There are times you watch someone's work when you can tell that they know what they're doing. Maybe they went to film school, maybe they didn't, but what they do transcends all that and you can see they just get it.
That's what watching Spanish writer/director Julia Ponce Diaz's shorts is like. They all have a specific look and a confident direction. There's more to what's happening than what's just on screen, whether it's in performance, cinematography, dialogue or production design. Her work has been featured in AFI Fest, Hollyshorts Film Festival, LA Shorts International Film Festival, WYO Film Fest, Amarcort Film Festival, Filmfort, and more. She's a BAFTA Newcomer Fellow and a recent graduate of the American Film Institute.
Look, making short films is very difficult, and in the following discussion, Diaz candidly talks about the challenges. You have to establish a lot, sometimes with very little money, usually with very little runtime. Many filmmakers try to do too much with overcomplicated stories that don't fit in 20 minutes, or they don't have any emotional connection to the material. So I was interested in the ways she achieves so much within these constraints.
Diaz spoke with No Film School via Zoom about directing shorts, creating safe sets, and working with what you have.
Editor's Note: The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
No Film School: Could you tell us about your background?
Julia Ponce Diaz: My name is Julia Ponce Diaz. I'm from a tiny town in the south of Spain. I've been living in LA for about, in total, I guess almost five years now. I first came for a study abroad program at UCLA, and I fell in love with the idea of making movies being my daily life. That's how I got connected to the city. Then, after I graduated from undergrad, I was lucky enough to get a very massive fellowship from my hometown and come to AFI for grad school. I did the directing program there, graduated in August, and since then I've been trying to continue making movies, figuring out what my next steps in the industry are.
NFS: What do you enjoy about working on short films?
Diaz: I hate short films.
NFS: Okay! Great!
Diaz: I'm just going to say that. I always feel like it's very hard—I think they're harder than features. In a feature, you have five good scenes and you tie them together with a nice theme and you have everything else that goes into it. It's so much easier to create a visceral experience, which I feel is what I am very interested in to make the audience connect to a character.
I always feel like in the short format, you almost have to be too straightforward for my taste to create something complete. Just because you have such few scenes, the time constraint is so big, but I do think it's an amazing way to explore certain themes and certain topics and certain moments.
I think I see them more as the exploration of a very specific moment in life. That's the shorts that I normally really like, instead of the ones that are trying to tell a full complete three-act structure story, and you're like, "I don't even know the name of this character. How am I going to be invested in their life's journey?" So yeah, I find them very challenging, which is a good thing as well because you are forced to make really strong decisions and be very specific about what you want to say. But I also think I'm just going to feel so very liberated when I finally get to do a feature and be able to just observe characters in an extended period of time. I think that's something that excites me a lot about the future.
'Cowboy, Choker, Harness & Heart'Credit: Courtesy of Julia Ponce DiazNFS: What inspires you? You mentioned specific moments in life, is that where you start?
Diaz: Yeah, I normally just get very obsessed with something and I have to get it out of my system in some way. A lot of my stories are very inspired by my own experiences and certain communities that are close to me. I see film as just another way of self-exploration, and I think that's something that excites me about it more than doing something more escapist maybe, where you leave your body.
That's how it started, however, which I always think is funny. I started writing short fantasy stories, so it was always something very different from my life. But as I've continued growing as a creator since being 13 years old, living in a small town that I wanted to escape from, and has gotten more and more personal with time.
Certain relationship dynamics really interest me. So it's either something that I'm experiencing or have experienced in my past, or maybe a certain relationship that I've observed as an outsider, but that somehow has taken space in my brain and I've been wanting. That's what happened with I guess Soredia. It was not necessarily a personal story. It gets personal the more you work on it, and the main character ended up having a lot of traits that I have as well. But that was an outsider story, a Great Gatsby-type thing: I was there and I saw that and I wanted to explore it more.
I think it's always curiosity. There's just something that I'm not sure about, something that I'm not sure how I feel about and I just want to go deeper in that. I rarely have a statement I want to make.
NFS: I just watched several shorts that I came out feeling, "This is too big, they're trying to do too much." And it just didn't work because, like you said, they're trying to do a three-act. I think that's why [Soredia] in particular is so engaging because it's simple and anyone could put themselves in that character's shoes. I did want to ask specifically about that one. There is a little bit of nudity. How do you create a safe set?
