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Schlock auteur Christopher R Mihm is the reigning Overlord of the ‘Mihmiverse’, a collection of films inspired by the B-movie, drive-in gems of the 1950s. The Minnesota-based maverick has been making next-to-no-budget sci-fi/horror visions since 2006, when his debut The Monster of Phantom Lake made a big splash at genre festivals. Inspired by fan response, he has produced, directed, edited and acted in a film a year ever since, including It Came From Another World (2007), Cave Women on Mars (2008), Attack of The Moon Zombies (2011) and The Giant Spider (2013). His latest, a kind of Goonies-meets-puppet-aliens thrill ride called Danny Johnson Saves The World, has its Australian premiere at the SciFi Film Festival in Sydney’s west this weekend. He spoke with SCREEN-SPACE about his films, fans and family from his home…

You’re open about the role your late father plays in inspiring you. What were his skills as a storyteller that you adhere to when crafting your films?

My father was a fan of movies in general, particularly horror and science fiction. To this day, I treasure memories of him taking my family out to the local drive-in. I’m not sure I ever thought of my father as a storyteller (though he could tell an inappropriate joke better than anyone I’ve ever met) but he did have an appreciation for good stories, regardless of their ‘packaging.’ He never seemed to judge films by the ‘quality’ of their presentation but, instead, by the effectiveness of their stories. I think learning that from him is what allows me to truly enjoy those classic films for what they are, not for what people might wish them to be. I think of it like this: “tell a good story first, everything else comes second.” If I’m telling a compelling story, the ‘cheesiness’ of my films shouldn’t negatively affect the quality of the final product.

Is the casting and crewing of The Mihm Family in your productions your way of instilling similar values in your children?

As a person who adores movies and the movie-going experience, I’m mindfully exposing my children to some of the fun movie-related experiences I had as a child, from going to the drive-in to movie marathons. I make a point to see films in a theatre, not just in the comfort of our home. Some of the casting and crewing of family has more to do with sharing my passion for making movies with my kids. Most of my children were born after my filmmaking career began so this is something that’s always been a part of their lives. They took to the movie-making process very quickly. (Pictured, above - the young cast of Danny Johnson Saves The World).

Describe the balance you strive to achieve on-set that happily melds ‘Chris the dad/husband’ and ‘Chris the director’…

Well, I don’t know that the balance of dad/husband Chris and director Chris was always effectively struck [laughs]. Working with children in general is often difficult but having that familiarity of being their father made for some very interesting moments during shooting. Then again, I could always threaten to take away privileges if my kids acted out while filming so, maybe being so closely related to the people I’m working with, and having the luxury of being “the boss”, wasn’t all bad!

What was the genesis of Danny Johnson Saves The World?

My kids have been making it clear for some time that they wanted to make a movie starring them and for them. I sincerely believe they all have real talent and, seeing as they understand the process so well, I figured it was finally time to make a movie with them. My oldest son, Elliott (who played the title character) is now a teenager and I knew if we were ever going to capture those last moments of true child-like innocence, the time was now. The story itself was built on a character Elliott played in two previous films, as a five-year-old version of Danny Johnson in Terror from Beneath the Earth and a slightly older one in the opening scenes of The Giant Spider. All of my films take place in a shared universe, so it made sense to expand an already existing character into his own self-contained adventure. (Pictured, above - Mihm directing his son Elliott, centre, and daughter Alice).

Apart from your father, who inspires your work? Who are the filmmakers that you recall most fondly?

Roger Corman for his prolificacy; Bert I. Gordon (pictured, below) for his contributions to the special effects field when creating such gems as “Earth vs. The Spider” and “The Amazing Colossal Man”; George Lucas because every kid who grew up in the ‘70s and ‘80s loves Star Wars, including me; Steven Spielberg for his absolute mastery of the craft and for being a great storyteller in every sense; and, Tim Burton for having a truly unique cinematic point-of-view.

There have been films that mimic the ‘Golden Era of B-movies’, like Mars Attacks! (1996) and The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra (2001), but many fail to capture the genre’s essence. Why do your films achieve that?

