"I am a huge proponent of deep collaboration from the beginning. And so I think auteur theory is just a bunch of bullshit, basically."
The short film Parachute, screening this month at online festivals including Short of the Week today, does many things. It draws viewers into a compelling portrait of a world of alienation that they might otherwise miss. It tells a coherent story that moves fluidly between three languages. And it accomplishes an ending that lingers with you long after viewing.
It does this not just through the talent of writer/director Katherine Tolentino, but also through the talent and skills of the collaborative team she built to bring the story to life, including cinematographer Claribel Tejeda and editor Sara Cintron-Schultz. We spoke with the team about the film.
NFS: Parachute is a beautiful short film. The first thing I wanted to ask about was how the project came about. Did you know students who'd gone through this experience?
Tolentino: I wrote the script in a screenwriting class.
I had read about the situation of parachute kids in the [Los Angeles] Times, initially. There was a case in 2016 that made headlines because a group of parachute kids living in LA were basically without any kind of support systems and had been unwittingly duped into this fake American school that was not teaching them anything. And so they were all kind of just running their own lives, basically, without any supervision. And this did not go well and a group of them ended up beating up one of their classmates, and now they're all in jail.
This was really an interesting story to me, and I wanted to figure out the psychology of someone who might be experiencing that path in life. And so that's why I wrote this script, was to explore what's happening in that community and also how it would feel to be a young person having left their family behind and coming to America and having to figure everything out on their own.
NFS: How did you go about forming the team?
Tejeda: I knew already I wanted to work with Kath. When we finally decided to do that with Parachute, it was kind of just, hit the ground running as fast as possible. And one of the biggest things we talked about was, with camera work anyways, was handheld, or sticks, do we want a lot of movement, less movement? And with those, it was always just a back and forth and showing examples and trying to convince both of ourselves what it is that we wanted. It was nice to have those conversations, you just throw whatever we wanted on the wall and see what stuck.
Tolentino: I will say, there's two different sort of models I think of filmmaking. One is auteur theory where a director kind of owns everything, and it's very top-down, like, "I want to do this, this way. You guys have to do exactly what I say." And the other is intensely collaborative, in which you see every head of department as an artist in their own right bringing their own vision and their own expertise and folding them into that process from day one.
I am a huge proponent of deep collaboration from the beginning. And so I think auteur theory is just a bunch of bullshit, basically. And there are definitely directors who operate that way, but I think the more we can bring in—Claribel and Sarah are experts at what they do—the more we can bring them in from the beginning and have them shape the process, the more rich the story is going to be.
Cintron-Schultz: I always loved that about you. And I remember when I interviewed with you and Claribel, since she was on first, I wanted to know more about certain story points and talk about the script with you. I didn't have reservations, I just had a lot of questions. I knew you were going to make a beautiful film because I loved your previous work, but I just really wanted to know more about the story and make sure if you were going to go to California that we had covered everything we could possibly need in post, because there wouldn't be pickups in California. You wouldn't have the budget to go back.
You were just very encouraging about, "No, I want to hear questions. I want to hear feedback." And you're always encouraging me to not put on a face that was all sun and roses. And just be very honest about what I thought. So I went home and I think I made a beat sheet of the entire script. And then I sent you notes of every beat and possible character motivation and I think maybe images that I thought would go along with it. And then I sent that to you and we talked and then you were like, "Yes, let's do this." And I was really excited. And then we decided to work together.
Tolentino: I think also in general, I really appreciated that you asked so many questions. You're sort of relentlessness about needing everything to make sense in that script really kind of spoke to me. And I actually, to this day I'm still like, that script needed so much work.
Cintron-Schultz: I really think about your script a lot actually, this outsider character who's being manipulated into situations by adults who are refusing to bring them into the decision-making process, right. So there was actually quite a lot of thematic depth to dig into, especially tonally and visually for me to work with. So I didn't feel like I was starting from zero when we started the edit, I felt like I already had a sense of the project.
Tolentino: The final decision to do Parachute happened in November, and we had a short window in January. We were five weeks away from production. So we then had to get our asses in gear and totally just make a movie on the fly.
Tejeda: I think it was one of those strange situations when we were kind of left in the wind for a little bit, and then we got onto Parachute. It was kind of, I don't know, it made things clearer because we had such a short time. We couldn't fuss with oh, we have time to do that or time to do this. And breaking down the script and me getting upset, going, "4x3 will never work," and then falling in love with 4x3. And it kind of made me realize you don't need that much time to make a short film if you have a good enough script because Parachute was pretty much solid when we got it.
