Land of Gold

Nardeep Khurmi wrote, directed and stars in Land of Gold, which premiered at the 2022 Tribeca Festival and is now on Max. His work spotlights underrepresented communities, and he splits his time between working on thought-provoking, moving, socially relevant narratives and absurdist comedy pieces. He won the 2021 ATT Untold Stories Program, among other accolades, and his recent acting credits include Chicago Fire, Puppy Place, Rebel, SWAT and The Odd Couple, as well as recurring roles on Jane the Virgin, Orbital Redux and Why Women Kill. In the following piece, he shares the secrets of his cross-country, cross-cultural road movie.—M.M.

Winning a million bucks to make your first feature film is incredible. But there’s this old adage in the film world: “There’s never enough money.” And that certainly was the case with my debut film, Land of Gold.

To give you some context, Land of Gold is about Kiran Singh (played by me), a first-generation immigrant, truck driver, and terrified father-to-be. On his last long-haul drive cross country before his baby is due, Kiran discovers Elena (Caroline Valencia), a 10-year-old Mexican-American stowed away in his trailer. Even though it puts his livelihood in jeopardy, Kiran resolves to shepherd Elena to her uncle in Boston.

Along the way, he faces what it means to be a father while Elena learns how to trust again and explores where her place is in the country she calls home. They connect through family, dreams of the future, and a healthy debate over God’s existence, all while the ghosts of the past, racially charged encounters, and the threat of I.C.E. linger over their journey.

Nardeep Khurmi on Filming Land of Gold

The film would live or die on the believability of the road trip, and I’m a big proponent of doing things practically, so my original idea was to tow the truck. But that created tons of headaches with insurance and safety. We’d have to safely tow the truck, with lights hanging on the sides, as I acted, with sound and camera stuffed into the cab. It seemed like a recipe for disaster, especially when one bad weather day or one minor issue could derail a whole shoot day.

And like most indies, we couldn’t afford to lose any days. As my cinematographer Christopher Low reminded me, we also wouldn’t be able to control the light or really fine-tune the locations of where we shot. Some of the storytelling specificity of the scenes would be lost if we did them practically. 

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I was stressed, to say the least, and conversations surrounding green and blue screens were dead in the water — we just didn’t have the time or resources to execute them right, deal with the spill of the green/blue, or fight with the lack of reflections. I never bought how it looked in the tests we’d seen. And rear-screen projection also proved to be too expensive for our budget.

We won the AT&T Untold Stories program, which granted us our production budget. We were ecstatic! The stage was set and we were ready to go into production, but we had one lingering challenge — how do you film a cross-country road trip, with a semi-truck and a 10-year-old, safely, artistically, and within our budget? 

Land of Gold director Nardeep Khurmi
Land of Gold director and star Nardeep Khurmi.

So what to do? How do you shoot a road trip in a massive vehicle in a way that lets you control the elements? 

It dawned on me while I was in the shower, a Hail Mary play – could we do it like they did The Mandalorian? Was there an LED wall in Oklahoma, the state we were filming in? 

My producing team — Keertana Sastry (also our casting director), Pallavi Sastry (who also plays Preeti in the film), and Simon Taufique (also our composer) — went to work and connected with the Cherokee Nation, who have a state-of-the-art XR studio in Owasso, Oklahoma. And even better, they invited Land of Gold to be the first non-Cherokee Nation film to have access to the wall!

I’m not a VFX guy. I’ve always tried to do things in-camera. But embracing this new tech was the only way we would have the time to make Land of Gold safely. And it gave us an added bonus – we were able to choose the time of day and location each driving scene took place in. Our VFX supervisor, Robert Uncles, shot all our plates.

We broke down the script to really nail down where in the country our characters were driving through in each scene, and we filmed plates in those locations at specific times of day. It allowed Chris (our cinematographer), Liz Ray Drew (our gaffer), and their team the flexibility and specificity to light each driving sequence uniquely, which adds to the reality of these two characters actually driving across the country. 

On the Land of Gold set at the Cherokee Nation. Photo Credit: Faith Morgan

Because we were stretching our million dollars as far as we could, we didn’t have time to set up wide vista shots of our truck to sell the road trip. We had to be able to sell our characters in the cab of the truck, driving through these places. We even used one of my favorite light gags I’ve used since high school — wrapping different strengths of diffusion in the spokes of a bicycle wheel and shining a light through it as it spun.

It helped create the specular highlights you get when driving, and the LED wall gave us the natural reflections off the windows and surfaces, because the wall was our primary light source. Robert then took all that into VFX and finessed it even more. It looks seamless. 

The LED wall gave me freedom as an actor to work with my acting coach, Kate Kugler, in an organic way without having to deal with the awkward logistics that come with filming these sequences practically. And it gave me the time I needed as a director to really find the moments within the scenes, because we didn’t have to worry about traffic, weather, or any other variables. It allowed us to maximize the limited on-set time with Caroline and really support her to give the great performance she does.

You can listen to our podcast with Land of Gold director Nardeep Khurmi on Apple or Spotify or here:

I want to add something I’m very proud of. We made Land of Gold in 12-hour days top to bottom including travel. We were adamant about sane and safe working conditions and treating our crew respectfully. Our line producer and co-producer, Julie Bersani, and our assistant director, Lance McDaniel, made and maintained a tight schedule. We never went over and had an energized and motivated team as a result.

We always got what we needed and then some, and filming our driving sequences in the studio meant we didn’t have to wait for the tow truck to reposition the picture truck, we didn’t have to wait for a cloud to move, we didn’t have to wait for anything. We could just film. We were comfortable, and more importantly, safe.

There was another added bonus to shooting Land of Gold in the studio. The LED wall allowed us to film a crucial night scene where our two leads sit on top of the trailer and gaze at the stars. I always wanted to do this practically (sense a pattern here?) on the roof of the trailer, but that proved to be a logistical and safety nightmare. Robert (again, our VFX supervisor) gave some great advice, and we shot the scene on the LED wall, with some night plates filmed right outside of the studio.

The Land of Gold trailer

Boy, did that make the scene pop. Filming this crucial scene in-studio, in a controlled environment, helped get the intimacy and delicacy I was looking for. Our sound recordist, Alistair Farrant, was very happy about the controlled conditions, too, since the sound was pure. He didn’t have to deal with Oklahoma winds ruining a quiet moment. Throw in a beautiful VFX shot compositing our characters against the backdrop of stars, and you have a magical movie moment.

Did all this tech make our movie better? Overwhelmingly, yes. We had to learn a lot about refresh rates, the proximity of the camera relative to the wall, and how to make a semi truck properly jostle (pro tip: You have to bounce it and nudge it side to side), but by embracing the technology and learning new techniques, we were able to bring an artistic specificity to the film that we wouldn’t have been able to otherwise.

Sunset driving sequences, night sequences, seeing our characters “drive” from the deserts of the southwest to the forests of the northeast… It lets the audience sink into the road trip in a subtle and beautiful way, allowing them to be completely enveloped by the characters’ journeys. 

I’m so glad I got the opportunity to learn and use this new technology. I’m always going to try and shoot things as practically as possible, but I love knowing that the technology will be there to support me if I can’t get it done. 

Land of Gold is now streaming on Max. 

Main image: (L to R) Land of Gold crew Cole Chambliss (grip), Scott Park (swing) and Liz Ray Drew (gaffer).  Photo Credit: Faith Morgan