It’s a combination of a couple elements. First, a lack of resources forces me to do the best I can with what little I have. This mimics the ‘drive-in era’ of filmmaking, [when] filmmakers had to make things up as they went along. There was no CGI and not much that had come before to build upon. There was an innocence, because of the age in which they lived, but also because half the time they were just trying to make things work with no money - exactly like I do! Mars Attacks! is a fine movie but, with a budget that made anything possible, doesn’t have the authentic feel of those old movies. Second, I try to instil a sense of heavy seriousness into my direction. The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra (which is also a fine film) is a straightforward comedic spoof, poking fun at the wooden acting, low-budget effects and nonsensical plots. My scripts are serious attempts at making ‘good movies’ which are [then] presented in a very specific style. I direct actors to ignore the sometimes ridiculous nature of the situations their characters are in. I make it clear that, in the universe of these films, that man in a monster costume is a deadly creature and [my actors] should act as such. This earnest seriousness, and a palpable ‘community theatre vibe’, captures that old ‘look and feel’ so well.

Have the production techniques you employ during a shoot changed much since The Monster of Phantom Lake?

If one watched all ten films in the order they were released, it’s pretty clear that my ability, and the ability of my crew, to tell an effective story has improved. Budgets have generally stayed the same but we have expanded our reach in terms of locations and sets. However, at their core, my films retain the ‘fun factor’ of my first film. The biggest improvement has come mostly in pacing. The earlier films tend to be a touch more deliberate, like the older films which they emulate. The later ones, [notably] The Giant Spider (pictured, right) and Danny Johnson Saves The World, have picked up the pace to match modern audience expectations.

The festival love that your films receive and the fanbase that follow your films suggests what about the appeal of your films and this genre?

There are still folks out there who understand what it is I’m going for and that those old films still have a place in modern consciousness. The innocent ambience has broad appeal, especially in films that are just plain fun and aren’t necessarily challenging anyone’s preconceived notions. My films and the films they seek to emulate are often simplistic, with (pun intended, I suppose) black and white plots and character motivations. The world we live in is so caught up in the gray areas of life, people like to spend an hour or two in fantastical worlds where the good guys are good because they’re good and the bad guys are bad because they’re bad. Also, people sometimes want to enjoy films that aren’t made by hundreds of digital artists; they want movies where everything in them is ‘real,’ and though they may look very fake, they at least exist in the physical world.

When your first film wrapped, did you envision spending the next decade making a film a year? Was a reputation as America’s modern B-movie master, to the point where your films screen in Australian film festivals, the plan you had for your life?

When I finished The Monster from Phantom Lake (pictured, right), I thought that might be the end of it. I figured ten years down the road I’d still have 600 copies of the DVD sitting in my basement collecting dust. However, the first run of the film sold very well and it started me down a path which has taken me exactly where I wanted to go…into Australian film festivals [laughs]. I often brag at events that I have following in Australia, where the fans have been very good to me. Gaining a foothold in Australia can be directly attributed to Nigel Honeybone’s Schlocky Horror Picture Show. Without it, I have no idea how I would have ever had my films shown there, let alone at the Skyline Drive-in Blacktown! And I never would have met Norman Yeend, the amazing Australian artist who has created for us several stop-motion critters, including the show-stopping dinosaur seen in Danny Johnson Saves The World! Admittedly, I never imagined any of the great stuff that’s happened was going to happen. I’m grateful to be able to pursue my passion for filmmaking and introduce people to the glory of cheesy old movies!

The full catalogue of Christopher R Mihm's films can be found at his website, .



The defining elements of Steve De Jarnatt’s 1988 feature Miracle Mile could just as easily condemned it to Netflix oblivion, instead of the deserved cult status it enjoys. The central romance between nebbish muso Anthony Edwards (pictured, below) and sweet diner waitress Mare Winningham is achingly pure, as only a ‘Hughes-era’ love story could be. And the threat to their dreamlike eternal togetherness – an impending thermonuclear ‘doomsday’ – seems as 80’s as shoulder pads. But the director’s second (and, to date, last) film boasts a legion of fans, who have hailed the long-overdue HD-remastered Blu-ray release; the pre-dawn hues and eerie expanses of an ethereally ambient downtown LA have been beautifully re-energised for collectors of unique American genre works. “I think if I had not held to my vision,” De Jarnatt tells SCREEN-SPACE, “no one would be watching it today…”

Miracle Mile was written in the late 1970’s, when Cold War tensions were rife and nuclear winters were a real threat. “Let’s say I had nightmares that needed to be purged,” says De Jarnatt (pictured, below). “The project definitely was my reaction to a childhood indoctrination into the inevitability of total nuclear annihilation. ‘Duck, roll, and cover’ [was] a mantra at school from an early age, being taught that we would just dust the radiation off the canned goods in the bomb shelter and live to fight the commies another day.”

