Monday, July 18, 2022

OUTFEST 40 / FRAMELINE 46: UNIDENTIFIED OBJECTS (2022)—THE EVENING CLASS INTERVIEW WITH JUAN-FELIPE ZULETA

Photo: © 2022 Corey Nickols, courtesy gettyimages.com

Whereas one is an acknowledged auteur’s megaplex arthouse horror confidently boasting a first-tier cast, and the other a modestly-produced independent first feature with relatively unknown actors gamely trafficking niche festivals, there are thematic resemblances and effective similarities between David Cronenberg’s 45th film Crimes of the Future (2022) and Juan-Felipe Zuleta’s first feature film Unidentified Objects (2022). That says and promises a lot for Zuleta’s next forty-four. 

Both films address near-future demographic ruptures that target maligned minorities disfavored by a majority populace; a social stratification that is near de rigueur for dystopian sci-fi narratives, where the power struggles between hierarchies determine access to an increasingly limited trough. Cronenberg’s social outcasts are “plastic eaters”—individuals able to survive on the refuse of a polluted and compromised world—and Zuleta’s are small gay people, namely one small gay person, Peter (bitterly portrayed by Matthew August Jeffers), who is able to survive the state-sponsored indignities of physical non-conformity. Embodying what “normal” people fear as unknown, the subjects of both narratives seek to redress and subvert the ways in which ruling political forces alienate and marginalize and frequently eliminate physical “types” who do not support their governing hegemony. It’s suggested in both films that self-acceptance is requisite for social acceptance. Self-acceptance is the cornerstone to resistance. 

Unidentified Objects recently had a one-off U.S. premiere screening at the 46th edition of San Francisco’s Frameline Film Festival, where it won an Honorable Mention for Outstanding First Feature. Unidentified Objects is currently situated as the Platinum U.S. Centerpiece for the 40th edition of Outfest, venued in Los Angeles. That centerpiece screening is on Wednesday, July 20, 2022, and Unidentified Objects continues on to contribute to Outfest’s structured hybridity by being available for remote streaming from Thursday, July 21, 2022 through Saturday, July 23, 2022. 

As synopized at Outfest: “Peter, a self-described ‘college-educated, homosexual dwarf,’ keeps to himself in his apartment as he reels from the recent loss of his closest friend. His solitary existence is up-ended when his quirky neighbor Winona shows up at his door with a favor to ask: she’d like to borrow his car so she can drive to the remote Canadian field where aliens are due to beam her aboard their spaceship. 

“Led by a sensational pair of performances from Matthew Jeffers (TV’s New Amsterdam) and Sarah Hay, this disarming and wholly original take on the roadtrip comedy finds its charm and its power in spotlighting characters who rarely get the lead roles. Directed with a fabulous visual flair by first-time feature helmer Juan-Felipe Zuleta, this film demonstrates the thrilling rewards of watching previously sidelined characters take center stage.” 

My thanks to publicist Matthew Johnstone who provided access to Unidentified Objects during its Frameline premiere and then facilitated a Zoom conversation with its director Juan-Felipe Zuleta. Long an avid fan of Latin American cinema, I’ve had welcome opportunity to interview Colombian filmmakers over the years, including (most recently) Ciro Guerra and Luis Ospina. Thus, it was with sincere pleasure that I was fortunate enough to speak with one of Colombia’s youngest up-and-coming filmmakers, Juan-Felipe Zuleta (now, officially, Colombian American). 

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Michael Guillén: Have you been able to take advantage of the film incentives provided by Colombia’s recent movies law, passed (I believe) in 2003, 2004? 

