A conversation between the filmmakers of Marisol: Director Zoé Salicrup Junco and Producer Lauren Sowa.
LS: How did you get started in film? Have you always known you wanted to be a director?
ZSJ: I was always involved in the arts growing up but never directly in film. I remember shooting some pretend music videos and commercials with my friends. I took them so seriously. Looking back I was definitely producing and directing them. I had always loved storytelling. Dance was a huge part of my childhood so choreographing kind of became a thing. So by the time I had to decide what I wanted to major in in college I saw Film as an option on my applications. I didn’t know exactly what it was, but it just felt right.
LS: Who or what are your most important cinematic influences?
ZSJ: They’re always changing. But some of them are Cary Fukunaga, Dee Rees, Guillermo del Toro, Barry Jenkins, and Reed Morano!
LS: Do you remember any from your childhood? Any films that left a strong impact on you?
ZSJ: Yeah, Alfonso Cuarón’s A Little Princess always stayed with me.
LS: That movie was so beautiful.
ZSJ: It’s not that it’s my favorite or directly impacts my work, but it just stayed with me. I guess the feeling it gave me is what I would aspire to do with my body of work.
LS: In looking at your work, do you feel there are common threads or themes that you explore?
ZSJ: It was never like a direct intention, but I always find myself writing a strong female lead. The movie can be about anything. I am interested in exploring other genres like sci-fi and action, but at the center of all my stories there’s a woman, and the goal is to capture a genuine, authentic, complicated, relatable woman.
LS: How was it to work on a film that you didn’t write, as with Marisol?
ZSJ: Very refreshing! Writing tends to be very personal. So regardless of how much you try to separate from the work, you can’t. There’s an emotional weight. Don’t get me wrong, that emotional weight is key. But you have to be careful with it. Marisol gave me a chance to really focus on other aspects of directing and I feel like I grew from that. Another common theme [in my work] is family dynamics. The story can be about anything, like Marisol for example is about immigration, BUT it’s centered around a mother/daughter story.
LS: Yeah, it’s interesting to see how even when we aren’t conscious of it, we are drawn to certain ideas or themes. I feel that all of my work centers around strong women. And even if a character isn’t described as ‘strong’ I can’t help but find the strength in her. I think a lot about the stories we’re passing down to the next generation.
ZSJ: It’s funny I think about it the other way around. Like what are the stories I would have liked to have seen growing up. But yeah, it leads us to the same place.
LS: When you get a script sent to you, how do you go about immersing yourself in the world? What’s your creative process like?
ZSJ: As soon as I read the script I write all the questions that come to my mind regarding the characters. I want to know all of their backstories And same with the writer. Like how did this story come about, why, why now, why you, why me? That helps establish the authenticity of the piece and of the characters. And that authenticity becomes kind of like the base of our intention for the overall piece. So, during the creative process, every time we hit a roadblock, we know where we need to go back to in order to elevate the piece. Like, a point of departure, you know?
LS: Absolutely. Throughout this process, I was so impressed with your attention to detail and with how high you set the bar for yourself and the team. We were so fortunate to have you direct this film.
ZSJ: Thank you! Yes, I have a tendency to be very detail-oriented!
LS: Can you talk us through a little bit the editing process? I know you had to make some tough decisions there. Some ‘kill your darlings’ moments, if you will.
ZSJ: It’s funny, I can’t remember that well what darlings we killed. Which is good, that means there are no regrets. There are different ways to shoot and edit a film. Some people just shoot the edit and that’s it. In Marisol for example, we were shooting in a car for a good portion of the story. We knew a lot of factors would be out of control. Of course, we were super prepared for the shoot, but we knew we had to be flexible with the coverage and just take our time to massage the film during the edit. It takes a bit longer, but it’s so worth it. When you massage a film in post-production, it’s wonderful because you also learn a lot. You realize that scenes you had on paper weren’t needed visually anymore. You experiment and just allow yourself to push the craft further.
LS: I’ll never forget the image of you tucked into the trunk of the car, wearing headphones, holding the monitor. Filmmaking is such a glamorous life, isn’t it?
ZSJ: I mean, I love it. I don’t why there’s this perception that filmmaking is glamorous.
LS: I’ve always heard you make a film twice—once on set, and once in the edit. It’s an interesting shift in the mind from production to post, to then say, “Okay, here’s what we have. What is our movie now?”
ZSJ: Yeah, that’s where my producer hat kicks in. Some directors can get frustrated if their vision doesn’t come to fruition exactly as they planned. I’m more flexible and am immediately thinking of creative solutions. That’s the fun part, believe it or not.
LS: That’s something I love about working with you. The whole process felt positive, productive, and collaborative.