Diaz: Good question. I feel like it comes from the casting. I try to be so clear about what the story is going to be like, and what the story is going to ask for these characters. I try to find people who are also comfortable with the things that I'm going to ask them of. Not in terms of, "If you don't do this then you don't get the role," but feeling the energy of people and seeing if they're down to explore the same things. I think the casting process is so important to me. The number of people that we saw for Soredia already was ridiculous ... It's so much about finding the right person because then every conversation is so easy. I feel like the biggest issue I would see is when you're trying to force it from someone who, either people don't want to go there or if you're not on the same wavelength as your talent.
I've worked with intimacy coordinators and then I've enjoyed that a lot. We didn't use one for Soredia because there's not much proper, it's subtextual intimacy so it was a lot of talking about it ... obviously, we had closed sets for the nudity scenes. I had a lot of women in my crew.
I'm very caring about my talent and I try not to ask them to do anything that I wouldn't do. So for the scene in the river, for example, I was there with them and we were literally all in the river, me and my DP. And, yeah, I try not to ask anything that would make me uncomfortable, which is funny. I can't derail me, but I just watched two Abel Ferrara films last night, and he probably puts actresses in such uncomfortable places, which I'm not necessarily opposed to when you're making a movie like that, it's what you expect almost.
'Soredia'Credit: Courtesy of Julia Ponce DiazIt's always just a conversation and making sure you approach everything with respect, and you're giving people the possibility to get out of them if they're not feeling that way. It's allowing people to also challenge themselves and be like, "Yeah, this might be challenging, but I want to try and see how it feels." I think having the conversations, first of all. Never assume anything. There are some comments like, "Oh, because this person is always naked on their Instagram, so blah, blah, blah." No, that's their personal life. You're asking them to be on-screen for a completely different purpose. So I think not assuming anything, but also just giving people the freedom to go whatever places they want to go. It's a funny question. I'm very much not a Puritan, and I'm very open about sexuality, and that's something that I really like to explore.
But I feel like in the current context, it's a very, very interesting conversation that we're having. It's how we give women the tools and the possibilities to do and express themselves in whichever way, but also not force it. And also how to deal with the male gaze when we're all women with our little men inside looking at women from our bodies. I think that's what I struggle with the most, even when I'm the one creating the images, being like, "Yeah, am I sexualizing anyone? Am I being tasteless? Am I being exploitative of?" That's the kind of thing that I try to think a lot about, and at some point, you just have to go on and go for it.
Diaz: But yeah, I think it's always just a good thing to have to keep in mind and to give everyone the choice.
NFS: Shifting gears a little bit, I wanted to bring up Wrong Planet because I enjoyed it so much. Again, especially in how it looked, and how it was shot, the tone of it overall felt very Yorgos Lanthimos. And I think just was a great example of a very normal location. If you're not working with a lot, how do you still be creative in those settings and make a short film that looks so unique?
Diaz: That's the case for a lot of the work that you've seen. Like both Wrong Planet and Cowboy, Choker, Harness & Heart were shot with $5,000. And AFI rules—which is not $5,000 in the indie world. So we have to deal with every contract and every person that they would need in a professional set and things like that. So it was always a challenge, especially at AFI. Especially after shooting my thesis, which is a project that we do with a bigger budget, where I've gone back to really, really reduced budgets. That was definitely a challenge.
I had shot something else in that location, and I liked it because it has a vintage but very cold feeling. No one lives there. So there is something in the feeling of the house that I vibe with.
For Wrong Planet, and for all of those with the smaller budgets, too, it's the same thing that I was saying with the plot, the choosing a moment.
It's choosing a specific either visual approach or a very specific—how are you going to shoot these characters? And giving yourself those rules, I found is the only thing that works when you have a reduced budget. You have to be very specific about what's the most important thing to you. For this one, I'm a massive fan of very early Yorgos Lanthimos' work. I love Dogtooth. It's one of my favorite films ever. And there was specifically a short film that he had done. What was it for? It was for the Venice Film Festival or something like that. He had made a two-minute short film, and we looked at that a lot because he was two groups of kids playing a duel, and then at the end, they just kill someone and it's completely normal, and they just continued with their day.
There was something about that feeling that resonated with me in terms of taking me back to my teenage years and feeling like no matter what I did, the next day was going to be absolutely the same. It was just a matter of, "Yeah, I'm going to have to wake up. I'm going to go to school." I can choose. I feel like especially when you live in a really small town, it feels like you have no agency. You can go to three places, and everyone will know which one you choose because everyone knows you. I feel like that was something that I wanted to explore with Wrong Planet and that feeling of, yeah, no matter what happens tomorrow, it's going to be just the same thing. And dealing with that teenage angst I think for, I guess, sorry, I went in a completely different direction.
