"The world's insane / the paper's gone mad / but our love is a peace vibe, yes."—Laura Nyro
Introducing New Directors Prize contender Don't Let Me Drown [site], SFFS Executive Director Graham Leggat specified that the New Directors Prize—which carries a cash award of $15,000—is singular in a number of ways. "First of all," he enumerated, "it's for debut feature narrative films. It's not for documentaries or second or third time filmmakers. It's for the freshest new talent. The competition features 11 films but each one is from a different country so—in effect—Don't Let Me Drown is the American entry."
Leggat first saw and was moved by Don't Let Me Drown at this year's Sundance Film Festival. "It has a particular resonance for me," Leggat offered, "as it does for many people of New York City [who]—at 9:00 on September 11—[were] on the D Train crossing the Manhattan Bridge. The first plane had hit the towers so that tower was burning and the second plane hit shortly after—as I understood it—my train re-entered the tunnel. Everyone ran to the window of the train gasping. The worst thing that happened to me on that day was I got a really bad sunburn walking back across the Manhattan Bridge—it was hot so I took my shirt off—but, many people suffered greatly, as you are well aware.
"Don't Let Me Drown is smart because it doesn't look directly into the sun, so to speak. It looks just a little off to one side where the difficulty in the aftermath is taking place and it's very moving as a result. It's also tremendously funny and full of life and as authentic as the day is long with a pair of terrific performances by two young leads who are perhaps not too much younger than the creators themselves."
Director/screenwriter Cruz Angeles and producer/screenwriter Maria Topete fielded questions after the screening, beginning with Leggat's own query as to where the film came from and how it progressed?
Angeles answered that the film started right after 9/11. Under the auspices of the United Nations, he had been working with young refugees from Kosovo who had resituated to Manhattan from their war-torn country. A mere month or two after 9/11, they started cracking jokes about the people who had been photographed jumping from the towers. It rubbed Angeles the wrong way and he didn't understand what they thought was so funny so he started scolding them, momentarily forgetting that they themselves had come from a place of conflict. One of the kids replied, "Mr. Cruz, sometimes in a war you have to learn how to laugh in order to survive." The comment started him thinking. He came home to Maria and talked to her about it because—like everyone else living in New York at the time—his emotions were mixed between sorrow and anger. The kid's comment resonated for him.
Maria had grown up in a rough neighborhood in Oakland in the '80s when it was considered the murder capital of the country. He grew up in South Central Los Angeles. At that time they were both about the same age as these kids from Kosovo. Remembering that, and considering the kid's comment, they realized he had a point. When Angeles was a kid growing up in his neighborhood, he'd see yellow police tape blocking off crime scenes where pieces of brain were spattered on the sidewalk from where someone had just been shot and he and his friends would make jokes about it because that was the way they coped with it. When you're that young, the only thing that can help you forget—however briefly—the weight of stress and hardship is falling in love. A crush on a boy or a girl took your mind off the terrible things going on around you. You'd listen to music in your room and drown out all the madness. He and Maria decided they wanted to make a film set in the turbulent atmosphere following 9/11 and to focus on people who weren't in the mainstream narrative.
Leggat asked where they had found the two young actors, each quite different with varying experience? Topete responded that E.J. Bonilla (Lalo) had more experience and was with the project from day one. He even went to the Sundance Lab with them. After the Sundance Lab, E.J. was hired on the soap opera The Guiding Light. The only problem with that was that he picked up certain "tricks" on the set of the soap. They found Gleendilys Inoa (Stephanie) when she auditioned for them. She didn't really have any experience other than high school drama. Angeles added that—during the audition—when he called "action", she was horrible; but, as soon as he called "cut", she was awesome. She left the audition and Angeles turned to his producers and said, "That's Stephanie" and they were mortified because she had auditioned so poorly. They argued that he needed to look at more people but he insisted, "No, she's Stephanie." She just didn't know how to act. Rather, he had to teach her not to act; to be herself, because in herself she was the character he wanted. He had to teach both of the kids not to act, to just be, to understand that acting isn't reciting lines; that there's subtext to those lines, emotion, psychology. He worked with them for about eight weeks to get them up to speed.
One of the most beautiful things about casting them, Angeles added, was that—the minute they were in the same room—E.J. was smitten head over heels. That's when he definitely knew Gleendilys was the one because you can't buy that kind of chemistry and it was a love story after all. But he warned E.J., "You better not call her at all. You better not get her number because—if you get her number and you call her—you're fired. I'm not asking you. I want to save that for when the camera is rolling. As soon as we end production, you can do what you want."
Leggat mentioned that in an interview he'd read Angeles had acknowledged his love for Italian neorealist films and stressed how he wanted to keep the feeling raw in the film. That authenticity gave Don't Let Me Drown a feeling of "being found, not made" Leggat ventured, and he asked how Angeles kept the film raw and how he avoided veering off into something contrived?