Juan-Felipe Zuleta: I apply every year. I haven’t won it yet so it hasn’t helped me; but, it has helped a lot of filmmakers in Colombia. It is competitive. Some people get really lucky. Some movies—like Ciro Guerra’s—are not seen anywhere; but, I think it’s the best thing that has happened for film culture in Colombia. Like I said, I apply every year with a project. I think the project that I have submitted for the last couple of years—one that Lee [Frankel] and I wrote—it might be a little too commercial? I don’t know. You never know because they change judges every year. It’s not like in Canada or some European countries where everybody gets it. In Colombia, especially for first-time filmmakers, they give one prize for $150,000.  

Guillén: Well, you’ll probably win it when you least expect it. 

Zuleta: Yes!! And, listen, I’m very persistent. I never stop applying.  

Guillén: Good, good. 

Zuleta: I have another movie that I want to make, in Spanish, called We Were Born Dead (in English) or Nacimos Muertos (in Spanish). Hopefully, we can use some of the funds from that law for that, or some of the other laws that Colombia has like the 1556 law that’s for foreign investors. There’s one where the government just gives you money to make a movie and part of the extension of that law is—if you bring in foreign investors—there are tax breaks, something like 40% tax breaks for foreign investment.  

Guillén: That’s a particularly interesting development for Colombia’s film industry. Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul recently made a film in Colombia, Memoria (2021), starring Tilda Swinton, which I considered a fascinating development. 

But let’s focus on your movie, your first feature, Unidentified Objects (2022), which is having its U.S. premiere at the 46th edition of the Frameline Film Festival. Let’s hit the title first. You’re playing very skillfully and intriguingly with a blend of the sci-fi genre and gender politics, as insinuated by your title. 

Zuleta: Yes. The title Unidentified Objects was one of the first things that came to be when Lee and I knew we wanted to make this movie. Lee and I are longtime collaborators. We work every day on screenwriting, back and forth with ideas, so when you talk about “gender politics”, I think the film is beyond gender politics. The film was written during the Trump administration. I’m an immigrant to the United States….  

Guillén: I misspoke. I meant to say identity politics. 

Zuleta: Identity politics, yes, that’s more like it. When I got to the United States for the first time, I had a visa. I’m a citizen now—that’s a long story—but, originally I was assigned an alien number. That’s how my passport was called. That’s how my green card was called. I had an alien number. “You don’t belong here. You’re an alien.” 

In many ways it goes back to that sense of who belongs, who doesn’t belong, who’s identified, who’s unidentified? Who are the people who are like everybody else? Who are those who aren’t? That sense runs through every topic that’s controversial. You can talk about artificial intelligence. You can talk about the gay rights movement and all of that. You can talk about immigration policy. You can talk about professions like church workers, etc., right? You can go deep into many many topics. So Unidentified Objects is a perfect title. In fact, it’s my favorite title.  

Guillén: [Laughing]. Well, that’s a good thing since it’s your film’s title. 

Zuleta: It’s really hard to find a good movie title. It’s much harder than anybody thinks. “What should my movie be called?” But this one was easy.  

Guillén: One thing you’ve done masterfully in broaching the subject of aliens, or alien rights, or alien identities, off-Earth and on, is that you’ve situated the subject within a liminal space through a liminal perspective. It interests me that you’re playing with this liminality, and that you have aligned that effort with your own experience of being an immigrant into the United States. You’re allowing this liminality to filter out to any identity that people in your audience might identify with in your movie. 

Zuleta: Yes! It’s a liminal space across the board, but it’s a liminal space about a road trip movie where you are literally crossing a border, right?  

Guillén: Your characters cross from the United States into Canada. 

Zuleta: Liminal space to the degree of subjective storytelling where we’re trying to understand where these characters are coming from and there’s something about humanity, about “what are my thoughts? Or my feelings and the way I feel?” That does not necessarily mean that you feel that way, right? It’s very subjective. Everybody has a very specific experience in the way they inhabit the world. Everybody, everybody, no matter if you’re within the same people in the same…—what I would call “circles within circles”—even people who are in the LGBTQ community, and even within that the gay community, and even within that, everybody has their own experience. 

