An Interview with Jon Garcia
Jon Garcia is an acclaimed writer and director known for The Falls Trilogy, Luz, and Love in Dangerous Times. I spoke with Jon about shooting during the pandemic, the inspiration behind Luz, and his upcoming film Strictly for the Birds.
I want to begin by talking about your film Luz…
It was shot in April 2019, but I worked on it well into the pandemic. I set it off for distribution around June 2020.
You also recently shot Love in Dangerous Times which focuses on dating during the pandemic.
I want to say right after I finished Luz and delivered it I started writing Love in Dangerous Times and we put it together pretty fast. I started writing it in March, started shooting in April and we distributed it by June. I was trying to keep myself busy and not stress too much about the pandemic. It was fun.
I guess that all had a big impact on filming?
It made some things easier, but some things we couldn’t do. We had to leave it mostly to an apartment and there wasn’t much outside. There wasn’t anybody telling you that you couldn’t go outside, but everyone was mostly inside. The streets were empty which was the good thing about shooting. I’d never seen Portland like that, so that was cool. No protocols were installed yet for filmmaking. They are now to a degree. We just did the best that we could. We were just careful.
Are you based in Portland?
I had been based in Portland for about 16 years. I recently moved to Huston, Texas to be with family, but it’s temporary. It’s interesting because it’s kind of what the character was trying to do in Love in Dangerous Times, was to try and get home. In some ways it was life imitating art, or vice-versa. When we were shooting the movie we were still learning about the virus and we were changing our dialogue because we were learning new stuff.
For a while there were no flights and no one was travelling. I knew a lot of people who felt they couldn’t go back home and see their parents. It wasn’t just proximity, it was because their parents were elderly. That was kind of the obstacle.
What was the inspiration behind Luz. Was it based on real-life events?
Not specifically. I guess the area where I grew up and surrounding in South Texas I did see within my family and friends people like Carlos and Ruben. Growing up Latino, I’m definitely familiar with machismo culture and that Latino kind of pride. The inspiration was honestly when I saw Moonlight a few years back and I liked how they approached this conversation about masculinity within black culture and I thought something like this needs to exist for a Latino culture. I kind of pulled from people I’d known. I knew a Ruben, a Carlos and I definitely knew a Julio, the cousin. I constructed a story and I wanted to tell a love story that had all to do with masculinity within a Latino culture and I started to construct it on paper and this is what came about.
I believe it was originally conceived as a mini-series?
Yes it was going to be like a one season, six episode type deal. It was six thirty minute episodes. The first cut I think was around three hours. It was still long winded from being written as a mini-series.
How challenging was it to adapt it into a feature?
I guess the jury is still out right? If people are enjoying the film, it definitely still felt long winded as we were making it. It was more challenging in post-production realising I’d made an independent film that was longer than two hours. It made me think about movies I’d seen by directors I appreciate and how they had the confidence to put out like a three hour film, or however long. That’s brave to do that. I didn’t think this film needed to be that long, it wasn’t a story like that. Here I had a story with three hours plus material, so just deciding what to cut out was challenging. We had a whole subplot about the Aryan brotherhood vs the Latino gangs in the story. We cut that out and put it in the deleted scenes for the DVD. That was about a twenty minute run that we cut out of the film. When I watch it I still see where we cut out big portions, even before we started filming. It was very challenging. Do I put out a longer film, or do I cut this down to an hour and a half and make it more palpable for audiences. It ended up just being under two hours and it feels right, like it’s the right length.
What were the initial conversations you had with DP Sarah Whelden about the look of the film?
We wanted light to be a fixture in a lot of our scenes. We wanted to put some haze in pretty much every scene. Before we start film it we spray it and then waft it. It takes about a minute and then you are ready to go. What it does is it makes the room look fuller and it gives it this misty, sort of cool cinematic feeling. We knew wanted that and some lens flairs. The movie is called light so we wanted to illuminate it essentially. Sarah has the RED camera and she’s a very talented cinematographer and works well with that camera. I love that look, so we talked about that and shooting with a 28mm for a lot of it. The very cinematic lens. When we got inside the cell I imagined the cell being larger. It was twice as small as I thought it would be. We had to adjust our lenses in the way we shot in the prison. We tried to do some blocking in there but it was so small. We had to think on our feet a little bit for some of the stuff, but we knew we wanted light to be a fixture, to use the RED and the 28mm lens a lot.
I’m a big fan of Terrence Malik so there are some scenes that are just like Steadicam. We used a Letus stabilisation unit for that. The scenes are kind of like streams of consciousness. We had to do that both for effect and to save time. There was a big day in the prison yard and we didn’t have much time. We got everybody working out and we just went around and the whole crew was following the camera person so that they weren’t in the shot. There is a lot of footage of us in shot and trying to get out of the way, it’s pretty silly.
