For her first film, Lissette Feliciano made an edgy, surrealist period-piece on an indie budget. How? It started with how she wrote the script.
Traveling through time, Women Is Losersis the real-life-inspired journey of a Latina Catholic school girl in 1960s San Francisco. The film started with a chance conversation Feliciano had with her mom.
“She taught me to work hard my whole life, not to complain and not to cry, because these are things that moms, and particularly immigrant moms, tell their children,” Feliciano told No Film School about the need one day to express her frustrations with the film industry. “So it was really a shameful moment for me to go to her, with my tail between my legs and say, ‘I'm doing all the things you taught me, and it's not working.’”
'Women Is Losers'Credit: Look at the Moon Pictures
Feliciano half expected her mom to tell her to buck up. Instead, she sat down, woman to woman, and shared her own stories of growing up with the unwritten (and written) rules of our society. From there, Feliciano penned a bold and creative first feature, now in narrative competition at the 2021 SXSW Film Festival.
No Film School caught up with Feliciano to get an inside view into the process of making a stylized debut film on a scrappy set of Women Is Losers.
No Film School: Women Is Losers is sometimes personal and intimate, and other times full of surrealism. There are non-sequiturs. You break the fourth wall. Is that a style in which you normally write?
Lissette Feliciano: For this story, there was a lot of context that had to be filled in for the audience. There seems to be a lack of education of what America was really like [in the 1960s and 1970s]. So I was tasked with bringing the audience into that conversation with my mom, where I immediately went, "What? What do you mean? Show me." And she started showing me with documents, and I was like, "Wow, this actually happened."
This style served me really well for this project in particular, the breaking of the fourth wall and the surrealist elements, to fill in context. And there are things that I wanted to get through very quickly in the film. We see a woman that's pregnant in this movie and she's pregnant—for all of 15 seconds. It wasn't about the pregnancy. It was about her journey.
Credit: Lissette Feliciano
So I leaned into these styles and these surrealist elements to help me move people along. There's a rhythmicality in the script. You have these big moments and then you have the rest of the moments. It's like a dance. In terms of style, I would say I write very rhythmically.
NFS: You mention this character who goes through a pregnancy in 15 seconds on screen. But it's this very powerful 15 seconds. It's much more impactful than going through some literal depiction of scenes chronicling the stages of pregnancy. Without giving too much away, we see a surreal moment where all the members of society watch this character as she goes through this experience. When writing, do you think, "How am I going to show this?" and then come up with ideas?
Feliciano: What I mostly do is try to go for a feeling. How do I want this to feel? And the feeling there was isolation and shame. I let the feeling inform the scene. That's the feeling that I'm trying to convey. Then there's a lot of different ways to get that. So for that scene in particular, I wanted shame and isolation. And so putting everybody down the hallway and having her walk through was the most impactful way that I could do that within our constraints. I think even if I had a $100 million budget, I would probably still do that scene the way I did it, because I wanted that feeling.
I guess if we were talking about style, that's really my writing style. How is this going to make someone feel? Whether you think this movie is beautiful or you don't think it's beautiful, it's constraints or it's not constraints, we can have all those debates. But I think the one thing that we can't debate is that it makes you feel something and those are the movies that I watch over and over and over again in my life. So that's what I'm aspiring to all the time in my writing and in the work.
'Women Is Losers'Credit: Look at the Moon Pictures
NFS: What was your relationship with your DP and what was the conversation about how you wanted to convey the film visually?
Feliciano: Farhad Dehlvi and I had worked together for the last five or six years, so we had a great shorthand between us. We have similar missions in life and in our work. It's really wonderful to be able to work with your friends, because that friendship informs the work.
Farhad and I wanted these characters to be viewed as heroes. We had seen that these types of characters are sometimes not photographed as heroes. So for the lenses we picked Atlas Orion Anamorphics. They were new on the market. They were cost-effective, but they also gave us the ability to give us those superhero shots. You wouldn't expect superhero shots in a movie like this, but these characters are superheroes.
We used the ARRI ALEXA Mini for our camera because we were shooting in San Francisco and there are really small spaces in San Francisco. So we had to be able to get into those small spaces.
We needed flexibility of movement because we moved locations every day on this movie, literally every day, sometimes even twice a day. It was really difficult. But that just comes with the constraints of wanting to make a period-piece film as my first film, something I was told I couldn’t do. Everyone told me to make my one-room movie. I didn't want to make a one-room movie!
Nothing against one-room movies, if that's what you want to make, go make that. But so often I find that young filmmakers, especially women filmmakers, get told, "Well, make it a one room." It just seems like you're being asked to play small.
I wanted my audience to go with me and said, "Look, I know, I don't have the Gangs of New York budget." If I waited for the Gangs of New York budget, I would be a hundred years old before I got to make my first movie! So here we are and the water's fine. It was made very scrappily, but we didn't want it to feel like it was scrappy. We wanted to give these characters dignity and focus our lens on them with dignity.
NFS: What would you say was the biggest challenge for you with this film, and how did you overcome it?
Feliciano: I would say my biggest challenge was not to focus on the challenge and to just keep focusing on why I was trying to do this. It is a giant labor. I would say labor of love, but sometimes it's just labor—for years.
Some of the challenges were also some of our greatest benefits, too. This story was really hard to make, but because it was so hard, it informed the story, and it informed the characters. The energy, the charged-ness that's in the frame is there in part because of the energy outside of the frame.
You can psych yourself out a little bit if you look at the mountain and go, "Damn, how am I going to climb that?" Instead, you can look at it and say, "All right, well, one little step at a time, one little step at a time, one little step at a time." That, I think, was the biggest challenge for me, and maybe for a lot of young filmmakers. We psych ourselves out. I know I did. It took me a minute to stand my ground on making this film.
Don’t focus on the challenges! It's probably going to send people up the wall, but it's true.
For more, read our ongoing coverage of the 2021 SXSW Festival.