“Probably our most important piece of technology was a large umbrella” – Stella Gunnarsson on the making of MONSOON

On November 3, San Francisco Green Film Festival will host the SF premiere of Monsoon, which charts the progress of India’s annual monsoon season in a stunning cinematic journey through the country.

In this interview, originally published in full at www.monsoonmovie.com, Canadian filmmaker Stella Gunnarsson talks about the motives behind the film and the challenges of shooting in extreme weather:


“MONSOON is my love letter to India. I've been romanced by the idea of monsoon since I can remember.  I've travelled often and extensively throughout India, am married into a big Indian family and have long dreamed of experiencing the monsoon, so when (producer) Ina Fichman offered me the opportunity to make a film about it I jumped.  I guess it's kind of personal on many levels.  For one thing, I love weather, and I especially love big weather. Something about it brings me a feeling of mystery and awe that's as close to god as this non-believer will likely ever get.  

“We wanted to make a highly cinematic film that captures the epic scale of the monsoon on the breathtaking Indian landscape, while maintaining an intimate sense of the humanity affected by it.  All decisions were governed by those two criteria - the epic and the human.  

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“In order to achieve maximum cinematic effect, we used Red Epic cameras which captured the images in ultra high definition 4K, which, in film terms, is roughly equivalent to 70mm.  We utilized a full complement of lenses, from 14mm to 800mm, as opposed to the usual short zoom/long zoom doc combination. The combination of ultra high definition and ‘full metal jacket’ compliment of lenses led to a more cinematic approach to composition.  Knowing that we were capturing such a detailed image allowed us to use wider shots, more tableaus and more formal compositions than we would usually use in a documentary.  We felt that the spirit of the monsoon danced in the clouds and made extensive use of computer-controlled time-lapse photography, using the new Canon 1DC camera, which is one of the first DSLR cameras that captures 4K images.  

“We were in the Western Ghats when we got word that the monsoon trough was on the move and would hit Bombay sooner than expected.  We got in the van and drove eighteen hours straight, on some of the gnarliest roads I've ever experienced. We got to Bombay and headed down to Marine Drive, where there were thousands of people and a kind of carnival atmosphere.  Old people, young people, lovers, vendors, musicians and beggars, Muslims, Hindus, Christians, Jains all strolling along the seawall watching as the monsoon clouds rolled in off the sea.  The anticipation was palpable and the feeling was communal.  The sense of one people, living in the same moment, experiencing the same elemental event.   Lightening cut the sky and the monsoon rains arrived.  Some people huddled under umbrellas, others got soaked in the warm baptism of rain and I felt this incredible sense of oneness with the thousands of people on the seawall.

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“Much of the filming took place in extreme weather, which we used a combination of high-tech/low-tech strategies to cope with.  The cameras were protected by waterproof fabric rain-casings and we used a high-speed rain deflector in front of the lenses when possible.  As glass is always a little cooler than the atmosphere, we kept the lenses wrapped in battery-powered electric blankets to minimize fogging.  Probably our most important piece of technology was a large umbrella, strategically operated by my son, Ari, who was Van's assistant.  They moved around as one unit and were remarkably in sync.

“India is one of the most astonishing and breathtaking landscapes on earth.   My strongest memory is not of one particular geographical location but rather that of a psychic place where nature, science, belief and wonder converge.”


Tickets for Monsoon available to buy here.