The sun begins to set as a small crowd formed at the Princess Twin Cinemas in Uptown Waterloo. It’s nearly been a week since pandemic restrictions loosened up. Movie theatres have reopened to a welcoming public looking for some form of entertainment outside of the household, but within the cozy confines of a well-heated room. There were a number of films on the marquee that night; holdovers from last month that got rescheduled, many of them on the awards circuit. Posters hung in the lobby, advertising the likes of The Tragedy of Macbeth, Licorice Pizza, House of Gucci, and a black-and-white version of Guillermo del Toro’s Nightmare Alley.
However, this crowd of people weren’t there for any of those films but rather for a private screening of When I Break, a locally made short film. The crowd was made up of engineers from the University of Waterloo program, financial contributors to the film, along with the film’s cast and crew. Many of them knew the director personally, a fellow UW engineering alumni named Vyom Malhotra. He was dressed in a gray suit jacket for the private screening, with a white boutonniere decorating his lapel. Vyom was out greeting them all, thanking them for their support. He was also feeling a mixture of nervous energy and excitement.
“It’s very overwhelming,” Vyom told me. “The support that came out…. It’s crazy. I don’t think I’ve fully taken it in yet.”
His lead actor, Siddharth Kumar, was also out making the rounds. He also sported a white boutonniere on his maroon suit and bowtie. Despite wearing a mask, his smile could easily be felt across the room. He was elated.
“Such a community moment for us as Waterloo engineering,” he said. “I think it inspired people to think bigger and, you know, we don’t just have to drop all of our passions when we’re doing this.”
It was a full house (or as full as it could be under 50 per cent capacity restrictions). As the crowd settled into their seats, Vyom was getting ready to give a speech ahead of the film.
He had spent much of his off time in 2021 planning, funding, and shooting this short film. As much as technology has leveled the playing field, the actual process of film-making is still a massive undertaking, especially for those without a background in film. All Vyom had was a passion for film and the screenplays he wrote on the side as a hobby.
“I needed to ramp up on everything that everybody from film school knows,” Vyom told me. “I need to take a fail-forward approach. If someone’s been through four/five years of film school, how many films do I need to make to learn everything that they know?” When I Break is the second short film he has ever made.
Vyom and Siddharth met each other at UW when they were student engineers. Neither of them had any real film experience before, but Siddharth did have a background in theatre acting.
“I knew I could continue to grow as an artist if I went to engineering school but I had no way to grow as an engineer if I went to arts,” Siddharth explained. When he met Vyom, they became close friends, even living together at one point. Their conversations around film and the Vyom’s screenplays led them to consider trying their hand at filmmaking themselves by making their first short film, Exam Day. It was a moment of “serendipity” as Siddharth described it. Despite their lack of experience, Vyom knew somebody who could help them make the film: Sabrina Sciscente.
Sabrina and Vyom were friends who met in high school and she had prior film experience under her belt. She was a recent graduate of Ryerson University’s Film and Television program and had worked on a few movie sets before. She even produced her own short film at one point.
“I think my role was more being the connection to where we need to go in terms of the actual production of the film but in terms of the creative they had it pretty much done,” Sabrina said.
She oversaw the production and gave the project the form and structure it needed. They gathered whatever friends they had on hand and filmed Exam Day throughout the UW campus.
“We kind of just, like, winged it,” Vyom said. “I had my little Canon T3i DSLR – just the cheapest DSLR you can buy, and we kind of just ran around campus just shooting all the scenes we needed to shoot.”. The film was shot over several days in-between exams, studying for exams, and whatever time they could find.
The short film itself was about as much as you’d expect for a first-time effort. I happened to have done some short films myself back in high school. Exam Day reminded me of them and other short films made by people just dipping their toes into filmmaking for the first time. The pacing is a bit awkward; locations were chosen for practicality; actors were anyone you knew who had time; and audio wasn’t the greatest.
“We shot Exam Day literally in between exams on the days we could find,” Siddharth said. “It was very much a bunch of kids with cameras and wherever people wouldn’t kick us out.” Another familiar theme that shows up in many of these first attempts: the story is personal on some level. Exam Day was about the stress that comes with – what else – exam day. With all that said, another thing that shows up in these projects was the enthusiasm and desire to make something worthwhile. That aspect came through despite any issues you might have with it. Exam Day was no different.
