As a first time director, what ultimately lured you to direct VERONICA?
I was lured by the siren call of Tanya Perez’s kickass-ery. Tanya sent a script and asked me to direct. I had never directed anything except some theater but she put her trust in me. After years of collaborating with her as an improviser I knew that she was capable of so much more than what she had been given the opportunity to do. Looking back, I think why the hell did it take so damn long for us to turn to each other and say “let’s make something!”?
As you know, I adore you and Tanya Perez, who wrote the script and played the title role of Veronica so beautifully… How did this collaboration come about and what was it like working together from script to screen?
Tanya came to me with a hilarious sketch comedy that she wrote and asked if I wanted to direct it. I really liked it but I thought it had the legs to go deeper as a dramedy. We developed it for about a year with me giving notes and her expanding then distilling the writing. Tanya was amazing. I would basically say “Okay, this is great but I want you to dig deeper and go to all these painful places then make us laugh… Go.” A lot of people would understandably run from this. Tanya often had new pages for me the next day. She’s intrepid, talented and there is no one like her.
What was the casting process like, did you reach out to the Transgender Community of actors specifically?
We were certain that we only wanted transgender actors playing trans roles. That was non-negotiable. What was wonderful luck was that if we hadn’t reached out to Trans actors then we would never have found the perfect actress to play the Cis gender role of Sarah. We had been struggling to find someone with all the complex qualities and range of Sarah then a friend suggested Pooya for one of the transgender roles. I saw her brilliant acting reel and I said “it’s Sarah!”
How did you deal/go about with the rehearsal process (if there was any time for that!)?
I moved to the west coast while we were developing the piece so there was almost no rehearsal but we made the little we had count. I’m most proud and grateful for the casting. Everyone did such beautiful and grounded work and most of my work in rehearsal was about getting the actors to trust themselves and the piece. I wanted the humor to come out of the audience recognizing themselves warts and all.
As the director, setting the creative environment and tone on set is ultimately your job … What did you do or say to give the cast & crew the creative freedom to work as a cohesive family?
Crew and cast can tell when you’re putting the project ahead of your ego. Whatever your feelings are about a project is infectious. I’ve been in on a lot of sets where the director treats the cast or crew as if they are an obstacle to getting their own vision realized. This is nuts to me. It’s intrinsically a collaborative medium. If you don’t like that then go do a vlog.
The performances were incredibly specific and emotionally nuanced, especially Ms. Perez as Veronica. As a very skilled actor yourself, do you think you were in unique position to guide her through that gorgeous performance?
Thank you and I agree! I think the greatest asset I had in working Tanya was that I just knew from years observation that she was capable of it. As actors we don’t usually work with that level of confidence from our directors. I think women especially tend to doubt ourselves when we are sitting on that type of gold dust. I hope that’s changing.
The scene between Veronica and her Boss was excellent, it walked / crossed the line of so many social ladders and issues that in other films I’ve found ring false or over the top, but this scene was completely believable throughout… I would love you to tell me more about directing that scene?
I love this scene as well. Some of the hardest work was to lift the layers of assumptions that we all carry about the women we’ve previously seen portrayed on screen. This is a scene between two highly successful women who love what they do and aren’t competing against each other. I had to assure the actress playing Sarah that I wasn’t looking for the typical bitch-on-wheels boss. Yes, I want her to be powerful, sexy, raunchy, and blunt. I also wanted her to be real and flawed and to care passionately about helping Veronica succeed. I’m thrilled with how these two delivered.
To quickly follow up on that, I am inspired to ask, was there one particular moment that you remember during the shoot that you were like “oh, shit I can do this”?
Off the top of my brain…with Pooya, she was so much more than the bitch boss and I think giving her permission to not try and please me or anyone, but just use all her gold dust made for instant magic. It happens by simply being compassionate with actors and where they’re coming from. I believe what you don’t say is almost more important, it gives (actors) permission to be truthful.