When you take a character like Peter [Matthew Jeffers] who is an academic and a scholar who cares about literature, who cares about words and culture, about Anton Chekhov—one of the greatest Russian authors—but, he’s also a little person, and his is a gay experience of a little person in society that is very particular and unique, right? That hasn’t been explored in cinema in a way that I, at least, think is interesting. And yet we’ve seen interesting little people performers. We know there’s a lot of talent. There’s a huge talent pool of actors in that community, per se.  

Guillén: Yes, but what you’ve done differently in your presentation of a central performance by a little person actor is you’ve explored the fantasies and articulated the fears and frustrations of little people in—as you have phrased it—a “circles within circles” specificity. We’ve seen representations of little people in cinematic narratives—Peter Dinklage, for example, in his various performances in movies and television—but, you have complicated that representation through a gay lens, which I find interesting, particularly in Peter’s fantasies; fantasies I would say that are driven by a “Lynchian imperative.” 

Peter’s fantasies are neither prefaced nor explained. They arise out of an experience the audience believes they are participating in, which gradually, if unexpectedly, morphs into something other than the experience the audience thought they were having. There’s an oneiric pivot that distinguishes the experience on the screen as either a dream or a fantasy. Which leads me to the ambiguities you have purposely folded into your narrative. These ambiguities—as strangely as they are introduced—reveal emotional truths. Can you talk to me a little bit about that? 

Zuleta: I’m a firm believer that storytelling—especially in cinema—is not about being literal. It’s not about being in-your-face obvious. That’s what a telenovela, or certain stories are. They’re telling you, “I feel this way”, right? What I love about storytelling, especially visual storytelling, and the capabilities you can do with visual and audio-visual storytelling is precisely what you are saying: we can really go deep into the psyche of a human being. We can dive into their reality and their experience of the world. If it’s done well through sound, through images, we can create a deeper meaning that hasn’t been done or that is not part of our real specific experience. That’s why some people will say, “Oh, this is like a fantasy film.” I do think there’s something about surreality, meaning, what is that? It’s exploring a world that’s both….  

Guillén: Well, you defined surreality in your press notes as “the imaginary meeting the irrational.” 

Zuleta: Exactly! I speak about surreality being the imaginary meeting the irrational and, in many ways, that’s like there’s so much meaning. If you look at a Luis Buñuel movie, or a David Lynch movie—I’m talking about directors that I like—you can go and point at a certain scene and say, “That scene is making me feel a certain way inside. It’s making me feel weird. It’s making me feel emotional.” And yet for some people it’s like having their pants pulled down in a toilet. It’s like their reaction is something different. When I talk about visual storytelling it’s mainly about diving into that world. It’s about how can we create an experience visually that, again, could be fantasy, could be reality? That’s where ambiguity comes in for me. My favorite stories are the ones that make the audience be part of the experience. That make you start questioning, “What is happening?” 

For example, audiences—especially audiences that I like—they like to play detective. They try to be ahead of you. They like to anticipate what’s going to happen or try to have an explanation to what you’re showing them. Unidentified Objects is in many ways designed by those surreal sequences that you’re talking about through which we can give a lot of substance. If you study it, if you watch it multiple times, every viewing is going to be different. With every viewing you could probably come up with a different conclusion to what we’re trying to say. Yet, as you said, the one thing that is always there is the emotion. 

People have said that this movie are pill trips. That this is just Peter dreaming everything because he’s taking pills. One of the first things you see the main character do is take pills. Sure, that’s an interesting interpretation of the movie, but that’s where the ambiguity takes place. It’s like the ending of the movie Prisoners (2013) where Jake Gyllenhaal is standing outside of a house where, we as the audience, know that Hugh Jackman is buried underneath. We know that he’s screaming and blowing a whistle but Jake Gyllenhaal is not listening. He doesn’t know what’s going on, but we do. The movie ends there. You’re left thinking, “Oh my God, is he going to unbury him? Is he going to save him? Is he going to die?” That’s maybe a literal way to look at it, but I can get very passionate about it….  

