immigration issues.  

Setting:

Motels: A metaphor for immigrants resuscitating a foreclosed America. 

The setting of “Stray Dolls” served as a source of artistic inspiration. The 1950s and 1960s were the heyday of American motels. Middle-class American families would spend their vacations at motels. As immigration grew in America in the 1970s, discrimination and bias hindered them from getting the jobs they dreamed of and aspired to. Simultaneously, the motel industry was stagnating, with many American-run motels going into foreclosure. Suddenly, immigrants saw an opportunity. They bought foreclosed American motels and revived them in Indiana, Texas, New York, Montana and all over the country. A staggering 80 percent of American motels are now immigrant-owned, mainly by Indian and Eastern European immigrants. Thus, the setting of “Stray Dolls” became an important vehicle to examine how immigration has changed and shaped America’s most iconic institutions.

But it was important to construct a specific world within the world of iconic American motels. I looked to the book “Out of Season: The Vanishing Architecture of the Wildwoods” and to Nan Goldin’s photography to help create tone, mood, and tableaus in “Stray Dolls.” Goldin captured gritty and hyper-realistic images of social neglect and violence that existed in worlds that often go unseen in “mainstream” society. Her photographs force the viewer to grapple with the reality of America’s outsiders while also elevating them to the status of artwork and declaring their circumstances and perspectives as being worthy of exploration. Goldin’s work oscillated beautifully between light and dark images of outsiders in America.

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It was important to strive for this level of grit and realism and a constant oscillation between light and dark in “Stray Dolls.” After months of extensive searching, we found a foreclosed motel in Poughkeepsie that would make for our first building block in achieving this. The motel was foreclosed because of two shootings, which paralleled the plot in the film. All extras and day players were cast from local homeless shelters and other similar motels to further add to the realism. 

Visual Style

As we crafted the visual style of “Stray Dolls,” we wanted to achieve a mood and tone that would give the audience a sense of being swept into a trance. The visuals and the sound had to dance together. My director of photography, Shane Sigler, and I looked carefully at the films “Happy Together” by Wong Kar Wai, “Drive” by Nicholas Winding Refn, “Morvern Callar” by Lynn Ramsay and “Spring Breakers” by Harmony Korine, as inspiration for the mise-en-scene in “Stray Dolls.” 

The book “Out of Season” also gave us stunning visuals of neon-drenched American motels to reference, and it became important to create a bold color palette to iconize this American relic. We went further in building the color palette by assigning colors to specific characters and locations: Red for Riz and blue for the motel and its leading ladies Dallas and Una. In the scene where Dallas and Riz share coke for the first time, the scene is entirely soaked in red and blue. We chose predominantly handheld camerawork to preserve an immediate and kinetic connection between the characters. Steadicam and drone shots were sparsely used as a form of transportation to a different state of mind. For example, drone shots symbolized the characters’ freedom, and we used them sparingly because so much of the film is about entrapment. We utilized a drone for the last shot to give a sense of how small Riz and Dallas are in a world that will imminently swallow them. 

Music and Score

Music and score played a key role in achieving mood and tone. I was inspired by disco, because it represents a time in music when women and gay artists were given a chance to take center stage. I wanted to create a modern score but with a retro electronic thread. I collaborated with Ravi Shankar’s niece Gingger Shankar to create a score and sounds that were unique to the DNA of “Stray Dolls.” I used Madame Gandhi’s modern electronic track “Yellow Sea” to represent the anthem in Riz’s head as she decides violence is her only way out. These sounds were balanced with Fleetwood Mac and Nancy Sinatra to bring us back to American politics and culture, and its context in relation to this immigrant story. Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazelwood’s Some Velvet Morning is a song that represents both an inner dreaminess and a darker outer reality, emblematic of Riz and Dallas’ fate at the end.

The choices that I made in constructing the characters, setting, visual style and soundtrack for Stray Dolls were all rooted in personal experience, but were also carefully and purposefully constructed to present what I hope will serve as a template for the next chapter of immigrant stories; one that provokes and questions the status quo by reframing a beloved cinematic and storytelling genre—in this case, the neo-noir crime thriller—around central characters and themes that have been and remain underrepresented in and misunderstood by modern cinema.

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