Let’s start out with a brief lesson in film history. After all, many major industries have been changing so rapidly that it’s easy to forget where we came from, how things used to be.
John Cassavetes was a theater student who realized quite young that he wanted to make movies. He wanted to write, direct, and act. At the time (circa 1956), making a movie without the aid of a studio meant securing your own cameras, sound equipment, actors, funding, and crew.
His first movie was funded by close friends and family members, as well as through some early crowdfunding via a radio broadcast, roughly 50 years before the likes of Kickstarter.
To make his later movies, he acted in major television series and films, spending most of his pay on his own independent productions.
For most of his career, he had a tenuous relationship with Hollywood studios, but that relationship was necessary to gain distribution and marketing for his projects.
It is for these reasons that Cassavetes is often named as a pioneer of independent cinema. Put simply, the work it required to produce independent projects was so monumental that very few people actually did it.
These days, major studios still have a great deal of power and influence, but it’s also entirely possible to create, produce, and show your work to the public without the involvement of a studio or even a production company.
It’s a new age, and many young filmmakers are taking advantage of these new opportunities.
Mexican Filmmaking: No Longer on the Fringe
Meanwhile, industry pushes for diversity in media have encouraged studios and independent productions alike to give voice to stories that have been underrepresented in the traditional entertainment landscape.
In particular, over the past 20 years or so, mainstream entertainment has seen the rise of several prominent Mexican filmmakers who have permanently altered the contemporary film landscape.
Directors such as Alejandro Inarritu, Alfonso Cuaron, and Guillermo del Toro have been a dominant force in recent filmmaking, especially when it comes to awards season (they currently have 10 Oscars between the three of them).
Younger Mexican and Mexican-American filmmakers have taken this success to heart, using it as a source of inspiration to create their own work.
Today, we’ll be sharing our discussion with two such filmmakers.
Boots on the Ground
Antonio Salume is a Producer, Director, and Writer who has created a number of short films and music videos, including multiple videos for the award-winning Miri Ben-Ari.
He is currently in production for a brand new project with Director and Producer Karla Luna Cantu.
Cantu has produced short films that have been awarded by IndieFEST, 25 Under 25 Film Festival, and the Los Angeles Shorts International Film Festival.
Both artists enjoy creating work that challenges societal preconceptions and prejudices based on age, gender identity, social class, and ethnicity.
Salume and Cantu were the perfect candidates for a discussion on how film itself is changing and how it can be used to change minds.
What ‘Producer’ Really Means
We started out with a question that has undoubtedly perplexed many of us who don’t happen to work in the entertainment industry, namely, what does the term producer really mean?
It’s a title that comes up a lot when watching just about any kind of media. Blockbuster movies in particular often have long lists of producers, from Executive Producers to Line Producers to Associate Producers.
Both Salume and Cantu have a great deal of experience as Producers, and as such we took the opportunity to explore the term in more detail.
Cantu gave an incredibly helpful summarization of what producers actually do with regards to their productions.
“I always like to describe a ‘Producer’ as someone that makes things happen. It’s hard to define the work of producers because there are so many types of producers! I do think the role of a producer changes depending on what the project calls for. A good producer always does what is best for the project and the story.”
It’s a description that begs comparisons to the captain of a ship, a comparison that may not quite fit here simply because the Director does ultimately have control of the production.
But if the Director is the captain, then we may think of producers as the navigator, pulling out maps to make sure that the ship is heading in the right direction and has plenty of fuel to get to its destination.
Salume elaborated on this idea, noting that producers need to make use of both creative and organizational skills.
“Just like Karla noted, a producer makes things happen. I even see them as a type of entrepreneur. They take on many roles along the way, but ultimately, they bring all the elements together for a film to be made. Ideally, they work very closely with directors and writers, to make sure they stay as accurate as possible to their visions while being as efficient as possible.”
While producers rarely receive spotlight attention when a movie is being promoted, they are often the unsung heroes who keep an eye on the big picture and the minute details at the same time, helping a production cross the finish line.
The Impact of New Tech
We moved on to the subject of social media and emerging technologies. These venues haven’t just become a way for filmmakers to spread the word on upcoming projects, they’ve also affected the way the general public consumes media.
For example, the short-lived Vine popularized a micro-video format that (perhaps inadvertently) inspired experimentation and collaboration.
Is social media (and the internet in general) shortening our attention spans? If the answer is yes, this could represent a potential threat to movies in their current state.
Are movies set to become shorter as the years go by? Will theaters continue to have a hold on the movie-going public?
Salume sees little harm in the proliferation of social media, even when it highlights the use of video and “stories.” He instead sees online movie platforms as having a bigger impact on how we watch movies.