ZSJ: If people feel bogged down, they’re not going to do a good job. It’s okay to take a minute and vent your frustrations out, but then come back and figure out a solution. That’s where people shine. And ask for help, if you need it.
LS: Speaking of shining, let’s chat about Emma Ramos, our lead. Casting a lead is always tricky, because your film hinges on it. What were you looking for in auditions, and what made Emma’s stand out?
ZSJ: I was looking for someone who could connect with the character of Marisol on a deeper level. She came in with a bunch of questions. She challenged the character. She challenged me. She challenged all of us. That showed she cared about the piece and about the character. It actually reminded me of the character.
LS: Do you find that you often go with your gut when making casting decisions or do you sit and weigh options?
ZSJ: I do both. I weigh in, debate, but usually go with my gut. There has to be chemistry. That’s where the gut comes into play. She needs to feel comfortable talking to me, and me with her, because in the shoot it comes down to me and her. Especially when we’re in a tiny car all day long!
LS: How are you feeling now that the film is about to go out in the world?
ZSJ: I have empty nest syndrome. I’ve been holding this baby for a while.
LS: Our baby’s going off to college.
ZSJ: Like, I want everyone to watch it, don’t get me wrong, but [the film is] no longer mine. It’s the audience’s.
LS: I’m excited to see her shine, though. Do you like going to festivals and talking to audiences about your work?
ZSJ: Yeah, festivals are fun and you get to see your colleagues’ work. I like to see a whole room react to the movie. I like standing in the back and just hearing silences or laughs or gasps or tears. But I also like one on ones—hearing how the story specifically touched someone. That’s what it’s about.
LS: What do you hope an audience will take away from Marisol?
ZSJ: The goal is to humanize the very big and complicated issue of immigration. People tend to understand things better when they can relate to them in a very specific way. If somebody is not Latinx, has never endured questionable behavior from authorities, etc., they may not necessarily digest something as complex as immigration right off the bat. But that person most likely has a family. And perhaps in a different way has experienced the painful process of having their family threatened or separated.
LS: Yes, this was the main reason we wanted to create the film—to have the conversation with people who might not be used to thinking about immigration in ways other than black and white. It’s not so easy to think so definitively about immigration when you see the human side of it. Especially at a time in our country when everything seems so polarized. People are taking sides on every little thing, without thinking it through, sometimes. Maybe we can open some minds and hearts, and complicate the thinking a little bit.
ZSJ: That’s why writing is so painful—you have to be willing to live in the gray, and see both sides.
LS: That’s the most interesting place to me. That’s life.
ZSJ: Yeah, but you have to be wired a certain way to see that. I think most artists can do that.
LS: I think living in the gray is about encouraging empathy. And as filmmakers, we have so much power in the media we create —what stories are we telling? What are we saying? I hope that as people watch Marisol they will feel empathy for Marisol, and by connecting with her, they’ll look beyond her status, or her background, and they’ll see another human, just like them.
ZSJ: Agreed! Yeah, I mean you’re right it’s all about empathy. I think as you hone in on your craft, you pose those questions more and more. But the unconscious need or decision to create personal connections with an audience via storytelling is always there when you’re a filmmaker.
LS: What have you taken away from the process of making Marisol?
ZSJ: Marisol is really special to me because you encouraged me to assemble a crew where heads were female. Prior to that I was very aware of female empowerment but not necessarily behind the camera. That made me aware of how I could help create opportunities for women not only in the narrative but during the project. And I’m very grateful for that experience. It changed the way I approach projects.
LS: That’s so nice to hear. We did have an amazing crew! Thank you for chatting with me. And if any readers happen to be in San Diego, we’ll be premiering Marisol at the San Diego Latino Film Festival on March 23rd, 2019! I’ll be there, so please come say hello if you do attend.
Zoé Salicrup Junco
Born and raised in Puerto Rico, Zoé is an award-winning narrative and commercial film director & producer. A graduate of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, Zoé has created content for Sony, ESPN, AOL, and more. Her narrative short films have screened in festivals including Tribeca, Palm Springs, Clermont Ferrand, and HBO NY Latino Film Festival. Her short film GABI garnered her top prizes like the King Screenwriting Award, the Wasserman Directing Award, the National Board of Review Student Grant, and a spot in The Independent Magazine’s “Top 10 Filmmakers to Watch” list. Zoé is a Cinefestival/Sundance Latino Screenwriters Project Fellow, a Sundance Women’s Financing Intensive Project Fellow, and an HBO/DGA Directing Fellowship Finalist. She’s also an active member of the New York Women in Film & Television Organization and the NYC Women’s Filmmakers Group. You can see some of her work at www.zoesj.com. Follow her on Instagram.