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When Akhil Khithani walked the TIFF red carpet alongside Elliot Page and Dominic Savage at the world premiere of of Close to You last month, it was the fulfillment of a dream he never thought would come true.
“TIFF was amazing…Easily the highlight of my life! Seeing your name in the credits of any project you work on never gets old, but this one carried a bit more weight,” said the Class of 2015 Film Production alumnus.
“I graduated from Toronto Film School eight years ago, and never did I think that I would be the 1st Assistant Director on a film premiering at TIFF with such high value actors and a big shot director – but, mission accomplished!”
From Medicine to Movies
Born in Mumbai and raised in Toronto, Khithani’s pursuit of a career in the film and television industry wasn’t a straightforward one.
From an early age, he felt the pressure to follow in his father’s footsteps as a doctor. It wasn’t until after he graduated with a Science degree from Western University and began studying for his MCATs, however, that he finally came to the realization that a career in medicine wasn’t for him.
Instead, it was a visit to the set of a film called Dr. Cabbie that revealed his true life’s passion.
“I got an opportunity to shadow a producer on that film and I talked to everyone on set that day,” he said of the transformational experience.
“What I noticed most about that visit was that my personality seemed to fit in; that these people on the set seemed to be my people. I didn’t have to oppress my personality at all. I felt like I finally fit in somewhere.”
That’s when he began exploring his educational options and decided to enroll at Toronto Film School. In the days leading up to his first day of class, Khithani initially second guessed himself – a feeling he said subsided immediately after stepping foot on campus.
“I just knew I was making the right choice. I knew that this was going to work out,” he said, crediting the expert tutelage of Toronto Film School’s slate of industry-active faculty members for his newfound confidence.
“Since the teachers at TFS are all working in the industry, the knowledge I received in class was up to date. So, when I stepped on the set of a big union show for the first time, I knew exactly what I was doing, I knew what to anticipate, and I knew where to be – and that all comes from the guidance I received at Toronto Film School.”
Early Industry Jobs
One of Khithani’s favourite jobs out of school was as a daily set PA on seasons 2, 3 and 4 of Star Trek: Discovery – an experience the self-described nerd characterized as the “coolest job in the world.”
“Even little things, like when people asked me, ‘Hey, where’s the set box?’ and I’d get to answer something like, ‘Oh, you want to go past the Transporter Room, and then take a right at the Sick Bay, but if you hit the Turbo Lift, you’ve gone too far,’” he laughed. “It was so cool!”
From that experience, he went on to earn even bigger roles with more responsibilities, including jobs as the 4th AD on the TV movie A Royal Queens Christmas, as a 3rd AD on the digital anthology series First Person, and as a 3rd AD on the feature film Longing starring Richard Gere.
“It was a grind, but one thing led to another, and now here I am with a film in TIFF, which is pretty cool!” he said, noting that it was on that latter film set that he was presented with the opportunity that would lead him to the red carpet at Toronto’s Royal Alexandra Theatre last month.
Meeting Dominic Savage
“The producer of Longing (Daniel Bekerman) was also producing Close to You, and while on set they were looking for a 1st AD. When they asked me if I was interested, I was just like, ‘I don’t think I’m ready for such a big role,’” Khithani recalled, noting that he ultimately decided to submit his resume for the job.
Despite a ‘disastrous’ first interview with the producer, Khithani made the shortlist for the job as one of a handful of candidates selected to meet the film’s BAFTA Award-winning director, Dominic Savage.
“I met the director and as soon as I sat down with him, that’s when I was like, ‘Yes, I want this job! I want this job more than anything!’ A week later, I got email saying, ‘Congratulations, you start on Monday,’” he said, noting that the gig marked his first time as a 1st AD. “
Close to You
Described as an is an ‘emotionally observant drama, Close to You follows a man named Sam (Elliot Page) as he makes the long-dreaded trip back to his hometown for the first time since his transition. On the train ride from Toronto to Cobourg, he bumps into an old high school friend (Hillary Baack), and the pair reconnect while navigating feelings from their unresolved past and confronting long-buried memories.
Working closely alongside Savage on the set of the film, Khithani said theirs was a very different relationship than he’d ever seen between a 1st AD and a director before – due, in large part, to the award-winning director’s “very, very unique” directing style.
“He was often affected very deeply by the scenes that he would shoot, and would almost get into character, himself. So, I had to be aware of that and complement that style,” he explained, noting that the whole film was shot in order, scene by scene, from top to bottom.
“The Close to You script also didn’t contain any dialogue, which meant the actors had to improvise everything, so while (Savage) stayed focused on the actors and the scene and the story, I would get the crew things done.”
Working with Elliot Page
Khithani was also deeply impressed by the film’s star, Elliot Page, who is credited alongside Savage as Close to You’s co-writer.
“Elliot is a master at his craft. It was so cool coming to work every day to get to watch him perform – and he brought it. Oh, baby, he brought it!” he said, heaping praise on Page and all of his castmates for their performances.
“I was one of only a few people allowed to watch the monitors as we were filming…and what I saw, let me tell you, is nothing short of amazing. It’s the best showcase of acting I’ve ever seen in my life.
“It was so pure, because it was all improvised, so one character had no idea what the next character was going to say and vice versa. So, the reactions were all real – and we caught it all on film.”