Cintron-Schultz: One thing I found valuable was even though we were short of time, Kath, you and Claribel practiced blocking before you went on location and blocked that key final scene. And then I was there to cut together the footage. It was really fun for me to be there because I got to see the way certain blocking could present the character as a villain or as sympathetic. We just did it with my roommate but it helped so much to try out options before going to location.
Tolentino: We were going to do a handheld. But testing made it obvious that wasn't right.
Cintron-Schultz: It was so great to be a part of that because I didn't really think about blocking as a part of traditional editor's notes. It helped me think about what I could ask for potentially in future projects as an editor.
NFS: This film was obviously finished before the pandemic shutdown, but then your festival run and the next phases of your career are after the shutdown. So, can you talk a little bit about launching your careers professionally in these times, as all the commercials say, and sort of a virtual launch for a short film into the festival world?
Tolentino: The virtual festival thing has been a real bummer, to be honest with you. And I know that everyone's suffering right now. The particular way in which virtual festivals are a bummer is that it's really hard to get the word out to people, to new audiences. I find I'm able to advertise screenings to people that I already know and they've all seen it before. And so it kind of gets tired after the first couple of festivals. And you can only come up with so many hashtags to increase your audience.
A lot of these festivals are switching to virtual and have never done anything like this before. And so they themselves are scrambling to get the resources and manpower that they need to actually make a splash since there's so much competition in the digital space. You log onto Eventive or you log on to Seed&Spark and they're like, here are the festivals that we're running right now. And there's 20 options and in each of those festivals, there's 80 films. So it's just totally inundated. And it's really, really hard to, yeah, to meet anybody or make a splash in any kind of way.
That being said, Palm Springs was an incredible experience and they really put a lot of effort into making panels happen. They had one-on-one networking meetings and they just had a really wide selection of offerings, which was great. But other festivals have kind of been struggling to do much more than just here are the videos that we have. You can pay $5 to stream them. You just build up so much expectation for what festivals will be like as you make your film, then the world changes. Festivals are doing the best they can, but it's really hard, and it's OK to admit it's a bummer.
Tejeda: I mean, launching a career right now is weird. Even going back to the festival stuff, right as the sort of quarantine started, I was with a group of people who had just heard that. I think it was SXSW, and it just completely canceled, and they had so many films that were going to be premiering at that point and were planning on going. And we're just like, we don't know what to do now. And all of a sudden productions just stopped, dead stop. And everyone's just like, "In a month it'll be fine," or something. And it's taken, I think in August I got some gigs, very sort of low budget. A lot of them sort of going under the radar of anybody. And recently things have sort of picked back up, but it is kind of jarring to realize that starting out, you're now going to have to also live with that precaution, or work with that precaution of how to be safe on set. There is the new worry, I might get sick, but productions are doing their best to make sure things go on and that everyone starts getting work and starts getting paid. It's been amazing seeing all the effort that has gone into creating safe sets.
Cintron-Schultz: I've been getting emails from post students graduating this year asking about internship opportunities, and I don't even know what to tell you guys. I don't know what an internship would look like in this environment, it's going to be tricky.
NFS: Well, unfortunately, an internship right now just looks like free labor with nothing in return. The idea with an internship is usually you do free work but you are meeting people and building skills. But right now it's not even like you're in the building and meeting everybody. You're just doing it from home, for free.
Cintron-Schultz: That's tough. I was on a network show last November and they just started their second season. So I am lucky that I was in the room with all the editors last year. So I know everyone, and I was just brought back, and we're about a month into shooting. But I'm a post PA, where then the bright side of that is meeting people, making connections. If I had just been starting now, it would have been really tough because the team is now split geographically so it's harder to meet your collaborators. It's actually interesting. The team is now split between LA and New York, while it used to be all New York. Everyone can work from home. There are some more work opportunities in post because it can be done remotely, and even as the post PA I'm working from home.
But I've been really excited about all the festivals Parachute has been getting into. And I started screening for Austin Film Festival and that's something I would never have had time to do before COVID, so in my kind of Pollyanna mind right now, I'm hoping that more people actually got to see some films they would never have time to see. Because maybe they are screeners that otherwise they would just need to be constantly hustling to find work. But now they have this downtime and so people of color and [the] LGBTQ community and people like us can actually watch films and choose ones that reflect their community and interests rather than people who tend to have more free time in the past to watch movies.
Tejeda: That's the dream.