The Culver City Film Festival kicks off December 3rd, in Culver City, California, with a lineup of diverse films, and an emphasis on recognizing local talent in a city celebrated for it’s cinematic history and cultural depth. Featuring both up-and-coming and veteran filmmakers, the film festival aims to provide a venue for deserving independent cinema.
Of note, given this blog’s specific interests, is “Sepulveda,” a feature film from producers/co-directors Jena English & Brandon Wilson, which is summarized as an existential urban road movie about three best friends who decide to drive L.A.’s longest street; that street being Sepulveda Boulevard, for non Angelenos, hence the title of the film.
The three young women, friends since childhood, are played by non-professional actors Kristina Amaya, Karla Jovel and Leslie Reyes. What begins as a road trip done for the fun of it, evolves into something more along the way, as the trio is forced to face truths about themselves, their friendship and their individual futures.
Counting Roberto Rossellini, Eric Rohmer, and Michelangelo Antonioni as influences, the unadorned, micro-budget, contemplative mood piece (Wilson’s second feature film, following “The Man Who Couldn’t” which was released in 2006), makes its West Coast premiere at the Culver City Film Festival, screening at the Mayme A. Clayton Library & Museum (4130 Overland Ave, Culver City, California 90230).
Ahead of the film’s premiere, we spoke to co-director and producer Brandon Wilson about the making of “Sepulveda,” what audiences can expect, and the filmmakers’ hopes for the film. The Q&A follows below:
– For those of us who aren’t Angelenos and know little or nothing about Los Angeles, why Sepulveda Blvd as a backdrop, and essentially a character in the film as well? What’s its significance to the city (other than that it’s the longest street), and to the story your film tells, as well as to its 3 main characters?
The length of Sepulveda Boulevard is itself an important feature. It snakes through Los Angeles, connects the valley to the city, links Los Angeles County to Orange County and (in Los Angeles) marks the border to the (affluent) westside. There are other long streets in L.A. we could have used but I think we liked the sound of the name, the fact that it was named after a prominent family and therefore evoked Los Angeles’ Spanish/Mexican history. You also get an interesting range of scenery on Sepulveda: from poorer areas to more upscale neighborhoods. It struck us as a great way to showcase the range of communities in the southland and avoid some of the more tired imagery associated with the city. The funny thing is the 3 leads are northeasterners so this street is not one they know well and the actresses learned a lot about the city making the movie.
– Talk about casting; the 3 leads are young women who happen to be Latina. But the fact that they are is really of little consequence; they just are. It’s not something that’s specifically highlighted, which I think is a good thing, given that the opposite is more often the case. They aren’t stereotypical depictions. We are taken on this journey with 3 familiar young women, who really could be almost any other trio of young women in the USA, with similar interests, fears, desires, etc. And you put them at the center of an existential road movie, which is rare – that you’ll find 3 young women who happen to be Latina as lead protags in this kind of a film. I assume this was intentional? Or was it just a matter of ease and access? You knew these young ladies already, and you built a narrative around them?
These young women were my students and I’ve kept up with them over the years. One of them pitched the idea of starring in my next film project as a joke but I latched onto the idea. “Sepulveda” was originally conceived as a quasi-sequel to my first feature “The Man Who Couldn’t…” but I thought it’d be really interesting building the film around these three young women who are so interesting and unlike any representations you see of young Latinas in film. My wife (who co-directed the film with me) and I have a very specific ethos regarding diversity: we believe it is important to reflect the diversity of the city we live in but we also strive to represent diversity within so-called minority groups. The Man Who Couldn’t… had a Black male protagonist whose obsessions with cinema and the arts marked him as somewhat unusual and we’re continuing that with “Sepulveda.” Diversity can’t be window dressing. These characters could be anyone and yet their ethnic/gender identity isn’t incidental. It’s an important facet of who they are but not the totality of who they are.