Guillén: [Chuckling.] Yes, clearly. As can I. I interpret what you’re doing with the liminality in a slightly different perspective. I’m well-trained in psychology and mythology. What I understand to be the first liminal spirits, the first threshold spirits (if not the first psychotherapists), were in ancient Mesopotamian mythology in the Sumerian descent myth of Inanna. In that myth Inanna goes down into the Underworld where her sister Ereshkigal rules. Ereshkigal is a miserable queen who doesn’t enjoy reigning over the dark underworld. In her mean-heartedness, she kills her sister Inanna and hangs her corpse on a hook. But Inanna, suspecting her sister might do just that, had previously arranged to be rescued if no one had heard from her in three days. 

The Sumerian god Enki, deeply troubled by what has happened to Inanna, attempts to help her by creating two sexless figures named gala-tura and the kur-jara from the dirt under the fingernails of two of his fingers. He instructs these two sprites to appease Ereshkigal and retrieve the corpse of Inanna. In some versions of this story these two sprites take up residence in the threshold of Ereshkigal’s bedroom where, listening to Ereshkigal’s bitter complaints about her pain and discomfort, they repeat her complaints back to her. “Oh,” Ereshkigal complains, “my hip hurts.” “Oh,” the sprites repeat, “your hip hurts.” “Oh,” Ereshkigal complains, “my back hurts.” “Oh,” the sprites echo, “your back hurts”, thereby confirming Ereshkigal’s misery, placating her and appeasing her so that she hands the corpse of Inanna over to the two sprites to take out of the Underworld where—through magic rituals—Enki is able to revive her. 

As I understand and interpet it, the function of these liminal spirits is to repeat to you your psychology; to help you articulate it. That’s what I believe you have done with this film, specifically through the surreal fantasy sequences. Representing liminality, giving it a voice, helps us to identify and understand it in ourselves. 

Most notably, the scene in the film where Peter fantasizes on dancing with the tall, handsome man in the bar dove right into my heart because I have been coming out of a failed love affair and, I have to say, I watched that scene and knew that I was Peter. Which is to say that his emotional truth was my emotional truth. I was that small. I was dancing with someone that tall. Someone that handsome. Someone that masculine. I watched that scene and thought, “Wait a minute. How can I be this? I’m not small.” But I was

In effect, your film performs this function. I hurt from a failed love affair. Your film is saying, “You hurt from a failed love affair.” 

Zuleta: Yes, that’s 100%! In many ways, I feel a lot of the scenes. I think the bar scene plays really well, specifically in the disability and the LGBTQ communities because there’s an extra layer. If you’re a little person and you want to approach somebody in a bar or if you’re someone from the LGBTQ community and you want to go up to someone and tell them what you feel, there’s an extra layer. “Are we in the same world?” 

You’ve used the word “threshold”, which is the name of my production company. My production company is named First Threshold.  

Guillén: I didn’t know that! 

Zuleta: Yes, my production company is called First Threshold precisely because it’s that crossing, that moment when you go and you’re living within, you’re living in all spaces, that in many ways is that moment of transition. But I love what you’re saying. That bar scene, for example, is very universal.  

Guillén: This is where I have to tip my hat to Matthew’s performance because what launches the emotional truth of those scenes is that moment—the beats you give him—to be incredulous. Like when the guy turns to him and says, “Would you like to dance with me?” The look on Matthew’s face of incredulity makes you feel, “No, this is impossible. It can’t be happening.” Then you see it happening and then it devolves into the repetition that tells you, “Oh, this is oneiric. This is something surreal. Irreal.” I have to commend your directorial timing and Matthew’s chops in following your lead. 