The script was highly regarded amongst the studio execs of the day, but the fatalistic trajectory of the narrative and the unproven commerciality of nuclear disaster movies stalled a greenlight. “To me, it was a given that this dire outcome would be followed through with to the end in the film,” De Jarnatt recalls, citing such brooding classics as Peter Weir’s The Last Wave, William Friedkin’s Sorcerer and the Nathanael West novel Day of The Locust as inspirations. “It was never going to be about stopping things, and not really about escaping. There is no such thing.”

Instead, the story would combine the ticking-clock tension of a high-stakes thriller with the inevitability of a grand, doomed romance. “What can you do to find some grace and meaning in the last few minutes of humanity? [Accept] love,” says the director, who chose the iconic La Brea tar pits to bookend his protagonist’s journey. “Two people meet among the extinct species of the [La Brea] museum and at the end, they are perhaps going to be dug up to be put on display in some future museum. At least that semblance of a sort of immortality is all you can hope for.”

After Jane Alexander’s Oscar-nominated turn in Lyne Littman’s nuclear war drama Testament and the social phenomenon that was Nicholas Meyer’s TV movie The Day After, the Miracle Mile script was given priority and Steve De Jarnatt's vision neared a shooting date. But the defiantly unconventional story structure and that ending were still causing sleepless nights among the suits at Hemdale, the now defunct independent studio that had backed such auteur-driven hits as The Terminator, Platoon, River’s Edge and Salvador. “The setting up of all the diner characters then never cutting away to their story to see if they made it out of town breaks a lot of rules of drama,” admits De Jarnatt. “And I did spend eight years struggling to keep this ending, [which] was deliberately subversive.  Some viewers cannot believe a film was allowed to end this way.”

Final say fell to Hemdale boss John Daly, who struggled with early cuts of the film. It took some minor reshoots but, says De Jarnatt, “finally he thoroughly embraced the darkness of the film.” An alternate ending was conceived, where the white light at the end coalesced into two animated diamonds that spun away (it can be seen on the extensive Blu-ray extras). But the studio head, now firmly on board with the director’s vision, would not allow such a concession. Recalls De Jarnatt, “Mr Daly actually said, ‘That’s too upbeat, let’s rip their hearts out!’ You do not find such adventurous film titans today, I guarantee you.” (Picture, left; the director on the 'La Brea Tar Pit' set)

Miracle Mile found much love from critics; Roger Ebert compared it to Martin Scorsese’s own nocturnal odyssey, After Hours, stating, “Both show a city at night, sleeping, dreaming, disoriented, while a character desperately tries to apply logic where it will not work.” (Notes De Jarnatt, “I had the whole film storyboarded before After Hours, which does have a similar looping inevitability that traps its anti-hero. But that makes a nice double bill.”) But a May 19, 1989 release date in a scant 143 theatres, at a time when the US summer movie season would not launch in earnest until a week later with Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade, meant Miracle Mile would only muster a total theatrical gross of US$1.15million. (Pictured, below; De Jarnatt with the Miracle Mile storyboards).

Despite its under-the-radar theatrical run, a new generation of critics have embraced it - in June 2014, Slant magazine said, “If the mainstream cinema of the Reagan era was intended as a soporific for the agitated masses, Miracle Mile was a small part of the wake-up call”; in 2011, Sound on Sight called the denouement, “one of the ten greatest endings of all time.” Humbled that his film has proved so enduring, Steve De Jarnatt believes the M.A.D. principles that calmed the global population three decades ago are now more tenuous than ever. “The scenario in the film is actually much more likely tonight than back the 80s,” he opines. “Missiles are still primed and pointed. I do have a fatalistic view that until an accident or God forbid, a terrorist act does occur, we cannot really fathom what would be involved, the scale and carnage.” 

