I discovered a short film called Dive on Vimeo a few days ago and it is exactly the kind of sexy cool filmmaking I aspire to. When I was done watching the film I sent director Benjamin Villeda a request for an interview. He agreed almost immediately but he has been busy dealing with the excitement surrounding his short film and it took him a while to respond to my (rather long) set of questions.
Watch the film here if you haven’t already and then scroll on down towards the Q&A.
Where are you from?
Soy Mexicano. I was born in Mexico City.
What was that like, when you were a kid?
Damn, it was awesome. I grew up in a very nice and calm neighborhood called La Condesa, I guess that it would be a mix between the East Village and the West Village. Lots of trees and a beautiful park. Without hobos and rats though. The only rats in Mexico City are the politicians. I grew up a few blocks away from a drugstore with an awesome Street Fighter Arcade. I spent all my weekends there. That’s were I met my best friend, also I met my first love (brunnette with green eyes) and where I met lots of stories that I still keep tight and somehow come around into my short films. Damn, those were good times. I probably was part of one of the last generations that still got to play on the streets. Getting in trouble with the police… I mean, me neither. A totally different Mexico.
How did you get into filmmaking?
I wanted to be an editor. I love to edit. I became very passionate about montage (even before I knew the term) when I saw Robert Rodriguez “Desperado”. Yeah, I know. But the first time I saw that scene with Antonio Banderas playing the guitar and then giving the guitar to the little Mariachi boy… Man, I knew I wanted to do that. I was impressed of how I felt with so many cuts going on for just a simple action. When I got into college I discovered that the narrative of the montage wasn’t answering all of my questions. And that’s when I realized that I needed to jump into the other side of the fence. My narrative questions had to be answered from the creator’s point of view. Directing. That’s how I began the journey of Directing and Editing. That’s how I got to the New York Film Academy. I spent almost 3 years in Manhattan.
You have made several short films, and is that what you intend to do? Or do you plan to go on to making feature length films?
I will keep making short films for as long as I can. It’s a lot of fun and it keeps you in the game you know. It keeps you active as a filmmaker and also it is very good “exercise”. Yeah, of course I want to make feature length films. I guess I ‘ve been focusing in shorts because first I wanted to execute the ideas in my head and show them to other people and win some attention. Because at the end you have to prove that your ideas work. Also it’s very difficult to sell your creativity if you have a poor amount of work.
My first feature will come at the right moment. I’m already working on the idea but I won’t be giving it the “go” until I feel it’s ready. I mean, it’s a big deal, it would be my first feature and believe me, I don’t want to fuck it up.
How do you finance these short films?
Well, until now friends, family and myself have financed all of my short films. Something I learned while studying in New York was how to do a lot with a few bucks. Digital filmmaking really opened a huge window for this kind of projects. So I really know how to lower the costs and still get what I need. You would be surprised at how low the budget was for Dive and Happy Hour.
Are they financially viable?
Short films could be financially profitable for sure. Maybe not in the traditional way, you know, festival circuits. But you can definitely design a profitable plan by adapting your short to the Internet needs. The web offers lots of new ways to make money. It’s not easy but you can. For example, Dive is not only a short film, it’s an experience. I designed (for Mexico only) an outreach strategy with transmedia elements. This means that before the online release of Dive people could learn about the characters and backstory through a series of interactive episodes distributed in our website and social networks. Those episodes were designed so we could sell it to one or more sponsors. How come we didn’t? Well, as I mentioned earlier, first you need to prove that your ideas work. I guess that after 250K views we can say it did work. There are many ways to make it profitable, that’s the cool thing about Internet. But there is no fail proof plan of how to make it. You need to adapt your short film into this new market and try it.
Can you imagine a scenario where a filmmaker can earn a living from directing short films alone?
Sure. I believe that the Internet brings us closer to that possibility. I mean, you will have to understand that a filmmaker nowadays has to learn about software, marketing, social media and a lot of other stuff in order to figure it out. You need to understand that even though you are the ‘artist’, the people, the audience (which are also users) has the power to make your project a success or a failure in just a few hours. It doesn’t matter if you have the money or your last name is Kubrick. They will treat you as an equal because the user/audience knows that your success is up to them. Those 2 seconds they spend clicking the “Like” button it is not granted, and it’s great because now you can establish a 2 way conversation with them and create a real productive environment for your short film. You can create amazing and very entertaining outreach strategies to engage your audience so they can take those very important 2 seconds to click “Like” and also maybe they will be so satisfied that they could pay 99 cents for the online screening, you know. And if your short is good and has thousands or millions of views, well you do the math.
I’m a believer in non-passive audiences. And I believe in the Internet as a business platform for your art as a filmmaker.
I’ve noticed that you have made a couple of promos as well. Do you do a lot of that type of work?
Yeah, I shot a couple of those back in NYC and here in Mexico City as well. Currently I’m collaborating with Gigantic Films and we try to shoot as many fiction projects as we can but of course we also get paid for small ads and promos. You know, it’s work. But now and then we get really cool projects for really cool clients like JSª an international awarded architecture firm that gave me 100% freedom to develop a promotional project for them. And I think the result was a very original (and unusual) product for an architecture firm. So at this early stage of my career as a filmmaker I have been very lucky to get this kind of freedom in commercial projects.