“I believe that the experience of watching movies has been more impacted by new technologies such as streaming services rather than social media. While social media allows us to share media in the form of videos, I would not consider everything that uses video a film. There is a difference between a film, an Instagram story, and a news report, even though they all use video as their primary format.”
Recognizing these distinctions is important, and each type of video comes with its own specific associations. A viewer will probably react differently to a YouTube video versus a Snapchat story.
Cantu noted that, if anything, the negative impact of media saturation is a dulling of audience expectations for content. What hasn’t changed, in her opinion, is the inherent value and power of a strong story.
“People are constantly exposed to videos and media. It’s harder to get someone’s attention. I think the way audiences react to moving images has evolved since the days of the first film, and the way we make films has also been elevated to meet those changing expectations. But in the end, we can all agree that what will retain people’s attention and shape the overall emotional experience is the story.”
For as much content as is available online and specifically through streaming services, a relatively small portion of this content offers engaging story elements and compelling characters.
Films and filmmaking tools are more accessible, but this doesn’t mean that true filmmaking skills have become common. This leads us to our next topic.
The Indie Landscape
If only Cassavetes could see the kind of filmmaking technology we’re working with today. Long gone are the days when cameras and film had to be borrowed from studio lots.
Chances are you have everything you need to make a movie right in your pocket, as Salume was quick to point out.
Antonio: Making films today has never been more feasible than at any other moment in time. Anyone with a phone can now shoot a movie. You can edit a project on your phone, too. While new forms of technology have considerably increased the feasibility of making films, at the end of the day the essence of memorable films lies in their stories and their artistic approaches, not so much in the camera or editing software that is used.”
One of the most well-known examples of DIY contemporary filmmaking that has received mainstream attention is the 2015 film Tangerine, directed by Sean Baker.
The entire movie was shot on 3 iPhone 5S devices, each using an app meant to simulate the features of a cinematic film camera.
But as Cantu brought to light, all of these wonderful technological advances are not, in and of themselves, a guarantee that a project will be great or even good. Powerful work requires powerful characters and a solid story, a lesson that seems to get lost in the weeds sometimes.
Cantu hammered home that artistic vision needs to remain a priority if your work is ever to have an impact on the people who watch it.
“Technology has definitely made filmmaking more accessible. As Antonio said, filmmaking has never been more feasible. More than anything, your perspective, your stories, and your artistic approach are what will set your film apart. This allows for the democratic creation of art. Hopefully, we’ll continue to see more previously unheard voices emerge and get the attention they deserve.”
This idea of a democratic and universal artistic community is certainly an exciting one, and thus far it has proven to be incredibly helpful with regards to diversity in media.
While mainline studios have been slow to make use of diverse creative voices on major productions, the indie scene has experienced a surge of creators from a variety of ethnic and cultural backgrounds.
Mexican Filmmaking Success on the World Stage
As we mentioned at the top of the piece, Mexcian filmmakers, in particular, have enjoyed a more prominent status within the mainstream entertainment community.
For Cantu and Salume, these figures have served as important role models and as proof positive that Mexican artists can not only be involved in filmmaking but in fact have a major influence on the direction of the art form as a whole.
Cantu elaborated on how significant these figures were for her own artistic development. She’s also determined to become an inspirational figure herself, encouraging even more young filmmakers to tell the stories they want to tell.
“When I was growing up I was inspired by the work of Cuaron, Iñárritu, and del Toro. Seeing them succeed made my dreams seem possible and pushed me to pursue this career. I hope we can also inspire young filmmakers and be part of such an important and necessary movement.”
Salume agreed that when Mexican filmmakers succeed, it helps people broaden their definition of ‘filmmaker.’
“I completely agree with Karla. Seeing Mexican filmmakers winning awards opens up doors for many people. Seeing Mexican filmmakers succeed at an international level is, without a doubt, bringing a lot of attention to Mexico as a filmmaking hub. The film industry in Mexico declined some decades ago, and luckily, it is rising again and becoming a very important location for all kinds of film and TV productions.”
So are we seeing the start of a Mexican filmmaking movement? Different countries have, at times, enjoyed so-called Golden Ages of filmmaking.
Denmark was a major film force in the 1910s and 1920s. The French New Wave of the 1950s and 1960s revitalized the format as a whole. America’s Brat Pack directors such as Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg helped redefine what a blockbuster could look like.
Salume isn’t so convinced that what we’re seeing right now is indeed specifically a Mexican filmmaking movement. Rather, he sees it as part of a much broader shift in movies and entertainment at large.
“We live in a world that is becoming more and more global every second, and the lines between different types of films are slowly becoming blurred. More than a Mexican filmmaking movement, I believe we are witnessing a movement that focuses on diversity and inclusivity.”