But your question was how to make something compelling when you have reduced [budgets].
'Wrong Planet'Credit: Courtesy of Julia Ponce DiazNFS: Mm-hmm.
Diaz: Yeah, I think just being very specific with the one thing that you want to do, which I think it's what I was saying before. It's what I find challenging and sometimes annoying, but also exciting in shorts. It's like that needs to be very clear, and I feel like when you have that, it just becomes easier to know how in what are you going to spend your resources. Okay. For example, for this, we decided very early on that the production design was going to be extremely minimal. We wanted the house to almost feel like no one lived there.
We wanted this house to feel like this girl is here almost on her own every day. Her parents are working. She has no one to talk to, and she spends her time with her best friend doing weird stuff in the house because no one is telling them not to. So in this case, we were like, "Okay, so production design, it's not going to be one of the big things where we spend our budget." When you are clear about why you want to make something, and what are the most important ways to achieve that, then it becomes easier to organize those resources into what matters hopefully.
NFS: Yeah. Are you using popular cinema cameras, or what are you using to work on your stuff?
Diaz: Honestly, whatever we have access to, and whatever makes sense for the project. For Soredia, we had so many handhelds, my DP was handheld almost every day for a whole week. Our priority was having a camera that was not that heavy and making sure that we could go places with it. We were hiking to lakes and things like that. So no, I'm very used to working with reduced equipment. I like working that way. Also, I like having the freedom to change things in the middle of it and make sure that I can, if the cartridge is going in one direction, I can follow them and there's not going to be a massive light in the middle of the room.
So for Soredia, I remember that we were lighting a lot from the outside, lighting from windows using natural light, and we were using an ARRI Alexa Mini to achieve the look, but also make it easy enough for my cinematographer. I know he used very nice lenses that I would not be able to name for you, but I think that's where the conversation goes. What are the lenses, what's the specific look that we're going to get from that? And less about a specific camera.
But yeah, I like things that are not... I don't like the cookie-cutter look that we were talking about. I don't like something that looks like a commercial, that's so lit that you cannot even open your eyes in the middle of it.
Diaz: So I think we do, the DP that I normally work with and I, we really love these more naturalistic approaches. So that's what establishes which equipment we go for each film.
'Soredia'Credit: Courtesy of Julia Ponce DiazNFS: I feel like many, especially beginning, filmmakers tend to focus on that. They're like, "Well if I can just get that camera."
Diaz: But to be fair, it also does make a difference. That's the thing. But then you also get very tired of it. I don't know, I feel like when you're starting and if people approach you, "Yeah, you direct this." No, we don't have any money, and it's like, "Okay, there are certain things that you cannot get without the right equipment." It's a matter of you knowing what you need. You also shoot everything the same way. So if someone comes to me and it's like, "Yeah, I want this sci-fi and everything is shot from above and we're doing these movements," and they're like, "Yeah, we have a thousand dollars." Then you're like, "Whew. We'll take a shot." But have to know what each project is going to need. Wrong Planet was very different in that case. It was very static.
I was very much out of my comfort zone with that one because yeah, I'm used to being able to move things around and follow characters and see what they do. And with Wrong Planet everything was very much like, "This is the shot." Not in terms of we were choosing that before the performance, but just the look that we wanted was very much, very static, very straightforward. No following, which is funny because my favorite scene of the movie is the only one where the camera is actually moving and it follows her hand down. It's that very tense moment there is where I was finally, "Okay, now I like this film, now I'm invested." But that one was a change of pace for me, from having a DP camera on their shoulder going for it, too.
NFS: You've mentioned so much great advice, but is there one thing that you feel is the most important thing that you've learned so far, in making these films?
Diaz: Every time I started making something, it is to figure out what my connection is with it. Maybe this is not the same for everyone. For Wrong Planet, for example, I couldn't figure out how to shoot that film until I discovered what it was about for me and how it was about that teenage feeling that we were talking about. I feel like until those things click in each project, or, for example, Cowboy, Choker, Harness & Heart is about desire. It's about the limits of commitment or personal freedom or sexual exploration, things like that.
I feel like I always need to find the very specific thing that's moving me toward making a project to be as invested as I have to be as a director. I think that would be my big thing. It's not like everything needs to have a massive reason to exist. We're not saving the planet by doing this. We're probably making it a bit worse, but just at least knowing why you're doing it for yourself, or what's moving you to tell a certain story. I think that has always made things clearer to me.