Patricia Vidal Delgado shot her first feature in Compton with first-time teenage actors. But because of her unique pre-production techniques, you'd never guess everybody was so green.
Filmmaker Patricia Vidal Delgado had made shorts before, but not a feature. After an 18-day shoot, she came out with a fine-tuned narrative about a soon-to-be undocumented teenager at Compton High School navigating immigration, spray paint, and first love. Few viewers would guess the film was made by such a novice team. La Leyenda Negra, which premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, is a great case study in how preparation and not being afraid to try new things can lead to great filmmaking.
Vidal Delgado and actress Monica Betancourt sat down with No Film School at the Festival to talk about sharing rehearsal edits like animatics, cutting between black & white RED and Canon footage, and why having a small budget can be very freeing if you embrace it.
NFS: How did you first get the idea to make this film as your debut feature?
Patricia Vidal Delgado: I'd shot a short film before in Compton, called The Hood. One of the actors that I worked with is also a teacher at Compton High School. His name is Juan Reynoso and he's the head of the Media and TV production department. I had such a good time shooting in Compton and I told him, "I'd love to do it again." And he said, "Well, why don't you come one day to speak to my kids? Because a lot of them are interested in acting, and so it could be the start of something."
So I met with his kids, I spoke with them. I fell in love. A lot of them are Latino kids who are going through what every other American teenager goes through, but many also have immigration status currently being revoked because of this administration. That's where the seeds for the film were first planted.
NFS: Having cast young people who had never acted before, like you, Monica, what was the strategy to make the acting successful?
Vidal Delgado: Because I had worked with non-actors before, I have a technique that I like to use where I record all rehearsals. I have a little camera and I record the rehearsals and I edit them, and then I show the rehearsals to the actors. I think it works because they get very used to having a camera in their faces and being able to ignore it, and just focus on their scene partner to deliver the emotional beats of the scene.
"Matt, myself, and the actors could go into a scene with confidence that it would work because we'd already done a prototype..."
It makes them realize that the camera is not a big scary monster. It's almost like another actor in the room who you're not necessarily interacting with. Then they can look at the rehearsal themselves and see what works and what didn't work and why it didn't work. “And this line, the way you said it was perfect. What was going on inside you when you said this line?” They can be like, "Okay, I remember that feeling. I'm going to recreate it on the day."
Monica Betancourt: Yes, I feel like that did help because even on the day, Patricia would be like, "Do you need to refresh your mind? We can see it again." So, we'll take like five, ten minutes to watch. And she was like, "That part. You see that emotion that you had. What were you thinking? Can you bring it back?"
I would look at it two or three times, and I'd be like, "Okay, I remember." I tell them, "Okay, let's do it." And if I had a question, I forgot what I did, she always had that for the backup to look at.
On the day we started shooting, we recognized that we had cameras in our face, but it was really something like, whatever. They’ve always been there.
NFS: For communicating with your DP on this kind of set, were you more likely to storyboard versus shotlist? What worked for you?
Vidal Delgado: Well, the rehearsals were very helpful. I would shoot the rehearsals myself, for example, just myself and the actors. And then, I would put them on a Vimeo and I would show them to Matt, and I would show them to [editor] Steven Moyer. And then Matt could have his input as to what worked. And Steven could also have his input as to what he could offer as an editor. Like, “You might also want to include this shot because I think that might work for the cut.”
It was great because Matt, myself, and the actors could go into a scene with confidence that it would work because we'd already done a prototype, especially for the really crucial scenes. And then Steven didn't have any nasty surprises when he got to the editing. He was like, "You brought me everything I asked for. Great."
"...black and white also works because it visually represents the polarity of choices that a young undocumented immigrant is forced to make in the United States today."
NFS: So it’s almost you shot the whole film twice. Did that add a lot of time to pre-production? Would you recommend this to others?
Vidal Delgado: It probably adds more time in pre-production, but my God it saves you so much time on the day. For example, my first AD would be like, "You know, I think you're crossing the line. I don't know if this works."
And Matt and I were like, "No, we know it works because we've already done it." I've seen those kinds of discussions take up two hours on set and everyone gets upset and then nothing gets done. So that doesn’t happen. It was invaluable.
NFS: The film is shot in a very alluring black & white, what was behind that aesthetic?
Vidal Delgado: The film references themes of colonialism, imperialism, persecution of the other, intolerance and indifference, and essentially the film asks the question, tradition or change? And so, the black and white sprung from that French idiom, Plus ça change. In discussions with my DP, Matt Maio, he mentioned that the black and white also works because it visually represents the polarity of choices that a young undocumented immigrant is forced to make in the United States today.
NFS: Did you choose a specific camera to help with shooting black & white in mind?
Vidal Delgado: My DP at the time had a RED Dragon, that was his own camera. And RED cameras are very well known for doing really gorgeous black and white. They're capable of producing this really gorgeous monochrome. And we knew that for some days, especially if we had a very high page count where there were just a lot of actors in a scene, that it would be helpful to have two cameras so we could work more efficiently.
We did extensive camera tests and we found that the Canon C500 was really very good at cutting with the footage of the RED. And it was amazing to me that even with my colorist, Marco Amaral, who works in Lisbon, said, "I mean, I knew that the RED camera was going to react well to the grade, but the C500 reacted even better."
NFS: Having developed this great technique to overcome being first-time actors and first-time directors, and being here now, at Sundance, what is your advice to others?
Betancourt: I would say if opportunity comes, take it. Even if you're not sure or if you don't picture yourself acting. I didn't picture myself acting. When I heard about the film, I thought it was going to be more like an assistant bringing water, helping out, just being on set to help. But I took a risk. I took it, I liked it, I loved it. At the end of the day, I learned so many things. So, if you get an opportunity, just give it a try because at the end of the day, you might end up liking it. And boom, you might say, “This is what I want to do.“
Vidal Delgado: I think my biggest piece of advice for young filmmakers is to make the story that you want to make. When you're starting out, it's hard to get investors, it's hard to get money, but there is a good side to that, which is you're freer to do what you want to do. Whereas, if you've got an investor who's laid down a substantial percentage of the film's budget, you might lose agency as a result as the director or screenwriter.
Embrace the position you are in. Trust your instincts, make the film that you want, and don't be afraid of making mistakes. Even if you shoot a scene a certain way, and it doesn't quite work, it doesn't matter because you'll be a better filmmaker for it the next time around. Don't be afraid and don't make any excuses.
For more, see our ongoing list of coverage of the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.
No Film School's podcast and editorial coverage of the 2020 Sundance Film Festival is sponsored by SmallHD: real-time confidence for creatives and by RØDE Microphones – The Choice of Today’s Creative Generation