– Building on question #2, talk about the film’s neorealist influences; I believe the script is a result of mostly improvisation, and the non-professional actors had a hand in creating their characters and language, possibly playing themselves, or versions/interpretations of themselves? It’s also beautifully and simply shot, without any adornments, camera or lighting gimmickry. The actresses (non-pros) are really asked to carry the film. There are no visual distractions. I wonder just how worrisome that might have been, if at all…
It was a risk, but we had faith that if we just captured the girls being a version of themselves we’d have something special. This film presented some juicy challenges for my wife and me. We both agreed we wanted a fairly static camera since motion is built into a road movie. In our first feature the camera was constantly moving. It served the story, and suggested the main character’s restlessness and ambition but we didn’t want to repeat ourselves. Even though the leads are in their 20s the camera style this time reflects the fact that we’ve aged a bit as filmmakers and don’t feel the need to show off. It takes a certain amount of confidence to resist showy tracking shots or Storaro lighting and that comes from having steadily acquired a body of work over the last two decades. Also it dawned on us late in the process that the static camera really reflects the fact that our lead characters are a bit rudderless and stuck.
We are pretty omnivorous when it comes to cinema so we drew on Neo-Realism, the L.A. Rebellion, and Iranian cinema. With our choice to work with non-professional actors, the style seemed like a perfect fit. It was also a great challenge to let go of the dialogue. Jena and I came up with the story and the leads had some input. We knew some plot points needed to happen but we wanted to avoid cliches and keep it naturalistic. I’ve been known to over-write dialogue so releasing control of the words was very liberating for me. And I think the ladies would agree that they’re playing slightly heightened versions of themselves. We all took a leap of faith and I think the leads fed off of our confidence in them.
– Ultimately, what do you hope your audience takes away from the film after watching it? What do you want them to feel? To think? To learn?
Whether you’re from Los Angeles or only watch it in movies and TV it would be nice if people looked at Los Angeles, and the people in it, with a new perspective after SEPULVEDA. That’s the point of art when you get down to it. I was perversely drawn to this story because it is a road movie where they aren’t going anywhere and it really is about the drive, not the destination. They’re just exploring for the sake of exploration and clearly that is a metaphor for one approach to life. We didn’t set out to present earth-shattering high drama; we wanted to focus on little, quiet moments that matter a lot. This is a coming-of-age film and we hope people connect with that on an emotional level. This film is also about letting go of certain familiar things in order to move forward. It’s a subtle film, but I have faith that there’s an audience for this kind of story. Lastly I hope it makes people think about what it means to be young, to grow up, to be a young woman, to be American and Latina.
– Your hopes for the film? It made its world premiere at the Urbanworld Film Festival in September, and I assume you’ll continue to tour the film festival circuit after Culver City. After that run ends, what do you anticipate happening? And/or what would you like to see happen? I’m thinking that it might actually work on a high school or college screening tour, whether by itself, or as part of a program showing off the diversity within the Latinx diaspora.
We hope to have a nice festival run and we’d love to tour with the film as much as we can. We really are excited by the conversations the film can start. The ultimate goal is to get it onto a streaming platform where it can be seen by a wide audience. And while this is anything but a “calling card film” it would be great if this generated interest in our scripts and projects. We took a long break after the first feature and now I want to keep making films without a lengthy hiatus.
– Finally, have the actors seen the film? If so, their reactions to the story and their performances?
They have seen the film. Many times. They enjoy it and are excited that something we talked about and hatched is about to be seen. They’ve really responded to it as co-filmmakers, more than as actresses, and they rarely talk about their performances. It should be said that this film was shot a bit like a documentary so a lot of their conversations didn’t make the cut and it’s been interesting for them to see what did stay in the film. The story has taken on a new emotional layer for them because they’ve all just gone away to 4 year colleges to finish up their respective degrees. So in a way it memorializes the end of an era for them just as it does for their characters.
“Sepulveda” makes its West Coast premiere at the Culver City Film Festival, with screenings taking place at the Mayme A. Clayton Library & Museum (4130 Overland Ave, Culver City, California 90230). Festival tickets can be purchased here.
Watch a trailer for the film below: