No Experience? No Problem: How a Filmmaker Succeeded by Becoming Utterly Obsessed
Rudy Valdez needed to make the most important film of his life without having made anything before, and the result is a Sundance award-winning documentary now streaming on HBO.
Everything started when Rudy Valdez's sister was given a minimum mandatory sentence of 15 years in jail. Rudy immediately decided to pick up a Hi8 camera and document her three daughters so that his sister could see pieces of them growing up. Living in NYC at the time, Valdez bought a ticket to Michigan.
What was worth emptying his checking account at the time? A dance recital. “I felt I had to be there and while I was filming, my sister called [from prison] completely unexpectedly, and she said something to my niece that changed everything,” explained Valdez to No Film School. "She said, ‘Do you know what Mommy's going to do while you go to dance? I'm going to lay down in my bed, I'm going to close my eyes, and I'm going to think about you.’"
It was at that moment that Rudy Valdez became a filmmaker. “And it was at that moment that this became a film. I realized that I had an opportunity to tell a story that you don't normally get to hear about when you hear about mass incarceration. I decided that I wanted to tell that story for the people left behind, about the people left behind." He made a promise to his family that if they trusted him, he would make something good. The intersection of his obsession for the story and the image is The Sentence.
Valdez sat down with No Film School to talk about moving from Hi8 to Canon DSLR for over a decade of footage, understanding cinema 15 seconds at a time, and why it’s worth it to use your own voice as a filmmaker.
No Film School: After that moment when you knew it was a film and you became a filmmaker, what was your strategy for filming? The Sentence is full of all these poignant moments with your family. Some of the moments are really difficult, and you occasionally put down the camera. Some of the moments go in and out of your family’s lives, like when you’re interviewing your mother and she ends with, "I'm going to go dry your clothes now." How did you decide when and how to film them?
Rudy Valdez: When I first decided to make a film, there was this epiphany where I was like, “Okay, I'm going to make this documentary. I'm going to do something for the greater good here.” Shortly thereafter, there was a moment of terror because I realized I didn't know how to make a movie. I don't know how to make a film. I don't know what the hell I'm doing. But I was so driven by the opportunity to do this, I quit everything. I was an actor, I was a writer, I was a teacher, and I decided to quit everything and just dive headfirst into documentary film. What that meant was becoming a production assistant.
I was lucky enough to be able to become a PA for a husband-and-wife team that let me hang around and be on sets. I would carry this little camera with me, and this little notepad, and I would snap pictures of everything. I would snap pictures of the camera monitors to see the settings. I didn't know what shutter speed was. I didn't know what an F-stop was. I had no idea what white balance was. Whenever they would set up lights or do any of that stuff, I would draw diagrams of where the lights were. If there was a scrim in front of something, I would write down, "Scrim?" Because I'd want to go and Google what the hell a ‘scrim’ was. If anyone said anything I didn't understand, I would write it down and go home and research, research, research.
"I decided to quit everything and just dive headfirst into documentary film. What that meant was becoming a production assistant."
Valdez: After spending 10, 12, 14 hours on a set, I would go home where I had this cheap little camera, some Home Depot lights, and I would try to recreate those things in my bedroom. I wanted to understand, “Why is the F-stop at 1.8? What is that doing to the image? Why is the light over here? Why did I have the shutter speed here? Why is the camera at this level?” When I tell you I knew nothing, I knew nothing. I was trying to find this ground zero where I could start to understand what was happening. Luckily I'm pretty technically savvy, so I started to pick up on the technical side of things.
What truly fascinated me was the ability of video to evoke emotion, and again, it was something that I became obsessed with, in the sense that I wanted to figure out why things moved me. Not only documentaries, but movies and things growing up where I was like, "What is sticking out in my mind right now?" I would go and watch the movie or a scene. Luckily nobody was watching what I was doing, because they would say, “Here comes a future serial killer!” I was sitting in this room, rewinding a 15-second scene backwards, watching it again, rewinding it, watching it, pausing it, looking at every detail of it. I was trying to figure out what it is that was making me connect with it.
