Summer-Joy “SJ” Main Muñoz took time this week to converse with #DirectedbyWomen about her filmmaking process and her short films Requiescat and Reconnected, which are both screening at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre during HollyShorts FIlm Festival.
DBW: Thanks for sharing your films and engaging with the #DirectedbyWomen Conversation series during such a busy time. Your short film Requiescat just received its World Premiere at Flickers Rhode Island International Film Festival on Thursday and now it—as well as your short Reconnected—will be screening at the 14th HollyShorts Film Festival. So we have a lot to talk about. Let’s start with Requiescat. It’s been a real passion project for you. What’s at the heart of this film? And what can you share with us about the experience of finally screening it with a festival audience?
SJ: This film was most definitely a passion project. It took years to complete due to raising funding, filming at different locations in order to achieve its varied terrains, coming to grips with audiences feeling challenged by ‘old English’—which I discovered through test screenings—and the process of a post-production heavy with VFX. I took the time to shape it into the best film I felt it could be and was fortunate to have a group of advisors provide detailed feedback throughout the editorial process. A mentor once told me that the job of the director is to strive for perfection until someone forces her to stop; if there’s room for improvement, then the project is not ready, and I didn’t feel it was until now. This film means a lot to me because not only did my craft as a filmmaker grow immensely during the production of this film, but also it presents a subject that is on the forefront of my concerns. Although set in the 1920s, it presents a circumstance urgently relevant today. It raises the question: How can our children come-of-age in a society that is so racially polarized?
DBW: Requiescat is a western set in the 1920s that focuses on a Latino teenager facing pressures within his family and from the racist society into which he moves as he engages the world beyond his home. Can you give us a glimpse of your process for working with your cast to navigate the emotional dynamics as you explored within a period story themes that are highly resonant in today’s world?
SJ: I try not to bother the cast with the bigger themes of a film. They simply have too much on their plate being present in an emotional moment and simply reacting authentically to one another. The relationship between the boy, Pepe, and his mother is the essential starting point for viewers to connect with Pepe’s journey. The language was undoubtedly challenging, and while I feel the cast did very well overcoming the challenges of the unique phrasing of 1920s language, I discovered in our test screenings that the language took audiences out of the story of the film. As my passion is the period genre, every film has taught me a new lesson, and this one taught me about the challenges of language. The period drama presents a unique circumstance in that you’re dealing with varied languages of different eras. It’s definitely a challenge, but a challenge I welcome. That being said, you want your cast to remain present in the heart of their relationships. I love that while this film presents a very simple series of events on the surface in its plot and shows us the emotional dynamics of a boy struggling to become a man as he relates to the expectations of his mother and the loss of his father, in the ‘bigger picture’, it presents many complex questions and ideas…such as Who is the guilty party? Is there only one guilty party in a racially divided and thus violent society? Can any side ever accept guilt and apologize? Can forgiveness exist in a polarized society? As viewers may note, it’s a pessimistic view on our society, but that’s what I’m experiencing right now, and I know many others feel the same. Hopefully it’s a reminder that things must change. We must find a way to live together.
DBW: Requiescat has such a lush look with sound to match. I’d love to hear about how you approached the design for the film and what it was like working with your collaborators to achieve this level of control over the images and sounds.
SJ: Yes, the masterful Paula Fairfield was my collaborator on the sound of this film. I had worked with her previously on my Western Luck of the Draw and it was once again an honor to work with her on Requiescat. She was kind enough to fit me in during her demanding schedule, also as she works on Game of Thrones. She came to the table as she always does with unparalleled creativity. She thinks outside the box and takes a film to a higher emotional level as she is always thinking about the emotional dynamics of the picture and giving the audience a true experience within the world of the film. She gave this picture an impressive 7.1 mix, which I look forward to sharing with audiences at HollyShorts on August 16th. I think sound is one of the most vital elements of a film and Paula Fairfield is no doubt one of the best in the industry.
I also had the opportunity on this picture to collaborate again with cinematographer Ryan Broomberg. We were brought together via the American Society of Cinematographers. Ryan definitely ‘sees’ the world in the same light that I do and therefore we’ve been able to connect visually and collaborate easily on pictures, no matter the style or genre. It’s been fantastic growing my relationship with him where now we are able to communicate without words on set and generally know what the other is thinking before it’s said. Likewise, I worked twice with the composer, John Kaefer, and as always, my producing partner and husband, Derek Classen. I feel it’s a benefit to work with collaborators over a series of films as you’re able to go deeper and deeper on each project, challenging yourselves and striving for new levels of cinematic eloquence.
DBW: There’s so much more we could explore about Requiescat, but let’s switch gears and talk about Reconnected. This one takes us forward to modern times. Do I understand correctly that the film is based on a short story by Robert Kerbeck, who stars in the film and who co-wrote the screenplay with you? Did he approach you with the idea? I’d love to hear how you became engaged in this project and how you drew together the cast. I mean, what a joy to see the wonderful Barbara Bain in the film. She delivers a compelling performance at a pivotal moment in the film. Tell us how this came together.
