An Interview with Atharva Kharkar

For part of our The 7 Series, interview correspondent Ashlyn Lackey asks young creatives seven questions to discuss how and why they pursue their passions. Today, we’ve spoke to Atharva Kharkar. Atharva is a filmmaker at The University of Michigan currently pursuing a double major in Art & Design and Business. Atharva has worked with many brands including Michigan Football and Sweetwaters Coffee and created several films that have won film festivals and premiered at a local theater. He started out creating comedy films, but now focuses black and white thriller films.

What inspired you to become a filmmaker? Has this been a long-term interest of yours? Was there a specific moment of origin when you realized this was what you wanted to do?

I was in a 7th-grade history class and did not want to make a tri-fold poster for a project. I saw that another option was to make a video so I decided to try it out and see. For the first time in my life, I had done something that I had never done before—make people laugh.

I kept doing it because I had something that made me unique. At that time, my mind was fixed on being an engineer wearing a nice navy suit and owning a black fountain pen. I guess that’s just what I thought successful engineers looked like. Along with most people, I had just accepted that pursuing a career in film is hopeless.

I didn’t change my mind until the end of 10th grade when I realized that I was spending all my free time learning about filmmaking and just creating as often as I could. I didn’t have this passion to pursue engineering and I feared that I would just live a mediocre life. I only thought about being an engineer because that’s what my parents wanted me to be and what my friends were doing. As a filmmaker, I could be different and add value to the world that I would not have had the drive for as an engineer. I still ended up investing in a nice navy suit and black fountain pen. I like to dress the part.

What was the most important lesson you had to learn that has had a positive effect on your film? How did that lesson happen? As young artists and creatives, we’re always interested in learning—can you pinpoint an important lesson you had to learn that has had an intense impact on your craft?  

You can plan out everything precisely, but things will almost never work out the way you wanted them to. It’s the scary part about starting a film. Just until recently, I used to become very stressed out about this when shooting a film. Maybe someone cancels last minute, maybe something breaks, or maybe there’s just an irritating noise in the background that will be hard to remove.

“Sarah”

“Sarah”

I’ve learned to just be aware that I’m not in control of a lot of these external factors and that I should have confidence in my ability to adapt to these conditions. The best part is that filmmaking is collaborative, so if you can’t think of any creative solutions, you have a team of people also trying to solve the problem so that the film will be the best it can be.

I watched some behind the scenes clips of a few of my short films and I didn’t realize that the cast and crew were actually having fun being together. I was too focused on things that I couldn’t change and didn’t enjoy the process as much as I could have. I’ve become a lot more focused and calm when directing because of these changes.

How has filmmaking changed how you perceive the world?

I was totally not expecting this, but filmmaking has let me appreciate life in a completely different way. I used to really hate living in my suburban town that had an IKEA as its main attraction. I was entertained by creating completely made up stories and people in this boring town. I didn’t need to be living in New York City or Los Angeles to tell incredible stories.

The other thing is that I’ll sometimes walk into a room and see the way that the light hits an object or someone’s face and I’ll just be so entertained by the simplest things. It’s ridiculous, but man—it’s quality lighting.

As a student working towards a degree in Business, how do you balance school and filmmaking?

I became a morning person. I’m super productive at 5 in the morning. I learned to prioritize and make a calendar event for everything. Because I have limited time, I only take on jobs and projects that I really care about. There is no way that I could actually do both degrees and work on personal projects if I did not prioritize and change the way I lived my life.

Describe your creative process. You have written, directed, and shot most of your films on your own. Do you prefer working alone or with a team?

“ Pallab ”

Pallab

I first try to think of an idea or concept that I really like and then I try to see how I can frame that concept into something realistic for me to film. When working with someone else, my writing is challenged and questioned more frequently than me working on a script alone and sending it to someone every few drafts. There’s also a completely new perspective that gets brought in that could potentially make things a lot easier.

The biggest benefit of working with a team is that I’m able to concentrate more on the story. When working alone, there are so many things I have to consider and keep track of that something is sure to fall through. I always try to gather a team rather than do a film solo. The biggest issue is that it’s hard to find people that can commit.

What are the qualities of a great film? Are there are a few filmmakers or films that have heavily influenced or inspired your path and style as an artist?

I don’t know if there is a list of qualities a film should check off in order to be great, but I would say that the main characteristic of a great film is that it is meant for a particular audience. If the goal, in the beginning, is to get everyone to love your film, then the plot becomes too generic. A narrow focus will help craft a unique story that can be appreciated by a wider audience.

I’ve been exploring the beauty of black and white lately and I think much of this has to do with photographers such as Henri Cartier-Bresson, Sebastião Salgado, Vivian Maier, and Ansel Adams. My films always end up being in black and white unless there is a really good reason to incorporate color.

The films that I always think about are A Ghost Story and Tree of Life. I had never seen films made this way. David Lowry would hold the shots on for an extremely long period of time in A Ghost Story and Emmanuel Lubezki shot The Tree of Life with an ultra-wide lenses that I had not seen done before. It made me question the “rules” of filmmaking that I was following. It was freeing to see these films do something so different than most of the movies I had seen.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to pursue a career in filmmaking or any passion in general?

I don’t know if I am at a spot where I can give someone advice, but I think what’s worked for me was to just keep making films. I was once told by someone that storytelling is a muscle and I really believe that. A lot of your films will be terrible, but the good thing is at a young age and as students, we get the opportunity to fail a lot more than we will be able to when we’re older.

— Interview conducted by Betsy Neis & Ashlyn Lackey. Edited for clarity by Betsy Neis & Kat Neis.