Also, the sequence of being pulled over by the police, hearing the voice of the cop and his bizarre instructions, was likewise delightful because—not only was it a gay fantasy—it was a sci-fi fantasy. Which poses the question: can you speak to why you used the sci-fi genre as a metaphor to orient your message? 

Zuleta: I’m that fond of the genre. I love science fiction and what it represents in culture. I love these movies. If you watch Guillermo del Toro telling a story about an alien that’s with a deaf woman in the 1950s and you buy it, you cry in the theater. Science fiction is one of those genres that is, in many ways, like subcultures, like the many ways that people think about Marvel movies. It crosses boundaries. It crosses belief systems. You can talk about politics. In 1984, Orwell wrote a novel about the oppressive politics of a totalitarian regime. That’s why period piece movies exist. They give you permission to talk about today without talking about today in your face. I’m a fan of science fiction. I love science fiction. 

People ask me if Unidentified Objects is a commercial movie? Is it a personal movie? The point is that we made the movie that we wanted to make. We just made something that we would want to see and feel and hear. I love Isaac Asimov movies and his arguments about artificial intelligence, talking about identity, which is interesting because you can create huge metaphors about humanity, about identity, about belonging, about asking, “Am I real?” In that scene with the cop, we took science fiction and pushed it through surreal storytelling, and through fantasy. It’s a merger of genres. People also call Unidentified Objects a dark comedy, because it is funny, even though it’s a tragic story. 

It’s funny that you mention that scene with the cop because it shows that I am a collaborator. Originally, in the first draft of the script, we didn’t want the character Peter (i.e., the actor Matthew) to be naked. Matthew and I had a deep conversation about that, about what that scene meant. In that scene the cop commands Peter and questions his humanity, right? That’s the purpose of that scene being there—"Are you human? Are you an unidentified object?”—that’s the premise. You can feel all that there. 

In cinema, when you see male genitals it’s considered not necessary because society hasn’t caught up yet. Matthew was the one who told me, “I have to be naked. I need to be how I came into the world. I think that’s how Peter feels in that moment and we need to be true to the character and true to the story.” I agreed with him, but I said, “Listen, it’s your decision. I’m not going to ask you on a low-budget movie to be naked on screen; but, we are taking this very seriously and I agree with you. He has to be naked. It’s going to make a difference if we want to make the impact that we want to make.” So, yes, to our audience, to your readers, whoever listens to this or reads this, we do have a scene of a little person where he is completely naked and he’s been stripped down by a cop who is questioning his humanity. In many ways, that’s the premise of that scene. So, yes, we have to take it to that surreal level where the audience crosses a threshold.  

Guillén: Further, this is a nuanced version of the sci-fi genre because what you are talking about—especially with regard to identity politics—is a near-future. This is something that we’re in, but also nearing. We have transgender issues, Latino issues, all sorts of minority issues of people coming into their own, gaining agency, but still chafing against law enforcement or cultural enforcement that are not yet fully recognizing them, that are seeing them—as you suggest—as unidentified objects. I don’t know if you intended to do that, but I have to commend you for utilizing this subtle sci-fi approach to visualize and politicize a near future. 

Zuleta: The answer is yes. These are the themes of science fiction when you are talking about the near-future of politics and the norms of society. Yes, that’s what science fiction does and is always commenting upon. In many ways, as I was saying before, we use genres and combine genres so that we can comment upon these themes. 

Returning to the subject of exposing male genitals, you do have to think from a storytelling perspective, especially as a director, if it works. If it works, if it’s necessary, that’s where you have to judge. Is it something that you’re doing for an emotional impact? You have to think about why you’re doing it. Our conclusions were that it was something we needed to talk about. In many ways, the script was re-written when Matthew came on board as an actor because it was a little person movie as well. He was giving us permission to tell his story and the experience of a little person in the world. So I had to take that into consideration. It wasn’t just me being a director. It was me taking into consideration the characters and the subject matter and really understanding from his perspective, which I had never really seen before, even though Lee and I had conceived of it from the beginning as being a little person’s story. But there are many layers. What is the liminal experience of a little person in the world?  