Having also suffered distribution woes with Orion’s botched release of his debut film, the Melanie Griffith sci-fier Cherry 2000, the non-response to Miracle Mile was a further disappointment. But despite not directing another feature, Steve De Jarnatt has no regrets. “I do wish I could CGI a few hair styles in the film,” he laughs, “but other than that, [given] the US$3.7million below-the-line budget we had, I’m very proud of what was accomplished by all the talent on the film.” He worked non-stop within the Hollywood system from the early 1990’s; his writing credits include The X-Files (Season 2 fan favourite, ‘Fearful Symmetry’) and American Gothic, while his diverse directing skills were utilised on such small-screen hits as E.R., Nash Bridges, Strong Medicine and Lizzie Maguire. (Pictured,above; co-stars Anthony Edwards and Mare Winningham)

“People sometimes think I have been slighted somehow, never making another film,” he says, “but that was more by choice. I turned down several more and didn’t want to go broke putting it all on the line again on my own films.” He has turned to the halls of academia, teaching at Ohio University and has found a new following as one of America’s leading short-story authors; his work ‘Rubiaux Rising’ made The Best American Short Stories, 2009. “It is nice to not have to worry about budget and scale and just tell stories,” he says.

MIRACLE MILE is available on Blu-ray and DVD via US distributor Kino Lorber.



Few films in recent memory have tapped zeitgeist angst like Ramin Bahrani’s 99 Homes. Set in Orlando Florida, the hot-button Oscar contender tells of blue collar everyman Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield) and the devil he must deal with when he goes to work for the very man who evicted him from his family home, bank-backed real-estate heavy Rick Carver (Michael Shannon). A true auteur with two highly acclaimed works to his credit (Goodbye Solo, 2008; At Any Price, 2012), Bahrani’s story confronts the crumbling society that is the ‘New America’, where the men and women whose spirit forged the nation are fodder for big business profiteers on an unprecedented scale. During his visit in June for the Sydney Film Festival screening of 99 Homes, Bahrani spoke with SCREEN-SPACE about the social imbalance and human cost that inspired his latest drama…

The eviction scenes are some of the most wrenching movie moments in 2015…

As a filmmaker, you have to see the film so many times to finish it. And then you watch it with audiences, which I did first at Venice then Toronto then Sundance. But, to this day, the Nash eviction and the eviction of the old man are still so hard to watch. When I was researching, I was present for the eviction of an old man who was also suffering dementia, and it was horrible. For the Nash eviction, I had our incredible production designer, Alex DiGerlando, completely empty then re-set the house, and the great cinematographer, Bobby Bukowski lit it from the outside, so that there was nothing that would be in the way of the cast. The actors knew that they had freedom, within any scene, to add and subtract dialogue, just to be in the moment. We shot with two cameras, for simplicity. We hired a real sheriff and real clean-out crews, who had done evictions, and we just let them loose. And I edited it as if it was a 10 minute rape scene; totally raw, emotional, visceral.

Michael Shannon’s Rick is a hyena, the new alpha-predator, picking at the bones of the dying American middle-class…

That’s right. After the Sundance screening, I wanted to change a couple of minor things, which most filmmakers almost never get the opportunity to do. I wanted to use a different shot of Michael at the end of the film, when he’s got his sunglasses back on. It looks as if he is even more in control, like the sheriffs and the police are merely his servants. (Pictured, right; co-stars Andrew Garfield and Michael Shannon).

And he barks one of the year’s best lines, “America doesn’t bail out losers, it bails out winners.”

A quick story that I’ve never told anyone and that I swear is true. I was at a point in the writing where I knew Michael needed a ‘big speech’ moment, but it had to be integral to the story, drawing in Andrew’s character even deeper. But I couldn’t figure out how to do it; for two weeks I struggled with the dialogue. I had the moment; I knew when it had to be, but not what words had to be used. I couldn’t figure how to do it and by now, it is the 4th of July, the day we all celebrate America becoming what it is today. And, I swear, I thought of the words on that day. I left the fireworks and wrote the scene with the fireworks in the background (laughs). It was crazy!