SJ: I met Robert Kerbeck, a talented short story author, through a writers group, and he then attended the first test screening of Requiescat when the film was in its earliest cut and even missing footage. He mentioned to me his interest in adapting a short story of his into a film. I reviewed his different shorts and selected Reconnected. I was able to guide him through the adaptation process and while he was reluctant at first to play the lead role, he seemed perfect for it and had a lot of previous television acting experience. He also was eager for his son to have a chance at acting and so his son in the film is actually played by his real-life son, Davis Fox. Davis is a very sweet kid and I look forward to seeing him develop as an actor. Of course working with Barbara Bain was an ultimate joy. She possesses one of the strongest work ethics of anyone I know and she’s charismatic beyond belief. I’ve had a wonderful time traveling with her on the circuit. I also must mention the talented Kerry O’Malley. Kerry taught me a lot about working with pro actors and showed me what they bring to the table. Working with her is ridiculously easy.
DBW: I watched these two films back to back, which invited me to reflect on them in relationship to each other. They are quite different in tone, in place and time, in the way they were lit and framed, and in the people whose stories they revolve around, but they also have commonalities. They both have male protagonists, but include compelling roles for women. They involve families stressed by fathers who are missing or whose roles in the family have been disrupted. And perhaps most powerfully for me they each pivot around moments where the protagonists are driven to acts of unpremeditated violence in the face of verbal abuse laced with harsh judgments. These play out in the films in very different ways. There are so many questions inherent in what I’m thinking about. I guess I’m really curious to know how you perceive the process of making each film distinct and yet also feel free to explore themes across projects. Is this something you consciously address in your filmmaking process?
SJ: I was forced to analyze this question recently in a Q&A. As an emerging filmmaker, the thematic commonalities of your work is not something you constantly analyze. I do know exactly what type of material I’m drawn to and it’s usually instantaneous and on an instinctual level. While Reconnected is not a period film and actually my first contemporary picture since Columbia University Graduate film school, it still maintains that violence, dangerousness, and darkness in tone and light that I’m drawn to, and at their essence both Requiescat and Reconnected are stories of a protagonist at conflict with his circumstance and environment. Lead characters struggling with who they are, who they’ve become, and who they want to be versus who they should be. Of course this is the essence of the hero’s journey and resides in most all stories—it’s almost Screenwriting 101—but I strive to always engage the characters with their surroundings, and the environments always play a significant character in my films. I’ll admit I’m fascinated by violence and this even plays out into an interest in following true crime in my day-to-day life. I believe this connects with my curiosity about death, the fragility of human life, and perhaps even a fear of dying. I guess perhaps I’m trying to face it head-on and that is why the themes of death, dying and violence are always present in my work.
DBW: We could keep going, but I know time is tight. Before we wrap up I’d love your recommendations. The #DirectedbyWomen initative is dedicated to helping film lovers find out about and explore the work of women directors. Who are a few of the women directors whose work you’d like to see film lovers connect with? I’m particularly eager to hear your thoughts about filmmakers who are not household names but whose work you have found invigorating.
SJ: There are so many talented female filmmakers and many of them are my colleagues, emerging at different levels in their careers in the film and television industry. I have to give a shout-out to two emerging TV directors, Rachel Goldberg and Hanelle Culpepper, who I’m grateful to for their support on my path and for leading the way. I’m also inspired by more established TV and film directors who are working in another genre besides period that I’m inspired to work in, which is dark drama. These women are directing shows that generally have only male directors. Kari Skogland and Nicole Kassell are top of my list. I mention TV directors because I feel there are some real female powerhouses in that medium, and they often go unacknowledged. In terms of a feature director, Claire Denis must be mentioned. I had the pleasure of studying and serving as her Teacher’s Assistant in Saas-Fee, Switzerland, during my doctorate studies at the European Graduate School. Claire is one tough cookie. She inspires me to endure against all odds, and we share similarities in our films in that she confronts very masculine subjects and circumstances but the essence of the stories are very emotional conflicts. Claire is a goddess.
DBW: Any other thoughts you’d like to share about your films and your filmmaking process? Any other projects in the works?
SJ: Thank you for the opportunity to discuss my work. I am a fan of the #DirectedByWomen initiative and thank you for bringing the work of female filmmakers to light. Honestly, I never considered doing anything but making films and directing. I’m honored to continue to do what I want to spend my life doing and also to present to audiences two films on the circuit this year, especially ones that are so different. I have a few projects going into production in the fall and working hard on packaging my first feature. I look forward to sharing that with you next time.
DBW: Have a wonderful time as you take your work out to audiences. Keep us posted about these films and your future work. I can’t wait to see what you create next. We’re weaving a culture of appreciation within the global film community and your longstanding support for the #DirectedbyWomen initiative has been so meaningful. As Ava DuVernay likes to say, “Onward!”
Reconnected screens at HollyShorts in the Women in Film program on August 11, 2018 at 2:30pm.
Requiescat plays at HollyShorts in the Western program on August 16 at 2:30pm.