Guillén: They’re asking us to wrap up here so my final question might be about what you discovered about your movie while editing it? 

Zuleta: Two things about the editing of the movie. That’s a big big big deal. The biggest thing with a movie like this is that we rewrote some things in the editing room. The biggest thing that changed was that initially we edited the movie in a linear storytelling way. We built the movie with our composer, Sebastian Zuleta, my brother. From the moment we started filming, we knew we were going to do it with that soundscape, which was analog scenes. We started creating some of those sounds from production. From the moment we were filming, we wanted to know how it felt, how it played, everything. That scape, we used some of that and then it got replaced with original comps. That was a big tool. 

The thing I realized after editing for 16 weeks and when I was close to locking the picture, someone handed me a piece of paper and they told me, “You have to really lean over more into the dream quality of the film and you have to explore non-linear storytelling.” It was really hard to make this decision as a director of a low budget movie because we didn’t have the resources, but I said I’m never going to lock this picture until I truly explore that note because that note touched me. It meant something. So what my friend the French editor Raphael Lubczanski and I did was we went back and revised some of the driving scenes with the music and took down dialogue from other scenes where we had too much dialogue and we explored a version of Unidentified Objects that was non-linear. 

The movie did inhabit this weird dream state, this—as you said—liminal space but we didn’t know what it was. There were things there that were just floating and there were many reasons for that. Partly the aliens, partly the pills, all of these things coming together, but non-linear storytelling was the one variable that we hadn’t originally done. That’s how we came up with the beginning. That happened in the editing. There were other things that we found as we asked ourselves: how do we manage the expectations? How do we manage the ambiguity? How do we maintain the audience on a journey that we’re telling them we’re taking them somewhere? 

I edited the movie about 10-15% max. I didn’t change it much. I made small changes. But there was an exploration process in the editing. What I have to say about movie editing is that it is one of the most fundamental things of cinema. Writing a script, you have a blueprint, yeah, but editing is where you can truly innovate. Because we did that, that’s why Unidentified Objects feels like a bigger movie in many ways. We really spent the time. I don’t know how we found the resources. Me and Raphael just dove into everything we’ve been talking about, making sure we could make it feel the way we wanted to make it feel. That’s what the movie asked of us.  

Guillén: One little editing flourish I would like to ask after is the caterpillar crawling from underneath the alien hat. Talk to me about that. 

Zuleta: That was a happy accident. At that location there were these caterpillars on the road. I didn’t conceive that image originally. Matthew pointed it out to me. He said, “That’s Peter. He’s a worm trying to cross the road.” I was like, “You’re a genius! We’re going to shoot this right now.” And then we shot what became the opening shot of the movie at the end of the shooting schedule. I put a dead cockroach next to Peter’s crocs in the opening shot, after we shot the caterpillars. I was using bugs as a metaphor for his character who is a worm, a dead bug, who is a borderline suicide who has to decide whether he wants to die or not. There has been such a metaphorical use of cockroaches who survive the changes in society. They’re still there dwelling, surviving, going through everything, people stepping on them, right? That’s ultimately the theme of Unidentified Objects in some ways. You know where I’m going with that, right? But the caterpillar was a miracle, it was Matthew’s idea, and we thought, “We got to get it.”  

Guillén: I want to thank you, Juan Felipe. Unidentified Objects is a beautiful first feature. I’m excited for your Frameline U.S. premiere. I wish I could be there, but I actually live in Idaho and have to return home. 

Zuleta: I wish you could be there too.  

Guillén: Your passion is infectious. I know your Frameline audience is going to enjoy that so much and you’re going to enjoy interacting with them. Thank you, Juan Felipe, I really appreciate your taking the time to talk to me. 

Zuleta: Thank you, Michael. I look forward to staying in touch.

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