Carlos López Estrada has made music videos for Billie Eilish and Flying Lotus. He just translated his skills into his second Sundance feature. Dive in to his style.
Seven months ago, Carlos Lopez Estrada went to a showcase of young spoken-word Get Lit poets in L.A. “I remember just walking out of that showcase, feeling so inspired by these amazing kids,” explained Lopez Estrada to No Film School. "I had this what-if moment where I asked, "What if there was a way to translate this experience that we just sat through into a film?"
There was a way—through a fantastical film that utilizes everything about Lopez Estrada's visual style of filmmaking! Using his skills of translating music into images, Estrada took 26 spoken word poems and weaved them into a feature, starring those poets, that traverses Los Angeles culturally, tonally, and geographically. After a 19-day production shot this past summer, Lopez Estrada’s feature film Summertime just premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.
Carlos Lopez Estrada, along with poets, writers, and actors Marquesha Babers and Mila Cuda, sat down with No Film School at Sundance to talk about making this film, and whether this is a model more filmmakers should try.
Start with a Fresh Idea and Run with It
Carlos Lopez Estrada: It was early summer, about late spring 2019. We presented the idea to Diane, who runs Get Lit, and the poets. We're telling a movie about kids your age in L.A., and trying to catch all of the flavors and colors and the diversity of the L.A. population. It was pitched as a “what if” concept. Like, I’m still not sure what it's going to look like or feel like, or how it's going to come together. But if you all are interested, we would love to give it a go. They were excited. They said yes. So we started working. We had no money. We thought we were going to pay for it ourselves and just make it for like $100. We thought the poets would be the actors, and we’d split up the money between all the poets. We pay them for acting and then we shoot for as little as possible.
The youngest generation of our poets had just finished high school, so they were all moving out to all sorts of places at the end of the summer. This was our only shot. I ended up meeting these people who end up becoming producers, a company called Los Angeles Media Fund. The Los Angeles Media Fund decided to support the project just believing that it was worth placing their bets on all of this. And I feel very lucky that they did.
"The youngest generation of our poets had just finished high school, so they were all moving out to all sorts of places at the end of the summer. This was our only shot."
NFS: Was this an idea that made sense to you, or did you think Carlos was crazy?
Marquesha Babers: I thought it was really cool because I already wanted to make one of my poems into a music video. I thought it would be cool to have the visual effects behind the poem. And so like when I got the opportunity to do this, I was like, well there you go. And when I first started, I thought, “I'm going to pick a poem and make this really dope scene that fits around the poem.” But it winds up changing into just a poem that means more to me. So when they came with the idea to have a movie full of poems that would have the visual behind those poems, I thought that was just so amazing and it was perfect timing.
Lopez Estrada: What’s special is that it really does combine two mediums in a way that doesn’t happen very often. Spoken word poetry is meant to be consumed in a specific setting, like a community environment. You have the poet in front of you. They're taking you on a journey and you paint the pictures yourself depending on your experiences and your imagination. We were very excited about exactly what Marquesha’s talking about—trying to find visuals to their words. I think the big exercise was to figure out how we could put images to the poem, and not confusing or subtracting or contradicting it.
"I think that my background in music video has allowed me to think visually and to think metaphorically just by definition."
Why Music Videos Make for Good Training
Lopez Estrada: It's hard for me to really articulate why it works. And not everyone will agree that it works. I think that my background in music video has allowed me to think visually and to think metaphorically just by definition. Music videos are translations of music into images or lyrics and images or ideas, feelings into images. And I think that's what originally drew Daveed [Diggs] and Rafael [Casal] to me whenever we did Blindspotting. We had done also some poetry stuff. And I'm not even speaking about myself, but I think it is challenging to capture spoken word or heightened language dialogue pieces from music in a way that feels natural or real or emotional. It's easy to sort of like fall into the artifice or visual flair and get lost in the style and not communicate.
Working with David and Rafa previously, we had a shorthand and we had our understanding. I don't really know why it works, but I think it's a mixture of blending spoken word and performance with film, with theater. I think they were already doing a lot of that work and I was doing the same thing on the visual side. So whenever we connected, we realized that our abilities really complemented each other and that I would be able to help them translate the stuff that they had been writing into images. It was a good team.
Lopez Estrada: Now, on this film it was even more challenging because we had maybe four instances of heightened dialogue in Blindspotting. And in Summertime, every three minutes you have a different performer, a different tone, different pacing, a different kind of music. That is what we wanted to do, to create the experience you would have walking or biking across L.A. as you go through all these different neighborhoods, see different kinds of people, all these different tonalities and kinds of music. We wanted to try to recreate that. And that meant that every three minutes you have to reinvent how the movie feels.
If you look at it from an intellectual, film criticism perspective. you would do it differently. We would've spent two years working on a script. We would've cast for actors with a ton of experience and making sure that we were nailing everything perfectly. And it would've been a different kind of movie. And honestly, I think a much worse kind of movie.
Babers: I think if it would have been a traditional movie with script locked down and then professional actors cast, it would have been actually terrible. Because poetry is such a raw experience with raw emotions. If you try to give it a lane and try to perfect it, it comes out really crappy. They would've been no other way to do it. This was the perfect way to do it.
"...people should be making things about the ideas that are important to them, whether they have $100 or zero dollars."
Why This is a Model That Other Filmmakers Should Try
Carlos Lopez Estrada: It feels a little bit scary to call it a model because I don't know what the model is. It'd be interesting to try to find where we, okay, let me just take a step back. We did this event yesterday [at Sundance Film Festival] where the poets performed and I did a little speech. I talked about perfection and how as filmmakers, we have this impossible image of making movies that are as close to perfect as possible or as having as much control as possible. When you walk away from film school thinking that the greatest way of being a director is to have full control.
You look up to the directors who have final cut and have finances and producers eating out of the palm of their hands. People who have no one questioning them and knowing from the very beginning exactly what they want. I think this was the opposite of that idea. This was a lesson in saying it's not up to you. You don't have control. You have to be okay with the fact that this is not going to be perfect. They're not your words. It’s not your story.
Is it a perfect movie? I don't know. Probably not. But we managed to capture a little bit of truth in a big group of people. To me, that is the most important. So if there’s a model to follow, I think it would be to embrace imperfection, and not being afraid of not having all the answers and winging it. If you have a feeling or idea or an emotion or a group of people that you believe in, that it's worth taking that step and diving into the unknown. Something special will come out of it.
That should be a model. I think people should be making things about the ideas that are important to them, whether they have $100 or zero dollars.
Babers: I do think that it is a good model for people to like follow. When you're making a movie, if you are trying your hardest to make it perfect, you lose the authenticity of it. I think following a model like this, it brings the authenticity back. We're all people and we're all going through some of the same things and that's what this represents.
Mila Cuda: I feel like if this model by definition, is making a film with your best friends then like, absolutely, yes. The model is making a film with your best friends, but also learning to create space for stories that are very different from your own, and working to find a common thread between a lot of varying stories and varying differences. When you take different paths of life and find a connective tissue that like brings them all together, it levels the playing field and opens up a lot of conversations.
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