I immediately realized it was intimacy. It was the connection to people where it didn't feel like you were a voyeur watching from the outside in, but that you were a part of the fabric of that scene.
Valdez: When I decided to make this a documentary, I looked at the larger systematic problems that were behind my sister’s story. I would go to Washington, D.C. and I would film with pundits, I would film with political figures, I would film with people working on the grassroots level and then I started filming the legal process, fighting through the appeals, doing all that stuff. During all that, I was also flying home whenever I could and filming with the girls and my family. As I started looking at footage, especially at the beginning, what I felt was the strongest was the intimacy, the moments with family. I realized that there are so many other films about the war on drugs, statistics, pundits, and the larger political atmosphere. I rationalized with myself and said, “I don't have to make that film. That film has been made. I have an opportunity to tell a story that I don't have to tell you anything, I can show you these things. I don't have to give you a stat...I can show you the stat.”
That eventually became what I wanted to do with the film. I knew at that point that I was looking at a 15-year sentence for my sister. My intention was always to film throughout her incarceration, show what time did. Show these behind-the-scenes moments that didn't feel like you were watching a family, but you were a part of the family. I used that in conjunction with learning what lenses to use and learning what shooting wide open does and creating that depth of field and challenging myself to be in every moment, not as a voyeur but as an active participant.
That's why there are scenes in there, like you mentioned, my mom looks at the camera and says, "I'm going to go dry your clothes." I wanted that in there because I wanted you to know who was holding that camera, whose lens you were looking through. I was putting you in my shoes. Whenever you're in a scene, I wanted you to know that it's not a camera guy in there. It's not a producer and three other PAs sitting around. You're in that scene with the son, with the brother, with the uncle. That was what I was going for throughout the process of the 10 years of making this, trying to create and understand and evoke that emotion of being in that room and being part of that family.
NFS: That's an incredible journey. That intimacy that you achieved makes the film so heart-wrenching but also cinematically captivating so it's crazy to hear about your learning process. Having read some of your more recent DP credits since then, I assumed you came into this having already been a DP! You mentioned that you started with your sister had a Hi8 video camera. Can you fill us in on cameras and lenses you used as the project evolved?
Valdez: That first shoot was on a little Hi8 camera because that's what I had at my disposal. Immediately, when I went back to New York, I was like, “I have to figure out how to do this.” I got that job PA'ing and I was able to infiltrate the documentary world pretty quickly because of relationships that I had. The next time I went back, I shot with a Sony HDV camera because that's what I could get for free from a filmmaker that I knew.
After that, I wanted to figure out how to create the intimacy as much as possible. I realized if I was going to do that, I needed to use a larger sensor camera with faster lenses. So, I bought a DSLR. First I had a Rebel T2i. Then I quickly moved to shooting with the Canon EOS 5D, and I shot most of this film on a 50mm 1.2 mostly wide open, and I eventually moved over to the Canon EOS C300 and Canon EOS C500, all Canon cameras. That was because the form factor was a huge part of this film.
As I was working on other people's films throughout this process, one of the things we can never discount as production people is the camera changes the room. When you walk into a room and you have a camera, a sound guy, a producer, a director, and all these people coming in, you change the room. I never liked going into a room with a giant rig and all of these things. With my family, the camera needed to become an extension of me. It needed to be something that was natural and you could get used to, so I would strip down these cameras as much as possible. This film was made with a camera, a lens, and a shotgun mic on the camera. Those were basically my tools, and I stripped down the C300 as much as I possibly could and just ran handheld.
NFS: There are all of these different shallow depth of fields and racking focus. I was wondering, how did you deal with focusing? Was that something you wanted to be a big part of the aesthetic?
Valdez: It was 100% part of the aesthetic. I don't want to give any spoilers, but there's a scene at the end where the focus was so critical to me where my sister is holding a red dress. And that scene was magic because I had no idea that she had it. I remember being very shallow. I think I was completely wide open. I put two NDs on because it was kind of bright in there, and I was completely in a 1.2 and I thought, what needs to be in focus right now is what I want to see as a brother. I want to see her hand, I want to see her heart rate. I was watching her as a brother and not a filmmaker.
