Rejection is part and parcel of the creative life. Insecure's Sujata Day received her fair share of “no’s” when approaching production companies with the script for her debut feature film, Definition Please, about a former Scripps National Spelling Bee winner who grows up into a less-than-stellar adult. Undeterred, she made it anyway, even if it meant not taking the traditional studio route.
Definition Please, which Day wrote, directed, produced, and starred in herself, premiered at the Bentonville Film Festival in August. The movie follows Monica Chowdry (Day), who still lives with her mother (Anna Khaja, The Good Place), as she navigates the drama that ensues when her estranged brother, Sonny (Ritesh Rajan, Russian Doll), returns home for their father’s memorial a year after his death. Her struggles challenge the insidious model minority myth, which paints all Asian Americans as successful. “There’s a lot of us who don’t become doctors,” Day says. “There’s a lot of us who don’t make $600,000 a year on Wall Street. I wanted to tell that story.”
Day traces the premise of Definition Please to winning her fourth grade spelling bee and advancing as far as the regional competition. Since then, she began watching the Scripps National Spelling Bee on ESPN. “I noticed that almost every year it seemed to be a South Asian American kid winning the spelling bee,” she says. And in most cases, they achieved some level of prestige as adults, whether building robots or working for NASA.
Day revisited her spelling bee roots in 2015 in a four-page bit for a sketch comedy class that looked at where the national champions are now, which she later fleshed out into a feature film. “I thought it would be funny to make my sketch end with one of the kids becoming a loser.”
She finished a first draft of the script for Definition Please in 2017, inspired by her friend, Justin Chon, whose film, Gook, had premiered at the Sundance Film Festival that year. When she asked him how he made it, he responded that he’d asked colleagues to help with shooting, and friends and family for financial support. “I was like, great, that’s what I’m going to do,” Day says. “I decided we were going to shoot in the summer of 2019, and we did.”
But before that, she’d shopped the script around to production companies with which she already had some connection. “They came back to me and said they loved the script, they loved the story, but it was too small of a project for them to take on, or they didn’t understand who would be interested in watching it.” Family dramedies are also a tough sell in general, unless they star an A-lister.
And then, while she was at Sundance in early 2019, Day received an email notifying her that she’d be getting the rights back to a show she’d sold — along with a huge check. Instead of using the money to buy a house or a new car, she put it toward her movie. “I invested in myself,” she says.
After Sundance, Day pitched the film to investors and met with “anyone who would listen” to tell them about her fundraising efforts. Even if they couldn’t finance the project, they almost always introduced her to someone who else who was interested.
She also tapped into her community. “Especially Asian Americans and Indian Americans, we all have friends and family members who are doctors or investment bankers or dentists or lawyers, and these are the people that were interested in putting money into the film because they wanted to see themselves on screen,” she tells Mic.
Approaching potential investors after having already put much of her own money toward the film also helped. “They thought to themselves, ‘Oh she has skin in the game, and she’s not here trying to lose her money,’” she explains, “so they were more apt to jump on board.”
Day has already embarked on other creative endeavors since Definition Please. The pandemic has been a productive period for her: She’s written a feature film and a pilot, and is at work on her next feature film. But she lets herself rest, too. Instead of forcing herself to write when she doesn’t feel like it, she consumes film, TV, and books by others, which spurs her own creativity. She's making her way through the American Film Institute's list of 100 best American movies, and has watched all of The Sopranos, The Wire, and Twin Peaks (the film and the TV series) — basically her own DIY film school. "I don’t feel guilty about not writing because when I do write… I’ll be ready.”
Her advice for those immersed in their own creative projects: Let go of perfection. She points to all the TikTok and Instagram videos people are constantly churning out, even if the sound or lighting isn't the best quality. “It’s still creative,” she says. Likewise, with Definition Please, “I had to let go of a lot of things that I thought it was going to be and adapt to whatever it became.” Lately, she’s been watching debuts from directing greats, reminders that refining your craft takes time.
Accept that you'll make mistakes, apply what you learn from them to your next project, and repeat. “I just encourage creatives to create, no matter what," Day says.