And let the crew do their job! Creating the environment must come from a genuine place, it allows “the story” to shine through. The essence of the story is what makes one sign up for smaller projects like this, and this gives way to the motivation for the amazing gaffers to “make the day”! Everyone is crucial and showing genuine respect is essential. All people need to feel seen and heard.
RESPECT OF THE SPACE!
I thought the way it was shot was so personal and captured “all the feels” how closely were you involved with the DP and how did that relationship work?
This was my first time directing so I knew I couldn’t compromise on what I needed from a DP. I wanted someone with an eye for offbeat comedy. Someone who would be adventurous and creative but wouldn’t compromise truth for pretty pictures. I also wanted someone who came recommended from someone I trusted. My friend Hye Yun Park — btw, check her out because she is a fierce, funny, brilliant creator! — recommended Christine Ng and after speaking with her once, I knew she fit the bill. She was fantastic throughout and I hope to work with her again.
I have to ask, as I thought from the costumes to the sets to the way it edited was seamless. As the director, how much did you have your hands in those departments?
Thank you! Another area where I just lucked out for the most part. With Pooya (playing Sarah), it turned out she had worked in the fashion industry so she had a closet full of gorgeous clothes that she worked like a top model. Otherwise, I gave some basic guidelines to the actors for what’s camera friendly and character appropriate and they brought their own clothes. I was lucky this time.
VERONICA is doing really well on the festival circuit and winning lots of accolades…how does this make you feel?
Fucking fantastic! It confirms that people are ready for something new and to hear new voices. I know I am. Part of my ambivalence toward this industry is that it’s been the same people telling the same stories from the same perspectives. This isn’t just morally lazy… it’s boring! I’ve never been so excited about the possibilities in this industry. I have never been so ambitious to be a part of it.
How long was the actual shoot?
How did you all raise the money for the film, and what was the final budget?
It was under 5k and it was out of my pocket. That was a very tough call but it was my first and I figured it’s less than film school…
Any major bumps in the road? And if so, how did you manage to overcome?
Oh man… YES. On the day, equipment and people didn’t show up. There were also paperwork issues. We had to change the shot list on the spot. I acknowledged those affected and asked that they help improvise new strategies. Our DP was especially brilliant. I didn’t cry or take it out on anyone else. We got on with it. I wouldn’t wish this on anyone BUT part of what’s so exciting about film and tv is that it’s such a collaborative medium and there’s an aliveness to the moment. I think there’s an energy that comes across in the film that’s due in part to us all banding together to create something new in the moment.
Any advice to people struggling to leap and “just do it” (make their film)?
The best and/or worst thing about making your first film is that you’re so personally exposed because you don’t yet have the experience to cover. This can be a great thing! It’s why first films can be so alive and fresh. I think people should know that whatever your intention is will be right there on the screen. If you want to show off or preach or shock or if your truly passionate about a piece… it’ll probably come across in your work. Even if you didn’t write or act in it. So… I would suggest finding a piece that you’re passionate about whether it’s a comedy about a drunk squirrels or a documentary on income inequality. Don’t let other people tell you what you should care about because if it’s not sincere… Your ass will be showing.
And on that amazing note, any plans or anything in the works for your next project or are you still waiting for the magical inspiration to arrive?
This is the time, as an audience member and as a filmmaker, the demand for these stories that have not been heard is in order. The Damn has broken!! NOW IS THE TIME TO TELL THESE STORIES.
I have a couple short films are in the works.
Reiko, you’re such a damn gift of a human and a beautiful artist. It was such a pleasure diving into this with you. I am so glad you leapt. It’s an incredibly important piece of filmmaking and you knocked it out of the park. Brilliant job and I want to work with you ASAP, damn it!
VERONICA is doing a major Festival route right now…but you can check out the trailer here:
VERONICA has already won the Award of Merit in LBGT at the Best Shorts Competition, Award of Merit in Latin/Hispanic at the IndieFest Film awards & Best Actress at StoryMode Independent Short Film Awards. The film has screened at Outlanta Con, SISFA, Cannes Short Film Corner and have the upcoming Lighthouse International Film Festival.