Angeles answered that—when he was a kid and went to movies where they were allegedly representing his folks—he saw them as "cheesey" and not like his folks at all. They didn't talk the same. And in working with kids, he's learned they don't mince their words; they'll tell you straight off if something works or not and, of course, they all curse a mile a minute so including profanity in the script was important to capture the feel of the real deal. Kids might not curse in front of the teacher but they'll curse among themselves. In having worked with kids for a long while, he and Maria have frequently been reminded that adults sometimes lose sight of the value of honesty. Above all, Angeles was inspired by the street, by life, and not by other movies. It was difficult for him to be a film student at NYU because—if you didn't have a reference for the kind of film you wanted to make, if it wasn't like some other movie that had already been made—your ideas would go right over their heads. He had a hard time conveying what he wanted to do. The only thing he could really reference was the neo-realist style because it's a natural style that resonates more. Talking to his DP and his actors, he emphasized that he wanted people to feel that they were eavesdropping, like when you're sitting in the subway and listening to someone else's conversation when they don't know you're listening. That's what he wanted to get on film. That was his intent. He wanted to find a way to eavesdrop, to have a cinema verité feel to the film. "I like movies that suck me in and make me forget that I'm watching a movie," he explained.
Asked of the role of cinematography in creating mood, Angeles stated that—along with being influenced by the street—he's likewise been influenced by literature and art history, notably painting. The one thing he feels is universal in films is the conveyance of emotion, irregardless of content, details, nuances. Emotion can cross boundaries and change people. He always admired a photograph that could inspire emotion and so he aspired towards that with the images in his film. "I figure that my voice is a camera," he specified, "but I don't want my voice to interfere with the characters." Rather, he wanted to elevate what people needed to feel in order to understand the story. The filmmakers he most admires and who have influenced him create tones with their work. They have a distinctive voice without being heavy-handed. Ultimately, camera work is intuitive. If it becomes too heady and you think about it too much, you jeopardize the emotion.
I commended them on the script, colored with the language of the streets, tough, credible, authentic, pivoting around this tender love story, which—as he mentioned earlier—truly is the only way to counter tragic, irretrievable loss and an ensuing culture of fear. I asked if they could speak about the process of developing the script? Topete answered that—when they first started talking about the story—they outlined the script. Once they had an outline, they worked on their first draft. They shared it with someone who said, "This is great but it sounds like you're limiting yourself." When they were first writing the script, they were thinking of doing it as a $50,000 on-video first feature; but, their friend told them to stop thinking like producers, to write the story they wanted to write, and deal with all the rest later. They ended up writing a more involved story that included elements they originally didn't think they would have a budget for. Once they had that script, they were encouraged to submit it to the Sundance Institute. That proved to be an amazing and beneficial experience because at the Institute they had advisors who read their script and offered one-on-one feedback. That necessitated a lot of rewriting; nearly nine drafts over a five-month period.
"Writing is rewriting," Angeles emphasized. "If you don't rewrite, you won't find things." He's interested in layered narratives that explore beneath the surface. Whenever they were not working, paying bills or eating, they were writing. But they enjoyed the process. What kept them going on an emotional level was remembering that love is good medicine for hard times. They both understood that. After 9/11 people were spending a lot of time with their families for emotional strength. He and Maria kept their focus on that target. They kept working at what they wanted to say without it becoming didactic. He doesn't understand people who write a script in three weeks. He doesn't understand how that works. For him, a script has to sit for a while. It has to breathe. You have to take time off between drafts to gain perspective and keep focus. It has to incubate.
As for whether most of the dialogue was scripted or impromptu, Angeles claimed the film was about 90% scripted because—in his experience—actors don't do well on camera when asked to improvise, unless they're geniuses. Most of the dialogue for the kids was definitely scripted because what they came up with on their own was often not suitable for an audience. But the process of improvisation during rehearsal was instrumental to shaping the script. As a director, he sometimes liked to take away the script to let the actors rehearse the scene through improvisation and to hear what would come out of their mouths. Not necessarily to find dialogue for the script but so that they would become familiar enough with the scene that it didn't feel like a performance. Once their bodies understood what a scene was about, then they could return to the lines and organically take ownership over the lines, as if the lines were coming from them for the first time. Angeles opined: "The meaning to the line is more important to me than the line."
Finally, asked about what other possible endings the film might have had, Angeles immediately deferred to Topete who asserted without missing a beat, "There was only one ending. Period." Though some people had wanted them to adjust the ending and though at times Angeles was willing to do so, Maria never wavered. It was important that Stephanie pumped Lalo on the bike because—in terms of gender politics, in terms of relationships—that said something about a good relationship that might actually last, precisely for being balanced. Topete added that it was important for Stephanie not to become her mother, not to follow that pattern, and to strike out into life as her own person.
Of related interest: David Hudson culled the critical reception at Sundance for The Daily @ IFC. To his consummate survey, I might add Reyhan Harmanci's article for SFGate; Neil Miller's rave review for Film School Rejects; Steve Ramos's review for indieWIRE; and New York Magazine's profile piece on Gleendilys Inoa.
Cross-published on Twitch.