You mentioned space as a challenge during shooting. What other challenges did you face shooting inside a prison?
I’d never been in a prison, so making it feel authentic was a big challenge. We weren’t trying to make a gritty, hard-nosed prison film. We have seen a lot of those. I really like what we did. If I were to do it again I would try to make sure we had somebody monitoring. I did take a tour of the max facility. But I would have liked to have spent more time on the authenticity of how prison might have felt. We had the unit that we had and we were extremely low budget, it was great. The guards there were so helpful and we actually got to work with some actual adults in custody. All the inmates you see are actually inmates at a regional prison there, in Salem. I was a little nervous to work with those guys, but they ended up being complete sweethearts and I still keep in touch with some of them. They all had at least a year to go, or less, on their sentences. That’s how we were able to work with them. I was worried about having extras in there, but they helped us out.
The state told us it would be better to stay away from certain subject matter in prisons and they weren’t in our script anyway, so that wasn’t a problem. Getting the facility itself was a miracle because we were about to shoot it all in one cell, on a soundstage because we couldn’t find a facility to shoot in. Finally this facility opens up and we can make our movie. It was going to be a very different film and then, in a matter of a few weeks to a month before shooting, that facility became open.
I imagine it is quite difficult to be granted access to those facilities as well?
Yeah it was. We had to let them know what our intentions were and what we were trying to do and not trying to do. They were cool, so it helped we were making a love story and not something else I think.
Were there any other films you looked at before shooting?
I know the film I couldn’t stop watching was Starred Up. That’s why we put everybody in sweats. I saw that and was like I don’t have to look for these orange garbs anymore, let’s put everybody in sweats. I loved the look. It made me think of Trainspotting. Starred Up has become one of my favourite films. I love it.
How different is the atmosphere of a British prison to an American one?
Totally different. I get questions about that because originally I wanted it to feel more like your traditional prison. We were in a facility that was like minimum security, but I wrote it to be in a maximum originally. We were in a minimum, we had wooden doors and it just had a different feel. The prison was shaped like a cross, it had one long hallway and another long hallway and that was the unit. We had to recreate this idea of what the prison was that these guys were in and their daily activities. The maximum prisons have several check-ins a day, I think like five or so when they do a count. The way that they transition from cell to yard, it’s different in every prison. I was trying to kind of make up my own little system here. It was a minimum, but I wanted it to feel like it was stricter. More time and knowledge of the prison system would have come in handy. We did a good job of trying to put it together the best we could.
Starred Up was interesting the way he’s integrating into the system and yes inmates can walk around freely in that unit. I’d never seen a film about the British prison system. I’m sure there are plenty, but I think that was why I was so enthralled by it too. The Place Beyond the Pines was another influence. I always get hung up on another movie when making a film. Some of the outfits that Ruben wore were kind of influenced by these kind of 80s torn t-shirts that Ryan Gosling was wearing in The Place Beyond the Pines.
Was filmmaking a career you always wanted to pursue?
Yes, I think so. I always wanted to act when I was little. I had a stammer as a kid, so I thought I probably couldn’t be an actor if I couldn’t even speak in front of people. I got into directing later because I felt like I’d have to talk in front of people as a director to. I didn’t build the confidence to until I was thirty, that’s when I made my first movie. I had a career as a musician, I could sing in front of people and not be nervous. I’d always wanted to be in entertainment. I just had soul crushing social anxiety that is still with me, but it’s going away the older I get.
Could you tell me more about your upcoming film Strictly for the Birds?
I don’t know release dates yet. That was my first film where I wasn’t in control of everything. It was labour of love, but I was brought on to tell an adaptation of a story. The story belongs to them. I’m unsure of the distribution of it. The story is about two people in their 70s. They live in a retirement community and essentially they fall in love in their golden years. One of them is a trans woman and the other is a straight woman, it’s about how their love comes together. The woman who is trans has just transitioned and she feels like she should be attracted to men now. The woman has never been in love with a trans person and they are both coming to terms with that. The lead character Kate can’t move on and love somebody fully until she has dealt with her past and can love herself. The two people it’s about play themselves in their own movie. Originally we were going to look for some actors, but we couldn’t find the right people for it, so they ended up playing themselves and they did a terrific job. I’m really excited for people to watch it. A lot of non-actors in the film and I think it works quite well.
Other than that I’m working on UFC fighter, Lauren Murphy’s story. We’re still doing the negotiations, but I’m willing to tell her story of growing up in Alaska and accidentally becoming an MMA fighter and number 3 in the world in her weight class.