Were you cautious of ‘Rick Carver’ not becoming a ‘Gordon Gekko’-like beacon for this ruthless capitalism? Of his actions becoming heroic, even iconic to the wealthy, like Michael Douglas’ character did?

In some ways, he is the new Gekko. And I think Michael makes it a little more shaded. I’ve told Oliver Stone that Wall Street was a big influence on this film. If you listen to Gordon Gekko very carefully, he talks about his blue-collar background, his electrician Dad who had a heart attack, how he didn’t have an Ivy League future lined up for him like all the other rich kids. A pivotal moment is when Michael tells Andrew about Rick’s upbringing, living on construction sites and how his father had a bad fall and was screwed by the system. It becomes hard to argue with Michael sometimes. He says, “You did honest, hard work your whole life and what did it get you but me knocking on your door?” He’s right. Michael and I talked a lot about what his characters upbringing must have been like, how hard it would have been. He’s just a dad who is not going to let it happen to him and his kids. I don’t think his behaviour is correct, but it is hard to judge him. I like that the film has some moral ambiguity. (Pictured, above; Bahrani on-set with Michael Shannon).

Which further complicates the ‘good guy/bad guy’ dynamic of 99 Homes...

There are movies that utilise characters for pure villainy, and classic characters like Iago, and those characters exist in real life. I don’t think the modern world should exclude them, and I think the modern world is too quick to psychologise them away. Here, the real villain is the system and that is something that we are struggling with globally, to varying degrees. We are confronted by a system created by the wealthy that seems to protect and increase their wealth. What on earth is ‘capital gains tax’ or ‘inheritance tax’? Why does buying a home in America save you money on taxes? On both sides of the political spectrum, from post-World War 2 but specifically from 1979 to today, laws have been created that have made the rich richer and made the middle class struggle even harder. This is not an agenda-driven film, but one that goes to the emotionality of that situation.

Is 99 Homes an exercise in introspection? Is it an attempt to redefine the America of today?

More reflect than redefine. All my films have this humanist, social bent to them. When I went to Florida, I found a place where everybody carried a gun and there was mind-boggling corruption. Everything you see in the film is researched and real. The guy played by Clancy Brown in the film, who ran that foreclosure mill, is all real, was [responsible] for endless forgeries. He never went jail; took his company public, sold it to the Chinese for billions, took his money and took off. Structurally, I was able to create this Faustian thriller but from a very humanist perspective. I’m happy to be able to inject a little humanism into what is essentially a very mainstream thriller, crafting something that inspires conversation as well as telling a solid, thrilling narrative. (Pictured, right; Andrew Garfield as Dennis Nash).

The idealism of Frank Green, the stoic character superbly played by Tim Guinee, who takes an immovable stand against the system, is so crucial to that humanism.

There is something in the Frank Green character that inspires Nash and, in turn inspires me to do that kind of behaviour. Even when you know that your individual action can’t overwhelm the system, you know you have to do it anyway. There are those real-life heroes, like Martin Luther King or Gandhi, who have a massive impact; those people who have stood and said, as Frank puts it in the film, “The sun is shining and no one is going to tell me otherwise.” And suddenly a country changes. That’s amazing.

99 Homes will be released on November 19 in Australian cinemas by Madman Entertainment; it is currently screening in select cinemas in the US and UK. 



‘Sentimental’ is not a word often bandied about when discussing the films of Gaspar Noe, but the director of such envelope-pushers as I Stand Alone, Irreversible and Enter the Void is out to change a few minds with his latest film, Love. “This is a movie that has made a lot of people cry,” he tells SCREEN-SPACE from his home in Paris, as the Sydney Underground Film Festival organisers brace themselves for reaction to the Opening Night screening of the latest from the ‘enfant terrible’ of international cinema...

I wanted to do a melodrama,” explains the 51 year-old Argentinian-born, French-based filmmaker, who premiered the long-in-development drama at Cannes 2015. “I envisioned the movie as both very arousing and also very sad, with the hope that people would cry at the end. It became much more melancholic than what I thought because image is so much more powerful than text. The movie is best described as being made up of my desires and fears.”

