I wrote my first screenplay at the age of 17**, the summer before I went to college. It was based on a strange dream I had, which was set in Los Angeles. It was around 120 pages long and at the time I was a big fan of directors such as Quentin Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson, Mira Nair, Spike Jonze, Alejandro González Iñarritu, Alfonso Cuarón, and Spike Lee (and I still love them all except that somehow, I hadn’t discovered Martin Scorsese, who is my favorite all-time director now, and others, of course).
At the time I was constantly watching the Independent Film Channel. I hadn’t quite seen independent and international cinema before. I grew up watching whatever was on TV, a lot of Spielberg (and yes, he, George Lucas, Brian DePalma, and Francis Ford Coppola are also some of my favorites. Also, one of my first memories in the USA involves watching E.T. for the first time. When I was three it was my favorite movie ever. And then he made Jurassic Park.), a lot of Disney, the Scream series (Wes Craven is still boss, and I still love horror). My parents were strict Christians who restricted the type of music, films, and TV I could watch until they felt I was old enough to understand what was happening.
It was my parents who introduced me to more serious films such as Amores Perros and El crimen del Padre Amaro, and so I became a huge fan of Gael Garcia Bernal (he is revered in my family along with DeNiro and Al Pacino), and later Diego Luna (thanks to Y tu mamá también). Even after watching Cuarón and Iñárritu’s films I still didn’t want to direct. I just knew I wanted to watch things that reflected something that was sort of like me—brown, working-class, and with an existential crisis.
**I wanted to direct when I saw Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding and Mississippi Masala. Here was someone who knew what it was like to be an immigrant in the USA, and who wrote her own damn screenplay.
I typed up my screenplay immediately after Googling “how to write a screenplay.” This was in 2004 before I knew about any software. I did all the indentations myself on Microsoft Word, even though the cursor didn’t always act the way I wanted it to.
I got to university, signed up for film classes and they immediately killed my dreams. There were almost no people of color, I didn’t feel my teachers inspired me to create, and although I’m now old enough to appreciate film theory and criticism, I just wanted to make something. I felt I was always exposed to Eurocentric cinema, and although Cuarón, Iñárritu, and Guillermo del Toro were gaining clout for their talents, I didn’t think my classmates respected them the way they deserved. I hadn’t directed a film before, and on my first try I realized I had no idea what to do. I knew how to watch movies, and what I wanted, but I worked with mostly white folks who didn’t listen. I didn’t realize how much being a director was also about being a leader.
On my second try, a nice male classmate did a concept I thought was really boring, and even though I didn’t know how to edit, I was tasked with this. So I quit, and for years watching movies was difficult. I never wrote a script again. I stayed in my art major, thought I’d be a visual artist, and when I graduated I found photography and writing, then community organizing.
I quit art.
On August 2013, I left Mississippi, where I had been living for 3 years, and wound up in Buenos Aires, Argentina, where I still am.
In 2014 I got a terrible bout of bronchitis. I found out that some angel uploaded all the episodes of Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared. I started writing comedy bits and gags. I discovered Joseph Gordon Levitt’s HitRECord, and thought to myself, if I don’t make a movie, maybe one of my stupid lines or drawings will! And that’ll be something!
Then in 2015, I got another terrible bout of bronchitis. This one was way worse. I had to ask for two weeks off work. I stayed home watching movies.
As I was watching a bunch of comedy—stuff by Seth Rogen, older films I used to enjoy, and stuff by a bunch of other directors, I ran into the work of Martin Scorsese, and rewatched a bunch of stuff by Tarantino.
Now, everyone else knew Scorsese was and is the greatest: the Muhammad Ali of our profession. But I didn’t. I wasn’t allowed to watch his films due to their violence, and I didn’t remember my film classes discussing his work in great detail, but mostly, I didn’t understand him. Sure, I knew his work, but I hadn’t quite paid attention to it before.
I was a Salvadoran-American raised in California. I had palm trees. He was a New Yorker with Italian-American ancestry. I had tacos and pupusas, he had pasta and pomodoro sauce—or whatever. Then I went on YouTube, looked him up, and saw a bunch of his talks, and speeches by other directors such as Werner Herzog and Ava DuVernay. What I kept hearing from was, just do it. You now have smartphones and your generation can make films any time, anywhere. Just grab a few friends. Film your neighborhood.
My inner 17-year-old self decided it was time to come back to life, give up everything, and live the dream—even if I failed miserably at doing so. When I couldn’t think of a concept, I remembered Ridley Scott’s production, Life in a Day.
To backtrack, in 2012 I took a writing class with Donna Ladd from the Jackson Free Press. She always encouraged us to write what we know. When I started filming, I knew I’d have to do the same.
No more screenplays based on dreams again for me, at least for the time being.
Tangerine is considered the first successful feature film to shot on an iPhone, and when I tweeted its director, Sean Baker, for advice, he was gracious. So was Paul Feig. In 2015 I grabbed my iPhone, told my friend Jenna about my dream, and just shot stuff. I followed her and a few other friends around.
When it was time to edit, I had a crappy computer.
A friend of mine (David) remembered this, and sold me his old one, which had more power. He had committed the travesty of deleting iMovie, which I had to wait a few months to buy because my debit card wasn’t working. I had to call the bank, and another friend of mine (Leila), brought me a newly issued one so I could purchase editing software.
Then I had to edit and wound up with about two hours of garbage footage, or at least a bunch of b-roll that wasn’t relevant.
Cutting a film is like cutting a baby, but it had to be done. I kept getting anxiety about releasing something, even if it was a short student film, which I consider this to be.
Reading about Hollywood’s treatment of women who direct kept eating away at me. I felt a pressure to have something epic and grand. I’d procrastinate on editing, on other screenplays, and other projects.
One day I was watching a movie while practicing my guitar and it occurred to me that making a film doesn’t have to mean hitting it out of the ballpark on the first try. I remembered when I was 15, and how terrible I was at the guitar. I had to build callouses, get stronger wrists, and master really boring exercises just to do some basic stuff—even though I was born with a good musical ear.
On that day I decided to apply that basic ethic to film. I would shoot every day.
Then my iPhone was stolen. Without being able to film things every day (because the camera on my Android isn’t that great), I had time to edit. I saved up and got a GoPro that will be shipped to me soon. So there you have it, after all this, I finished A Day in Buenos Aires. I don’t expect it to be great but at least I can say I directed, edited, and translated it myself.
On to the next set of projects! My next goal is to keep filming about 10-20 hours per week, do shorts, and hopefully fund enough to self-produce my feature film, as well as a feature documentary I’m researching. I work as a writer, but want to switch to directing full-time regardless of the nay sayers.
If you made it all the way down here, thanks for reading.
(The version below is English-only, with no subtitles).