Interview with Althea Rao, Director and Producer of Three Seasons

Copy Editing and Posting by Elena Cronick

Althea Rao

How did the film Three seasons come about? What drew you to this particular story?

Ever since I was a teenager I had always been fascinated by the story of Confucius and the “Three Season Man.” In the story, one of Confucius’ students spent an entire afternoon arguing with a man wearing green clothes about how many seasons existed in a year. When Confucius saw them, he simply smiled and told the man dressed in green, “You are right. A year indeed has three seasons.” The man felt content and left. Confucius then said to the student, “The  man green dressed in green is the spirit of a cricket, whose lifespan is only three seasons long; he could not possibly understand the fourth season we human beings experience.”

It took me a long time to realize that the story is not exactly about a three-season experience versus four-season experience, but Confucius foreseeing our inability to comprehend things beyond certain limitations. Avoiding that conversation at the beginning would be the wisest thing to do, since efforts to change the minds of those who cannot see beyond their perspective are destined to fail.

There is a saying in Chinese, “Saints are beyond love, and animals don’t know about love.” Human beings like you and me are the ones who are stuck in love and emotions all the time. I wrote Three Seasons about human characters, and their struggle to connect despite an absolute physical boundary. I wanted to discuss the possibility of a partial reconciliation after all other efforts had been exhausted. In the earlier drafts of the script, the protagonists Freya and Elliot were trying to establish and maintain a romantic relationship. Eventually I changed their relationship to kinship, reflecting on my own experience growing up as an only child in China and having a cousin who grew up in Canada.

You chose to make Three Seasons as a short fantasy film. Why is fantasy the best way to tell this story and does that choice increase your budgetary needs?

The fantasy aspect of the film is an extension of the original Confucius tale—how could a cricket transform to the shape of human and speak human language? I also like how real death is treated in the story. It brought a sense of urgency, but left out the grief. I wanted to create a world in a similar way, with heightened reality, but also for metaphorical purposes.

Three Seasons is about the relationship between a “three-season” Freya and a “two-season” Elliot. I replaced the termination of life from the original tale with hibernation, so the life of Freya and Elliot will fall out of synchronization each year, then start over again when a new year begins. I want the audience to focus on their struggles and efforts, but also realize that the interaction shown in the film is not the end of their relationship. They have made choices, and the choices will influence the future. I hope people will be able to relate to their own reality and relationships after watching this film and consider the decisions they’ve made.

Deciding to create a world that has a different look, different rules and that happens during a different time period definitely adds pressure to the film’s budget. We have to find special locations and work around traffic to create the sense of otherworldliness. We found a 187-year-old historical home that has an unreal look, but it needs a lot of additional props and renovation work to make it suitable for the Cloudville we are creating. Costume is another big challenge. We have to find or make costumes for every single character in the film. The outfits in this world do not look contemporary or specific to a historical period; they are for the city of Cloudville and the timeless age of Three Seasons.

The current script is a stripped version of one that’s a lot more complicated. At one point, the script was 93 pages long, the entire story happened in constant rain, Freya was the daughter of an umbrella craft man, and we needed to have a cow. I shall save that version for the future.

interior shooting location of the film from November 2016

Interior shooting location of the film from November 2016

Three seasons begins with something you call frozen season and Freya is the first character introduced to viewers. She travels to Cloudville in search of her distant cousin Elliot, and realizes that she is the only one awake in a town that is frozen in time. Tell us about Freya’s character. Why is she significant to the storyline?

Freya comes from the city Piyan, where a year has three seasons. Her year is one season longer than a Cloudville year, and she as a person has a larger capacity of perceiving and comprehending different possibilities than Elliot and everyone else in Cloudville, who live on a two-season cycle. Freya can understand both the three-season world and two-season world, while the third season simply exists out of the knowledge of a regular Cloudville person. The viewers follow Freya’s journey and come to Cloudville. We experience the frozen seasons the way Freya experiences it. The entire foreign city of Cloudville unfold in front of our eyes through Freya’s cognition.