Drawing upon his days as a film school student cutting a swathe through the bars and bedrooms of 1980s Paris, the auteur’s narrative follows brash American expat Murphy (Karl Glusman) as he recalls the passionate details of a doomed love affair with the sexually energized Electra (Aomi Muyock; pictured, with Glusman), while coping with the corrosive resentment he has for his young wife, Omi (Klara Kristin). “‘Murphy’ is a mix of me and my film school mates, who I would hang out with and party with. And I know certain characters who [populate] the movie, people from the party scene in Paris and the art world,” explains Noe. “I wanted this guy to be cool but also a bit stupid; he’s not a ‘winner’ at all. He’s just a normal film student, sometimes driven by his brain cells and sometimes driven by his dick.”

Over a decade ago, the project was pitched to then husband-and-wife stars Monica Bellucci and Vincent Cassel when the pair worked with Noe on Irreversible, the 2002 revenge drama famous for Noe’s notorious single-shot rape scene. But the international stars baulked at the director’s intention to shoot full penetration intercourse. By 2015, Noe’s creative impulses were sated, with Glusman and first-time actors Muyock and Kristin portraying graphic, reportedly unchoreographed sexual acts (in 3D, no less). The film opens with an extended single-take scene of oral sex and mutual masturbation, from beginning to end.

“Erotic cinema has disappeared, and with it the erotic malady,” observes Noe. “The point of this movie, the reason it exists, was to portray the passion between two willful young people. I could not see how you could film that nowadays, after the sexual revolution and after the past 40 or so years of our western world, without portraying exactly how it is in real life. I decided that now is the time to film scenes with a truthfulness that the subject of my movie deserves. I’m surprised there are not more movies dealing with the subject like my film does”

It is the search for the blunt truths of existence that have driven Noe’s works to date; in his last film, Enter the Void, his first-person camera examined a body’s demise and the re-emergence of its soul. Love represents a similar pathway from the dual perspective of emotion and sensation. “These natural desires that we have, to have the faith to give our lives and share our journey with someone else, produce very human, powerful emotions,” says Noe. “Most people recognise much about themselves in the characters in the film and about the experience of being in love.”

Noe achieves his thematic goals by expanding upon the reverse-storytelling device that he employed in Irreversible (pictured, right; star, Monica Bellucci). Initially, Murphy’s present-day inner thoughts narrate small recollections; ultimately, the entire film is given over to his indulgences in the past. “The whole way [Love] was structured was to try to reproduce a memory. When you think about your own past, you do not do it in a linear way,” Noe explains. “In Irreversible, the backwards storytelling was very mechanical, in a clockwork way; in Enter The Void, the journey was very linear. In Love, it gets as close as I’ve gotten to that ‘stream of memory’ framework.”

As confronting as Gaspar Noe’s visions have been, each has represented a yearning to explore and further understand base elements inherent to the human experience. As shocking as scenes of frank sexuality may be to many, it is what the images represent that matters most to the director. “I wanted to make a sentimental film about what love is, how hard love is, to show that, even with the best intentions in the world, love can fail and ultimately destroy your mind,” he says. “To be addicted to passion means that you can suffer through passion and your life is over. I needed to find a way to portray this power, a power that can consume and destroy your life. What is the truest aim of our existence? I think it is to find love and to share the strongest physical love with someone, and my film explores that.”

LOVE screens as the Opening Night presentation of the 2015 Sydney Underground Film Festival. Full venue and session information can be found at the official website.



In the same week as global media is consumed by some of the most tragic images ever captured detailing the immigrant plight, SCREEN-SPACE spoke with filmmaker Prashant Nair about his latest film, Umrika. It is the story of Rama (Suraj Sharma, from Life of Pi), a soulful innocent thrust into manhood as he searches for Udai (Prateik Babbar), the older brother who left to chase dreams of a better life in the U.S.A. Having announced his talent with his debut feature Delhi in a Day (2011), Nair’s sophomore work is a deeply humanistic take on the refugee experience, an artfully crafted, compelling piece of contemporary Indian cinema with a truly international voice; it scored the Audience Award (World Cinema) at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival...

From the very first frame, the images of family and community unity in the rural setting are beautifully warm and engaging. Is it your belief that the essence of India can be found in a simpler, more traditional way of life? 