While a rough experience, there was a massive sense of accomplishment by the end. They ended up learning a lot from making that film. To put that knowledge to good use, Vyom would end up writing another script immediately afterwards.
“That was like a defining point in my life after Exam Day, because I think at that point it went from being a hobby to, like, something that actually matters,” he said. “I just started writing. I didn’t think too hard at the time about how we’re gonna make it work.”
“Was Siddharth always going to be your first choice as the lead?” I asked.
“I don’t think there was ever any doubt in my mind,” Vyom smiled.
Reaching back out to Siddharth, Sabrina and a couple of other friends, he found the encouragement needed to take another stab at filmmaking. But this time, they were aiming bigger. This time they were going to do it right. They ended up building a proper cast and crew this time round to accomplish their goals, bringing in the likes of William Snyder, a local cinematographer with over seven years of experience, along with some of their friends that helped out with Exam Day.
They would go on to launch a successful Indiegogo, surpassing their goal and reaching over $6,600. Add on top of that their own funds, they had a combined total of around $13,000. They were committed at this point.
So, what is When I Break about? It’s not plot-heavy, Vyom explained. It follows a man named Neel, played by Siddharth. He gets involved with the wrong crowd and feels disconnected from his girlfriend, who struggles to understand what he’s going through. Neel ends up reaching a breaking point and runs off into the woods. The film carries the themes that Vyom explored in Exam Day around stress. He didn’t know at the time, but after finishing the first draft, he saw some parallels to his own life.
“I was at a point in my life where I used to fantasize like going away from everything and living out in the woods or like just running away to a completely different country and just saying goodbye to all the life I have here,” he said. “Engineering at Waterloo was tough.”
After reading the screenplay, Siddharth said it was clear that playing his character would push him to explore parts of his psyche or life experiences that he didn’t want to. “I was just so fortunate to have a team between Sabrina and Vyom and our entire creative team that it was both a safe and supportive enough space for me to push that.”
Production was no stroll in the park either, Sabrina explained. “Every monumental point of the film was hit by a [pandemic] wave. I don’t know if God had a personal vendetta against us,” Sabrina said. One of the pandemic waves forced them to cancel a shoot at a cottage they had rented nearby. They would end up finding another cabin that was about 70 km north of Ottawa.
“It’s literally in the middle of the woods,” Vyom said. “It was very fun, but very challenging for a crew that’s relatively inexperienced. Going out and living in the woods, as it turns out, is quite challenging.” Their crew of six lived together, ate together, quarantined together, and shared a single toilet that they described as a “hole in the ground.” Then there were the mosquitos.
Vyom, Siddharth, and Sabrina reminisced about their experience filming in the woods during my interview with them. “Poor Sid, you had to act through it,” Sabrina said, “I don’t know how you did it because I remember I had the call sheet with me and I was just like the whole time like defending myself and you were just in character.”
“Look man, I’m from Alberta, okay,” Siddharth said. “I go camping. I’ve lived a lot of my life in the forest. Never in my life have I experienced more aggressive violent insects than I did in that cabin!” He recalled one scene where he had to call cut, after being bit. He said it felt like being “stabbed in the neck with a knife” at the time.
“Setting aside any acting roles, if you had to go camping at that cabin again, would you?” I joked.
“With those mosquitoes, never again,” Siddharth said. “The cabin was gorgeous! I love the cabin. The cabin I would love to go to, but if you tell me those insects are there, I’m not going back. No way.”
“I think I might be a little bit on the crazy side,” Vyom said, “I think I might go again just for nostalgic purposes and also because I think these guys didn’t apply the mosquito [repellent] correctly.”
After all that work, Vyom was now standing in front of a crowd about to present his film. With Siddharth by his side, he pulled out his speech, written on a piece of paper.
“Making films is something very special to me. It really is very hard to describe. It’s something I see as holy and divine. For me, it’s like going to the moon. Into space. Into the vast unknown,” he said to the crowd.
Vyom went on to thank everyone for their support. He compared the making of When I Break as being their Apollo 1; their first real venture, and hopefully not their last.
“I hope when you watch this film, regardless of what you think of it, that you will feel in some way that it is your film, because every single one of you has been crucial in getting to this moment,” Vyom said, before taking his seat. The lights went out. And the film began to play.
A virtual screening was also held February 12th, followed by a Q&A by the cast and crew. You can watch the full short film here.