Speaking directly to this increasingly global entertainment industry and cultural blending, neither Cantu or Salume limit their sources of personal inspiration to Mexican filmmakers. Both cited lists of international filmmakers who have become well-known for the universality of their movies, rather than specialized cultural focus.
For Salume, his creative influences and sources of inspiration only share similarities in terms of the themes they tend to focus on in their work.
“Alejandro González Iñárritu, Alfonso Cuarón, Terrence Malick, and Sebastián Lelio have all inspired me with their work. But when it comes to inspiring my own work, I would say that my life experiences are my primary source of inspiration, although many of the themes these filmmakers touch on are themes that I also like to explore in my films.”
Cantu wanted to mention that influences don’t necessarily have to be limited to the film medium, either. She also takes inspiration from visual artists who have yet to dabble in the are of filmmaking.
“Spike Jonze, Andrea Arnold, and Alejandro G. Iñarritu are just a few inspiring filmmakers. I also love the artistic work of Petra Collins. These people have inspired the way I approach filmmaking and my process, but as Antonio said, I’m constantly taking inspiration from the world and people surrounding me.”
This broad view of inspiration and information gathering speaks to a unique perspective on creativity as a whole. If creativity lies in the subconscious, as many artists have claimed, then every experience, each personal interaction, has some bearing on the artist’s future work.
This viewpoint also serves as yet another argument in favor of diversity and representation in media. Perhaps absorbing stories from many different perspectives can encourage open-mindedness on a broad scale.
On Filming in the U.S.
There’s no denying that the U.S. has long been a major hub for filmmaking. Hollywood, in its heyday, absolutely dominated the film industry, especially when it came to commercial success.
Movies made in America were seen as ‘real movies’ with ‘real movie stars.’ Hollywood set the pace for mainstream entertainment.
Nowadays, there is no real center of the entertainment industry. American entertainment definitely still carries clout in the international community, but American entertainment no longer has to be made in Los Angeles.
The country as a whole has opened its arms to filmmakers large and small. Smaller cities are starting to attract major productions.
So is the U.S. still the go-to country for creating films?
Cantu and Salume have made films in both the U.S. and Mexico. In terms of accessibility, the U.S. still has a welcoming feel thanks to the long-established procedures for producing a film. But as Salume pointed out during our discussion, the team matters much more than the filming location.
“I think that making a film, regardless of location, will always be a challenge. I have been very fortunate. I’ve built a network of filmmakers whose creative visions I trust and with whom I like to work. Films are the result of heavy collaboration and building up a team that you trust and respect is crucial to make the filmmaking experience exciting.”
Cantu agreed, but also wanted to mention that the U.S. offers a structure that allows for filmmaking to happen fairly easily.
“Overall, making a film is a difficult and transformative experience. The great thing about making films in the U.S. is the existing system, knowledge, and structure if you know how to navigate it.”
This touches on yet another important responsibility of producers, namely to make sure that everything works out as planned, or as close to the original plan as possible. That means securing locations, managing extras, and dealing with any problems among the crew.
In the U.S., there are guidelines for how to go about doing all these things. In other countries, sometimes these guidelines are simply not in place, leaving producers to work through problems with their own intuition and expertise.
On Hearing from the Audience
In closing, let’s approach the final stage of any artistic work: sharing it with an audience.
Can art exist in a vacuum? Does a painting have meaning or cultural significance if it stays locked away in the artist’s home?
The idea of shielding a project from view may seem counterintuitive, but in reality, the act of sharing your work with others is an intimidating one.
At the same time, a movie can only have an impact if it is seen by others. The danger is that audiences may not like it.
This makes showing films for the first time a complex and stressful experience, as Cantu described in detail.
“I do enjoy when something I made creates an emotional reaction or starts a conversation. But showing your work to others can be an anxiety-inducing experience. That being said, I think it’s very important to do it regardless of our fears because as a filmmaker, you learn from reactions to your work. You can see what worked and what didn’t.”
It’s a necessary evil, in a way. It’s rare that everyone who sees a movie will respond positively, but Salume does his best to focus on the positive reactions in audience members, especially when his work has a significant emotional impact.
“While receiving feedback can be an enjoyable experience, it is often a nerve-racking experience for me because I feel very vulnerable when showing something that means a lot to me. Nonetheless… it is a necessary aspect of being a filmmaker. What I enjoy the most is listening to people’s stories as a response to my work.”
Hearing those stories is a great summation of the power of movies. It doesn’t matter that they’re just images on film or a digital video file. They become much more than the sum of their parts. They mean something to us, and that makes them important.
The best movies speak to who we are as human beings, regardless of their national origin. We can only hope that filmmakers like Salume and Cantu continue to create work that appeals to the best parts of all of us.