Rural India is often portrayed as gritty and backward with an emphasis on issues like caste, poverty and illiteracy. And while all this is certainly present, there is also a warmth and simplicity that is equally present. On our research trips we were overwhelmed by the generosity and spirit of the people we met in the various tiny villages and I really wanted to capture that aspect. There is a certain joy that you experience in villages that is hard to find in the big cities of India.

Why the title Umrika? The subtitles translate into full English except for the word ‘Umrika’, perhaps suggesting it is less about a place and more about an ideal.

Exactly. There are many ways to spell America in Hindi and this one is slightly unusual. I wanted it that way because, in many ways, it is not America they are discussing but their own very specific idea of what America is -  an ideal that they have fabricated through the various letters that arrive and their own personal fantasies, hopes and dreams. As Andy Warhol said: “Everybody has their own America, and then they have pieces of a fantasy America that they think is out there but they can’t see… you live in your dream America that you’ve custom-made from art and schmaltz and emotions just as much as you live in your real one.” (Pictured, right; actors Suraj Sharma, left, and Tony Revolori)

What were the thematic reasons you set the film in the 1980s? Is the image of America as the land where dreams can come true no longer believable in 2015?

Actually, my reasons for setting the film in the 80s are mainly selfish. I grew up the kid of Indian diplomats and we would move every three years. I never lived in India but we would visit every second summer for three months throughout the 80s. It’s the India of my childhood and the India I wanted to portray out of nostalgia. Things were very different – the country was much more closed. There were only several types of cars, Doordarshan (State TV) was your only choice, the advertising, movies, music – I wanted to recreate all that.  Indian fascination with America was also peaking during those years. I do think America’s image as the land of opportunity, although not as strong as before, is still very much alive and well across the planet.

The film details a very particular set of intrinsically Indian circumstances that lead to the Rama’s plight, yet his journey could represent the refugee experience of any nationality…

Large numbers of Indians try to immigrate both legally and illegally each year. Just last year, a container was found in New Jersey and U.S. Border control continues to find a significant number of Indian migrants attempting to enter through the Mexican border. In terms of immigration as a global phenomenon, UNHCR’s figures are devastating and we are in one of the worst periods since the Second World War in terms of displaced people, immigrants and refugees. The recent events in Europe are heartbreaking and I hope, in some small way, Umrika allows its audiences to think of immigration beyond statistics and to connect with the story and background of one very particular immigrant in a personal way.

Can you put in context, primarily for non-Indian audiences, the role that the Nepalese women play in your film? One glances suggestively at Rama; Ubai has married one. It may be construed that they are negative influences, based upon ethnicity.
It’s not at all a statement on any community in particular but more about fear, in general, of what is not familiar. In Jitvapur village, there is a neighbouring community of Nepalese migrants who live alongside the villagers but who are not accepted by the villagers. Rama’s mother believes that her sons should marry someone of their own community and will not tolerate any exception to that. We learn later that one of the reasons Udai left was to marry the woman he wanted to, who happened to be Nepalese and who his Mother would never accept because she is not of the same community. It could have been any community other than their own, she would be equally unhappy. There is a lot of cinema about caste in India and it’s rare that I have a conversation with someone outside of India and it doesn’t come up. I felt like ethnic and racial prejudice in India is less addressed but unfortunately equally prevalent. (Pictured, left; (l-r) actor Prateik Babbar, director/writer Prashant Nair and actor Suraj Sharma, at Sundance 2015).

The final scenes unfold with a heartbreaking ambiguity. Given the setting is 30 years ago, the revelations about the destinies of Rama and Ubai seem horribly current. That makes for a very sad story, doesn’t it?

I had seen a lot of great films about how difficult the immigrant journey is or how hard it is once they reach their destination. I wanted to make a film about everything up until the decision to immigrate is made – to really give a glimpse behind statistics and tell a personal and unique story, (one that) leaves the audience hoping that our protagonist reaches where he is heading. I hope that the magnitude of his decision has a very concrete impact on the audience, in terms of humanizing this incredibly courageous and heartbreaking decision that millions do make. As we speak, someone is making the same decision that Rama makes in the film, facing odds of unimaginable proportions and willingly heading towards an uncertain future. As heartbreaking as it might be in the film, these are decisions people are making every day.

Umrika begins its Australian season on September 10; check local listings for release dates in other territories.