At the same time, our common sense is that a year has four seasons, which is one season longer than Freya’s year, something Freya has yet to discover.  We observe Cloudville at its most vulnerable moment through Freya’s eyes, but are also observing Freya as someone with her own boundaries and limitations, who has yet to expose her own vulnerable moment in front of our eyes.

Perhaps we should think about whether or not there are people who experience five seasons in a year? How do we feel about the of possibility potentially being observed by them? Any viewer could be Freya.

Producer S.D Scott and Director Althea Rao at location scout

In the Three Seasons promo video Vanita Kalra­, who plays Freya, mentions that the film will push the boundaries of imagination. Can you tell us a bit more about that? How do you aim to get us to see the the world in innovative ways and why is that a valuable goal for a film?

Cinema is a very visual medium. The power of it is very direct. In writing, an author translates what she sees into texts and the readers reconstruct the scenes visually in their own head based on the abstracted words. Creativity and poetry often show themselves in this process of abstraction. Cinema, however, allows one to capture or create an image in a desired a way and deliver it directly to the viewers without transcoding, and the viewers will complete their own abstractions afterwards when it comes to remembering.

Three Seasons unfolds in a fantasy world which I created for very specific reasons. Two cities are mentioned; only one is actually seen. Cloudville, the center stage of the film, is a city with only two seasons in a year: rain season and cloud season. This weather decides the look of the city, and influences the character of Cloudville residents. We want to be able to show through interior design, color palette, costume, camerawork, and performance that rain is the dominant force in this city. The frozen season itself exists out of the knowledge of any Cloudville residents. Freya, Elliot, and the audience co-exist, but are in different spaces. To Cloudville, what we see in this film is like a mathematical dot on a timeline that does not register any weight or space, and we’d like to get across this concept visually to the viewers, let them decipher the rules of this world through experiencing, and compare those rules to the ones we have in the real world. It will be quite rewarding when people realize their own answers.

A year ago when I first started to draft the city of Cloudville I made a short video, and perhaps it could tell you more about the vibe of this mysterious city.

You’re currently running a Kickstarter campaign to complete the film. What will the funding cover and how can people contribute?

We have a budget of around 11K, including the expenses of the art department (set dressing and costumes), insurance for our main shooting location, shooting permits for multiple street locations (Elliot is Cloudville’s lamp lighter, so we need to be able to turn on and off the street lamps, which in reality requires the assistance of Philadelphia Streets Department), transportation of equipment, travel refunds for cast and crew members—our lead actress Vanita Kalra will be commuting between Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia during rehearsals and shooting—meals during shoot days and post-production costs, including editing, coloring, special effects, sound scoring and mastering. We also would like to send the completed film to festivals.

I received a thesis production grant of $2,500 from Temple University and solicited a $1,200 donation through my fiscal sponsor Heart Productions. I am also contributing my tax refund from this year. This Kickstarter is asking for $5,786 to raise the rest of the money we need to shoot and complete the film.

According to Kickstarter’s “all or nothing” rule, we need to raise this $5,786 before May 20, otherwise everything we have already raised will be returned to all backers. We passed 50% by the end of our 2nd week, and hope to keep this momentum until the end of our campaign. You can contribute through our Kickstarter page. Every little bit helps!

What has been the most challenging task about running a Kickstarter campaign? What advice do you have for others hoping to do the same?

Finding the right audience who is willing and able to support my project is the most challenging task. Building up a community who is ready to give before launching a Kickstarter is crucial. A barrier I have is being a relatively new resident to the United States and not having a lot of connections. I have a limited number of friends and family who are willing to support me unconditionally. The film itself is family-themed. I have been reaching out to different groups of people, hoping to find people who are interested in and find themselves related to the story. However, most media outlets and blogs do not write about a project that’s only at its Kickstarter stage.

I advise people seeking to run their own campaign to invest a lot of time and energy every day into it—try to actively engage and reward your audience. It takes a significant amount of work, and the investment-to-outcome ratio is small. Be persistent and creative. Having a team of people to help you promote the campaign is also helpful—people who are supporting your work dare to write about how good you are in ways that you cannot.

Interior location, a 187 year old historical home in Philadelphia

On your Kickstarter campaign, you mention that “in normal Cloudville seasons, the sky is always overcast and one will never see sunshine or stars. However, during Freya and Elliot’s frozen season, the sky is always clear.” What is the significance of emphasizing this drastic change between the sky and seasons?

As a hybrid of Piyan (three-season year) and Cloudville (two-season year), Elliot stays awake half of the time during the frozen season, while Freya functions without problems. They are the only two people who are aware of this secret season in this town that’s full of people who are stuck in time. In Cloudville people’s perception, the sky is always overcast. Elliot has seen clear starry night skies during the frozen season, but that’s something that exists outside of regular Cloudville people’s ability to comprehend or imagine, so Elliot has been keeping the image of a clear sky to himself. When Freya comes, she becomes the only person who shares his perspective, at least for half of the time, and it’s a physical representation of things the cousins have in common because of their blood relationship.

You mention that, “at the core of our story is a discussion of alternative family bonds in today’s world.” What are some examples of the family bonds that Three Seasons touches on?

I was born and raised in Beijing, China, an only child like many others due to our country’s policy. In China, the size of families has been shrinking. At the same time, many people choose to move out of the country or send their children out of the country. This long-distance has stretched the sense of family bond between my generation of kids or younger generations really thin. I have a cousin who grew up in Canada, who to me personally did not feel any closer than a stranger before I was 22. However, we were told from a young age that we were family, and we should trust, care, and love each other. This is the original inspiration of the estranged relationship between Elliot and Freya. Does biological connection dictate how two people feel about each other?

Althea at the interior location during location scout

In Freya and Elliot’s case, the biological relationship is not enough for them to immediately create an emotional bond. For Freya’s father, Dan, and his sister, Laura, who is Elliot’s mother, their biological relationship does not prevent them from having romantic feelings for each other. Three Seasons would like to discuss the relationship between the physical and the emotional, how the two influence each other, as in today’s world the two are frequently separated by force.

As a woman director, are there any women directors who inspire your work?

Naomi Kawase—I met her last year at the Flaherty Film Seminar. I saw her documentary Genpin on the Japanese natural birth movement, and I felt so overwhelmed after watching the film that I had to call my mom in China to tell her how much I love her. Quite a few friends who attended the screening did the same. When we talked about the experience we realized that each of us had unique reasons to react with so much emotion.The film functioned as a switch to let us explore very intimate moments. I hope Three Seasons will have a similar power for viewers.

Your crew is made up of quite a few women and women of color in key roles. Do you think it’s important for women to hire women, and if so, why?

The question is not why should women hire women. The larger issue is changing the culture surrounding women in the film industry. Competency has nothing to do with gender, and this stigma needs to change. Making the issue a matter of only women hiring women ignores the problem of why women are not treated equally in terms of their abilities.

Heth(left) and lead actress Vanita Kalra(right) at Kickstarter shoot

I believe in gender equality, and think ultimately the most ideal case would be hiring regardless of our gender. If we are human beings, then we are filmmakers. However, the current situation is still far from that ideal. There seems to be a dominant gender perspective that both men and women sometimes feel they have to adhere to, and the distribution of opportunities, resources, and many other things is unfavorable to women. So it’s important for women to hire women at this point, in a sense of attempting to make the problematic environment a better and healthier one for women media workers, and eventually for every creative individual who wishes to work in this industry.

In my team, both line producer Eve and lead actress Vanita are active members of their own feminist groups. I have also created a feminist installation piece, Blindfold, based on my true and uncomfortable experience being viewed as a woman by men. We discovered this similar identification only after forming the team; perhaps it is this shared value that has brought us together.

Contribute to Althea’s film by donating to her Kickstarter. Make sure to check out Shewonda’s profile.