You can see the Collective Diary for JSª here:
Let’s talk a little about Dive–how did the idea come about?
I just had the image of a melancholic girl in a swimming pool and then I just worked the story around that specific image. Usually that’s how I work.
The film looks great. What was it shot on? What gear did you guys use?
We used Canon DSLR cameras and Lenses:
For the dolly shots we used the Kessler CineSlider.
For the underwater shots we used the Ikelite Underwater Housing.
I edited in Final Cut Pro 7 and the Color Correction was made in After Effects Color Finesse.
Tell me a little about the behind-the-scenes of this project. Where was it shot? How did you get access to that beautiful pool?
It was shot in Mexico City, Desierto de Los Leones National Park and Cuernavaca, Morelos. The house with the pool was kindly ‘donated’ to the project by one of my very best friends. I knew that house from several weekend trips there (with crazy parties, good times). Everything else was also borrowed from friends and family. They were awesome and I owe them every single success that Dive is achieving.
Your leading lady’s easy sensuality really makes the film. Was it tough to extract a performance from a woman who is essentially spending most of her screen time in her underwear?
Juan Pablo Campa who plays the role of her boyfriend kept telling me “everything happens for a reason”… He kept telling me this every time we had a huge amount of issues. And he was right. It’s true and the proof of that was Luz Casillas. Luz wasn’t my first option as the lead but given the circumstances: our first choice couldn’t be able to make the dates, the second one we had to let her go because of her lack of responsibility and the third one had a last minute trip so she couldn’t make the dates either… That’s when Luz (her name means “light”) illuminated the whole thing. Of course she met the physical requirements. She read the script and said to me “Ben, I’m down and I’ll make it work with your shooting schedule”. That was the best thing that could ever happened to this project.
I wanted Dive to be a 100% entertaining short film. No dialogues and a very sexy leading lady that could capture your attention. I wanted to be a very dynamic short film, that’s why there’s a lot of camera movement. But the most important thing is that you could watch it in your mobile devices. Maybe you are stuck in the traffic or drunk in a bar. Doesn’t matter, it would capture you no matter where you are. And that’s why Luz was perfect for this project. She’s a very easygoing person and she’s very comfortable with her body. She has been in plays, tv shows, photoshoots, short films, you name it. She was perfect. She is the soul of the project. I am very thankful to her.
The sound design and editing is pretty killer. What was your brief to those departments? Did you have specific references going in about the type of sound design you wanted for the film?
Yes. I knew from the beginning that the sound design had to be a parallel narrative force that doesn’t have to meet reality but that helps a lot to enjoy the visual narrative without hurting it. It’s difficult to get there but Rafael Rivera (post-production sound design) made it happen. I was very lucky that Rafael got onboard in this project. It’s a long story how that happened but as Juan Pablo said, “everything happens for a reason”.
The editing I wanted as simple as possible. I mean that I wanted it to be as much direct cuts as possible. On my last projects I was getting into a multi split screen montage kind of thing. I love it and it worked out just fine for those projects. But this one had to be with direct cuts but with a fast paced montage.
You produced two teaser trailers and a lot of photographs and promo material (website, posters, etc). Why do you think all of that marketing collateral is important?
Yes it was. I think I have already talked about it on previous questions but basically it was important because it was a very relaxed, fun and interactive outreach strategy that kept us on the radar. I mean let’s face it, our last name isn’t Kubrick and we are still building up our careers so in order to say, “Hey, pay me attention” is to build a solid and entertaining strategy.
Watch one of the teaser trailers for Dive.
Did you submit Dive to film festivals or did you premiere it right away on the Internet?
No. Dive is a project for the web. My personal point of view is that for short films it’s a waste of time and money to get into traditional film festivals circuits.
What’s next for you? Where do you see yourself in the next 18 months?
I’m already developing a new story for a short. This time more like Happy Hour. Drama and slow paced. I’m evaluating the situation and hopefully I can shoot it in Los Angeles. But it’s still too soon to know. Basically I’m just going to keep shooting fiction and commercials but I’m getting more involved in the internet world.
Does online attention on sites like Vimeo translate into fresh job opportunities for you?
Yes. You have no idea. It’s a great community and I have met great people and it has generated job opportunities. And creative relationships with other filmmakers. Which I hope to make happen soon.
Do you have any advice or guidance for other filmmakers who might be considering directing a short film? Anything to watch out for? Anything to avoid? The type of movie you think always garners attention?
-It has to be good. Doesn’t matter if it’s a horror film or an auteur film. If the story and the elements making the film are not appealing then it’s not going to work.
-Find your audience or audiences.
-Build a two-way conversation strategy. Listen to the user/audience. Adapt to whatever obstacle gets in front of you. There’s always a creative way to turn a bad situation into an opportunity.
-If somebody dares to underestimate your digital work because it’s not the “traditional” way of filmmaking… Punch him in the face. Shoot an awesome short film that gets viewers from all around the world and send to that person those numbers. As a subject you could write “suck it!”
-Forget about trying to be Spielberg, you know, universal. Times have changed and there’s no “universal”. Be yourself and identify your audiences, and your communities.
-Shoot. Shoot with whatever means you have. Just make it happen.