There are moments throughout the film where the focus is so critical because I wanted you to see what I was seeing as a family member, and it allowed the rest of the world to fall off. The shallow depth of field was something that I used as a way to isolate things that I felt were important and bring you into elements that I wanted you to feel close to.
NFS: What then was the process like for putting the story together after filming so much for such a long time?
Valdez: A lot of the footage, as you can imagine, was pretty difficult for me to watch, so there was a lot of footage that I didn't really go back and go through. I have a weird memory, almost like a card catalog in my head. I can go through and tell you the years and the footage and the days. If you give me long enough, I can remember every scene that was shot. I knew what was important to do, like the tent poles of moments throughout the film that are important to me.
But I brought on an amazing editor, this woman named Viri Lieberman, who's just absolute magic, and the first two months of us working together, she just sat down and watched every single frame of footage. During the process of her doing that, she organized it in such a way that she could put in keywords and bring it up. We edit on Premiere, and what would happen is she would start the edit and we would be talking and she would say, "Do you remember a time when this and this was going on?" I was like, "Yeah, I think in 2010 that I shot this thing with my Dad," and she would put in keywords and it would come up. We were able to fly through a lot of the edit.
She was also just a really fast editor, and we cut this thing in five months.
" I became obsessed with trying to be the best filmmaker that I could be, simply because I wanted to do justice to this story."
NFS: For other filmmakers, especially those considering documenting their own family in these dark moment, what would your advice be based on what you’ve learned here?
Valdez: I think my advice for filmmakers, especially those who are trying to tell their own story or a story about their family or something that's very close to them, is do it. You know what I mean? It's hard for me to put into words how much I hope this film empowers people to own their own voice. For so long, there's been a very few people telling so many people's stories. One of the things that I've been, I don't want to say criticized about, but that has been brought up is people saying, "Do you think that you're too close to the story to tell it?" I understand where that comes from, but what I hear is they're questioning whether I have the ability to be my own voice.
I think that's what's needed in documentaries. I think we need to be in charge of our voice and we need to tell our own story. There may be documentary filmmakers out there who don't want to hear that because that just means everyone's telling their own stories and there's no jobs for documentary filmmakers. There are stories that need somebody else's lens, and there are stories that I think need to be told from the inside.
I feel like if you feel like it's a story that you need to tell, tell it. I see so many people who want to make their first film and make their first documentary, and they're always hung up on the fact that they don't have an Alexa. They don't have a C300. They don't have a C500. It's always wonderful to have an amazing camera in your hand, but sometimes you don't have that. Sometimes you have what is at your disposal. This film started with a camera that was laying around, a Hi8 digital camera. It grew because my passion for it grew, my need to make a better image grew, and my understanding of aesthetic grew, so it grew with the film. Had I waited to get a good enough camera, I may have never started.
Looking back on 11, 12 years of making this film, I ask myself, "If I knew everything that happened, would I do it again?" Sometimes, I don't know. It was very difficult. I sometimes tell the story of when I was filming my father for the first time and he completely breaks down crying. That was one of my first real gut checks during the process of making this film because everything was telling me to stop filming. Everyone was saying, “Put down the camera and go and hug your dad and tell him it's going to be okay.” I didn't. I kept filming, and it was part of that promise.
I've only seen my dad cry twice before that, and he was allowing himself to be vulnerable in front of the camera, and I felt like I owed it to him to continue filming, to make something good out of all this. Because I felt so passionate about telling the story, by default I became a filmmaker. I became obsessed with trying to be the best filmmaker that I could be, simply because I wanted to do justice to this story. I made a promise to my sister and to the rest of my family when I decided to make this a film. I said, "Look, if you are open and honest and vulnerable and you let me tell your story, I promise you I'll make something good out of it." That promise put a lot of pressure on my shoulders because I always felt that I could not let them down.
Filming your family during some of their worst times can be extremely difficult. Be prepared. It's going to be difficult, but it's worth it if you do it for the right reasons. Do it for the greater good, and don't be afraid to be a storyteller.